Around a year ago I was in Vietnam for the first time . And boy, I was impressed! The food, the people, the shopping. I had to come back. So I did. But this time I visited the North.Since we had a one week break for Chinese New Year I decided to head for Hanoi and the surrounding countryside – on a motorbike! But before we go to the adventurous part, let’s start with Vietnam’s capital.
My first visit one year ago brought me to Ho-Chih Min City, aka Saigon. Whereas Hanoi is the capital and political centre, Saigon is the economic powerhouse. You can compare it with Shanghai and Beijing, Frankfurt and Berlin or New York and Washington. One is the commercial capital, one the political.
I arrived Hanoi expecting millions of people on scooters, all trying to kill me while crossing the road. And I found, well, no one really. The whole place was empty! Dead! Like on a film set after the crew left.
It turned out Vietnam is also following the lunar New Year. And, same as China, this time of the year is to the Vietnamese what Christmas is in the Western world. A time to go back home, visit your family and friends.
And so they did. Around 90% of shops and restaurants were closed on my first day.
So I had the whole city for myself – brilliant!
There are two main parts of Hanoi you need to visit: The old quarter and the “Ho-Chi Minh stuff”. (For those of you who don’t know who Ho-Chi Minh was, please read here.)
Let’s start with the old quarter. That’s the part of the city which shows Vietnam’s French colonial past. Houses clearly feature French architecture (although a bit run-down). The old quarter is home to hundreds of small shops, foot stalls and markets. If you’re in Hanoi on a weekend, don’t miss out the night market.
The best way to explore the old quarter is on foot. Start hungry in the morning and have breakfast at one of the dozens cafes or street stalls. If you’re up early, say 8:00, you can experience yourself how Hanoi is waking up. In the first two hours you have the streets for you. From 10:00am onwards, the traffic chaos starts. Scooters will hunt you down on the streets, they’re coming from every corner and alley you can imagine. Braking seems to be unheard of in Hanoi, so watch your steps very carefully.
For lunch have a Phoa (soup noodles) on the street before continuing the journey through the old quarter. Don’t miss out Ta Hien street, it’s packed with shops, restaurants and beer bars. Especially at night, it’s a great place to grab beers and meet new people.
For me, the old quarter is Hanoi’s highlight. Granted, there aren’t many sights. But if you want you can spend days and weeks exploring this part of the town. It never gets boring, unless you visit during the first days of the Tek New Year.
Hanoi’s other part is dedicated to Ho-Chi Minh. The main sights here are the Ho-Chi Minh Mausoleum, the Ho-Chih Minh museum and the park including the residence, a house where he once supposedly stayed during the Vietnam War. The cars he drove (or was driven in) are also on display.
I haven’t visited the mausoleum as it was only open in the morning. I made it to the museum though and stayed a full 10 minutes. If you’re there – don’t bother! It’s nothing but a propaganda show for the Communist Party. On the other hand, entrance is just USD 0.25, so if you’re there anyway you might as well drop by.
The residence in the adjoining park is stunning, unfortunately you won’t be able to get in. Ho-Chi Minh’s cars and the “House on Stelts” are nothing to write home about, although I have to admit the scenery and the park are quite beautiful and worth exploring.
So is Hanoi worth a visit?
I’m not sure to be honest. Faced with the choice between Saigon and Hanoi I’d happily choose Saigon. Saigon just has more. More food, more shops, more places to see. Hanoi’s beauty is not the city, but the surrounding areas. And these are best to be discovered on a motorbike as the next post will show….