A traveller's guide of what to see and do in Vietnam
Vietnam. I hear the name, and still can’t quite believe I’m going. It’s possibly my generation, but the name just conjures up the sounds of Cavatina from the Deer Hunter, the controversial war, harsh communism and ‘that’ image of a girl running from weapons of atrocity. I’m braced for impact. What looks like paddy fields rush past below on approach to the airport. Dense pockets of thin square buildings scattered below, signs of the rich countries left behind are absent. No pools, no gardens as we know them. Plenty of yards with rusted vehicles, and small dirt roads meander the tight rectangular fields in all directions.
But we’re down, and safe, and the pleasant voice over from the Dragon Air crew announces that we have arrived in Vietnam. We arranged tourist visas before we left. This really needs to be done at least a week or two prior to leaving, but (as long as you’re not a criminal etc) there should be no issue with visas being granted. A small fee, fill out the form, send it off with your passport, and usually within a week or two it’s returned with a page allowing you entry, and a big Gold Star on a red background. As if you needed reminding, you are entering one of the last five remaining Communist Countries.
I approached the passport desk with trepidation. The expected military uniforms, red stars, and hushed silence in this apparent provincial airport. It might be the country’s second largest city, but the small arrivals lounge does not really reflect this. But my caution was unfounded. I present my documents, a quick glance from a pleasant official and we’re waved through to collect our baggage. Within minutes of departing the airplane, we’ve walked a few metres and we’re meeting our guide outside the airport to drive us to the centre.
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As the capital of Vietnam, Hanoi hosts most government buildings and most notably the Presidential Palace, National Assembly Building and the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum. They’re situated adjacent to the old quarter, and are a must see.
Little less than thirty minutes later we’re pulling up against a side road, under palms, beside a small urban lake called Ho Tay. We’re ushered out to visit Trấn Quốc Pagoda, the oldest pagoda in the city. Guides are very useful for such places. They will arrange the tickets, price usually included in the overall package, and they’ll often be able to allow you access outside of normal times.
The pagoda itself is magnificent, and at nearly 1500 years old it’s impressive it still stands and in such great condition. The rooms beneath will give you your first view into the near obsession with Buddha in this area. Not to be missed are the inner rooms, containing what appears to be a junk room littered with artefacts. Only on closer inspection do you realise the gold statues, and gems in all directions. Each placed in a precise position. Each carefully tended by the monks. This is a theme repeated all over the country and will become second nature. You are permitted to enter, just remove your shoes.
A car with air con is a must! Good guides will provide you with endless bottles of water every time you leave the car and re-enter, make use of them! Dehydration is a big risk. And even a mild dose of it will make you lose appetite and feel weak.
We get dropped off at the Anise Hotel, within the old quarter. Perfectly situated to explore the area. The buildings here, and indeed everywhere, are vibrant in colours. Deep reds, bright yellows and oranges. Against the lush green of the foliage that thrives in this hot humid climate in the park opposite this brings the country alive. We’ve arrived in early September, and true to sod’s law, a Typhoon has rolled in on cue.
The thin wedge of the building several stories higher than any nearby, is but one room wide and sways gently in the 100 mile an hour winds outside. But it is a very nice room. Possibly considered a 3-4 star Hotel in the West; in Hanoi it’s positively a palace! Very comfy beds (a theme throughout Vietnamese hotels), smart décor and a very welcome powerful shower. Our guide checked us in, and I think upgraded us to a nicer room, yet another benefit of a guide!
The next day the storm has passed, and the air is heavy with moisture. On the plus side, most everything is a little bit cleaner. We’re here for only another day so the old town on foot is plenty enough to explore.
Hoan Kiem Lake is a must see, meaning ‘Lake of the Restored Sword’ holds great meaning locally, and is considered the centre of Hanoi. It’s also pretty much the focal point of tourism. The journey to it though means you must be educated in the art of crossing the road. Sounds simple? It is. But it’s akin to when Indiana Jones leapt faithfully into the abyss (Last Crusade). The roads are teeming with vespers and mopeds. And I mean teeming. It’s a constant river of bikes, carrying all nature of oversized or bizarre goods. Traffic lights exist, technically, but even if they’re working they’re usually ignored.
You must just wade out into the traffic. They ‘will’ flow around you, as they’re not going fast and it’s expected. Your part of the deal is to be confident, and consistent. Do not stop suddenly, or try and avoid them by darting forward suddenly. Just pick a quieter moment, start walking, keep eyes open, and keep walking steadily to the other side. After a few times you’ll have the knack.
At the south end of the lake there’s a posh department store called Trang Tien Plaza, where you’ll find the unexpected Louis Vuitton’s of this world, and just round the corner is the British Embassy “” should you need it. Here are also several nice hotels and good restuarants.
At the north end of the lake is the famous Thang Water Puppet Theatre. A must see in Hanoi, and for all the family. And if you’re feeling hungry, the Avalon Café Lounge overlooking the lake is well worth a visit. This is good clean ‘western-safe’ food, but equally authentic Vietnamese. Which means there’s plenty of fish and fresh veg. You’ll find some meat, but usually just chicken and beef (pork and lamb seem to be fairly rare).
Outside you’ll encounter the famous street food down every alley. Along with traders of every commodity wandering around or in a market. Be tempted at your own risk. The hygiene of the local cold food and drinks they serve would most likely result upset stomachs for people not used to them. Canned drinks and hot food & drinks though are usually safe, and the food unquestionably amazing. If you seek it out, they do a local Vietnamese style of coffee. It’s very strong, served usually with condensed milk, and is a very thick syrup. For the espresso lovers it’s a new and delicious drink.
On the way back, wind your way to the Long Biên Bridge. Built at the end of the 19th Century this bridge is used by trains with two pathways either side. It’s not for the feint-hearted though. Suspended high above the river below by this cantilever bridge the pathway is barely a meter wide, with minimal railings, and a steady flow of bikes speeding pass.
What’s worse? The floor is made of relatively thin concrete slabs (about a foot square, and an inch thick) placed on equally small metal girders. Some have gotten so crushed they’ve fallen through, or look like they’re about to. The experience is worth it though, and the walk to the other side give you a feeling of reality in this awesome but underdeveloped capital city.
After the routine evening freshen-up, wander down to the Hanoi Night market. While much of the market is repeated frequently as you walk along, the hot food is amazing and the atmosphere second to none. Carry on to the lake, and the night life of bars on the northern side have opened up and are very welcoming.
In fact, that is a common trend. The Vietnamese are on the whole immensely pleasant and welcoming (far more than many other countries, including the UK) to strangers. Some will try and sell you products, but they will also take no for an answer the first time. Most in the tourist industry have excellent English (or American to be honest) and those who aren’t will most likely have next to none.