Our flight from Bangkok to Hanoi was a mere one and a half hours in length. We left the Asian ‘city of Angels’ with its unforgiving heat and landed in the much cooler, mountainous Vietnamese capital. Getting a taxi from the airport was an encapsulating first experience of Vietnam. The sun was setting as we were driving over the river into the heart of the city. Our hostel; central backpackers hostel was located a 5 minute walk from the Old Quarter on Ly Quoc street, parallel with St Joseph’s Cathedral.
It turns out we had arrived at the perfect time as between 7pm-8pm everyone at the hostel is offered unlimited free beer. We made the most of the opportunity and managed to neck 5 pints in that hour! We spent a couple more hours at the hostel where beers were 10,000 dong each (roughly 30p) before heading to Beer corner. Beer corner is essential a junction of around 6/7 bars that sell cheap beer for as little as 15p. We spent the evening cohabited with the locals in a extremely lively and packed outside seating area trying Bia Hoi, a local beer and some Vietnamese snacks.
The following morning we soon forgot about the pain in our heads when we looked at a map and realised how much there was to do in Hanoi. Before we hit the streets the hostel offered us free breakfast which included 2 fried eggs in a baguette, a half chunk of pineapple, a banana and unlimited tea/coffee. I can say for sure that it definitely set us up for our busy day. First of all we visited Ho Lao prison. It was built by the French during their colonial reign of Vietnam and was used to house political prisoners aswell as communist revolutionaries. As you can imagine the conditions were described as pretty tough and from the translations of the information plaques it is evident that whoever designed the museum feels bitter towards the French. Once the French had left Vietnam, the Vietnamese used the prison to keep U.S pilots that had been shot down during the American war in the late 60’s and early 70’s. It was interesting to see some photos taken of the American prisoners as they were shown having a really good time. Picture of them playing basketball, watching movies, looking after pets and even receiving souvenirs when they were let out of the prison. With exhibitions like this it is sometimes difficult to determine the credibility of what is being shown, I’d love to speak to someone who had been imprisoned here.
After exiting the museum we were given a 50% off voucher and free audio guide to a museum just around the corner which was called the museum of Vietnamese women. It was really good and had an explicitly detailed audio guide explaining how the women in ethnic minorities in Vietnam live, what the marriage ritual is like, childbirth, family life and fashion. My favourite part of the museum was women’s involvement in the American war on the North and the South side. I’m not going to lie these women had some balls, which I understand is an overused oxymoron. They were brave, brave people who had their countries best interests at heart and devoted their lives to restoring and maintaining Vietnam as they had always known it, good for them.
After some lunch we strolled back and forth through the winding and confusing streets of the Old Quarter. It consists of mainly tour operators, hotels, restaurants, bars, coffee shops and clothes shops. You could walk around it for hours and as you were just about to leave you would find another colourful yet dingy alley to walk down and explore. Past the Old Quarter we visited the Dong Xuan market. However, by now we had been to enough markets in South East Asia that everything is starting to look the same. A part of me made me feel ungrateful that the market didn’t ‘wow’ me as 4 months ago, if I had gone there I would have been in awe. It’s amazing how quickly your emotions can get detached from some really interesting and beautiful places. We headed back towards the Old Quarter and wandered the perimeter of Hoan Kiem Lake. An inspirational building caught our eye as we walked so we moved closer to see what it was. It turns out it was a Water Puppet Theatre, which is apparently a traditional form of Vietnamese art and entertainment. Tickets were around £3 so we thought we might as well check it out. Well, it was certainly an experience. I’m not sure what I expected from a water puppet show but it didn’t really live up to my expectations. Maybe it was because of the 4 bottles of beer I had just had or not but I could not understand what on earth was going on throughout the entirety of the show. The puppets were funny and the stage quite well thought out and the singing was good but I’m not sure if I could of lasted the full hour if I was stone cold sober.
I don’t know how we function after nights out like the previous night but by 9pm me and Georgia had had breakfast, got ready and were on our way out for another fun day out. This time we headed in the opposite direction of the city, towards the Citadel. On the way we passed Lenin Park, a garden with a statue of Lenin in it, dedicated to one of Communisms founding fathers.
However the statue of Lenin was the boring part, we were lucky enough to witness riot police practise defensive and attack tactics in the middle of the square. We were the only ones watching them and it felt like they were putting on a show specifically for us. It was pretty entrancing to see how good these guys were at Martial Arts, they could knock me out cold by flicking my nose, no doubt. Hanoi has a unique pattern of having buildings that draws mine and Georgia’s attention. This time it was a red brick tower that had a Vietnamese flag fluttering in the wind at the top. We learned that this was the Vietnamese military museum. After a £1.30 entry fee we were given access to museums that exhibited Vietnamese weapons and war heroes from as long as 1000 years ago. What was really impressive though was the outside section that had real Vietnamese, Soviet and United States aircraft, helicopters, tanks and all sorts of military vehicles.
Going back on ourselves we walked past Hoan Kiem Lake the South East of the Old Quarter for some lunch. The area we were in was European-esque with stunning boulevards where the leaves were falling from the trees and each shop was French influenced. Passing the National Opera House we were in an incredibly affluent area, a place luxury shoppers would called heaven.
We noticed on our map that we were just around the corner from the Vietnamese History Museum. With a slim entrance fee of 50p the magnificent building that stored all of Vietnams history from bones of Neanderthals to weaponry was great to walk around and admire. I would definitely recommend this attraction as one of the top attractions to see in Hanoi.
After a couple of days I feel like I have learnt a lot by visiting some of the capitals best museums, which I hope will set me up to better understand Vietnamese culture and tradition as I travel from North to South of the country. The food in Vietnam is becoming one of my favourite cuisines I have eaten since leaving England. My favourite dish throughout my time travelling has been vegetable or beef noodles accompanied with loads of different spices and chilli (I am a pro chop stick user now). Vietnam doesn’t let the Asian team down when it comes to noodles with its traditional ‘Pho’ being more and more enjoyable to eat with each restaurant I go to.
Additionally I am surprised with how many baguette shops there are here. One day I had no less than 4 baguettes of varying flavours at different stages of my drunkenness, each as good as the last. As you can probably tell I have missed gorging on bread a lot, after not eating proper bread for around 2 months (since Moscow).
So today me and Georgia travelled 3 and a half hours East of Hanoi to Halong Bay, famous for its 1969 karst rocks that emerge strongly above the ocean. We had a fantastic boat tour weaving in and out of the mountains whilst enjoying a spectacular lunch and come Halong Beer. After about 2 hours we stopped off at one of the more popular karst mountains where a hidden cave was found in 1993. The caves and the limestone mountains really reminded me of Yangshou in China, which is actually closer to where Halong Bay is in comparison to Bangkok. Thunderstorms seem to have an urgency to follow wherever me and Georgia go. As we exited the cave heavy rain poured down onto us getting us drenched.
It’s 18:50pm on 13 May and I’m halfway through a 4 hour journey back to Hanoi on the dodgy roads of Vietnam. I am writing this now to distract me from the fact that 15 tonne lorries zoom past me 70mph a couple of inches from my window every 10 seconds. It’s my birthday tomorrow, I hope it make it to 23.