I landed in Hanoi at half 2 and decided to try getting a local bus to the centre as I was on my own. You come out of arrivals and turn left to the sign that says Bus 7/17 but you then have to get a Tuk Tuk (7,000 dong each, or 25p) to the 17 bus stop and then pay 9,000 dong (30p) once you are on the bus – it takes about an hour to go all the way to Long Bien bus station and from there it takes about 10 minutes to walk to the backpacker scrum in Hanoi. I had located a few hostels from Lonely Planet but as I had arrived about an hour after those getting in on the 22 hour bus from Laos most places were full, but I eventually found space at Hanoi Hostel 3 for 123,000 dong (£4) for a dorm room with a safe and free breakfast. It’s just to the west of the backpacker scrum (so quieter and with great views of the sunset from the rooftop) down Hang Ma.
There is a company that offers a free walking tour of Hanoi that covers about 6 of the main sites but due to the recent significant change to my travelling I really wanted the day to myself, so I set out around 10am to explore. My first stop was Bac Ma Temple, said to be the oldest temple in the city and free to enter, before walking south towards Lake Hoan Kiem. On my way there it started to pour with rain so I changed direction slightly and hopped into Cafe Pho Co. Found by walking through a silk shop and a passageway, they serve hot black coffee topped with beaten egg will (and condensed milk) for 40,000 dong (£1.40). It was deliciously sweet and creamy and with lovely views of Lake Hoan Kiem I could just sit back and take it all in.
Once the rain subsided I walked down to the lake and crossed the red bridge to get to Ngoc Son Temple, the most visited temple with views across the lake. It cost 30,000 dong to enter (£1) and, for me, wasn’t very different or big compared to other temples but it was interesting to see the religious practices from lighting incense to putting paper and money into the fire to burn.
I then walked the perimeter of the lake, which is surrounded by gardens and very peaceful considering the crazy traffic is so close by. I was stunned to suddenly have a fish literally fly out of the water over my head and land by a nearby tree. I took a closer look and it was flipping back and forth and breathing heavily, clearly struggling without being in the water. I looked around me and there were local’s fishing who were watching me with amusement, obviously used to this happening and finding my shock fascinating; I gestured to them about putting the fish back in the water but they shock their heads and eventually one went over to it, picked it up by the mouth, and placed it right under the tree. I don’t know why – as I am an avid meat and fish eater – but I found this really sad.
I then went to Ho Lao Prison, which costs 30,000 dong (£1) to enter. Built in 1896 by the French colonists to imprison Vietnamese revolutionaries, it was later used to incarcerate US pilots captured during the Vietnam war; shockingly, the US pilots trying to bomb Vietnam were treated far better and had a much more luxurious stay then the Vietnamese during the French colony, to the point where the US prisoners nicknamed it “Hanoi Hilton Hotel”. Whereas Vietnamese revolutionaries (although some escaped) were often beheaded or died from various illnesses (one even from diarrhoea), the US could play games and were fed, being held captive until they were returned to the US at the end of the war. It was incredibly informative and shocking, and something I would definitely recommend doing.
Afterwards I started to head back North but stopped at St Joseph Cathedral. While I have been moved by the religious commitment and rituals of Buddhists, as soon as I stepped inside this cathedral I felt at once a peace inside of me as well as a pull on something – despite being uncertain of my exact religious beliefs, my Christian upbringing and faith that stemmed from it will always have a place in me. It was wonderful to just sit and take in the “at home” feeling it offered me.
As it was only mid afternoon I thought I would try continuing my walk by heading further west towards the Masoleum, but the distances were much further here and my feet were really tired by his point so I only made it to the Imperial Citadel. My Lonely Planet guide (the most recent version, published in 2014!) told me it was free to enter but it was actually 30,000 dong and, for me, other than it offering a pretty landscape, I didn’t get much out of it. Perhaps I was too tired by this point, but I didn’t stay there long and soon started to make my way back to my hostel, stopping by a cafe to try Bun Cha, a Vietnamese dish of grilled fatty pork, white noodles and lettuce, believed to have originated from Hanoi. It cost me 60,000 dong (£2) and was tasty, but not something I am desperate to eat again!
You can spend a lot of your time in Hanoi just trying to navigate the streets. The roads in the old quarter are narrow and, from about 7am, packed with zooming cars, Tuk Tuks and motorbikes for which there appears to be no system, other than maybe free-for-all. The skill at which the motorcyclists in particular weave in and out of other traffic and pedestrians is impressive, yet at times terrifying, plus there is very little room for walking on the pavements due to the enormous number of motorbikes parked on them so you are forced to enter into the traffic web even without the intention of crossing the street. You quickly discover the only way to survive crossing the roads is to not over-think it, not hesitate, but just MOVE.
It rained quite often when I was in Hanoi but another thing you are not short of is massage parlours. So, with a sore throat and not much else to do other than drink lots of coffee, I went to a nearby parlour for a 30 minute hot stone massage for 150,000 vnd (fiver). I followed the masseuse up the stairs to a room that was so low I couldn’t stand up in it, and sat on the bed to take off my top. I asked whether I should take off my bra but I think she misunderstood me slightly as she then started to undo my bra for me – not that I mind, but I hope she knows I am capable of undoing my own bra. Half of the massage was done with just her hands, which doesn’t quite seem right but she was getting all the knots out of my shoulders so I didn’t want to say anything. She eventually got the hot stones out, but they were so hot that I could hear her pick them up, make that noise when you inhale through your teeth and drop them again. She even tried putting them on my back when they were this hot, almost burning me in the process, but had to quickly remove them again, saying “argh” as they were too hot for her hands. Once they cooled it was amazing, and my favourite part was when she started to line them up along my back and secured the ones on my buttocks using my thong. She was resourceful, I’ll give her that. Actually, one thing I have learnt since having massages in south east Asia is that my bum has many more muscles than I realised and I quite like having it massaged – just a bit of inappropriate information for you.
From Hanoi I also did a tour to Halong Bay for a boat cruise and also headed to Sapa for a couple of days for a homestay/trekking experience, both times going back to my base in Hanoi (and both of which I will talk about in a separate blog post). On my Halong tour I met a group of people and on one night in Hanoi we headed to a bar for gin buckets, laughing gas balloons and a grape/mint shisha. I enjoyed the night out, but Hanoi at times, with the many (MANY) backpackers can start to feel a bit like the strip in Malia! I loved the array of coffee on offer (I had a refreshing coconut milk and coffee smoothie at Cong Caphe for 45,000 vnd – or £1.70 – that I inhaled in less than a minute) and my day of exploring, however it hasn’t quite felt like I have seen the “real” Vietnam.