After a 6 1/2 hour bus journey (instead of the scheduled 4 hours) we arrived just after midnight in Hanoi. As I knew that we arrived slightly later in the evening in Hanoi I booked a hotel earlier the day – unfortunately they didn’t provide a pick up. Which was probably a good idea – as I had no idea where I was.
We didn’t arrived at a bus station, but in front of the office of the bus company. However a few taxis were waiting for the bus – though I didn’t recognise any of the names of the taxi companies (having written down the reliable taxi companies for tourists – of which Malinh taxi was the one I used most of the time during my stay). Before dealing with the usual taxi non-sense (something I never have to worry when taking a taxi in the UK or Germany – you get in, drive to your place, and pay the price on the meter. Simple!!!) I said goodbye to Tobias and Julia, as they headed off to Hoi An the next day. It is always nice to meet new people while travelling.
It was then time to speak to the one remaining taxi driver. Showed him the address of the hotel, and he wanted 200,000 Dong. That didn’t sound right. Thankfully another western guy passed me, and I just checked how far the train station is (as I knew how much it was from the station to my hotel). He said maybe 10 minutes, so clearly 200,000 was too much, and I said I want the meter. He offered 100,000, I still insisted on the meter to be used (despite me sta ding near a main road with not other taxi in sight), and he reluctantly agreed. We drove for around 20 minutes through an quiet Hanoi, and arrived at my hotel. And the price was: 100,000 Dong (I was aware later on that he took a longer route until he got that amount – so he still got a price he wanted and made me feeling ok. You played that well, son…)
The entrance hall of the Serenity hotel was dark, but as soon I knocked someone got up, and let me in. As it was late we left all the paperwork for the morning, and I was shown the room. It was spacious, had a large comfy bed, a fridge, A/C, and a clean bathroom. I was aware where the hotel was on the map, but realised over the next few days that location was really good, while slightly outside the centre of the Old Quarter to the west (still inside), but close to the sights away of the Old Quarter. Breakfast was included, which is only a plus – though while the other items were good I wouldn’t choose the soup. You get much better outside the hotel…
After the long bus journey I decided not to get up to early the next morning, and was able just to make breakfast at 10:30. I just wanted to eat quickly, but instead started to talk to an older gentleman siting on the other table. He was Austrian, but it was so interesting to speak to him the next few days. During our conversation it turned out how small the world is. He moved to Cologne (despite having a bad experience when travelling there as some crazy women cut his tie – well, you never wear a tie in Cologne on Weiberfastnacht – it really made me laugh), and when I mentioned where I was born he asked me when – as he worked on the maternity ward in that hospital…but no, he started there 4 years after I was born. Now that would have been some story. But talking to him became a great morning routine for the next three days.
Slightly later than planned I made it out of the hotel. As I wanted to take it easy that day I decided to focus on the Old Quarter. So off I went to explore the area. I heard about the big indoor Xon Duang market so this became my first place to visit. Getting out of the hotel I immediately saw a different Hanoi to the one I saw around midnight. Lots of scooters, lots of noise (mainly the horns every scooter and car in Hanoi seem to use), the smell of food stalls. It was as somethings hits all your senses at the same time – but not in a negative way.
Following the little map I got from the hotel I navigated through the various streets, while watching the beautiful buildings you can see all over Hanoi, though it is strange to see how small they look from the outside, but these houses can stretch a bit into the back alleys. The French influence is quite obvious.
At one crossing you could see a high number of street vendors, but that wasn’t what got my attention. I was told that people in Vietnam seem to like Christmas decoration. But I really did expect to see shops only selling decoration. Two or three shops next to each other sold Christmas lights, Santa Claus outfits, tree decoration etc. I never seen this even in Europe. I saw many more of the shops in Hanoi over the next few days, but I couldn’t help to look at them, and have a grin in my face.
I also had to learn dealing with the traffic. There really are scooters everywhere – and lots of them. So you hardly see a road empty, which means crossing a street can be a challenge. In my previous travel I learned just to cross the street and not to stop. Well, I thought little side streets are the perfect place to test if this theory works in Hanoi works as well. I am still here to tell the tale, so it seems to work. The scooters just drive around you. I was a bit more careful with cars, and never crossed a street when a bus or lorry came – not worth to see if they break as well (they probably won’t). Just hope that no tourist is driving a scooter!!!!
I made it in one piece to the market. It is actually a big wholesale indoor market, and not a place to buy souvenirs – which was a nice change. Outside you can find stalls selling vegetables, meat, fish and seafood (most of them still alive and swimming in fish tanks). I love fresh food market, so it was great to see it here in Hanoi. When you go inside the building, you can see stalls selling lots of materials to locals, who will use it for their businesses. If you need a few metre cotton or other materials, this seems to be the right place (just check your luggage allowance). Overall it is worthwhile to go here.
Walking makes hungry, so as recommended I tried the Vietnamese version of a Doner Kebab. I found this tiny place with a few seats, and ordered one. Fresh bread, chicken, salad and a spicy sauce. Oh yes, it was good. This is how I like to eat it back home (and once again shows how shit kebab is in the UK!!!). Great little meal if you are not too hungry.
I wanted to see one gate of the old city wall, but as usual took a wrong turn – but this time it seems it was a good thing. I suddenly, stood in front of a travel agent I read very good reviews about – Adventure Indochina Travel. Great, lets find out about Halong Bay cruises. I have done some research before, but wanted to hear some other options. The girl in the agency was very friendly, and after showing the itinerary from the cruise I was interested, showed me some other cruises, and provided the prices (which were much lower than offered by the company directly). Armed with copies of some itineraries I left, knowing that I will book with them.
Walking in a main street I saw a little side alley with some coffee shops, so I turned to see what’s there. Without knowing I found the pub area for tourists, the side alley had a number of bars and little restaurants. It is quite nice there during the day, and I would spend some time there the next few days.
I followed the street and was suddenly at Hoan Kiem Lake. For me this became the centre of the Old Quarter – just because it is such a landmark. With all the traffic, noise, and buildings the lake looked like a very peaceful place amongst all the chaos here. It is surrounded by a park with trees, paths, benches to rest at and several coffee places. It is very popular amongst the locals, and you can see people doing exercise, classes, or just relaxing. It is a great place to walk around in the evening.
On the lake you can find two sights. The first one is the Temple of the Jade Mountain, which can be visited and is linked via the Hoc Bridge, a famous red painted wooden bridge. The other building is the Turtle Tower, which you can only watch at from the shores.
Being a tourist I couldn’t resist heading to the temple and the bridge. You buy a ticket at the entrance to the bridge for 20,000 Dong, but the tickets where just checked at the other side of the bridge when entering the temple. It was a bit sad to see tourists that were happy being able to pass the ticket booth without buying. Well, they still weren’t able to get to the temple, but they still looked happy to save less than $1….
The temple is rather beautiful from the inside, and it is also the home of a little golden statue of a turtle. This is linked to the legend that surrounds the lake, and gave it the name – which means Lake of the Returned Sword. According to the legend the leader Le Loi, who freed Vietnam from the Chinese, encountered a giant golden turtle who asked back for thr sword Le Loi got from a dragon. After this encounter Le Loi renamed the lake, and the Turtle Tower on the lake is a reminder of it. From the square outside the temple you also get some nice views.
But for taking photos the bridge seemed to be the most popular place. The red colour gave it some character, and made it looked very nice. From here you also got a nice view, and people were posing everywhere for pictures. Well, I was one of them.
Just when I was getting ready to get off the bridge again I was approached by three girls. Hoping they don’t want to sell something, one of them showed some kind of ID card, and was hoping I would have some time to answer some question – they would like to find out what tourists think about Hanoi. As they clearly wanted to practise their English I was happy to answer some basic questions (where I was from, when I arrived, what I have seen so much, how I like it here). Two of them only knew only a tiny bit English, so some translation for other questions were needed (the English of one of the girls were pretty good). I must say it was actually nice to have this conversation and help them with their project.
While we finished the conversation the next thing happened on the bridge. A number of Vietnamese women in the traditional silk outfits appeared on the bridge for some photo-shooting. It was the first time I saw such outfits, I must admit they looked absolute stunning in them (for any female reader who don’t like men who enjoy seeing beautiful women in their traditional dresses – tough). Some of them smiled at me while I took some pictures myself and even posed for me. Yeah, that was not bad at all…
After doing the sightseeing there, I walked around the lake a bit, and watched the locals doing their usual evening routines like exercise or just sitting with friends for a chat. Just when it got dark I wanted to take some pictures of the colourful fountain in front of the lake. There I saw some local girls struggling to take pictures with all of them. Being the gentleman I am, I asked if I should take a pictures for them. With big smiles I was loaded with few cameras and took some pictures. Thinking that this was it, I was suddenly dragged into the group, and pictures were taken from me and the girls – lots of them with all cameras (even with my camera). I didn’t protest too much. This was followed by another conversation with them. It was actually fun.
This was the first time locals wanted a picture taken with me – but not for the last time…
On my way back to the hotel I came back to the little pub area, and decided it is time to explore the beer in Hanoi. Sitting in a tiny plastic chair on the street of Hanoi, with a beer in my hand, some sweet donut like sweets, and watching the traffic goes by was a great experience, and I fully loved it. It was not the last time I did it.
After getting refreshed at the hotel I headed out again to explore the night market that happens in the Old Quarter every weekend. I have been to quite a few night market, and most of the time it is targeting tourists. I must admit that this is slightly different in Hanoi. Most stalls sold items like cloth etc. to locals. It was a refreshing change. You could walk along one long street leading to the big indoor market again, watching locals buying items, or watching the food on offer. If you are in Hanoi during the weekend, a visit here should be on the list.
Getting a bit hungry I went off the steet with all the stalls, and ended up in one of the streets with restaurants and bars. But instead to head one of the restaurants, I took a seat at a little street food stall. I saw only locals here, so for me this was a sign that the food must be good. He stall offered mainly small snack, but thankfully they had Banh Goi, so I had two of them. This was followed by Banh Trang Chien (Gridle Cake). It is a little pancake, and they put a mix of minced pork, onions, sweetcorn and egg on it, and leave it for a few minutes on a tiny barbeque. Never had this before, but my face must have clearly shown that I really enjoyed it, as everyone around me was laughing. Needless to say I had another one. It was actually fun sitting there, speaking to some locals around me, and while it was a light dinner, it was delicious, cheap and fun.
In the background you could hear the typical noise of people watching football, and when I decided to walk to a pub for a quick beer, I joined some locals sitting around TV on the street, and watched the first leg of the Suzuki Asia Football cup semi final between Malaysia and Thailand. The noise around the street when Thailand scored the winner for the 2-1 away win was deafening. Well, it is clearly the same everywhere when it is about football.
As it was night market night there was some entertaining ongoing on the street as well. You could watch some dancers on a stage, and the laughter was great when several kids joined him on the dance. I had a quick drink in two bars, and decided to have an early night after 11pm. Walking back to the hotel I must admit, the first impression of Hanoi was very good…
For my second day I planned to visit some of the other popular tourist places. Heading off away from the Old Quarter, passing the usual nice looking French Colonial buildings. Soon as I was past an statue from Mr Lenin, and realised soon that I made a big planning error. I was at the entrance to the Hanoi Citadel (apparently another World heritage sight), and with horror I realised that it is closed on a Monday. Great, I need to go here another day.
Slightly disappointed I followed that road, which was surrounded by beautiful large trees, and stopped at some official looking building with another statue, and from there I had the first glimpse of the huge Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum (which I was advised was still closed, as Uncle Ho was still on holiday in Russia for some beauty treatment). Unfortunately the direct path was blocked by some gate. So instead I had to walk around the official building, and soon after I was standing in front of the new Presidential Palace.
Finally, I arrived in front of the Mausoleum. The square in front of it is actually quite big, and it the building looked a bit impressive. It became quite clear with the guards and the lack of traffic in front of it how important this site is for locals.
While I looked around, I saw a Vietnamese couple nearby also taking pictures. A nice person as I am I offered to help. They really appreciated, and after that the girl asked if she can have a picture with me. Still being friendly I agreed, and soon after I had to smile again as her boyfriend wanted a picture with me too. I was still wondering why they wanted photos with me.
Having done my duty I thought I could do visit the Ho Chi Minh museum. Well, I was wrong again. Just when turning onto the square in front if it I was approached by one of the motorbike guys, advising me that the museum, but, surprise, he could take me to another place. Knowing that scam too well from Bangkok, I said no (even when he told me how he likes German, and pointing out the great review people have written in his little booklet. He could have had 20 books of them, no chance i use a motorbike guide I met on the street). Like the citadel though, the museum really was closed on Mondays. I got a bit frustrated, as the guys in the hotel didn’t mention anything like that when I left, even after I told them what my plan was!!).
Instead I headed to the Temple of Literature. On my way there I had to get use to busier roads now. It was actually fun just to cross a busy street while all scooters manoeuvre around you. I would be dead within 5 seconds back home. And the sheer numbers of scooters everywhere still amazed me. Next to the temple I saw a little food place full with some locals and decided that I am actually hungry. They showed me the menu, but I just pointed out what the others had. It was meatballs in some light sauce, with cold rice noodles served on an extra plate – Bun Cha. I never had it, but it was great. I finished every little bit on the plates. Even the sauce was gone. I only learned later that it was apparently a special prepared fish sauce. It was so good that I returned to the same place a few days later (the owner recognised me and was grinning…).
While the Temple of Literature was open on a Monday, I decided in the end not to go there as I was hoping that I could still get a guide from Hanoi Kids for the Thursday, and I thought this is one place where a guide might be useful…
Instead I made my way to see St Joseph cathedral, but somehow I didn’t manage to find it that day, despite having a map. I felt a bit stupid (not as stupid when I realised two days later that I just had to walk the road 500m further!!!), but turned away.
I just walked along some side streets, as they looked more interesting with the markets and the narrow alleys, and saw for the first time a stall selling dog meat – you could see two dog torsos next to pile of sausages. I usually try everything, but I couldn’t bring myself over it to buy one of the sausages…
I ended up once again at the Hoan Kiem Lake (this time at the south side), and enjoyed it once again just to walk there (while avoiding some scooters who decided that the street was too busy and driving on the pavement was a better option!!!!). To finish the day off I was sitting again in a Bia Hoi place, drinking beer and having a small snack. It is just such an amazing experience. Beer, food and watching people. That is paradise!!!
In the evening I returned to the bar area and was sitting outside one of the many little food places. This was the only time I witnessed that a guest advised that they could only get a side portion of noodles and they run out of rice. Running out of rice in Vietnam??? This sounds like an unlikely story as no more beer in Cologne, or no more deep fried Mars Bars in Scotland!!!! I had some laughter with those poor guests, while I enjoyed the last portion of rice the restaurant had.
Here is one interesting fact about Hanoi. All bars in that area have to close at midnight. I just had another beer after midnight when the police came in, telling everyone to leave. So I walked through the alley with my bottle of beer in my hand (no way I leave a half full beer behind…), when I heard a guy standing next to the wall if I still need more beer. When I nodded, the shutter next to him opened a bit, and I saw a door of a pub opened. With the thought of one or two more beer I squeezed in, and saw that there were quite a few people who had the same thought. The music was turned down quite a bit, and the shutter and door was only opened to let in more guests.
After a while the police was away (thinking all pubs are closed), and the music was put up again. Welcome to my first locked-in night in Vietnam. It was actually a good night out, meeting more tourists, and got to know some of the staff (tried to teach one waitress to dance Salsa – not sure how successful I was). I headed finally back to the hotel after 3am, enjoying an empty Hanoi, with the exception with some people already having breakfast. Unfortunately I had to wake up the guy at reception – not for the last time during my stay…
After the late night i decided I deserve to sleep in, and don’t do too much that day. I walked out after midday, and had a nice lunch at one of the many stalls. I really didn’t have one bad meal in Hanoi – the food is just great (and very cheap when eating at the little food stalls). I was especially happy to get more of the fish sauce…
It was then time to book my Halong Bay trip, and headed to Adventure Indochina Travel. I checked with the hotel as well, but the price AIT offered couldn’t be beaten. Besides, they told me about Viola Cruise, which had in my opinion the most interesting itinerary.
Finishing that off, I decided just to go for a little walk. Being next to the Lake again, I stopped briefly at the statue of Le Loi. Just when I wanted to leave a few guys approached me and asked me if they can have a picture taken with me. Again? Really???. I wasn’t sure if I was maybe looking like someone famous in Hanoi. Either that or there will be some advertising boards with my face on to advertise a number of cheap porns!!!!!
From there I walked to the Hanoi Opera, and you cannot help but being impressed with that building. I was very interested to see the insight, but it was closed. And unfortunately there was no concert happening for the next week.
So instead of going to a concert, I bought a ticket for the evening performance at the Thang Long Water Puppet theatre, which I heard lots of good reviews about. Besides, it would be nice to see something cultural. I really wanted a nice Ice Coffee, so I got one at the theatre. Don’t bother. 70,000 Dong for one Ice coffee (I usually paid between 15,000 and 30,000), plus 10% service charge. Overpriced for an average ice coffee.
I returned back there for the 7pm performance. In addition of the 100,000 Dong for the VIP seats (the one closer to the front and in the middle, def worthwhile to pay the 40,000 more), you have to pay 20,000 for being allowed to take pictures inside.
Water puppet theatre has a long tradition, which was started by rice farmers who used puppets and long wooden sticks to entertain on rice fields. Here in the theatre the performers are actually standing in the water behind a curtain.
I can only describe the performance as amazing. You can hear the music and songs played by a band (the singer sings in Vietnamese only) while the puppets show some traditional stories (fishing, catching ducks etc.). Even without understanding the songs it was a wonderful experience. I even recognised the local legends from Le Loi and the Golden Turtle. I can only highly recommend visiting this specific theatre (they toured all over the world as well). Great evening to spend for a family with kids as well.
After the show I decided to have dinner in one of the restaurant that offers a great view of the area. So I went to Avalon, which is a restaurant on the 5th and 6th floor, facing towards the lake (entrance is on the parallel street of the one going around the lake on the northern side). The food, a Hanoi speciality of fish called Cha Ca Hanoi was very good, the staff was fantastic, and as I got a seat on the balcony I had a great view over the lake. While it is more expensive than the street food, I thought 240,000 Dong for a starter, main course and two drinks was very good value. I would recommend to have dinner there for the view alone.
To walk off my full stomach I started to walk around the lake, and I saw an older man playing the violine (connected to a speaker). He was actually very good, and I listened to two songs. He asked me where I was from, and when I told him I was German he played some specific pieces I actually knew. I stayed a bit longer, sitting nearby listening to his music, and a few people started to sit next to him to sing. At the time I thought it is just a person who tried to earn some money. I found out later that I was absolute wrong. I mentioned this to a friend in HCMC, and he searched something online and asked me if this guy from the newspaper article was the same person I saw playing – and it was him. Turned out that this is apparently Ta tri Hai and rather well known, and he plays often all over the country, and donates any money he gets to charity. My friend told me that he is quite popular, and that I was lucky to meet him. This shows that you should never judge anyone on his look or what the person does. But I still think he played lovely music, and listening to him while enjoying the relaxed atmosphere at Hoan Kiem Lake.
After a rather early night I still didn’t manage an early start. After trying unsuccessful to transfer my pictures from the SD cards to a memory stick using the hotel’s computers (which wasted nearly 2 hours) I finally walked to the Hoa Lo Prison (also called Hanoi Hilton by US PoW). The museum is housed in the remains of the prison the French build end of the 19 century, and it was used for those Vietnamese who were against the French. This is one of the more sobering sights in Hanoi, as you get a bit of impression how the French dealt with them. An old guillotine on display was one way to deal woth them.
The museum also covers the time the prison was used for US PoW during the Vietnam War. In addition of videos about the war, especially the bombing of Vietnam, you could see the belongings of the US soldiers (John McCain, the former US President candidate was in this prison as well)
After the visit I started my second attempt to find St Joseph Cathedral, and behold, I manage to find it. Unfortunately I was unable to go inside, as they started to erect the Christmas decoration. I should have gone two days earlier.
Afterwards I decided for another ice coffee and went to the café next to the lake. I was nearly falling off my chair when I saw that the ice coffee was 89,000 Dong. Well, I was sitting down already so I ordered one. Clearly you better stay away from cafes around the lake, as they really overpriced!!! I dealt with it by having more Bia Hoi at one of the little places. Who could say no to a nice late afternoon beer – especially if it is only 5,000 Dong.
That night I had dinner at one of the little restaurants with little plastic chairs and tables outside. I saw it being busy with locals every night, so decided to try it. My bbq frog was actually nice (even though my rice went missing…), but the highlight was when a Vietnamese couple started to yell at each other. The woman suddenly emptied a cup of water in her’s partner face, and he reacted by emptying a glass of beer (what a shame!!!). Unfortunately most of the content ended on the jacket of a tourist sitting behind them. She just stormed off, took something from the bike, and he disappeared with the scooter. I really had to try very hard not to laugh – I thought that could unite them again and they would deal with me. Live Soap Opera during dinner – not bad.
After dinner I went to another Bia Hoi place, had some snacks there as well, before ending the night in a locked bar again. Strangely the owner still knew my name from two nights before. She either has a very good memory, or I leave a very lasting memory for whatever reason. But this time I behaved and left at 1am. I don’t want people think I enjoy beer too much…
For my final full day I decided that I really have to cover some of the sights I missed so far. Being slightly too lazy I asked the hotel to order a meter taxi to bring me to the Ho Chi Minh museum. Well, he was close – he brought me to the mausoleum, which was apparently re-opened the day before. Still, I was too late as they close the mausoleum at 10:30 – and it was 10:30. Great!!!
Instead I went to the museum as planned. Heard some mixed review, I must say I found the museum rather interesting. It had a photo exhibition from Russia, shwoing a lot of photos from their lasting friendship. After walking up some stairs you suddenly stand in front of a massive statue of Uncle Ho – you really understand over time how important he is in Vietnam, and how much people still love him (probably more in the north). On the upper level you have several items shown from Ho Chi Minh’s life, papers from other important Vietnamese who fought for independence from France, and relics from the Vietnam War with the US. In addition there were quite a lot of modern art sculptures there. Without realising I spend two hours in the museum, walking slowly around it. It is nice not to rush.
From the museum I retraced my steps and headed to the Temple of Literature. After lunch at the same place as last time, I entered it this time (unfortunately I tried to book guides from Hanoi Kids, who offer free tours of Hanoi and is very highly rated, too late and was unable to get a tour for my stay in Hanoi). This temple was the first university in Vietnam, so it is very interesting place to visit I am sure a guide would add a lot of value here, but walling around, reading the available information is also very good. Again, rushing through here is not a good idea, as even the green area leading to some of the main buildings are just lovely. Also, despite seeing lots of traffic outside earlier, it felt rather peaceful inside. The only downside was that they were building a stage in front of the last building for some school ceremony, so the view wasn’t as impressive as an empty square would have been (like with the cathedral, I should have come here on Monday…).
After I spent over an hour in the Temple of Library, I saw a little park opposite of the entrance. There was a pond, and path around it, while the area was surrounded by houses. It was a lovely place for a wee walk, and you could watch some locals trying to catch some fish. That was one thing I loved about Hanoi, you could find these little peaceful places everywhere…
While I had a coffee I then realised how late it was, and walked quickly to the citadel. Maybe I was lucky and still could get in…nae chance. It was after 4:30, and no more entries were possible. Great – this happens if you like to drink coffee a bit too much.
I decided to take the long way around the citadel, and was rewarded by this. Firstly I was able to watch locals playing badminton. All over the town you can see badminton fields line on the pavement, and in the afternoon the pavements all over town get busy with people playing. It was very entertaining to watch it. Considering the machines in the park next to the lake, you really got the impression how much facilities were provided for free throughout the town. At home we have to pay for the privilege to do sports or torture ourselves in a gym (well – not me…).
I then found a lovely yellow church that wasn’t on my map, with some men and kids playing some football. For me this church looked so much nicer than St Joseph Cathedral…
While I took a few pictures and watched them play, one of the guys started to talk to me. It seems most of the boys were trying to become priest, and attended some school. It was quite interesting to learn how it works in Vietnam.
I then started to head back to my hotel, and followed the street along the citadel, trying to avoid the side of the street with entrants to important looking building. Didn’t really to pass guys with machineguns in their hands – especially as it was dark by now. I saw some planes and helicopters in one area, and was a bit gutted that I missed the War Museum as well. But you cannot have everything.
On my way back I had to crossed a railway track. The tracks went on one side to the train station, and in the other direction towards a slightly elevated area, passing some houses. I knew that the track would go up slightly higher and pass the road near my hotel. Curious as I am, I just followed the railway tracks as some locals did. Suddenly I was walking past some buildings, with their entrances towards the railway track (they literally walked on to the tracks – no street was there). You could actually look into the houses of the people while walking along the tracks. And then I was stunned. On the left hand side were the houses, and on the right hand side was just a wall. And there was a little kitchen next to the wall. House, railway track, kitchen. Well, I continued walking and realised that the kitchen belonged to a little restaurants. I was a bit hungry, so I decided to have dinner here. It looked interesting, and I am sure it would be a nice experience having food in such an area. I walked in, and the owner and the guest looked a bit surprised seeing a foreigner coming in. The dining area was very small, and only found a table at the end of the room, and could look into the living room. Two little faces appeared in the door to the living and looked at me with a big, curious smile, before returning to the TV, still looking over curious during my stay. Now that is a nice welcome. Instead of a menu I had to come to the counter and select the food I wanted. I pointed at rice, vegetables, chicken and something that looked like pork (I really was hoping that it was pork!!!). Wow, the plate was full of food, and it tasted good, and it was only 25,000 Dong. What a bargain. While I was eating some locals passing by the restaurant looked curious inside when they saw me. Overall I really got the feeling that not a lot of tourist come here. I really must admit – it was a great experience.
Before I wanted to have a few beers in the evening I visited a shop called XQ Arts, which I found a few days earlier. They sell silk engraved paintings. The ones I saw earlier were absolute beautiful. I was very tempted to buy one, but instead I decided to check their stores in Hoi An and HCMC.
It was also a big night for Vietnamese football – the second leg of the semi-final against Malaysia was on. I was actually tempted to buy tickets to go to the stadium, but didn’t do it in the end. Not a bad decision, as it ended 4-2 for Malaysia and the mood amongst supporters were not good that night.
Initially I only wanted to have a last few cheap Bia Hoi, but then a Spanish guy and Italian girl were sitting on the table next to me. We started to talk, and it was always ‘One more beer, just one more’. Well, talking, drinking beer and watching people is fun, so it really wasn’t difficult to convince me. Then suddenly the Italian decided it was a bit cold and ordered a small bottle of Vietnamese Vodka. She saw the Vietnamese sitting on our side drinking it, and it seems to be the right thing to have to feel warmer. Well, I had to stay now. ‘Mo, Hai, Ba, Jo’ (a Vietnamese drinking shout, meaning 1, 2, 3, CHEERS) was shouted for a few times at the tables around me to finish our beers and Vodka. Around 11pm I really wanted to go (my pick up for Halong Bay was at the hotel 8am the next morning, and my bag was still not packed). I told them about the other nice Bia Hoi place around the corner, so I was dragged along. Well, one or two more beer won’t hurt. Midnight approached, and the place closed. Ok, now it was time to go home. But behold, someone approached as, and gave us some free beer vouchers for a hostel that had a re-opening ceremony for its bar area. It really would have been rude not to use the voucher. So off we went.
The place was full, nice music and good atmosphere. Had my free beers, and was then invited to have some more drinks. At 3am I finally decided that it was time to go, and even my new friends agreed this time. After saying bye (it was planned to meet in HCMC for NYE) I started to walk back to my hotel.
I was then approached by a guy on a motorbike who asked if I need a lift. I declined, and he was clearly not happy, complaining that no more tourists take motorbike taxis (well mate, this happens if you screw them all the time – information about that spreads). He drove off and waited at the next crossing. I was a bit concerned and turned left the next corner. As I went for a walk earlier I had my camera bag with me (no plans whatsoever to stay out late), so I might have looked like an interesting target. For some reason I turned right the next corner, and walked towards a tent set up for a wedding, with two security guys inside, and when I turned I spotted the guy I saw a minute earlier coming towards me, looking at me on the street – his face covered with a mask. He saw the security guys and turned around again. I think I was very lucky, as I am pretty sure I would have lost my camera, wallet and phone if I wouldn’t have turned right… But thankfully nothing happened and I had a great night out during my final evening in Hanoi. With hardly any sleep I was picked up the following morning to get to Halong Bay.
It was a fitting ending. I really enjoyed my time there – Hanoi is a noisy, busy and chaotic city. But all of this (including the insane traffic) adds to the charm and atmosphere of this beautiful city. You really appreciate it while drinking coffee or the amazingly cheap beer (5,000 Dong, how can you not drink – a lot…). I would go back to this place. I probably have to as I missed a few sights like the citadel. I also might need to re-check if the beer is still good enough…
The Serenity hotel is a good hotel, with a good location. Ir was not near the busy pub area, but stroll walkable for the whole Old Quarter. Room was spacious, and cleaned every day. Free breakfast is a nice bonus (though the noodle soup was disappointing), and overall the staff was very friendly. Add the 25% discounts because I stayed more than 4 nights, and you have a good package.
I could write far too many recommendations, so I try to summarise
Food; try the street food, eat at the little places with plastic chairs, and where lots of locals eat, and you will have a great experience. Bun Cha and Banh Trang Chien were two things I discovered in Hanoi, and tried to find it during my remaining travel through Vietnam (I did, sometimes with local changes…). Saying that going to Avalon was also a good choice, as the food was good and it was great to see the area around the lake lighten up during the night.
I found visiting HCM museum, the Temple of Literature, the Hoa Lo prison, and the bridge and temple at the lake worthwhile places to visit. I loved walking around the lake in the evening – it is such a nice relaxing place to sit back and relax
Also the Thangh Long Water Puppet Theatre should be on a list when coming to Hanoi.
But Hanoi has so many beautiful areas. Just walking around, with eyes open can lead to many great experiences. There are great sights everywhere.
And finally, don’t miss Bia Hoi. It is such an experience sitting in a little plastic chair, getting a $0,25 beer, watching the world goes past, or talking to other tourists or locals. It was just fantastic. For me this is as Hanoi as the building, sights and scooters….