I recently returned to Korea from eight days visiting Hanoi, Vietnam with my friend Clayton. It was my third trip to Southeast Asia, having studied abroad in Taiwan in 2012 and visited Bali on vacation in 2016. In many ways, however, this felt more significant than both of those trips.
About three weeks before the trip, my grandfather passed away and I flew home to the States for his funeral. I was very close with him and it meant a lot to be able to get home to grieve. It was cathartic to be present to write his obituary, carry his casket, and just be in the presence of family and friends to whom he also meant a lot. But flying across the world twice in less than a week is physically draining at any time, let alone a time like this. As soon as I arrived back in Korea, I had two weeks of summer camp to teach at my school, which all waygooks know is the most exhausting time of year.
Long story short, to say I needed a vacation was an understatement. I was grateful for the chance to be able to dive into my work for a couple of weeks, but now I needed a change of scenery; a chance to relax. Few things make me feel more alive than experiencing a new and exciting culture for the first time, and Vietnam certainly did not disappoint.
Crossing the street in the Old Quarter is not for the faint of heart!
While Vietnam has a reputation as a developing country, that is mostly accurate, the Hanoi airport is brand new and reminded me of the ones in which I'd landed in Australia. Clayton and I had printed eVisas prior to our arrival, and since there was virtually no line at passport control, we were out of the airport within 10 minutes of getting off the plane. The eVisa costs $25 for U.S. citizens and it only took about three days to be approved. It was one of the easiest visa processes I've ever experienced.
Our hotel, like most in Hanoi, offered two-way airport transportation for about $20. From what I can gather, it is best to arrange transportation from the airport through your hotel if possible to avoid taxi scams. We did not encounter any unscrupulous taxi drivers during our time there, but they exist and it's best to be cautious.
My first impression of the city itself is that is is full of character and life. It feels much more like an old city than anything in Korea, and in some ways even reminded me of Europe. Some of this can be explained by the French colonial history. Buildings tend not to be very tall, and are based on the French architectural style. The city is full of tree-lined streets, small storefronts, street vendors, Temples, and - most of all - motorbikes! Where we stayed in the Old Quarter, the traffic seems crazy, and it kind of is. But you will get the hang of navigating it in a very short period of time. Just start walking across the street with purpose!
There are two main lake areas within the cities: Hoan Kiem Lake and West Lake. Both are great places to walk around, stop for a coffee or a juice, and take the opportunity to check out some of the temples.
Lunch with a local family
On our second day in Hanoi, we had just visited the wonderful Temple of the Jade Mountain (pictured above). Relaxing on a bench near Hoan Kiem Lake, we were approached by a boy of about 10 and his father. To our surprise, Quoc An spoke remarkably good English and we had a great conversation with him. He is a very self-confident, intelligent, and honest boy - saying near the end of the conversation "I'm tired of speaking English now, but you should come visit my family for lunch." No doubt he was very much encouraged into this by his father, who has made it a practice of sharing recordings of Quoc An talking to foreigners on his Facebook page. We were far from his first "targets," but we were very much intrigued and decided to visit for the lunch.
The lunch felt like a good window into the life of some of the people. The family own a small convenient store and live above it, and their neighbors had similar setups. All of the storefronts are open to the outside, and everyone sits outside at tables and stools that feel like they were designed for a preschool classroom. The family was incredibly hospitable and just kept feeding us amazing food. It was a great time with funny conversation, with the kid translating for his whole family and neighbors.
Clayton wound up visiting with them again on our last morning in Hanoi. I wish I'd have joined now, but at that point I was totally exhausted! But it was a whole family affair just outside the city. A picture is worth a thousand words.
A visit to Ninh Binh
The ancient city of Hoa Lu
Ha Long Bay is often thought of as the must see natural wonder of North Vietnam. Clayton, had been there before, and we already had our hotel booked for the week in Hanoi. I wasn't too keen to do a day trip involving 4 hours each way on buses with only a few quick hours at that bay. So, I skipped it this time. I realize that I did it wrong and accept full responsibility. I'm sure I'll be back at some point to rectify this travesty.
Still, the folks at our hotel were able to recommend an awesome day trip to Ninh Binh, which was much closer. We started by visiting some ancient Temples in Hoa Lu. A small town today, Hoa Lu was the capital of Vietnam during the 10th and 11th Centuries, and the temple complex is an interesting step back in time, and an opportunity to learn about the significance of ancestor rites in Vietnamese culture.
Next, we visited the beautiful village of Tam Coc for cycling. The bikes provided by the tour were basically ready to fall apart, and my front tire had a piece of metal rattling the whole time. But that didn't take away from the beauty of the landscape of limestone mountains. Apart from the occasional cow or herd of ducks crossing the street, there was a no traffic to contend with.
It was also great to have a chance to experience Tam Coc by boat. While I'm normally the type who prefers to row my own boat, this particular tour was a package deal and included a local paddler. It was quite interesting to see their rowing technique, which involved leaning back and paddling with their feet! I can describe the landscape all day, but the picture below does a much better job than I could. It was definitely the highlight of the trip in terms of experiencing the beauty of Mother Nature.
Museums: from the bizarre to the fascinating
Entrance to the Ho Chi Minh Museum
As a history buff who minored in the subject in college, I am and always have been a museum geek. So whenever a visit a major international city, I am always keen to visit the major museums. I had the chance to visit two while I was in Hanoi: The Ho Chi Minh Museum, and the Museum of Enthnology.
"Wake up Vietnam, the Matrix has you!"
To call the Ho Chi Minh museum a "museum" is a bit of a stretch, but it is still an interesting spectacle if you want to have a deeper understanding of propaganda! After being greeted by a statue of Ho Chi Minh posing like Neo from the Matrix, you'll embark on a tour of photographs with captions like "Uncle Ho inspiring a group of school children." There is not much substance, but it's interesting if you've never experienced such a thing before, as was the case for me. It was disappointing in that it offered little real insight into the life of a fascinating historical figure.
Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum
Near the museum is also the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum, where the preserved body of Ho Chi Minh can be visited by the public. Interestingly enough, Ho himself actually wanted to be cremated, but I suppose the Vietnamese Communist Party had other ideas. They modeled the mausoleum after Lenin's tomb. We would have stopped by to take a peek, but it was closed for "restorations" of some sort, so we missed it.
The second museum was much more interesting: The Museum of Ethnology. I visited here on a rainy day and there was a plenty to learn about Vietnamese indigenous and minority ethnic groups. While the indoor portion of the museum is interesting, with information about the Muong, Thai Thanh, Nung, Yao, Hmong, Lolo, and Mon-Khmer groups, among others, the real highlight is the "village" behind the museum, where traditional houses and tombs are available to view and tour.
There is also a water puppet theater and show at the museum. While this is not the most famous water puppet theater in Hanoi, it's a great place to take in a quintessential Vietnamese experience. I had a personal showing, as people seemed not to want to attend due to the weather, even though the theater was in a covered area. Here are some highlights.
If you pick a Buddhist/Vietnamese traditional temple in Hanoi at random, chances are you will be impressed by the atmosphere. Many of these temples have been around for hundreds, if not a thousand years or more.
Vietnam is the home of several parallel religious and spiritual traditions. Buddhism is widely practiced, as are various folk beliefs such as revering the ancestors. There are various temples scattered throughout the city and country reflecting both belief systems, and some temples incorporate elements of both.
An altar inside the temple near the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum
While the Vietnamese most commonly practice Thien Buddhism - closely related to Japanese Zen and Korean Seon - the temples there have a unique character quite distinct from what I've encountered in Korea. Another element to keep in mind is that, given Vietnam's status as a one party communist state, it is not unheard of to find propaganda posters and photos of Uncle Ho displayed on the temple grounds. For the most part, however, the temples appear to operate in much the same way they always have throughout their history - though I am certainly no expert.
Cuisine: Vietnamese and otherwise
A delicious sampler from Chopsticks in the Old Quarter
I'll get to the local food in a moment, but who knew that Hanoi is an excellent place for....tapas!? This is why it is so great knowing local expats, and we were grateful to Ariane - a friend who lives in Hanoi that I met during my time living in the Czech Republic - for taking us to El Loco on our first night in Hanoi. Run by Spaniards, the food there is both authentic and delicious. It's unlikely to be anything close to your cheapest meal in Hanoi, but I highly recommend checking it out if you enjoy this type of food - particularly those like me placed in small-town Korea where such things aren't available!
In general, Vietnamese food is delicious, and much of it is quite healthy too. Given the prevalence of Buddhism in the country, many vegetarian options are available. A great one is Buddha Chay on West Lake, which offers such staples as Pho in vegan form. Green Farm is another excellent vegetarian option in the Old Quarter. Another all around great restaurant in the Old Quarter, for vegetarians and carnivores alike, is Chopsticks.
Anytime you come across fresh fruit or juice, definitely try it! (Just ask for no ice with your juice) The wide variety of tropical fruit in Vietnam is fresh and delicious.
Street food can be delicious but it's important to bear in mind that sanitation standards in Vietnam are those of a developing country. Use your judgment when evaluating the cleanliness of a particular vendor's operation, and make sure that you bring your favorite stomach settling medicines with you as they are unlikely to be available at the Vietnamese pharmacies. Most people I know who have traveled to Vietnam and Southeast Asia in general experienced some stomach discomfort or constipation at a minimum - especially during their first visit. I'll spare you the details, dear reader, but I was no exception! Bring your Tums, Pepto-Bismol, Gas-X, etc. You have been warned.
We stayed at Nova Luxury Hotel in the Old Quarter and had an excellent experience there. They really provide an absurd value for your money, especially if you are used to traveling in, say, Western Europe or Japan. For 8 nights, including a late check-out, transportation to and from the airport, and laundry service about halfway through the trip, Clayton and I spent about $125 each. The actual cost of the room worked out to something like $13 per night. It was spacious, air conditioned, had two comfortable beds and a good Western-style shower. We did find an especially good deal on booking.com, but the hotel website advertises rooms from $31 per night. If you decide to go through booking.com, you can click here for a $25 discount. This rate included an all-you-can-eat daily breakfast with a good mix of Western and Vietnamese options. The western options in particular were much better than anything I've experienced in Korea. They will even bring the breakfast to your room if you like at no extra charge.
A sampling of Nova Hotel's breakfast offerings
Overall I would highly recommend staying here to anyone looking to have a good experience in Hanoi. The Old Quarter is a great place to stay with no shortage of things to do. It is within a reasonable walking distance from the major lakes in the city, and has lots of restaurants, nightlife, and an active night market. It's reasonable to be cautious about pickpockets and the occasional scammer, but overall I felt it was quite safe. In fact, I felt that way about all areas of the city that I visited.
Flights & Transportation
We decided to fly to Hanoi via VietJet Air for one simple reason: it was the cheapest option by far. Because we traveled during peak season, the round-trip cost was around $400 for 4.5 hour direct flights. We decided to travel from Incheon airport rather than Busan because the cost was lower. Of course, traveling with any discount carrier is never anything to write home about, but we experienced no real issues besides a half-hour delay for the departing flight. We also got upgraded to an exit row for that flight at no extra charge, which was nice.
When it comes to general transportation in Hanoi, it is quite cheap and convenient. Much of the city is quite walkable and I am a big believer in exploring new cities this way. There are taxis who will try to scam you, so it is important to make sure that they always turn on the meter. At the airport, there are lots of scammers and it's best to book transportation through your hotel if you are a first time visitor.
Grab is the most commonly used ride share service in Hanoi. It is ridiculously cheap to use, often costing $5 or less to travel 30 minutes to an hour across town. If you plan to be there long enough and load money onto the app and pay that way, it is even cheaper - often $1-3. Tipping is obviously nice given the low wages, though it's important to realize that a $1 tip in Vietnam has the buying power of $3-4 in the U.S. While most drivers are honest, it's best to have exact change for what you want to pay, because some drivers will try to keep as much of the change as they can.
Hanoi is a great city to spend some time, and the low cost of living makes it an even better value. Northern Vietnam in general has a lot to offer including Ha Long Bay, Cat Ba, and Sa Pa, which are not listed here. I definitely plan to take another trip back some time during my time in Asia, and highly recommend visiting to anyone who is considering it. A final piece of advice: bring some pepto bismol, tums, or whatever your favorite stomach settling medicine may be! These things are not available in the pharmacies in Hanoi, and Southeast Asia is known for throwing the stomachs of first (not to mention second and third) time visitors for loop. Don't worry about it, but do be prepared. Until next time. . .