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

 

Video: Penguins, Seals, and Cape of Good Hope/Point

Penguins?  In Africa?  That was my first reaction when I heard that African penguins existed, as I always thought they were animals native to Antarctica.  But an African penguin colony was one of the stops we made on a half day trip we took with a personal guide named Answan (who had some really, really interesting stories himself about growing up during apartheid).  If you’re able, try and get out of Cape Town for a few hours and check out some of the surrounding areas such as Kalk Bay where you can see seals hanging out on the docks in a similar fashion to the sea lions in San Francisco.

We also drove to Simon’s Town to visit the aforementioned Boulders Penguin Colony to visit the hundreds of African penguins.  There’s a 70 rand fee (which is like $5) to walk along the boardwalk to see the animals and needless to say the little guys were charming to watch.

Lastly, a trek out to the Cape of Good Hope and Cape Point rounded out the half day.  Good Hope represents the furthest southwest point in South Africa on the Atlantic side while it’s compadre Good Point is close by on the Indian Ocean side.  Marine biologists say that the Cape of Good Hope is where the Atlantic and Indian Oceans meet.  It’s here that you can get magnificent views of the crystal blue oceans and breathe in fresh air.  The hike up to the light house at the top of Cape Point is relatively challenging, but there is a tram available.  Be warned: There’s is constantly construction on the one road leading to this area so there’s a high chance you’ll hit delays either coming to or from Good Hope/Point.

Video: Amsterdam Nightlife

The Red Light District

No trip would be complete without at the very least a stroll through the Red Light District.  Before I begin, I’m going to say up front that I didn’t pay for any prostitutes.  Thought about it.  But didn’t.

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The Red Light District was relatively difficult to find at first because we weren’t totally clear on the “area” that all the guidebooks were telling us.  So when we arrived at a side street with only 4 or 5 windows, I was at first not all impressed and thinking to myself, “THIS is it?”  Then we turned the corner.

Up and down the canal were dozens and dozens of women in glowing red windows.  Interspersed with the actual prostitutes were several theaters showing weird sex shows.  The prices from what I understand are about 50 euros for 15 minutes, 100 euros for 30 minutes, and so on and so forth.  The price is however negotiated beforehand and varies based on the race, age, etc. of the prostitute.  Obviously taking pictures is a huge risk so I really couldn’t get that many photos in.

My biggest overall reactions/takeaways from the stroll through the Red Light District were this:

1) I was surprised at how clean it was.  Don’t get me wrong, plenty of dirty shit was going down on that street behind the curtains.  But in terms of walking around, I absolutely thought it was going to be like Bourbon Street in New Orleans — dirty, smell of vomit and beer, drunk people sloppily all over the place, lots of noise.   It was quite the opposite; it was clean, everyone was pretty reserved, and there was a general understanding of “don’t be that douche” atmosphere in the air.

2) The prostitutes were actually not that unattractive.  I’m not sure why I was picturing that they would all be relatively gross, but in general, these women were all pretty good looking.

Club Escape

For a more traditional night out, I would highly recommend Club Escape in Rembrandt Square.  Again, this was a suggestion from the bartenders at NJOY and it didn’t disappoint (though amusingly our first impression was one of “What the fuck?” because there was security guard putting a headlock on a clubber immediately as we walked through the metal detector).  The night we were there it was a 16 euro cover and the party really got going around 12:30 AM.

I’m not a huge clubbing guy, but this place makes it almost impossible not to have a good time.  The main electronic dance music hall (EDM) featured a phenomenally good female vocalist and saxophonist (be sure to scroll down to watch more video of those two) who performed center stage in the middle of the club.  It was awesome.  The music was a great mix of classic 90’s dance tunes, modern EDM, and a bit of 80’s hip hop thrown in.  There’s also a side, smaller room upstairs that’s dedicated purely to hip hop. (Note: depending on what’s on the line-up each particular evening these types of music are subject to change obviously).  And aside from the dude who got thrown out when we first came in, the crowd was the right amount of enthusiastic, but not out of control.  Club Escape’s a great place to go until the wee hours of the morning.

Video: Gay Pride Parade, San Francisco

Fresh off the Supreme Court ruling in support of same-sex marriage, the annual Pride Parade in San Francisco just so happened to be slated the same weekend that we were there.  Needless to say it was a huge celebration; I really don’t think I’ve been around so many happy people (straight, gay, and whatever the person wearing the giant penis was) in one mass grouping like that before.

Unsurprisingly, the parade was loud, colorful, “fabulous”, hopeful…you name it, and that’s what the parade was.   And it was long too — it started at 10:30 in the morning and wrapped up at 5:00.  We only had so much energy for a few hours of the spectacle, but it was more than enough to get me exhausted.  By the end I was covered in Mardi Gras beads and had about 6 different rainbow colored “Livestrong” wristbands on my arms. It was a sight to see and I’m really glad I got to experience it.

The Pride Parade has to be seen more than told so please enjoy some of the videos and pictures from the event.

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.

Luang Prabang, Laos

Our next stop was the country of Laos to a little city called Luang Prabang.  If you’re heading there from Bangkok, leave plenty of time to get to the airport and deal with all the flight check in and security (2-3 hours).  The flight is only a few hours and remember to bring cash for the arrival visa ($36).  You’ll also need a photo for the visa which you can either bring with you or they’ll copy one out of your passport for $1.

You’ll immediately notice the difference between Luang Prabang and Bangkok as you drive away from the airport.  Luang Prabang is less busy, less modern, and noticeably more peaceful.  The people are also more friendly, and not in the way that they’re trying to sell you something.  They have more of a quiet politeness that isn’t overbearing, but accommodating at the same time.

Of the three countries, Laos was hands-down my favorite part.  It’s impossible not to feel relaxed in the zen-like ambiance of the town.  It’s a backpacker’s paradise, and while there are tourists there, it’s not overrun with them.  And those tourists that are there tend to be the hippie, mix in with the culture type.  With the 11 PM curfew in the country, there isn’t a huge draw for the spring break party crowd.  Note: The curfew doesn’t mean that you can’t be outside past 11 PM.  It just means that businesses have to closed by then.

Businesses and people in Laos accept Thai baht, but it is a little bit of pain, so try and use whatever baht you have quickly and head to the ATM.  The Laotian money is the kip ($1 = 8,000 kip).  It’ll probably take you a little while to get used doing conversions with thousands at first.

Our hotel was The Le Bel Air Resort.  This is place is really nice; we arrived to a refreshing cold towel and lemongrass tea.  Located a quick 10-15 minute drive from the airport, the Le Bel Air sits on the bank of the Nam Khan River.  The resort itself is made up of several bungalows of varying sizes depending on what you want to pay for, but all the options are very affordable.  And while the bungalows themselves look rustic, they’re actually quite modern.  Each are equipped with A/C, HD TVs, and patios overlooking the river.  The hotel offers free shuttles to the center of town as well as free bikes to borrow.  The service there is also exceptional.  We essentially had our own personal staff member, Mr. Un, who was attentive and helpful.

 

Getting into town is quick, it’s about a 15 minute walk, but there is one drawback to The Le Bel Air.  In order to get to town, you have to cross a very scary, rickety wooden bridge.  The center of the bridge is for bikes only, and the pedestrians have to walk on the side.  It’s a straight-up Indiana Jones crossing.  I’m not afraid of heights, but this bridge is very unnerving (especially at night).  The planks aren’t very stable and will move when you step on them.  Here’s a little video to show you what the walk is like:

Bamboo bridge
Bamboo bridge

Alternatively, there is a bamboo walking bridge that you can cross, but it costs 500 kip, and is only available during the dry season when the river is low.  So as much as I hate to say this, I would recommend staying at a place closer to town if you don’t like heights.  Again, I hate to say that because The Le Bel Air is such a nice place and the hotel does offer a free shuttle, but that is a bit of pain because the shuttle isn’t run regularly and it has to take a major detour around the river to get to the center of town.  So from a time-saving standpoint just walking to town is a lot quicker and easier, but a lot of people would not be comfortable with that bridge.

My next few posts will cover the sights and sounds of beautiful Luang Prabang, including elephant riding, Kuang Si falls, and rice whiskey tastings.