[Vietnam travel guide] Hanoi: The chaos and charms of the capital
Jona Bering's travel guide to northern Vietnam is a 4-part series. First up: what to see, eat, and do in the country's busy capital, Hanoi.
For long-time travelers, it is sometimes hard to pick a place when asked, “What’s the most beautiful place you’ve been to so far?” I would stammer, and a train of places would come rushing to my mind. Often, I answer the question with another question: how do you define “beautiful?”
Defining a beautiful place is always subjective. I've met someone who did not rave about Vietnam as much as I did, so take this list with a grain of salt.
If we narrow down the definition of “beautiful” to something more tangible, like landscape, northern Vietnam is on top of my top list.
Three elements recur in northern Vietnam’s landscapes: flatlands of varying hues of green, water – be it fresh or salt – and the dramatic limestone formations. Sometimes, they tease you by appearing in the periphery of your vision; other times, they burst out in the open. Either way, the scenes left me sighing with gratitude and awe.
We flew to northern Vietnam after 3 weeks in southern Vietnam. We had gotten so used to the southern Vietnam hospitality and kindness that we instinctively thought Hanoi would not be any different. But it was as if the city had a mischievous plan in mind – well, at least, on the first night.
When you are in Hanoi, it is financially and emotionally practical to opt for an Uber, Grab, or bus. Some taxi drivers will scam you once they figure out you’re not a local. That being said, we got victimized on a hefty ten-minute taxi ride on the night we arrived in Hanoi.
Even southern Vietnamese get scammed – how much more if you are a foreigner?
Despite the awkward first meeting, Hanoi and I get along pretty well. If it is your first time in the capital, here are some of the must-dos.
1. Hang out at Hoan Kiem Lake
The road surrounding the lake is closed on weekends. Expect a high volume of tourists on weekends. There's a lot of activity in the area: singing, dancing, eating, and many other activities you can expect in a touristy place.
Some students come here to look for foreigners to practice their English with. Some couples will have prenuptial photoshoots around the lake during the day and in front of Trang Tien Plaza at night.
Visit Hoan Kiem Lake on a weekday morning, at around 6:30 to 8 am. It is an entirely different place. Locals often start their day doing stretches, zumba, badminton, and tai chi here. If you are traveling somewhere between May and July, expect the fragrance of barringtonia acutangula tree flowers, locally known as lộc vừng, to tease your senses. Of course, the lovely fire trees bloom this time of the year too.
2. Eat bun cha
Because you cannot find it elsewhere in Vietnam. It is a plate of glass noodles, pork balls, and herbs. Yum!
3. Explore the Old Quarter
Here, women wearing non la and with quang gánh (a bent wood where they hang their baskets of goods) on one shoulder trod the streets, looking for people to buy their flowers, fruits, or vegetables. The streets are awash with restaurants, cafes, shops, boutiques, and hostels. Looking at the old French buildings made me think of suffocation. Negative space doesn’t exist here. Everything is cramped. But despite the lack of space, those dirtied blue-yellow buildings felt nostalgic.
4. Visit café after café
The Vietnamese are tea and coffee drinkers. Tea is served alongside coffee. Quaint cafes are aplenty in Hanoi. I ended up frequenting Caphe Cong (Communist Café), the branch overlooking the tiny waterless fountain by Hoan Kiem Lake. Its bestselling coconut coffee blend and green rice milk blend are worth trying, especially in hot and humid days. Giảng Café, on the other hand, is a must for their famous egg coffee. If you want some quietude, try Jouri. If you’re a book and coffee lover, Nest by AIA makes you snap endless photos. These are just 4 of the hundreds of quaint cafes you can find in Hanoi.
5. Soak in the historical places
Imperial Citadel of Thang Long, a UNESCO Heritage site, was the center of political power that spanned 13 centuries uninterrupted. Built in 1070, the Temple of Literature, a Temple of Confucius in Hanoi, is a favorite destination for local students and foreign travelers alike. The resting place of the legendary revolutionary leader Ho Chi Minh, the smiling old man gracing Vietnamese Dong, the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum should be in your schedule. To know more about the lives of Vietnamese women, squeeze some hours in for the Vietnamese Women’s Museum. Up for some pottery lessons? You can try it at Bat Trang Ceramic Village, an hour away from the center.
Things to consider before traveling to Vietnam
Flights to Vietnam
If you intend to travel to northern Vietnam alone, you can book a direct Manila-Hanoi flight via Cebu Pacific Air. As rule of thumb when trying to score cheap flights, always book them in advance and stalk promo fare announcements. I blogged about some personally tried-and-tested tricks to finding the best deals online.
Since the Philippines and Vietnam are part of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, Filipinos don’t need a tourist visa to enter Vietnam. We are allowed to stay up to 21 days visa-free. If you intend to stay longer than that (I stayed for 3 months in northern Vietnam), then you need a tourist visa. You can either go through a travel agency or process it yourself beforehand in the Philippines. Since I am traveling long-term, I processed mine in a travel agency in Cambodia and paid $54 for a 3-month single entry tourist visa. Roughly sort out your itinerary. Since most Filipinos don’t really have the time and money to travel long-term, it is safe to say that 21 days or less should be enough to cover most destinations in Vietnam.
Food in Vietnam
Vietnamese food occupies a good part of my shaped love for this country. The food is varied and Instagrammable. Rice, noodles, soups, vegetables, and meat – Vietnam has everything a foodie could ask for. If you know where to look, they also have a version of our carinderia. They have a version of lechon, rice cakes, cassava cakes, and vegetable soup that is very closed to utan-bisaya (a favorite for many Visayans like me). The similarity of the food made Vietnam close to my stomach, where my heart resides comfortably most of the time.
If you have a sensitive tummy, don’t forget to pack activated charcoal, amoeba medication, and diarrhea pills. Fortunately, I did not have any health problems when we had our culinary adventures in Vietnam.
Your Motorbiking Skills
Vietnam gained the nickname motorbike country for a reason. Scooters and semi-automatics are the to-go transportation throughout the country. Most, if not all, households own one or two motorbikes. Even though I consider myself an expert habal-habal (the Cebuano word for public motorbike transportation) passenger – in the Philippines and our traffic is maddening – nothing prepared me for Vietnam. The roads in major cities like Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh can be intimidating even for the most experienced commuter. So if you doubt your motorbiking skills, then take the public transportation in big cities. Grab and Uber come handy. Except for Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh, and places with treacherous roads like Ha Giang, Vietnam is navigable.
Your Road Trip Route
It all depends on your time and budget. As a Filipino, I know you must have limited leaves from work. And there is the money issue too. Traveling long-term yet within a budget, we covered (in order) Ha Noi, Ninh Binh, Ha Long Bay, Sa Pa, Ha Giang, Cao Bang, and Lang Son exactly for a month. There are direct buses to these places from Ha Noi. If you intend to skewer and cram these places on your trip, I wrote about our route on my northern Vietnam Travel Guide on my blog. I included a lot of photos from our own trip too. – Rappler.com
Jona Branzuela Bering, Palanca awardee and author of the poetry collection Alang sa Nasaag (For the Lost), blogs at Backpacking with a Book. She left her beautiful life in Cebu to pursue her goal of traveling long-term abroad. She’s currently based in Hanoi, Vietnam. Follow her travels on Instagram @travelingjona.
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