My most recent article is a travel piece about Hanoi, Vietnam’s capital and a rather underrated city in my opinion. Hanoi was my first stop when I went to Vietnam in June. Before my trip, I often read online articles or blog posts that described Hanoi as a rather sleepy and conservative city, especially compared to Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) in the south, Vietnam’s economic powerhouse. Hanoi was anything but sleepy, with its crazy traffic, its Hoan Kiem Lake which comes alive at night, its noisy Old Quarter, and its busy weekend night market that takes up an entire street.
I started off my Vietnam/SE Asia trip with the right timing as my flight landed in Hanoi’s Noi Bai airport in the morning before 11, allowing me to get to my hotel by 12 and rest for a bit before setting off on a city tour in the afternoon. I’d arranged a taxi ride from the airport with the hotel, and I saw my driver right away. Flying into Hanoi, I’d seen scenic hills, rivers, and green fields from above, and driving into the city from the airport, I found the many narrow, skinny 3/4/5-storey buildings alongside the road interesting too.
My tour was a free tour with Hanoi Free Tour Guides, whose guides are mainly university students who want to practice their English (or other languages like Chinese) and show off their city. My guide, Trang, was an accounting student whose English was surprisingly good, though later I realized many Vietnamese who work in tourism speak good English. She was very friendly and kind, and she easily took me to where I wanted to go.
The first place was the Imperial Citadel, which was the site of the royal palace for Vietnam’s emperors for many centuries up till the 19th. The largest structure was the north gate, though we couldn’t go up since it was under renovation. The Citadel, while a UN World Heritage Site, was mostly renovated remnants since much of it had been destroyed by the French when they colonized Vietnam. The French had then used the compound as an administrative and military center, so there were a few colonial buildings which were now used as exhibits and stores. There was even an underground bunker which had been used as the command headquarters during the Vietnam War with large maps still intact on the walls. One particularly interesting sight was the giant bonsai trees in front of the gate, some of which were growing in little pools. This was something I’d notice again later in Vietnam.
From the citadel, you can see the Flag Tower, a brown stone tower with a Vietnam flag on top, in a neighboring compound. That compound is Hanoi’s Military History museum, whose main attraction is a giant pile of aircraft wreckage from American planes shot down during the Vietnam War. There are also American aircraft and helicopters (including the famous UH-1 “Hueys”), as well as a Vietnamese tank and anti-aircraft guns. The museum itself features exhibits on Vietnam’s ancient wars with China, the anti-French struggle and war, and of course, the war with the US. For a small country, Vietnam has a proud history of constant warfare against larger foes. As my guide told me, Vietnam fought China over a period of 1,000 years, the French for 100, and the Americans for 10 years. The Vietnam War exhibit was in a large room where weapons and objects used were proudly displayed, including a bicycle used to transport goods through the Ho Chi Minh jungle trails during the war. There was a small exhibit on an ancient naval victory over China with three wooden stakes that were used to sink Chinese ships on display, as well as a painting of that battle. The Vietnamese seemed to really commemorate their battles against China, which were often victories (shameful!) and which were quite frequent, as I’d come to find out later. I’d known that China and Vietnam had fought in the past, but not so many times. China’s Song, Yuan (Mongols), Ming, and even Qing Dynasty sent armies into Vietnam. As a result, dioramas and paintings of Vietnamese victories over China were a common feature in museums.
A surprising feature of this museum was that to take pictures, you had to pay an extra fee in addition to the entrance fee. It was very cheap though so no big deal. The “photography” fee was also charged in other places including Ho Chi Minh City’s national museum.
When we left the Citadel to walk next door to the military museum, my guide pointed out to me a park across the street with a statue of Lenin, the former Soviet leader and one of the most famous Communist figures. It was a reminder that Vietnam was a Communist country, one of only four in the world. I also noticed we were on Dien Bien Phu street, named after the famous Vietnamese victory when they successfully besieged and overran a large French fort situated in an isolated rural valley during the 1950s war for independence.
The next place was to visit “Uncle Ho”, as the legendary Ho Chi Minh is addressed reverently by many Vietnamese. His preserved body is displayed in his mausoleum on Ba Dinh Square, somewhat like how Mao’s mausoleum is in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square. And like Tiananmen, Ba Dinh Square has a 20th century historical significance as being the site where Ho read his declaration of independence from France. Of course, Ba Dinh Square was no Tiananmen physically, being much smaller and with a large grass lawn taking up much of the square. The mausoleum is a squarish grey stone building, guarded by sentries in dress uniform and who, just like the guards at Taipei’s Chiang Kai-shek and Sun Yat-sen memorial halls, do a fancy routine when they change shifts. The mausoleum has a small bamboo grove at the side, which my guide told me was meant to allow Ho Chi Minh, at least his spirit, to hear the soothing sounds whenever the wind rustled the bamboo. As it was past four, we couldn’t go in to see the Ho Chi Minh residence, a stilt house which Ho lived in as Vietnam’s leader instead of the opulent Presidential Palace, on which grounds the stilt house is built on. We walked to the One Pillar Pagoda, which as its name suggests, is a small temple built on a single pillar perched over a pond. It’s a somewhat interesting sight and a well-known attraction, though I wouldn’t say it’s a definite must-see. Near the pagoda is the Ho Chi Minh museum, completely dedicated to Uncle Ho, which is a large gray building that resembles the shape of a lotus, Vietnam’s national flower. It was closed as well and there were many locals outside the museum enjoying themselves, especially kids and seniors.
From there, we walked to the West Lake, which is Hanoi’s largest lake. First, we walked along Truc Bach Lake, a smaller lake that is across a road from West Lake. This lake is famous for John McCain, the US senator who ran against Barack Obama in 2008, parachuting into it after he was shot down on a bombing raid during the Vietnam War. He was soon pulled out and captured, though not before being given a sound beating. Now, the lake was quite placid with restaurants and homes alongside the shores.
To get to the West Lake, we had to cross the road and here I realized the visual and auditory spectacle that is Vietnamese city traffic. All along, I’d been in a car or walked along roads on foot, but now I had to cross and I was fully aware of the many motorcycles and motorscooters zooming past on the road, with nary a traffic light in sight. Luckily my guide Trang showed me how to cross – just step into traffic (when it’s safe, of course) and walk steadily forward. Oncoming traffic will adjust and go around you, so don’t stop (unless you’re in the center of the road). You do need to be careful in choosing the right time, for instance I never stepped onto the road if a car (or bus) was coming. It’s a slightly nervy but also somewhat satisfying feeling to walk into incoming traffic and have motorcycles and motorscooters drive around you as you cross.
Because the West Lake is really big, I had no intention of walking around it, but instead we went to the Tran Quoc Pagoda, located on the lakeshore. The pagoda is a distinctive red and is Vietnam’s oldest pagoda, having been built in the sixth century (which precedes Hanoi which celebrated its 1000th anniversary in 2010). It features multiple Buddhas facing different directions on each of its levels. Inside its compound, there’re handsome temple buildings, and some sort of tree grown completely in a pool.
Afterwards Trang took me back to my hotel and we said our goodbyes. Later that night, I walked from my hotel down to Hoan Kiem Lake and took a stroll around it, which takes about 20 minutes. It’s a very pleasant sight at night, with the Turtle Tower in the middle of the lake, the throngs of people, especially couples, enjoying the views, selling things, or even exercising in a group, and the bright neon lights of the restaurants and cafes at the bustling north shore. “Hoan Kiem” means the return of the sword, which refers to a legend about something that happened in this lake. A Vietnamese emperor was boating on the lake, when a giant turtle suddenly came towards his boat, took his sword, and dived back into the water. As this sword itself was said to be holy and of special origin (somewhat like Excalibur, King Arthur’s sword), the emperor reasoned that the sword was rightfully being returned and named the lake after that event.
The only negative was I experienced a probable pickpocket attempt. I was walking along a path behind two ladies when I felt a tug on my bag. I thought maybe it got caught in a bush and I pulled back on my bag. I put my hand on my bag’s lower compartment and realized it was partially opened and I turned around and saw a guy behind me, so I hurriedly walked away. I was a little nervous since I’d heard beforehand that pickpocketing was something to watch out for in Vietnam but luckily nothing like this happened again for the rest of my trip.
My first day was quite laidback, other than learning how to cross the street, and it was good to ease into Hanoi and Vietnam. The noisiness and bustle would come later.
Tips to enjoy Hanoi (and Vietnam in general):
— Vietnam’s currency, the dong, has an exchange rate of about US$1- 21,000 so it can be confusing when buying things and calculating prices into your home currency. Don’t hesitate to use a pocket calculator or your phone.
— The traffic can look crazy and there is a distinct lack of traffic lights in many places. But don’t worry, take your time, look carefully, and step onto the road when safe, and cross steadily. Or just cross with other locals. Also, there’s actually a speed limit on traffic within Hanoi so it’s not that fast; I think it’s 40mph or somewhere around that.
— Book a free tour with organizations like Hanoi Free Tour Guides. Their guides are university students who will take you to places of your choice while speaking fluent English or other languages. You just pay for transport (either public or taxi) and admission. You can also give a donation if you want, though it’s not mandatory.