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: Where to Stay

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.)

The ultimate cheap, fresh, delicious eats. Everything in this picture probably cost a total of $4.

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).

Essence Hanoi Hotel & Spa
22A Tạ Hiện, Hàng Buồm, Hoàn Kiếm
Hà Nội 100000, Vietnam

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.

 

River cruise to Pak Ou/Whiskey Village and Tamarind – the best meal in Laos

After our long day riding elephants and swimming in waterfalls, the last thing I wanted to deal with was the sound of banging drums at 4:30 am.  I failed to mention this earlier about Le Bel Air, but its proximity is close enough to a wat that you’ll be able to hear the beating of drums early in the morning.  It’s not obnoxiously loud, but if you’re a light sleeper bring your earplugs.

Our plan for the day was to take a relaxing river cruise down the Mehkong River to the Pak Ou caves and Whiskey Village.  We booked the cruise through the hotel, and for $35 (US) the cruise takes you to those two locations and includes lunch.  Our boat was the Nava Mekong.  It’s a little higher end than the cheaper cruises in that the boat was bigger and had table settings for meals.  The cheaper cruises were more like the traditional Lao long boats, but covered.

For obvious reasons, only do a river cruise if the weather is nice out.  I say this because the cruise itself was probably the best part of the tour since the two destinations weren’t exactly that amazing.  The Whiskey Village, which we had high hopes for, turned out to be nothing more than a few shacks with women selling bottles of whiskey.  Don’t get me wrong, seeing the jars of whiskey with giant scorpions and snakes was awesome, but we were hoping that there was a factory or something.  Instead, all the Whiskey Village was was a very poor moonshine outpost.  That being said, since we were there we did try some whiskey.  It tasted like very strong Saki, not bad but nothing to write home about.  We did purchase a few bottles however because they do make great display souvenirs.

From there the cruise headed to the Pak Ou caves, which was the cooler of the two stops.  The caves are split into an upper and lower cave and house several hundred mini Buddha statues.  The upper cave is a bit of a stair climb to get to and don’t forget to bring a flashlight (our iPhone flashlights worked perfectly well) because the upper cave is pitch black inside.  It definitely made the spectacle of seeing all the Buddhas a bit more exciting and mysterious.

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On the cruise back, the Nava Mekong offers a pretty delightful lunch made up of samples of Laotian cuisine and then you’re back in Luang Prabang by around 2.  We headed for a quick spa session at Hibiscus Spa, which provided a really good massage, but I wouldn’t recommend going there if you’re looking for friendly employees.  These people were polite and all, but definitely seemed exhausted and looked like they didn’t want to be there.  After that, we went to our favorite dinner experience of the whole trip.

Tamarind is one of the top restaurants to try in Luang Prabang.  They offer a cooking class that is recommended in several guidebooks and in hindsight we probably should have taken the class instead of going on the river cruise.  Regardless, we went there for dinner and it could arguably be the best meal we had the entire trip.  The employees and Tamarind obviously have a genuine interest in showing their patrons what real Laotian food is like.   The menu is very in depth; it’s part history lesson on Laos food, part FAQ on best practices for cooking and eating Laos food, and part course offerings.  What impressed us was the fact that although we took a good 20 minutes reading the history/FAQ in the menu, the wait staff didn’t disturb us the whole time. It was only when we clearly had finished reading that our waitress politely came by and asked us if we had any questions.

The food at Tamarind is authentic and excellent.  The tasters appetizer is like a Laos charcuterie with an assortment of sausages, veggies, sauces, spices, and other meats and is a must try.  The Buffalo Laap was also a highlight and that is a ground buffalo meat dish with Laos spices and tripe (apparently Laos style includes tripe).  The coolest part of the meal is how you eat all the dishes using the sticky rice.  Essentially what you do it take the sticky rice, roll it into a small patty with your hands, and use its stickiness to scoop up all the food.  It’s kind of like how you eat Ethiopian food with you hands, but instead of injera the Laotians use the sticky rice.  For desert, the Watermelon Chili sorbet is awesome; it’s cool and refreshing with a tiny bit of kick at the end as you swallow.  And the whole experience was cheap; it only cost $40 for two people.  A definite must-try meal in Luang Prabang, and I plan on returning sometime in the future for the cooking class they offer.

Chatuchak Weekend Market and Lavana Spa

Sunday morning we hopped on the Sky Train and took it all the way to the end of the green line (Mo Chit) to the Chatuchak Weekend Market (also known as JJ Market).  Again, I’d like to point out that the trains in Bangkok are very easy to use.  Get a day pass if you think you’re going to take more than two rides and just so you know there’s a 300 baht minimum if you want to use your credit card.

The Chatuchak Weekend Market is probably the second largest market I’ve ever seen (the largest being the souq in Fez).  Despite the thousands of vendors and tens of thousands shoppers, the market is surprisingly calm.  It’s here that you can get pretty much anything: art, clothes, souvenirs, plants, cow penis, jewelry, etc.  Because the market is so confusing you can get a map of it at the information booths. Be sure to bring your ATM card, which we forgot to do, so that you can get cash if needed because most of the vendors do not take credit card.  Also, it can get really hot and muggy, both inside and outside so be sure to be prepared for that.  You could spend anywhere from an hour to a good part of the day here depending on your purchasing wants/needs.

After some shopping, we decided to really treat ourselves and made our way to Lavana Spa.  Again, I feel the need to point out that no, this is not a happy ending massage parlor.  Lavana Spa is a very western, clean, classy place.  It’s here that we purchased a 90-minute Thai massage and herb treatment session for 900 baht ($30 — so freaking cheap).  Lavana Spa started us off with a cup of tea, they washed our feet and then put us in a massive zen room.  I’m not sure how big the whole place is, but the room we got was about the size of a small yoga studio.  The Thai massage wasn’t like a typical Swedish massage with oils.  The Thai massage consists more of putting your body in yoga positions and applying stretching and pressure to work out the kinks.  The herb treatment is what I think was a heated glove with steamed herbs (? couldn’t really tell because my face was in the floor) which was applied to the body to warm and relax the muscles.  It concluded with a nice bowl of vanilla ice cream (kind of random).

When you’re in SE Asia, with the cheap prices for spa treatments, you really must take advantage of it and Lavana Spa is a good place to go if you want to keep it classy.  Want anything more than that?  Just go out on the street and you’ll find someone within 30 seconds.

Bangkok, Thailand

I’ve been pretty blessed so far to have started 2015 with trips to Australia (I’m still working on those Great Barrier Reef pics, more to come on that) and now — Southeast Asia.  The 12-day trip of the region consisted of Thailand, Laos, and Cambodia.  Starting off in Bangkok, which is essentially the international hub of SE Asia, was the natural choice for the first part of our trek.

The flight over is long and arduous, so if you can afford it, I would highly recommend choosing an airline carrier that is on the higher end.  We flew over, with a stop in Dubai, on Emirates Airlines.  Despite the long travel, that flight was easily the most comfortable flight I’ve ever been on.  I fully admit that it helped that I had an entire row to myself for the 14-hour leg, but on top of that the flight attendants treat you like you are in First Class, the TVs have every imaginable movie (I pretty much watched all the Oscar nominees) and outside the plane camera views. The more bizarre, yet cool part was when they dimmed down the light to let people sleep, the ceiling of the cabin illuminates like a starry night.

I do have one gripe that’s not on the airline. And it’s a tip to you all: Don’t push on the TV monitor buttons so hard.  It’s not your iPad, it’s the back of someone’s seat.

Now that that’s out of the way, we landed in Bangkok in the late afternoon and it was the typical chaos in the Bangkok airport.  Getting a cab was far less of a pain than we anticipated, as they have a cab stand with an organizer directing passengers into cabs.  The cabs should cost around 300-400 baht ($1 = 30 baht) for the 30-minute ride into the city, but our cab told us 500 baht flat rate.  At this point we were too tired to care about arguing and paid the extra $3.  This will be a trend throughout.  SE Asia is ridiculously inexpensive once you get there.  Food, taxis, bars, whatever — it’s all really cheap.

After an interesting cab ride where the driver told us about some good lady-boy bars, we arrived at our hotel, The Landmark Bangkok.  Though the Landmark isn’t anything special, a good solid western hotel (we will eventually stay at cheaper, more native lodging in Laos and Cambodia), what is an advantage of staying there is its close proximity to Soi 11, the popular going out street in Bangkok, and it’s a block away from the Nana train stop.

The trains in Bangkok, by the way, are really modern (just built in 2008), are cheap, and are super easy to use in Bangkok.  This is key because you’ll want to use the trains especially during rush hour.  Cabs at those times will be charging high flat rates because rush hour traffic is so bad that what typically would be a 15-minute drive could turn into an hour or two.  The train will be faster and cheaper.

After we checked in and cleaned up a bit, we went out to explore the area.  The streets are packed with vendors and the hustle and bustle that goes with that.  Right on the first night, I learned the #1 survival tip of Southeast Asia: Keep Your Elbows In!   At all times.  If you don’t, you’re likely to get the hit by a Tuk Tuk, or you might hit some person enjoying their street food on the sidewalk, or any number of things.  Keep them in.  I know doubt will be saying this again in the next few posts; it’s easily the mantra of the trip.

Walking around the streets of Bangkok, I immediately noticed something.  While the noise and energy of the streets was no different than the vibe in say for instance Cairo or Lima, there was an added element of dirtiness to Bangkok.  I don’t mean it physically had more trash.  I mean the sex industry is much more in your face than those other more conservative Third World cities.  There are a ton of “massage parlors” everywhere and lady-boys walking up and down the street.  The vendors on the sidewalk amusingly sell boxes of Viagra and Cialis next to the souvenir trinkets and t-shirts.  It’s a very unique experience walking around that for that for the first time.  But you do get used it.

Since we had no dinner plans, we did what the locals do and grabbed $1 soup noodles from a food cart on the street, which was delicious, and grabbed a 75 cent chicken skewer at a different cart.  We also grabbed a few beers at a dive bar on Soi 11 called The Alchemist (a good place to go if you want a chill vibe and some live music).

The night didn’t last long.  Jet-lag won and we passed out.  More to come on the sights and sounds of Bangkok.