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

 

New Orleans: Quick Hits – Activities

Obviously on a work trip I spent most of the days in a conference room.  However, there was still time to explore some of New Orleans and here are a few of the activities that we partook in.

Swamp Tours: Cajun Encounters vs. Airboat Adventures

A swamp tour to see the alligators of the bayou is pretty much a must-do if you’re in New Orleans.  There are several different tour groups, and I’m here to compare two of them for you.  I would recommend both, but there are differences in the experiences depending on which group you go with.  Both options are about 30-45 minute bus rides away from the French Quarter, and for the options that I took the pricing was around $75 on average.

We’ll begin with Airboat Adventures.  For the thrill-seeking, roller coaster loving types, Airboat Adventures offers a high-octane zip through the swamp.  The unique parts of Airboat Adventures?

  • Obviously racing through the swamp on a tin barge with a giant propeller fan furiously working behind you.
  • Our crazy-ass driver actually jumped into the water with the alligators and fed them while swimming amongst the animals.
  • A baby gator is passed around the boat for some pretty awesome selfies.

One thing to note: if you don’t like loud noise, this may not be for you.  They give you solid headphones to wear, but it’s still pretty loud regardless.

Cajun Encounters is a bit more of a mellow trip through the swamp.  I would recommend paying the $70 because although there are cheaper options, the $70 gets you a ride on a smaller boat fitting 10 people that can go into the smaller canals and river ways.  The unique parts of Cajun Encounters?

  • You do probably see more alligators on Cajun Encounters than you would on Airboat Adventures.
  • As I mentioned, going through the small canals of the swamp offers some fantastic photo opportunities.
  • You do get to see wild boars (see video below).  These animals come right up to the boats for food and are absolutely adorable/enormous.  We just happened to luckily enough (or unlucky to some of the other passengers) almost witness an alligator attack a baby wild boar.  The boat captains intervened and used the boats to shoo away the predatory alligators, but the commotion did get a lot of hearts racing.

You can’t go wrong either way, you just need to decide for yourself what kind of adventure you’d like.

New Orleans School of Cooking

This was one of the highlights of the trip.  Our department head graciously booked us all for a hands-on cooking class as a team builder activity and it was a hell of a lot of fun.  Beer and wine were included, so the libations made it quite an event.  Our chef instructor was young, enthusiastic, and had a contagious passion for cooking southern food.  We were split up into four groups, each group being in charge of one of the menu items (you can change the menu depending on your dietary restrictions): Gumbo, Stuffed Mushrooms, Jambalaya, and Bananas Foster. Obviously being such a big group, not everyone got to do everything, but I would suspect if you visit, you’ll be more hands-on in making each part of the menu.  I was part of the Gumbo team, and specifically helped out in making the roux for the soup.  I had never made gumbo before, let alone roux, so it was a great learning experience.  After the cooking, we all sat and feasted on our creations, and although the food wasn’t super-duper restaurant quality, we loved it because we made it.

The Garden District

An easy cab or trolley ride away from the French Quarter, this is the area to go to if you want to see some ridiculously nice mansions.  The area between Magazine Street and St. Charles Ave holds some of the most impressive houses in such a small area that I’ve ever seen.  Guided tours are available, though just walking around and admiring the architecture was enough for me.  Magazine Street offers some cool little boutique shops and restaurants to meander in and out of as well.  Also located in the Garden District is the Lafayette Cemetery that’s worth strolling into for half an hour to see the traditional tombs and wall vaults made famous in movies and popular culture.  Across from Lafayette Cemetery is the famous Commander’s Palace restaurant, which we didn’t actually eat at, but heard from others in our group that it’s excellent.

New Orleans Ghost Tour

Don’t do this drunk.  I’m serious.  Not because it’s too scary or anything like that.  It’s just that this walking ghost tour doesn’t mix well with inebriated people.  Our tour guide Jack was having an awfully hard time keeping people’s attention and he clearly was getting frustrated by it.  His stories were good, but they were far too long and complicated for a group that had clearly had a few drinks in them.  And you don’t get to go into any of the buildings he was talking about.  I’m not saying I wouldn’t recommend it, but do it earlier in the night and/or on the night off from the bars.

Frenchman Art Market

Located in the heart of the Frenchman Street area, this outdoor market is a great place to find some creative, local art for sale.  Most of the crafts range from jewelry to furniture, and clothing to paintings and have an unsurprisingly hipster look to them.  Nonetheless, it’s a cool place to take a stroll and pick up a souvenir or two.

Wat Xieng Thong, Phu Si Hill, and the Night Market

After we decompressed for a little bit at Le Bel Air, we made our way across that freakin’ bridge and headed into town.  The walk to the main part of the town is about 15 minutes.  Our destination was Wat Xieng Thong, which is one of the key wats in the all of Laos.  It’s at the further end of the town, so don’t mistake one of the many wats you’ll pass by for it (we were fooled once and walked into the wrong wat).

Once we did find Wat Xieng Thong, the admission is 20K kip.  Unsurprisingly, the wat is a peaceful, zen-like monastery with several shrines featuring a multitude of gold Buddhas.  Monks, in the traditional orange attire, mill around and go about their day-to-day tasks.  It does feel a little strange as a tourist to essentially be wandering around their residence, but the monks we encountered seemed used to the scenario.

After Wat Xieng Thong, and a quick stop for a croissant at Le Banneton Cafe (Laos is known for their bakeries from their time as a French colony), we walked down along the Mehkong River and headed toward Phu (or Phou) Si Hill.  You should try and time this walk a little before sunset, the views along the river at that time are amazing.  It’s like something out of a movie set with the mountains, fisherman, and monks along the river’s sandy beach.

We reached Phu Si Hill along with everyone else a few minutes before sunset.  This is probably the only time Luang Prabang felt really touristy, but even then it wasn’t so bad because most people kept quiet at the top to enjoy the view.  The climb up is rather challenging, but doable, and it costs 20K kip to ascend to the top.

Once you get to the top, it’s inevitably going to be crowded, but people were pretty polite and quietly sidestepped all around to get out of the way of people taking pictures.  The sunset is a sight to see and is probably one of the must-do experiences of Luang Prabang.

 

When you’re done with the sunset, by the time you reach the bottom you’ll literally be right on top of the Night Market.  I cannot say enough about how impressed I was by this market and how enjoyable of an experience it was.  The market sold the typical touristy souvenirs and such, but the ambiance was like no other market I’ve been to (and I’ve been to quite a few).  It was so quiet; you couldn’t hear anything louder than whispers.  The vendors were all sitting politely, not in your face or loud, and their goods were all so neatly laid out we almost felt bad picking up the products and disturbing their presentation.  For the backpackers, the Night Market offers a 10K kip street buffet dinner (remember $1 = 8K kip) which was packed with hungry young people.  This market ended up being where we did the primary amount of shopping for folks back home based solely on the comfort at which we were able to shop.

For dinner I would recommend stopping in at Coconut Garden, located at the end of the Night Market (that is if you don’t do the street buffet).  Coconut Garden is a Lonely Planet selection and the guidebook lives up to their usual standards when it comes to food choices.  The restaurant offers both meat and vegetarian tasting dishes on top of their usual menu.  We orders a veggie tasting menu along with the Laos signature Steamed Mehkong Fish in Banana leaves and a Chicken/Vegetable Fried Rice w/ Fried Egg.  After that, we grabbed a beer across the street at a great little bar called Tangor to people watch before heading back to The Le Bel Air for some patio beers to finish up the day.

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.