We really didn't know what to expect of Hanoi and didn't have pre-conceived notions - except we had seen videos of the traffic. Vietnam's population is approaching 100 million making it the 15th most populous country in the world. The median age is 30.9 years - a young country. Hanoi is home to 8 million people and 5 million scooters; words aren't adequate to describe it; you have to experience it. Its skyscrapers belie its old quarter where commerce is still conducted by carts and bicycles and on stools on the sidewalk.
We stayed in the old quarter where you're immediately struck by the chaos of the streets when you step outside. Not only the sound of the ubiquitous horns, the incessant snakelike weaving of scooters, but also the sidewalk vendors making meals of noodles and meat, and selling everything under the sun. Just crossing the street is an exercise in patience and is not for the faint of heart; it's exhilarating and terrifying at the same time. We were told by our hotel staff to just start crossing, show confidence, don't stop and don't show any reluctance or weakness. The scooters and cars will swerve around you. They have it down to an art form. We summoned the courage to do that (if we hadn't, our visit to Hanoi would have been relegated to one stretch of sidewalk by our hotel!), and we mastered it without being hit or injured, but each time we came to an intersection, we had to summon our courage yet again.
We wandered and wandered. It wasn't easy due to the questionable infrastructure of the sidewalks and scooters parked on sidewalks making it necessary every few feet to walk in the street, but it was fascinating to look at all the shops and sidewalk vendors.
And yes, we came across a couple of roosters!
Scooters were often parked on the sidewalks, up against the buildings.
But that's the old quarter and we loved it. Everyone we met was friendly and welcoming. Since so many Vietnamese have been born since 1975, they have no memory of the war and they prefer to look ahead. At no time did we feel unwelcome because we were American. Our impression was that life is relatively hard in the old city but that the younger, more educated population is embracing the 21st century.
Ho Chi Minh
It didn't take long to realize that the Vietnamese revere Ho Chi Minh. He was often positively referred to in the narrative for the city tourist bus as well as in conversations we had with locals from time to time. His tomb figures prominently in the city and we decided to visit it. His wish was to be cremated and his ashes spread around Vietnam. Instead, he was embalmed and lies in state, Lenin-style, in a mausoleum in the center of Hanoi. It's possible to file past him, but the hours are very limited, the line is very long and the dress code strict. So we decided to dress comfortably and forego filing past him.
The austere square in front of the mausoleum. It seemed pretty stark, with a Soviet feel.
One Pillar Pagoda
The One Pillar Pagoda is a Buddhist temple located just behind Ho Chi Minh's mausoleum. It was built in the 11th century by an emperor who was childless, but dreamt that he was handed a baby while sitting on a lotus flower. He eventually married a peasant woman who bore him a son and he had the temple built in gratitude. It was built on one pillar and is surrounded by a lotus pond to reflect his dream. It's small, lovely and one of two most important Buddhist temples in Vietnam.
Hỏa Lò Prison, aka The Hanoi Hilton
As a teenager in the 60's and a college student in the early 70's, the War in Vietnam was constantly on my mind as it was for all of us who lived through that sad and turbulent period of our country. Never in my life did I think I'd find myself in Vietnam, let alone Hanoi. And the "Hanoi Hilton"? If you had told me I'd ever be there, I would have said you were crazy! It was a sobering visit, but we were happy we were able to see it.
What I didn't know was that the prison was built by the French colonists in the late 19th century to imprison Vietnamese and revolutionary fighters. Since the mid-1950's it has been used to hold criminals. From 1964 to 1973, it was used to hold American pilots shot down in Vietnam. All of us who lived through the war remember that John McCain was held there. It was originally a large structure, but much of it was torn down in the mid-1990's and what was left was transformed into a historic site.
The "Maison Centrale" name stems from its origins during the French occupation. Certainly a euphemism! If you ever visit the prison, get the audio guide. It was excellent and as audio guides so often do, it gave us a lot of interesting history and information and made the visit more meaningful.
This is a photo of one of the exhibits showing the current footprint of the prison.
Not surprisingly, it was a somber visit. The original prison housed both men and women, there were cells that housed prisoners sentenced to death and they also had relics of sewers through which prisoners tried to escape.
They had a photo of John McCain just after he was captured and they had his flight suit on exhibit. It was tucked away in the corner and wasn't easy to find. Interestingly, the audio guide said that the people of Hanoi helped McCain in the immediate aftermath of his capture which I think was the opposite of what actually happened.
This was an exhibit showing the shackles in which French prisoners were held.
One of the cells...
The audio guide said that the nuts, bark and leaves from this almond tree were used to help improve health and it also provided shade for the prisoners during the hot summer months.
We would encourage anyone visiting Hanoi to include a visit to Hỏa Lò Prison. We spent just under two hours there, but could have spent much longer.
Hồ Hoàn Kiếm Lake
This is a lovely lake at the eastern end of the old quarter. There's a square at the north end of the lake that is closed to traffic on the weekends. We saw lots of families enjoying the area around the lake, especially on Sunday. There is also an electric golf cart-type vehicle at the north end of the lake that takes tourists around the lake or into the old quarter. The Temple of the Jade Mountain sits on a small island in the lake. We didn't visit the temple itself, mainly due to the crush of people when we were there, but it's very popular among locals and tourists alike. We did have egg coffee (see below) at a modern cafe overlooking the lake and the square. This area is worth a visit, especially on the weekend.
This is the square at the lake on the weekend when it's blocked off to traffic. There are several cafes and restaurants on either side of the square where you can enjoy a meal while watching the scene below.
There are a lot of vendors selling trinkets at the north end of the lake.
We had lunch one day at a restaurant with a lovely view across the lake.
Children playing on the square.
What, you say? I discovered it as I was researching Hanoi. In the 1940's there was a milk shortage in Vietnam so an enterprising gentleman invented a coffee drink that was sweet, rich and didn't require milk. The inventor's son has carried on the tradition and a hole-in-the-wall cafe with the family name, Giang, still serves it in Hanoi. The ingredients are strong coffee, egg yolk and sweetened condensed milk. It may not sound appetizing, but I can attest to the fact that it's delicious! We first had it at Cafe Giang, and I tested it at each cafe we went to after that. I'm trying to perfect it at home, but haven't quite gotten there yet!
A Word About Our Hotel - JM Marvel & Spa
As usual, I did a lot of research on hotels. We knew we wanted to stay in the old quarter and there were a number of hotels in this part of the city that got good, even excellent reviews. We couldn't have been happier with the JM Marvel Hotel & Spa. It's a new hotel, opened in February, 2018 and has only 30 rooms, It has a very good restaurant, Mâm Cơm Việt, which has only been opened a few months.
The restaurant has a very large selection of Vietnamese dishes and we loved them all!
The hotel has a rooftop bar which we enjoyed, especially as the weather was beautiful.
Our stay was broken into two due to the Bai Tu Long Bay cruise. Both rooms overlooked the main street which was so busy during the day, but amazingly quiet at night. Our first room had a small balcony. The front desk personnel couldn't have been more friendly and helpful. Each time we came in the front door, they welcomed us by name. We felt like family and we loved our stay there!
This is what greeted us when we returned from our cruise!
We would return to Hanoi in a heartbeat. Here are some more photos of this amazing city.
This is a hotel. I sure hope it has an elevator!
This is the square below our hotel. We never did cross it, but we saw people who did. It was hypnotizing to watch the flow of cars, scooters and people!
➜ Top Tips
Try an egg coffee!
Cross the street with locals when possible and don't stop or hesitate once you commit to crossing; the scooters and cars will weave around you.
Stay in the old quarter; it's the pulsing heart of the city!
Wear comfortable shoes; the old quarter is very walkable.
Don't leave Vietnam without trying pho, their wonderful noodles.