One can say that we’ve been to Hanoi twice. On the first occasion we were enroute to Van Long (read here). The other was when Mel came on business for a few days and managed to eke out a half day to experience the sights and sounds of the city.
Now if one were to look up the web there would be numerous places to see and things to do here. But since each of our experience was relatively short, we can only sample some of them. Don’t take this essay we’ve written as the definitive list of places.
The capital of the country, Hanoi was the seat of dynastic Chinese administration for almost 1000 years until Vietnam regained her independence. However in the last 200 years it was eclipsed by its southern cousin Hue, when the last dynasty of the country decided to move the capital southwards to a more central location between the two halves of the nation.
Today though, it was regained its status as the political center of the country. And in an frenetic lurch towards development, has seen a transformation that can be described as a little haphazard. So if one is to get in touch with its more traditional side, one would need to head to
The Old Quarters
One of the must do is to head to the old quarters, the seemingly chaotic but organized central attraction for visitors around the world. And the best way to get to know the quarter area would be taking the trishaw ride. These are quite similar to the old days in Singapore, except that there is a nice tarp cover to shield you from the elements.
Relatively cheap, a half hour ride through the old quarters on this seeming outmoded form of transportation gives retro feeling (this must be how tourists in Singapore doing the same thing feels). Normally, you take these rides from the old quarters itself. And wind through traffic your “chauffeur” will, dodging shiny new cars that appear to have just been driven off the show room. While the road has 4 lanes around Lake Hoan Kiem leading to the quarters, the volume of traffic far exceeds this capacity.
With no underground, everyone travels along this thoroughfare on the way to the old quarters. However this would be different when you get to the tiny streets of the old quarters. It’s a nice view to soak in slowly as the trishaw is peddled through, giving opportunity to take a photo or two.
Entering the old quarters on trishaw has its advantages. You need not walk or to avoid the bicycles, scooters and small trucks that roam the small streets delivering goods. And most importantly you get to sample some of the sights that you may want to spend a little more time when you complete the trishaw circuit and do the real walking.
The colors and smells of the old city begins to hit you as soon as you enter the small streets. These evokes a nostalgia for old colonial Singapore with the low two-three storey shop houses. Many of them combined as a business on the ground floor and living quarters and store rooms on the higher floors.
It is interesting that the old quarters appear chaotic but it appears to be organized by trade. We saw a whole street of shops retailing mainly (if not entirely) shoes. Yet another of leather bags, while we strolled through one that sold all manners of overrun production of international branded sportswear (perhaps some are replicas?). For those who love cheap shopping, well the city does cater to you. And ladies, the leather street may hijack you for hours if you are not careful.
Well, trishaw riding is a good introduction. Spend the better part of a morning or afternoon to explore all 36 side streets. If it gets hard to navigate, always have the direction of Hoan Kiem lake as a guide. And you might run into a local celebrity having his meal in the streets too! But nothing prepares you more to dodge the traffic and avoid a collision with a scooter than pounding the streets for its
Set almost in the middle of the city (at least it looked like that in google), Hoan Kiem lake is has both religious and modern day elements. Ngoc son temple stands on the northern part of the lake. Constructed on an islet, the temple honors a military hero. As we’ve mentioned before, Hanoi as a city was occupied by its larger northern neighbor for centuries and there is always that struggle against the looming giant. When Mel was in Hanoi for his team building event, he was told to take photos of the red bridge that links to the islet. And the still water of that day made for a nice mirror effect. It would be a nice walk around the lake if there is time.
And just opposite the lake stands a hero, a liberator. The statue of Ly Thai To stands proudly as the first founder of a dynasty in Vietnam that set the country on the path of full fledge independence and even expansion.
While there are historical monuments like those above, the one that might catch one’s eyes could be the Opera house. Built in a stately manner in French influence of style, it is a nice photo stop in the evenings when it is lit up. Located south of the old quarters after the lake, it is an easy walk through which one would get to the French quarters. They all seem to like the 25% reference don’t they?
Because our respective journeys to Hanoi had been short, we’ve not had the opportunity to sample other activities such as the ‘water puppet’ show, museums and other temples. There is said to be a very old cathedral too! Perhaps this affords another chance to visit. However, despite lack of time, the one thing we did not neglect was to sample the
No mention of the extraordinary culinary experience we had in this ever changing city would be a shame. There is so much to try as Vietnam has blended foreign influence (most notably French) with local traditions. At the Tayson district, we had breads and pastries that would appear to have been sometime we’d get in Paris.
While at the local restaurants local fare are prepared please your taste buds…
Compared to its commercial oriented cousin to the south, Hanoi definitely does not have the same flavor. However, the mix of old and new is something that you must come to witness, before the city goes the same way as most other capitals had gone and lose it original character in a sea of concrete forest. Go quick, for it will surely change in the coming years!
So what else must one do (ie what we would do) should one come a revisiting?
|Watch a water puppet show ‘with subtitles’?||Marvel at the architecture of St Joseph Cathedral||Stroll through the Imperial citadel of Thăng Long|
|Stroll inside Hoàn Kiếm lake and visit the local temple||Go a visiting the Ancient House in the midst of the old quarters||Walk across Long Bien bridge|
Someday, this page will be updated. Watch out for it!
This journey took place in April 2013 and January 2016
For our first visit we stayed at the Sheraton near “west lake”. Not exactly the same as its cousin a couple of thousand kilometres north, it was a quieter section of town.