Hanoi is an Asia metropolis at its most romantic. With strong Chinese and French colonial influences and plenty of Vietnamese pride, this 1000-year old city is a glorious blend of east and west, old and new. Hanoi would have probably wooed us on any given day with its pagodas, palaces, lakes, and markets but the week’s Tet New Year festivities left us completely smitten.
We based our three days in Hanoi along Ho Tay lake at the Sofitel Plaza Hanoi. It’s a peaceful part of town with the Chua Tran Quac pagoda as its crowning feature. The 1,400-year-old Buddhist temple was relocated to this little island on the lake and was our view each morning.
Just across the lake’s causeway is the all-important Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum complex. The tomb to the founder of Vietnamese communism is said to be one of the country’s holiest sites. We didn’t want to wait in the long line to see his embalmed body or the museum but opted to see the stilted home where he spent much of his life. The area is worth a stroll but at a brisk pace.
One of our favorite pastimes in Hanoi was watching the motorbikes and their audacious hauling endeavors. To get the house decorated for Tet New Year, everyone seemed to be coming home with five-foot tangerine or cherry blossom trees strapped to their mopeds. Bobbing and weaving between lanes, the drivers seemed totally at ease but the fruit seemed to be clinging for dear life as their branches rustled in the fast lane.
The 11th-century Temple of Literature and site of the country’s first national university is said to be a must-see stop…so we stopped. It’s well-preserved architecture, gardens, and shrines to Confucius were all lovely but the real attraction was the calligraphy stalls at the front gates. Old men practicing the art of blending Han Chinese with Vietnamese ideographic characters sell their scrolls for good luck in the New Year and offer unparalleled people watching. See the slideshow for this guy’s awesome calligraphy colleagues.
You can’t tempt a backpacker (I mean, honeymooner) with an all-you-can-eat-and-drink buffet and expect restraint. Staying in a Sofitel Plaza Hanoi suite grants access into the Club Sofitel’s executive lounge with complimentary coffee, tea and snacks all day and cocktails and canapes by night. Let’s just say we enjoyed all facets of this service to the fullest.
The next day we set out to explore the Old Quarter with the help of Lonely Planet’s self-guided walking tour. In a huge city like Hanoi, this was a handy tool to navigate the charming little side streets where the French colonial architecture still shines and the neighborhood markets thrive. Tip: In the heart of the quarter, it’s good to know that the streets are organized by the good: toys, spices, mirrors, shoes, etc. and as soon as the item changes so does the street name.
The gem of hidden gems on the LP tour was House 102. We arrived to this address and opened the door to what was indeed a family’s home. We almost turned around but an old lady peered her head out of the kitchen and motioned us to go upstairs. The narrow stairwell led to the most magnificently gaudy little temple with offerings of pomelos, cherry blossom branches, candies, and gilded décor soaring to the rafters. There were no tourists to be found, just a magical scene of wild devotion.
We were starving after a day of exploring….but not hungry enough to eat Ga Tan: a baby chicken stewed in medicinal herbs and boiled feet-up in coke can. It is said to have restorative benefits, including easing of ailments such as constipation, asthma, backache and menstrual cramps…but even if we had all of those ailments simultaneously, we’d probably still pass. Fortunately it was easy to find yummy dinner alternatives in Hanoi like some yummy Bun Cha soup…a local specialty of vermicelli noodles, grilled pork, and a rich broth.
The Old Quarter seems to ruminate from the Hoan Kiem Lake and by night its twinkling island beckons couples and families to its shores. The name translates to the Lake of the Restored Sword and refers to the end of Chinese rule in the 15th-century and the legend of a turtle that emerged to retire the emperor’s weapons. The building in the distance is Thap Rua, the Tortoise Tower where the lake’s turtles are still honored.
On our last day we ventured five miles out of town to the fabulous Museum of Ethnology, celebrating Vietnam’s diverse cultures and traditions. This was actually one of the coolest museum’s of the trip (similar in style the Museum of Welsh life in Cardiff, if anyone’s ever been). It was partially built as a village displaying the various types of architecture throughout Vietnam and had cultural displays from how to make conical hats to shamanic rituals to water puppetry. (Check the slideshow for the super pointy houses and more adorable puppets!)
No visit to Hanoi would be complete without a side trip to Ha Long Bay. Check our next blog for our historic cruise through the 2,000 limestone karsts and islands of the “Descending Dragon” and let us know in the comments below what you thought of Hypnotic Hanoi!