A popular excursion from Hanoi is a trip to Halong Bay. While doing an overnight cruise isn’t a must-do, I would highly recommend it. It offers you the chance to take in the natural wonder leisurely, and there’s nothing like a quiet boat ride to de-stress you.
Before I get into the review of Halong Bay, I should begin by telling you that the weather was not nice. And apparently, that’s not uncommon. While I still enjoyed the time we spent out there, it would have been immeasurably nicer if the weather wasn’t cloudy the entire time. So keep that in mind.
The boat we chose for our cruise was Dragon Legend with the Indochina Junk company. This was not the cheapest option ($200), but quite honestly none of us wanted to go cheap on this since we’d be staying on the boat overnight. So I can tel you, the price is worth it. The staff was very friendly, and very organized. The boat was extraordinarily nice, the food was included and quite good, and the alcohol was reasonably priced (remember that reasonable in Vietnam still means dirt cheap). It wasn’t overly crowded (there were about 30 passengers) and the rooms were super clean/comfortable. The boat had a very nice sundeck, pool, and hot tub as well.
As far as the activities go, the cruise staff organized a 1-hour tour of the bay (we were actually in Bai Tu Long Bay which is the less touristy section of Halong Bay) via either kayak or ferry boat. They offered primarily two-person kayaks, however there were a couple of single person kayaks that you can specifically ask to use. Again, because of the cloudy weather, the kayaking wasn’t really all that great, but it was strikingly calm out on the water and very serene.
There’s also a cave walk that the staff will take you into, which again was pretty cool if you’ve never done before. If you have, it won’t be anything that you haven’t already seen to be honest.
Surprisingly, my favorite activity was the morning Tai Chi class on the sundeck. It’s hard to put into words how calming and mentally refreshing it felt to be doing those exercises in the cool, crisp, clean morning air.
Ultimately, I would recommend this boat and company, good weather or bad. If you get good weather, the $200 is really worth it at that point. But I’m confident it’ll be a nice excursion nevertheless.
A few days in Hanoi is chaotic at best because there is so much that you can do. Aside from the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum Complex, Hanoi is full of activities worth checking out. There’s a lot to cover so I’ll get right to it.
Hỏa Lò Prison Museum
Open daily 8 a.m. — 5 p.m.
This is probably my favorite of the museums we visited purely because it was so visceral. Nicknamed the “Hanoi Hilton” by POWs during the Vietnam War, this prison held Vietnamese revolutionaries during their struggle for independence from the French as well as famous Americans, such as Senator John McCain. Much of the exhibit consists of prison garments worn by Americans and a lot of propaganda videos portraying the prisoners as being treated super well (which were very amusing). But all these displays were a stark contrast to the dungeon cells that they kept unruly prisoners shackled down in, the main room made to fit only 40 prisoners, but held 100 with only one barrel for a toilet, and the several methods of torture on display, along with the french guillotine used for executions.
Vietnamese Women’s Museum
Open daily 8 a.m. — 5 p.m.
The Vietnamese hold their historical women in high regard, and that is reflected in this museum. This, along with the Hỏa Lò Prison, I think are a better combination of museums that show the history of Vietnam than the actual National Museum of Vietnamese History (coming up). The exhibits in this museum highlight all aspects of what it means to be a woman in Vietnamese culture and shows profiles of numerous women of different historical backgrounds. Some standout parts for me were seeing the bamboo tubes used to keep umbilical cords until that child passes away, a bracelet given to a girl fighting the French with her name on it, so that if she died her father could ID her body, and the picture of a mother embracing her son who she thought was a traitor for years, but in actuality was a double agent.
Walk around Hoàn Kiếm Lake
There’s no way you won’t walk along this lake at some point if you’re staying in the Old Quarter. Whether during the day or night, this serene body of water offers a nice getaway from the crazy traffic and there’s a good chance you’ll see folks dancing or doing Tai Chi on the shores. Take a walk over the Huc Bridge and check out the Ngoc Son Temple (Open daily 7:30 a.m. — 5:30 p.m.; 20K VND) to learn more about the myth of the giant turtle who lives in the lake and protects the magical sword used to drive the Chinese out of Vietnam.
National Museum of Vietnamese History
40K VND/Adult, 15K VND/Student
Open daily 8 a.m. — noon, 1:30 p.m. — 5 p.m.
Closed 1st Monday of the month
For an overview of the history of the area, this museum encapsulates all of Vietnam’s culture and heritage dating back to its prehistoric periods. While the Hỏa Lò Prison Museum and Women’s Museum were a bit more engaging to me than this one, if you’re into archaeology, this is the place for you. On top of the prehistoric fossils and relics, the museum features several of Ho Chi Minh’s manuscripts, anti-French revolutionary artifacts, and more Vietnam War stuff. They say no photos are allowed, but no one seemed to follow those rules, so snap away.
Bach Ma Temple
Open Tue-Sunday 8 a.m. — 11 a.m., 2 p.m. — 5 p.m.
We stumbled upon this temple completely on accident, and were drawn in because they were having a concert that was open to the public. We discovered that it is supposedly the oldest temple in Hanoi. It had the most elaborate decorations of the temples we’d see in the city, and was so compact it kind of felt like going to your hoarder grandma’s house with all her trinkets and stuff everywhere (though this could be due to the fact that there was a concert going on).
Temple of Literature
30K VND/Adult, 15K VND/Student
Open daily 8 a.m. — 5 p.m.
This temple is dedicated to Confucius and is much larger than the Bach Ma Temple. It’s made up of multiple plazas and displays several dozen stone tortoises with doctors’ stelae (a stela is a tablet that acts as the story/diploma of the doctor). Multiple pagodas in the temple house shrines to kings and Confucius, and it’s easy to see how this quiet complex would be a nice place for studying.
Long Bien Bridge
If you want to go for a bit of a hike, check out the Long Bien Bridge. A symbol of the Vietnam War, this bridge was bombed by the Americans numerous times, but was always repaired and to this day represents Hanoian resilience. We didn’t actually make it all the way across, but that shouldn’t stop you if you want to try.
26 Hàng Mành, Hàng Gai, Hoàn Kiếm
Hà Nội 10000, Vietnam
Open daily 9 a.m. — 11 p.m.
Like the rest of Southeast Asia, there’s no shortage of places in Vietnam to get a massage. While I can’t speak to all of them in Hanoi, Mido Spa was quite nice. Being so affordable, I decided to try a hot stone massage for the first time and with that experience I’ve pretty much ruined all other massages for the rest of my life. The hot stones worked out the kinks better than any Swedish, Sports, Thai, or Deep Tissue massage I’ve done in the past. So with all the walking you’ll be doing, take a few hours off, and for about a quarter of the price you would pay in the U.S.– “Treat yo self!” (There are no photos because that would just be weird.)
Drinking on Ta Hien and surrounding area
At night, Ta Hien and the surrounding area turns into a smaller version of Pub Alley in Siem Reap. Tons of people are out on streets enjoying beers and street food. If you want to go really cheap, look for Bia Hoi (25 cent beers) signs and have a seat. Bia Hoi generally isn’t offered at the normal bars; it’s just random people who make kegs of it and sell it out of their homes, but it’s an actually pretty okay pilsner and, in some cases, tastes better than the already cheap $1 corporate stuff like Bia Siagon or 333. It was at one Bia Hoi stand that we met a couple from Chicago who were wrapping up a four year Peace Corps stint. We drank multiple beers together for three to four hours and our tab ended up being about $10 total! It’s in this area you can also catch live music on the streets, see the amusing “Obama” Bar, or go into a club and inhale helium out of weird balloons that they sell (really, really popular with the locals and the most bizarre thing I’ve seen at a club). They’re pretty strict about their curfew in Vietnam, so don’t expect to go out partying super late.
Dong Xuan Market and Night Market in the Old Quarter
Dong Xuan hours: Daily 7 a.m. — 9 p.m.
Like many other markets around the world, Dong Xuan Market offers the usual food, clothes, electronics, gifts, etc. for locals and tourists. On the weekends in the Old Quarter, several blocks are closed to motor traffic in order to have a pedestrian only street market that starts at Dong Xuan and runs south to the Hoan Keim Lake. It’s definitely worth taking a walk down to see, but for my money, I’d save the souvenir shopping for Hoi An (that post is upcoming).
While I’ll get to the rest of what to do in Hanoi later, the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum deserves it’s own post. Ho Chi Minh is considered the father of Vietnam and is commonly referred to as Bac Ho (Uncle Ho) to the Vietnamese. His name and image are everywhere; even Saigon was renamed Ho Chi Minh City after the Vietnam War. So a trip to the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum Complex is a must-do when you’re in Hanoi.
The complex is a massive memorial the holds the mausoleum itself, where you can view the body of Ho Chi Minh, along with other memorials, the Presidential Palace, the Ho Chi Minh Museum, and his Stilt House. It’s important to make sure that you make the mausoleum the first part of your trip to the complex (don’t confuse the museum with the mausoleum). It’s only open from 8 am–11 am on Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Saturday and Sunday (last entry is at 10:15 am) and is closed from September 4th–November 4th when the body is sent to Russia for maintenance.
When we showed up to the complex at 8 am, it was absolute chaos. Hundreds, possibly even thousands of people were everywhere. Soldiers lined the streets, directing different groups to different areas. The main square was an intimidatingly open space with lots of granite and Vietnamese and Soviet flags piercing the cloudy sky. In the middle was the mausoleum in all of its glory, standing tall and ominously with giant a red HO CHI MINH branded on it. It has the looks of a communist Lincoln Memorial. Hundreds of schoolchildren, all with the same adorable uniforms, stood in random lines at different points in the square. They all (and literally ALL the children) would charmingly wave and shout “HELLO!” to any person who remotely looked like a tourist. It was a strange contrast to the intimidating scene of Ho Chi Minh’s final resting place.
The square was so big that we had no idea where to go; there were lines everywhere. We first walked through a metal detector that we assumed lead to the right place, but each time we stepped in one direction, a soldier or guard would ferry us a different way. After thirty minutes of just walking with random groups around the mausoleum, we finally made it to what we thought was a ticket booth for the body viewing. We were wrong. It was a ticket booth for the museum complex. The person who worked in the booth spoke relatively good English and told us that it was free to view the body in the mausoleum, but we needed to get in line (obviously…).
So we walked back to where we started and just started to randomly ask every soldier if they could tell us where we needed to go. Finally, we found a sentry in a pearly white uniform who spoke English. He told us that we needed to walk down the street and find the end of a specific line, which he pointed us to. It was at this point that we picked up a lone Dutch backpacker who was also wandering around having the same issues as us. She had overheard our conversation with the English speaking soldier and that we actually made progress figuring out what the hell to do. So she tagged along with us as we walked, and walked, and walked until we found the end of the line.
From there, the hour and a half wait began. But it was not without it’s entertaining parts. Much like lines at Disney World, the line to get into the mausoleum wrapped in and out of random courtyards and gardens. We spent the wait time getting to know our new Dutch friend. She told us she was doing a three month solo backpacking trip throughout Southeast Asia because she just graduated from law school (jealous much?). And because she was a tall, blond, European, who stuck out like a sore thumb in the mass of shorter Vietnamese schoolchildren, she couldn’t go a hundred feet without being stopped by a random kid and asked to take a selfie. I’m not exaggerating–dozens of girls would stop her, ask for her to pose with them, and then walk away before the day was done. It was one of the more amusing things I’ve ever seen in my travels. But that’s what makes traveling great: the people you meet. Our new friend would eventually end up spending the rest of the day and night with us.
As you get closer to the entrance of the mausoleum to see Ho Chi Minh’s body, there are multiple signs with rules to follow. No pictures. No shorts. No bags. No chewing gum. No hands in pockets. No talking. On and on… You can tell that they take the body viewing extremely seriously, which is understandable considering that Ho Chi Minh is the biggest figure in Vietnamese history. As you walk up the stairs into the massive gray structure the decibel level of voices creepily gets lower and lower.
When you turn the corner to walk into the chamber, the lighting is a dark glowing red, and in the middle of the room, to my great shock, is the body Ho Chi Minh. It’s just there. Out in the open. I figured we’d see a coffin or sarcophagus, but no, he’s on fully display. Ho Chi Minh is dressed in a black robe with giant Vietnamese and Soviet flags hanging above and behind his body (think the Smithsonian Star-Spangled Banner sized flags). The body itself is in incredibly good condition, which makes sense considering that they send it to Russia every year for two months for ‘maintenance.’ It is an absolutely surreal, creepy scene.
As the soldiers move the visitors along, one of the most flabbergasting experiences I’ve ever had happened in my travels occurred. My buddy whom I frequently go on trips with is a great travel companion. I value his company whenever I’m off in some exotic land because he keeps his a good head on his shoulders and is always willing to experience new things. But there are times, such as this one, where I go…
So he’s in front of me in line, and we’re right at the spot where the body is directly facing us. He turns around, looks me in the eye, and laughingly asks “Dude, who is that?”
I see the Dutch backpacker and my sister, who are in front of him, turn their heads, completely dumbfounded. Under the watchful stare of the soldiers that fill the room, I tell my buddy (keeping my mouth shut to try and be subtle), “Duuuddddeeee, shut up and keep walking,” as I stare daggers at him.
When we leave the chamber (you only really stay in there for about thirty seconds), I ask him what the hell he was thinking and if he wanted us to get shot. I’m all for being a smart-ass and joking around every once in a while, but I could not believe he would make a joke right at that moment. However, what came out of his mouth next was even more bewildering.
“No, seriously…who was that?”
So after taking a cab to the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum Complex, looking for how to get in for thirty minutes, waiting in line for an hour and a half, walking into the massive Lincoln Memorial type building with the giant words HO CHI MINH written on it, to see, without question, the biggest historical figure in Vietnam’s history, my buddy still brain farted the shit out of the experience and wasn’t sure who we were looking at…
When all is said and done, we had a good laugh about it. I handed him my Lonely Planet with the history of Vietnam earmarked for him to read while the Dutch backpacker retrieved her bag. Believe me, it will be a story I will be telling at his wedding, funeral, and many other events for years to come.
After the mausoleum visit, the rest of the complex is relatively anti-climactic. I’d say you don’t necessarily need to do it, but if you have time, since you’re there, you may as well. For $1, you can see his Stilt House, the Presidential Palace, and the museum. We didn’t actually go into the museum because it’s closed for two hours at lunch, so I can’t really give you a review of that. But the viewing of Ho Chi Minh’s body in the mausoleum itself is definitely something worth waiting around for and experiencing.
Like I said in my previous post, Singapore gets all the good press for excellent food in Southeast Asia. But in my humble opinion Vietnam takes top billing. Honestly, you can go to any street or alley and find something that delicious and cheap. Generally, throughout the trip, we found that actual restaurant food was never really as good as the random street food we’d find.
I’m so glad that this is a written blog and not a video blog otherwise I would have inevitably butchered the names of all the random food places we dined in. With that, here are a few eating spots I can point to that are worth trying out if you’re in that area (again, regardless of where you go to eat, it’ll probably be good).
Phở is the quintessential Vietnamese dish. You can get it everywhere in the country and regardless of one’s social status, you’ll see all types of people sitting on the little plastic stools enjoying a bowl. It’s made up of some type of meat (usually chicken or pork), herbs, noodles, with sides of vegetables, peppers, and garlic that you can add in. I generally eat phở in the U.S. for dinner, but I was surprised to learn that in Vietnam it’s actually a popular breakfast dish (the phở joint across from where I live isn’t even open for breakfast). So when in Vietnam, eat phở in the morning–which is what we did. It’ll only cost you around $1-$2 for a bowl. As we ate, it was relatively amusing to see the faces of the locals watching me take pictures of the food and venue. I’m sure it’s what I would look like if I saw a tourist taking a picture of a doughnut at Dunkin’ Donuts.
Here are two of the phở places we had breakfast that stood out.
Quán phở Sướng
24B Ngõ Trung Yên, Hàng Bạc, Hoàn Kiếm, Hà Nội, Vietnam
This place was recommended by the hotel and it hit the spot. The phở was fresh tasting, hot, cheap, and delicious.
Bun Rieu Cua
40 Hàng Tre, Lý Thái Tổ, Hoàn Kiếm, Hà Nội, Vietnam
This is a popular local spot to try bun rieu cua, which is a phở cooked in a with spicy crab broth. Lonely Planet said they only serve it for a few hours in the morning. And we could tell because there were several locals ready to sit when the place opened. It wasn’t quite as good as Quán phở Sướng because I found the crab broth to be a bit too seafoody, but it’s still very good.
Cafe 39 Tạ Hiện
Tạ Hiện, Hàng Buồm, Hoàn Kiếm, Hà Nội, Vietnam
The Vietnamese love their coffee, and we, like the locals, drank this stuff pretty much every day (usually Iced to combat the heat). What sets Vietnamese coffee apart is the sweetened condensed milk they add in, giving it a uniquely sweet dairy flavor. I wouldn’t recommend ordering Vietnamese coffee without the milk because it is incredibly bitter on its own. While there are coffee chains all over, such as Highlands Coffee, those locations tend to overdo the sweetened condensed milk, so it becomes more like a frappuccino (though we did figure out that you can ask for half the amount of milk to make it less sweet). The best places to get coffee are just the random local cafes where you sit on the sidewalk, like Cafe 39 Tạ Hiện.
This no nonsense, no frills cafe always seemed to have people on little plastics stools spilling out of it into the street. As far as we could tell they only really sold coffee, which is fine because it’s not the most comfortable place to lounge around for a long period of time. But their coffee was the best we had in Hanoi.
Bun Cha Nem Cua Be Dac Kim
67 Đường Thành, SHàng Bông, Hoàn Kiếm, Hà Nội, Vietnam
Yes, the name of the place is a mouthful. But on the flip side, because the name is so long it’s very easy to spot the sign on the crazy street it’s on. Very similar to phở, but much heartier and less brothy, bun cha is another noodle bowl that’s main ingredient is barbecue roast pork with thinner vermicelli noodles. Served separated, you mix together the chunks of pork, noodles, and vegetables together as you’d like it. Obviously order the bun cha, but I’d also recommend getting a side order of nem cua be(spring rolls) to share. Not everyone needs to get the spring rolls; one side order is enough for two people. The price is around $4 for bun cha and spring rolls.
Quán gốc Đa
52 Lý Quốc Sư, Hàng Trống, Hoàn Kiếm, Hà Nội, Vietnam
Banh Goi are essentially Vietnamese empanadas and they make the perfect to-go food if you’re walking around Hanoi. There are different types, which I’m sure have specific names, but I ended up just pointing at different shaped ones and rolling with it. Most should have some sort of pork in them. You’ll see these everywhere, but Lonely Planet suggested this one stall near St. Joseph’s Cathedral that had some of the most dynamite finger food ever (you can get 3 for like $1).
35B Nguyễn Hữu Huân, Lý Thái Tổ, Hoàn Kiếm, Hà Nội, Vietnam
Rice is unsurprisingly a staple Asian food, but I always thought sticky rice was more of a Laos, Chinese, Sushi type food and never really thought of it when thinking of Vietnamese cuisine. Most of the guidebooks say, like phở, sticky rice is generally eaten for breakfast in Vietnam. The Chinese in me wasn’t feeling that. I’m sure the locals do it, but where I come from, sticky rice is served with dinner and, unlike the phở, we weren’t really budging from that stance. Sticky rice is just too damn heavy for breakfast.
Xôi Yến is open all day and night, so people do eat it around the clock, and when we showed up at dinner time it was busy as ever. The sticky rice comes with your choice of two toppings. The choices vary from every type of meat to vegetarian options like dried mung beans. Again, it’s a cheap, quick option if you’re tired of noodle bowls and what something a little heavier.
Lonely Planet in general is a good guidebook, but there are some misses. Two in particular. The first one is Minh Thuy’s. It wasn’t even there. They said it’s a must-try and it doesn’t even exist anymore (I emailed Lonely Planet to tell them to update their guidebook for the next edition). The second place is Koto Restaurant near the Temple of Literature. This place wasn’t bad; generally it’s always nice to be able to get off the streets and sit down in a nice, air conditioned restaurant with tablecloths every once in a while. But the food was as “meh” as I can describe, and pricier than what you’d find on the street. The only reason I’d say it’s okay to go is because Koto operates as a hospitality training school for some of Vietnam’s most disadvantaged young people. So while their food might be pedestrian, and cost a little high, at least it’s going to a good cause.
Back in 2015, I went to Southeast Asia (which is documented on this blog) and the country we had to leave out of that trip was Vietnam. We told ourselves that one day we’d dedicate an entire vacation to explore the whole country. I didn’t think it would be a short 2 years later.
Of all the Southeast Asian countries I’ve visited so far in my life, Vietnam is now at the top of the list. It’s in the perfect middle ground of development where the cities aren’t so urbanized that you have all the seedy things like prostitution everywhere, but it’s developed enough that the water is relatively clean (don’t drink it, but brushing is okay), there’s Wifi everywhere, and the people are still very friendly (and not in the they’re trying to sell you something kind of way).
And it’s still really, really cheap. $1 = 22,600 Dong (VND).
Now that all the “dong” jokes are out of the way (trust me, I made my fair share)…
Aside from some tailored suits that I bought in Hoi An, which I’ll cover later, $124/a person (U.S.) lasted the entire 2 week trip. Seriously, it covered pretty much all the food and museums. You can easily get by on eating 3 meals a day for $5 and drinking 25 cent beer the entire time since bottles of water are given to you by the hotels. The museums cost somewhere between 50 cents to $5 in most cases (if you have a student ID, that’s gold for discounts). And souvenirs? You almost feel bad paying as little as you do for gifts. So has much as you’ll cringe throwing down inevitably four figures to get to and stay in Vietnam, all the expenses while in country will be minimal.
The food in Vietnam is also easily the best of all the Southeast Asian countries. Before my trip, I kept hearing about how good the food in Singapore was, but in my opinion the food I had in Vietnam was FAR better. Although there were some culinary gems in Laos that are tough to beat, on the whole the food in Vietnam was superior because it just tasted fresher and you got more for the money. Even the chicken in our $1 noodle soup bowls (Phở) on the street tasted better than any gourmet chicken I’ve had at a U.S. restaurant. I’m guessing it’s because everything in Vietnam is as organic/free range/whatever else roaming animals do to be tasty as it gets. And my companions went absolutely fruit juice crazy with every possible fresh squeezed juice available for them to drink at a fraction of the Whole Foods price. (“Where to Eat” will be posted next.)
Hanoi itself is quite intimidating when you first get in. It’s communist government is on full display during customs check at the airport. And once you get into Hanoi proper, it’s like walking into a frenzy of Evel Knievel wannabes. Remember my mantra when going to countries such as this: Elbows in! And that certainly applies here with all the scooters, cars, and people zig zagging each and every way. It’ll take you a day or two to acclimate to the streets and get to that point where you become calm enough to be a what I call a “precision walker” and just walk across the street with no fear as traffic flies around you (you will literally have scooters and cars come within inches of you).
The cab from the airport to a hotel in the Old Quarter, which is where you’ll want to stay while in Hanoi, should be about $20 or 450,000 VND (it really will take you a while to get used to paying for things in the thousands).
Located perfectly in the Old Quarter, a quick walk from Hoàn Kiếm Lake, most of what you’ll want to see in Hanoi is within walking distance or a short cab ride away from Essence. Like a lot of Southeast Asian countries, the hotel hospitality is top notch. As you check-in you’re offered tea and a hot towel. But unlike the hotel in Siem Reap, Cambodia, the staff here isn’t overbearing in their want to please you; they’ll give you the space you need after a long trip to get there. The rooms are not the biggest in the world, but they’re clean, and each has a laptop for guest use. The hotel also has a spa that, when we were there, has a two for one massage deal. Ultimately, two of us would each get a massage for $15.