- Travel Topics
Vicky and I immediately liked Hanoi the moment we got off the train. An Asian city with European characteristics, Hanoi no doubt has retained much of its French influence. Above all, after two months in China it was great to spend time in a walkable city. Practically all of the main sites are within walking distance from each other and there is tons to do. Here are our recommendations for things to do in Hanoi that will make your trip extra special.
Hoan Kiem Lake
A beautiful lake in the Old Quarters with a lengthy history. There is a small pagoda/museum as well as a bridge with views of the lake and Turtle Tower. They say that the lake is inhabited with very large, old tortoises and if you see one it is good luck. I can confirm that once while we were there one of these turtles briefly emerged from the water (head only) and I caught a glimpse (not pictures though). Needless to say, I was pretty excited.
Trying Local Specialties
I’ll be the first to admit that Vicky and I aren’t very adventurous eaters. Firstly, we’re always a bit wary of getting sick. Secondly, I’m trying to curb the number of animals I eat, not expand them, so I’m not really interested in trying things like snake meat (which is available in the form of a 14 course meal). Lastly, as an environmentalist, I’m always very conscious about eating animals that may be endangered (like whale, in Japan). Still, there are some local specialties that many people can enjoy even if you are not incredibly adventurous:
Soft Serve Cinnamon Ice Cream: This ice cream is delicious and only about 60 cents. It’s very different from the usual supermarket, packaged ice cream we buy.
Weasel Poop Coffee: “Poop” coffee, otherwise known as weasel coffee or Ca Phe Luwac, is made from coffee beans that have been carefully selected and digested by a weasel, then used to make coffee. I don’t really drink coffee but Vicky enjoys it. Our guide took us to a coffee joint in the city and, for $1.50, ordered us a cup of this pretty potent coffee. Later during Vietnam we actually went to one of the weasel farms, which, is actually kind of sad as the weasels are kept in cages and basically fed coffee beans while having their excrement collected…
Worm Paddies: I don’t really do insects but for the most part they don’t break any of the rules for me since there are millions of them. We tried some worm paddies, which, in all honesty, didn’t taste like worms but are mentally difficult to get over – at least for us.
Of course no visit to Hanoi is complete without trying the regional food, pho (very different in the South) bun cha, etc.
Water Puppetry is an age old tradition in Vietnam, dating back nearly 1000 years. In ancient Vietnam, the rural Vietnamese believed that spirits controlled all aspect of their lives, and therefore devised water puppetry as a way to satisfy these spirits. It also happens to be quite entertaining (and cheap). The show is about an hour long and takes place every evening not far from the lake.
Price: $2.5 – $5 depending on which tickets you get
Temple Of Literature
Built in 1070, this is one of several Confucian temples in Vietnam, and, in 1076 became Vietnam’s first university. Over the years many scholars, government officials, and nobles were educated here. Nowadays, it is a popular place for upcoming college graduates to get their picture taken and the grounds are quite pretty.
Halong Bay Tour
Almost every tourist we met in Hanoi allocated a few days for a Halong Bay Tour. The bay, considered one of the 7 natural wonders of the new world, offers spectacular views of thousands of small, island peaks. A typical trip involves kayaking, cave spelunking , and general relaxation on a boat. A fantastic way to spend one, two, or three days.
Price: $50 – $150 depending on how many days and which company you book with
Vietnamese food, with it’s fresh flavors and wide variety, is quite delicious. In fact, it’s a shame how few Vietnamese restaurants there are in the US (at least in Boston and DC, from what I recall). Best to learn to cook it yourself, I think. There are numerous cooking classes offered in the city. Vicky took one at Hanoi Cooking Centre on how to make Vietnamese spring rolls, which are possibly our favorite Vietnamese dish.
Hoa Lo Prison
This is the infamous prison where John Mccain spent over 5 years during the war. We are always very interested to see how countries portray the wars they are involved in. Hoa Loa begins with an exhibit showcasing the awful conditions under which the French held the Vietnamese. Later, this is sharply juxtaposed with “how kindly” (according to the Vietnamese) the American soldiers were treated during the Vietnamese war.
The propaganda is overwhelming. Many pictures depict American soldiers playing basketball, doing arts and crafts, and having Christmas parties, all of which convey the message that the Vietnamese were incredibly kind to the POWs during the war. Of course, as many of the POWs were released and wrote books on their time in prison, we see that actually they were treated quite terribly, though many Vietnamese disagree with this account.
If you enjoy the couchsurfing community it’s worth noting that Hanoi has a very strong presence They do activities nearly every weekend as well as hold weekly meetings, which often have over 20 people in attendance Both Vietnamese and foreigners alike attend for good conversation and cultural exchange. If you email ahead of time you can even get a tour of the city with some members of the Couchsurfing community.
One thing which stands out in Vietnam is the number of free tours that are offered. Tourism and Vietnam is a huge industry, and as a result you see many college students interested in simply practicing their language with foreigners. As a result, there are several companies that offer free tours of Hanoi. It’s a wonderful introduction to the city, as the tour guides will not only show you the sites but can also help you with more practical tasks such as buying a sim card and booking future transportation.
Ho Chi Minh Complex
Although Ho Chi Minh wanted to be cremated (like Mao), the Vietnamese government thought it best to put is body on display in a Mausoleum (also like Mao). If you’ve ever seen Mao or Lenin you can expect more of the same, but the line is not nearly as long. There is also a museum dedicated to Ho Chi Minh and his achievements on the grounds.