Our first impression of Vietnam was Hanoi as our flight landed on a sunny April morning. From afar at the airport one can see tall business buildings and the typical foggy urban skyscrape, but upon a further drive into the Old Quarter, the city’s unique character begins to shine. I can say without a doubt that Hanoi is truly one of the more unique places that I have ever visited. The French architecture, street covered trees, food, hundreds of scooters, history…it was such a treat. This city is wild in all of the best ways.
As two females traveling alone in Southeast Asia, my friend Elaine and I didn’t want to cut any corners or accidentally get ourselves into bad business. We booked the entire trip through Buffalo Tours, which covered all guides (special shout out to Tintin who treated us like queens), entry fees, hotels, rides to/from everywhere on our itinerary, and most meals. Needless to say we felt incredibly safe, taken care of, educated on each site/location, and loved every second of the adventure.
While there are multiple things to do and see in Hanoi, here were our top favorite things:
1. Bike Tour of Hanoi
Arguably the best way to see the city, our bike tour around Hanoi was both terrifying and outstanding. I can’t for the life of me remember the last time I rode a bike! It was a 3 hour trek (you bet our bottoms were sore) through hectic traffic, peaceful countryside, early morning markets, gorgeous flower fields, past the Truc Bach Lake where John McCain ejected, and throughout most of the Old French Quarter. At times the journey was quiet, and then seconds later we were navigating through heavy traffic and trying not to get hit by an oncoming scooter or bus. Fantastic times!
2. Food Tour
Our amazing guide Tintin led us through the 36 (Harrumph) streets of Hanoi, each one marked with their own specialty/trade. Metalwares, kid toys, bamboo, cloth, and beer! Yes, there is a BEER street. There is so much happening in this area you wouldn’t know if it was Monday or Friday. Imbedded within these streets are countless tiny restaurants or stalls for food. You can grab a quick, pipping hot spring roll or even sit down for a tasty meal of Bun Cha (fun fact – there is a famous Bun Cha restaurant in Hanoi that Obama ate at on his recent visit). The food in Vietnam is to die for, and having a specialized tour to guide us through our culinary interests made for an exciting evening.
3. Temple of Literature
This is the oldest university in Vietnam built in homage to Confucius (built in 1070 at the time of Emperor Lý Thánh Tông). Surrounds the university is a beautiful courtyard, mini lake, and a temple dedicated to Confucius, a Chinese professor and writer who heavily influenced the Eastern world with his ideas. Here we also learned about the four sacred animals in Vietnam – tortoise (longevity/perfection), unicorn (intelligence/goodness), dragon (power/nobility), and the phoenix (peace/virtue) – and how they play a roll in one’s academic future. Luckily enough, we stumbled upon a graduation event and managed to photobomb some graduate’s photos. Needless to say, they were pretty pleased that two American girls struck a pose.
4. Hoa Lo Prison
Also known as the “Hanoi Hilton” by survivors of the Vietnam War, the Hoa Lo Prison was also used by the French colonists for political prisoners during the Indochina Days. During the Vietnam War, American POWs were held here. While the museum suggests that the American prionors were treated with respect, we know otherwise. Up on display is John McCain’s flight suit from when he ejected over Hanoi. It was a freaky reminder to the risks and scary factors that US military members may possibly experience. If you are a lover of history, this is a must on your To Do list.
5. Ho Chi Minh’s Mausoleum
We missed the viewing time of Ho Chi Minh’s body in the morning (the line was a 2 hour wait) the visitation is limited due to embalmment purposes – so we toured the palace grounds where he once resided. The mausoleum itself was a bit morbid looking (in a Roman/Greek temple style, however he clearly stated in his will that he wanted his body to be burned and ashes spread all over Vietnam to symbolize the unification of the country) however the gardens were beautiful. It was interesting to see that side of history from a Western perspective. If you have more time in the city, I definitely recommend making an effort to see the body itself.
6. Hoan Kiem Lake, Ngoc Son Temple & Red Bridge
Hoan Kiem Lake lies in the center of Hanoi, surrounded by crowds of people and fun activities to any tourist’s desires. The symbolic red bridge leads one to the Ngoc Son Temple in the center of the Lake. Legend has it that a warrior pulled his sword out of a tortoise in this lake which further emphasized the worshiping of tortoises in this culture. Apparently the US dropped a bomb on this lake during the war in the 1960s which killed one of the tortoises in the lake. Said tortoise is embalmed and up on display in the temple – as an American, this was a slightly morbid sight to see.
7. Thang Long Water Puppet Show
A water puppet show is a tradition in Vietnam that dates back to the 11th century. The process itself is interesting as the puppets are made with water resistant wood and paint, and the elaborate sets help tell the story. It consisted of 14 short vignettes of past, and the entire thing was admittedly adorable to watch. While we didn’t make this happen, I highly recommend going to the show drunk as it would be an extra hilarious experience.
8. Egg Coffee
It would be a sin to visit Hanoi and NOT experience the egg coffee. A traditional delicacy, this is a specialty in which a creamy soft, meringue-like egg white foam is perched on dense Vietnamese coffee. We visited Giảng Cafe, a family run and operated business since 1946, who makes the #1 egg coffee in Vietnam. It was SO good. The flavor definitely surprised me, and it was the perfect pick-me-up after a long day of exploring.
Kisses & Kimchi,