Hanoi: What to Do

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
30K VND
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.

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Vietnamese Women’s Museum
30K VND
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.

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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.

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Bach Ma Temple
No charge
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.

Mido Spa
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.)

and for cheap!

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).

Coming Up: Halong Bay

 

Hanoi: Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum

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…

“Uh, what?”

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?”

“Are you serious right now??”

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?”

From left to right: Dutch backpacker, me, my sister…

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…

SMH…

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.

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Coming Up: The rest of What to Do in Hanoi.