Arriving Hanoi Airport, you can find ATM machines and sim cards for sale just outside customs to the right. A one-month free use of GB for surfing and with limited use of phone calls will cost you about 20 USD. I booked a taxi through my hotel at 18 USD to take me the 40 minutes’ ride to the old town in Hanoi late at night.
The first morning I stopped at the doorstep of my hotel for about 10 minutes before trying to find my place in the street chaos of the central old quarters. The sidewalks were crowded with mopeds and stores selling their merchandise. Little ladies with mini kitchens were selling pancakes, soup, or dumplings to people sitting jammed together on tiny plastic chairs or to mopeds stopping for some takeaway. The streets are jammed with mopeds, cars, ladies with rice hats rolling bikes as stores selling different fruits and people and dogs trying to walk in between. The small gutter between the road and the sidewalk is used as a fireplace all over town – the people were getting ready for Tet holiday, an important celebration of the new year for the Vietnamese.
This city of six million people and three million mopeds is a challenge to get around at first. However, when you watch the locals and do what they do, somehow, as if by magic, you survive crossing the streets, zigzagging mopeds, cyclos, bike lady’s, stray dogs and cars honking to let you know you are crossing their path. Getting a taxi is easy, however, prepared to be scammed. Cyclos saying one price for both just to make a scene to get the agreed amount per person when arriving at the destination. Motorbike taxis do the same. So, to avoid scams, use the green taxis. They are government taxis with proper meters, good cars, and good driving skills at reasonable prices. We actually used cyclos a lot in the old city, they cost extra, but if you haggle and agree on the price for two persons very clearly they are OK, and it is a fun way to get around the old city. By the red bridge in the old town, they have electrical coaches that do 3 different routes in and around the old city at fair prices. A great opportunity to get an overview of the area.
Religion is not a big thing in Vietnam. The government has declared it to be an atheist state. However, the traditional folk religion is a mix of Taoism and Confucianism and Buddhism. You will find lots of temples build to worship these religions as well as catholic churches from the French period. There is a beautiful stone church called St Joseph Cathedral on the corner of Ly Quoc Su and Nha Tho in the old town, worth a visit.
Vietnam has a fascinating history and several great places to learn about the history and culture. Most of the places are within walking distance if you dear to try the streets on foot. My hotel was close to Hoan Kiem Lake in the old city. The red Bridge also called “welcoming morning sunlight bridge” that lead to the Jade Mountain temple on an island in the lake, is a spectacular sight by day as well as lit up by night. The temple is devoted to Confucius and Taoism and Trang Hung Dao, Vietnams hero that repelled three Mongol invasions in the 13th century, and is known as one of the most famous war tacticians in world history. Hoan Kiem lake means “Lake of the returned sword”. In the middle of the lake, there is another little Island containing the turtle tower. According to the legend, an Emperor was rowing the lake when a giant gold turtle surfaced and took his sword. Apparently, the Emperor had gotten the sword from the dragon king God, to fight off the Ming Dynasty. Now that he conquered the Ming’s, the turtle took it back to the God.
Look for the Flag tower, a heritage building just outside the old town’s west side. Find this and you have found the war museum. A fabulous display of American and Vietnamese tanks, planes, helicopters, and canons from the Vietnamese war. Climb the tower and get some great overview pictures of the war relics. The coffee at the Highlands- coffee shop on the premises has great cappuccinos and passionfruit cheesecake.
A short walk from the war museum you find the Ho Chi Minh Museum, Mausoleum, and the One Pillar pagoda. The One Pillar pagoda is a result of the legend about a king`s dream. In the dream, he saw the holy lady sitting on top of a lotus flower. A monk told him to build a pagoda similar to his dream image. The One pillar pagoda is situated between the Ho Chi Minh Museum telling the story of the president’s life and the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum where you can see his remains in a giant tomb. Just across the museum, there is a marked that sells Vietnamese food. Try their Ba-Meh, these local baguettes that you find on mobile food stalls all over Vietnam is really good.
Walking around the south side of the old city you will see a lot of colonial style buildings. Stop at the “Hanoi Hilton”, a prison from the French period that got the Hilton nickname by the American prisoners of war during the Vietnamese war.
The temple of literature, in the outskirts of the southwest side of the old city, is worth a visit. The beautiful gardens and the architecture are amazing. This was built to be a temple and a university for Confucianism, to give the rich kids an education.
After reading good reviews of the puppet show in the old city’s famous theater we decided to go for the one-hour long show. My review is to not waste the hour. The coffee shop next to the theater has great cappuccinos and lattes and is right by the Hoan Kiem Lake. It is much more entertaining to sit there, enjoy your coffee, and watch the craziness of the streets go by. In this area, there is a lot of bars and restaurants in higher buildings with great views of the lake at night. You can find kitchens from all over the world here, so there is something for every taste. Be bold and try something new. We tried a soup, expected a small appetizer but ended up getting a three liters casserole filled with frog legs that still had skin on. They also filled up the table with noodles and vegetables in all forms and shapes to put in the soup It was tasty and we got a good laugh. At five they open the night marked. This follows Hang Ngang street just north of Hoan Kiem Lake. It is an explosion of vendors, bikes, scooters, and people trying to get from a to b. You need a drink after this craziness. Try one of the terraces around the roundabout at the end of the street, by the lake. They have good beer, wine, and cocktails as well as both western and Vietnamese food. Enjoy the Lake view and relax.
To the north, surrounded by five-star hotels, you will find Ho Tay Lake. On the south side of the lake, we found the Tran Quoc pagoda. This is a 1450 years old Buddhist temple. Monks still live and pray here daily before visitors can access the premises free of charge. We decided to go for a rooftop view of the area when we were there and got a sunset view of the lake, pagoda, and surroundings from the Pan Pacific hotel rooftop bar to end our Hanoi visit. The last two days in the north we went to Halong Bay.