By Jeremy Khalil on June 17, 2019
While Ho Chi Minh City or Saigon represents Vietnam’s rush to the future, Hanoi – Vietnam’s capital – harks back to the more romantic days of the French colonial periods with its stunningly well conserved French architecture and leafy boulevards. It is interesting to see that quite a number of aging structures, especially around the Old Quarter, are conserved and even rehabilitated to accommodate the buildings’ current role, for example as a boutique or tailor shop, gallery, guesthouse, restaurant or even café.
Though Hanoi seems less rowdy and more sedate compared to Ho Chi Minh City, we still do experience the bustle and cacophony. For those who prefer a greener atmosphere dotted by French colonial vestiges, Hanoi is definitely the better choice. Since the city is still growing, its streets are characterised by swarms of motorbikes and vehicles honking incessantly. Close to eight million people are estimated to be currently living in Hanoi and the number of traffic, especially motorbikes, is expected to increase.
Despite the city’s irrepressible traffic, never have we been to a destination in Asia that possesses as many lakes as Hanoi, making the neighbourhoods close to the lakes windier and leafier compared to the other parts of the city. It is also believed that the presence of these lakes forms breezes that are even more welcomed during Vietnam’s hot season from April until October. Being in Hanoi in the month of June may not be suitable for those who can’t stand humid weather. For a more temperate weather experience, Hanoi is best to be visited around November to March.
To us, Hanoi is all about the Old Quarter, which is entirely filled with local boutiques and tailor shops; fabrics and textile shops, notably silk; local handicrafts; home-grown home accessories shops; galleries; cafes; restaurants; bars; and provisions shops. The Old Quarter is near to the famous Hoan Kiem Lake, which lends its name to the very district.
When exploring Hanoi, it is recommended that travellers choose taxis that are better maintained and display the driver’s name and corresponding profile image on the dashboard because Gaya Travel team felt the drivers of these taxis are more accountable and have lesser propensity to deceive their passengers compared to the ones using smaller vehicles who do not display any form of identification. We were unfortunately felt cheated when we used one of the smaller taxis, normally painted with green lines and fonts because the price of our journey from the Old Quarter back to the hotel unexpectedly doubled compared to the larger taxi we used earlier to get to the Old Quarter.
Fleecing is rife by unscrupulous locals in tourism destinations and looks like Hanoi is not spared. The only advice that we could give to travellers planning to be there is try to minimise the need to use taxis to get around – all the better if travellers could straight away request from the travel agent to allocate a driver and vehicle to be at the travellers’ disposal full time. Though this may add more to the cost, it may be a better alternative than facing the hassle of having to find transport anytime travellers need to venture out of their hotels, only to be conned in the end. Another alternative is to download an e-hailing app like Grab (https://www.grab.com/vn/en/) or Be (https://www.be.xyz/) and use it accordingly.
An interesting thing about the Vietnamese is that siesta is an important part of their lives. We were informed by some business managers that after lunch, the Vietnamese would normally require some shut eye, at least around 15 minutes, for them to recharge before continuing on for the rest of the day. We, therefore, advise Muslim travellers in search for halal food to take note that the restaurants do not open all throughout the day, but will be opened from morning up till around 2:30 p.m., then closed for a few hours and only reopen for dinner around 6:00 p.m. The intermittent opening hours are meant to suit the locals’ need to get some shut-eye during the day. Travellers would also find this policy being practised in selected public institutions, like museums, which might close at around 11:30 a.m. and reopened around 2:00 p.m. or 3:00 p.m.
One thing about Hanoi is that even though it does not have that many attractions, therein lies its charm: it is simply an intimate destination for people to visit, filled with nostalgia and green environs.
In short, when you are in Hanoi:
What Gaya Travel team recommends for you to experience:
Explore the Old Quarter & French Quarters (around Sofitel Metropole, diplomatic and St. Joseph’s Cathedral areas) to take in the colonial French Indochine atmosphere
We love the Old Quarter for its vibrant and bucolic feel, full of interesting shops, galleries, restaurants, cafés and more. Travellers should not expect the prices to be dirt cheap – due to the increasing inflation levels faced by Vietnam (and the whole world for that matter), prices of goods have shot up considerably, but don’t let that be a hindrance because travellers are bound to stumble onto something that offers them great value for money due to the immense number of shops available.
What makes the area amazing is the intimate feel created by the area’s three- or four-storey architecture; in most cases, we ended up admiring the façade of these narrow buildings that tend to be influenced by French colonial style. It is a relief to know that the government is interested to protect the look and feel of the Old Quarter. As a matter of fact, the government decrees that the structures within the area must maintain their facades. Architectural buffs and conservation enthusiasts would be happy to know that they will have the chance to personally sample the area’s architecture by visiting a remarkable house located within the Old Quarter, lovingly restored by the Hanoi People Committee’s Ancient Quarter Management Department, called house No. 87 on Ma May Street. The entry fee into this house is VND20,000 per person.
Witness Ho Chi Minh perpetually lying in state and his vestiges within the grounds of the Presidential Palace
Travellers would not have been to Hanoi nor Vietnam without paying respect to the father of modern Vietnam at the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum (https://www.bqllang.gov.vn/) and visiting Ho Chi Minh’s private quarters on the grounds of the Presidential Palace (http://vpctn.gov.vn/Pages/trangchu.aspx). Visitors to the Mausoleum need to wear decently as a sign of respect, which means no shorts and tops that reveal the shoulders. After having to queue around 30 minutes (it would not hurt for travellers to wear a hat while queueing), visitors will be able to get a glimpse of Ho Chi Minh’s amazingly embalmed body that looks remarkably well preserved, even though he died around 30 years ago. Taking photographs is prohibited, thus visitors need to leave their cameras, phones and bags with their respective tour guides or the staff before entering the mausoleum.
Then, be sure to check out Ho Chi Minh’s former living area from 1954 up until 1958, which was at the Presidential Palace’s ochre-coloured staff quarters. According to our guide, instead of living in the opulent Presidential Palace, which was used to be the residence of French Indochina’s General Governor, Ho Chi Minh steadfastly held onto his egalitarian principles, preferring to live as austerely and closely with the common folk, rejecting lifestyles that could create the divide between the ruling class and the citizens. The Presidential Palace, on the other hand, is used for meetings and receiving visiting dignitaries to Vietnam until today. As we continue traversing the path, we came across a modest and pared down yet solid house on stilts, which was used by Ho Chi Minh as his abode from 1958 until the time of his death in August 1969. It was said that the people of Vietnam requested him to stay at a structure more befitting of his stature as the leader of the nation, hence the creation of the house. Ho Chi Minh reluctantly gave in to the wishes of his people, yet remain adamant in having the building to stay as simple as possible and does not waste the nation’s coffers. If only the leaders of today have such virtue…
To learn more about Ho Chi Minh, travellers should proceed to the Ho Chi Minh Museum (http://baotanghochiminh.vn/), which stores all information and artefacts about Ho Chi Minh’s humble beginnings, his struggles and his ascension to become one of the greatest and most revered Vietnamese leaders of all time. After spending half a day learning about Ho Chi Minh, Gaya Travel team obtained a far clearer picture of who this individual was and understood why he is so revered by generations of modern Vietnamese. We salute his total devotion and life-long dedication towards upholding Vietnam’s independence and advancement as a nation. But what strikes us the most is the simplicity of the life he led, the humility he possessed to the point that he shunned the comforts that were afforded to him, and instead chose to live by the socialistic principles to the time of his death. Though he had no children, all Vietnamese citizens deemed him as their father. We must remind you that due to the mentioned landmarks’ strong attraction, it is best for travellers to visit them during early weekday mornings instead of weekends or public holidays because the locals consider these places hallowed, thus visit them in droves.
Stroll around and do people-watching at the West Lake (Tay Ho) and Truc Bach Lake
West Lake is the largest lake in Hanoi, separated by the main street called the Street of the Youth where local youths frolic together with their love interest while taking in the beauty of both Tay Ho or West Lake and Truc Bach (pronounced as ‘Chook Buck’). We were informed that both lakes are truly romantic especially during autumn (from late September until late November) when they are covered by mist in early mornings and late afternoons. For those who treasure novelty, they would be interested to learn that Truc Bach Lake is also the place where the American plane carrying the late John McCain – the US Presidential Republican candidate for the 2008 Elections – was shot down in the 1960s. John McCain was then taken to the notorious Hoa Lo Prison (notorious as the Hanoi Hilton by the American prisoners of war). He was finally released from captivity and returned to the US in 1973.
Visit Bat Trang Village to see shop for ceramics
Located around 35 minutes’ drive from Hanoi city centre, Bat Trang (pronounced as ‘Baht Chang’) is the village renowned for ceramics since the 16th century. Travellers visiting Bat Trang will be able to witness the processes of ceramic production in one of the multi-storey shops within the area called Minh Hai Ceramic that offers a large selection of attractive ceramic products for sale. Adjacent to it is Bat Trang Ceramic & Porcelain Production Centre, which showcases a large variety of ceramic-based homewares.