Vietnam – A Few Days in Hanoi
During our trip to Vietnam we only ended up staying a few days in Hanoi, using it as our home base of sorts between trips to other parts of the country. Since we only had a short holiday in Vietnam and really wanted to spend some time outdoors experiencing the unique things Vietnam has to offer this seemed like the most viable option and helped keep us from running ourselves ragged.
Please note; we heard a lot about taxi scams from the airport and around town and to mitigate this we opted for a pickup from a reputable transport company. The price was about the same (or less) and we had zero hassles as a result. The cars were new and clean and the drivers were very safe. We were so psyched on these guys we ended up using them for all of our transport needs. Also note that the visa situation for Americans has changed and the only option is the expensive 1 year multiple entry. For us the Visa on Arrival letter still worked saving us the trip to an embassy but these things change so make sure you do your homework. In the new International terminal the Visa counter is just to the right as you enter immigration and we already had our paperwork filled out and were fortunate to be the first in line. We had the visa in hand, passed through immigration, collected our bags and met the driver in less than 30 minutes after landing!
To make the most of our days in Hanoi we opted for a couple of half day tours; the first was on the evening of our arrival in Hanoi. We stayed in the Old Quarter, about 45 minutes from the airport and directly in the heart of the action which made the walking tours super convenient. Our first night was at the excellent Hanoi Elegance Diamond Hotel. The staff was incredible, everyone was so very friendly and helpful and the welcome drink and towels were a nice touch! The room was very nice and this place deserves the accolades that it receives. We found the lodging in Hanoi to be a great value and only paid around US $50 for 5 stars including breakfast.
One of the major challenges with each new country that we visit is trying to figure out what is safe for Shani to eat. To this end in Hanoi we booked a food tour, told our guide Mia about the gluten sensitivity, and with about 8 other people we started eating our way through the Old Quarter!
Our first stop, and ultimately Shani’s favorite, was at Bun Cha for some grilled pork noodle soup. Absolutely incredible! I’ve never tasted a broth so delicious. This place was excellent and we ended up going back on one of the other nights we were in town. From Bun Cha we went on to 6 or 7 other places, some down dark back alleys and on to other places we would have never dared venture into. However it was all very good and Mia was very informative about the ingredients and stories behind the particular dish.
In all we ended up trying the pork noodle soup, green papaya salad with beef, hot steamed pancake with mushrooms, fried spring rolls, pillow cake, fried fermented pork, sweet dough, crab noodle soup, two types of deserts, and finished with the famous banh mi sandwich and egg coffee! And as an added bonus Mia got Shani a special pork dish in lieu of the banh mi that was a form of roll-your-own fresh spring roll.
The next morning we were off to the airport and headed down to Dong Hoi and then up to the Phong Nha Farmstay for a few days in rural Vietnam and some exploration of one of the massive caves in the area. We’ll have a separate post about that whole amazing experience. After Phong Nha we flew back to Hanoi where we had arranged an afternoon tour of some of the important sites of the city. Again we stayed in the Old Quarter, this time at the nice and quiet Sunline hotel.
There are several organizations that run free tours of the city. These tours are a win/win as the guides get to practice their English and tourists get a tour from a local. Our guide was starting her third year in college studying English and she wants to be a translator eventually. We had emailed the organization with the sites we wanted to see and Thuy was happy to take us around and give us a tour.
Our first stop was Sword Lake which is in the historical center of Hanoi and was very close to our hotel. The lake is a very scenic spot and near the northern shore of the lake is Jade Island and the Temple of the Jade Mountain. Jade Island is connected to the shore by the very scenic and oft photographed red wooden Huc Bridge. The temple also contains the lacquered remains of one of the famous turtles that called the lake home and, as the myth goes, asked an ancient emperor of Vietnam for his magical sword.
Our second stop was the Temple of Literature. This is Vietnam’s first national university and the temple was built in 1070. It is dedicated to Confucius and his teaching and has some nice gardens and grounds surrounding the temple. For centuries it served as the center of higher learning and the graduates went on to influential positions both in the government as well as passing on knowledge in the towns and villages in the countryside. Our guide did not seem too keen on the Confucian idea that women should be subservient to their husbands (and neither did Shani)!
The last stop on our tour was Hoa Lo Prison, or better known to Americans as the Hanoi Hilton. This prison complex was originally a peaceful pottery and ceramics community that was seized by the French in 1896 and the prison was built to house political prisoners who opposed the French colonialists. The conditions for prisoners at Hoa Lo were very bad and the French did not treat the dissidents well and subjected them to torture and execution. One of the remaining relics from this time at Hoa Lo is the guillotine, still poised to do it’s job!
Most of the old prison has been torn down and converted to other uses but the Vietnameses have kept some of it as a museum highlighting the difficult conditions they faced under the French as well as the historical significance of the American POW’s that were held here. This aspect, of course, is whitewashed. The whole museum is a rather somber experience but well worth the visit.
The next day we headed to Cat Ba Island for some kayaking, rock climbing, SUP and even some deep water soloing! We’ll have a post dedicated to that part of our trip in a few days but let me just say it was so much fun! The crew at Asia Outdoors can’t be beat. If you’re looking for adventure look them up!
After Cat Ba we had one last night in Hanoi. On the weekend the streets around the lake close to vehicle traffic which was great! We could easily walk around and not dodge scooters and cars and all other manner of traffic. It was such a nice change! Traffic in Hanoi resembles some sort of organized chaos and not dealing with it was very nice.
The next morning we had a trip to the airport so of course we got up early and made sure we did some shopping at the vendors by the lake. Because we have issues Shani ended up with a new backpak, a dry bag for SUP and I picked up a nice little travel bag. We need more stuff like holes in the head. We have a problem.
If you’d like to know more about our time in Hanoi or our trip to Vietnam just drop us a line or leave a comment and we’ll get back to you. If you’d like the exact itinerary or more info on the places we stayed or tours and drivers we used just let us know.