The Hanoi Travelogue

Sometimes, in your travels, you get lucky. Like when you visit a mountain view-point on a clear day and soak in the first rays of sun over mesmerizing snow-capped peaks. Or like my friend who booked a bed in a four bedded mixed dorm in Negombo, Sri Lanka and ended up staying with three free-spirited French girls. For me, it was landing up in Hanoi on the day when the underdog U-23 soccer team of Vietnam won the semi-finals of the U-23 AFC championship after inflicting a shock defeat on Qatar. The city erupted in frenzy and I got a taste of what it means to be a Vietnamese.

On our trip to Vietnam in January this year, we spent 3 days in the capital Hanoi.  We saw very few of the touristy sites in Hanoi except those around the Hoan Kiem lake. We gave the venerable Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum and Museum a miss. Neither could we make time for Hanoi Citadel or the One Pillar Pagoda. No doubt these places must have been well worthy of visits. They don’t feature on every tourist itinerary for no reason. But I have no regrets. We invested our time in experiencing the racing pulse of the city and its people as it got engulfed in football mania. After all, the museums and pagodas would always be around. Something of this magnitude doesn’t happen every day in a country’s sporting history. But more on that later.

We split our four-night stay between the Old Quarter and the Hoan Kiem lake area. The lake is the epicentre of all activity in Hanoi. To the north of it lies the Old Quarter dating back to the imperial times with its famed 36 Streets. To the lake’s east is the French Quarter with grand buildings and broad boulevards that are remnants of Vietnam’s French colonial past. The lake itself is abuzz with locals and tourists alike spending some quiet time amidst serenity.

Things to see in Hanoi

Some essential Hanoi experiences that we did manage to fit in included the Ngoc Son temple in the middle of the Hoan Kiem lake, the Thang Long Water Puppet show and the Bach Ma temple. We also made time for some leisurely strolls around the narrow alleys of Old Quarter and the wide boulevards of the French Quarter. It is difficult to believe that these two very distinct zones, separated by no more than a couple of kilometres, are part of the same city. Here’s the lowdown.

Thang Long Water Puppet Theatre 

Experience a uniquely Vietnamese Performing Art

Thang Long Water Puppet Theatre
Legend of the Restored Sword depicted through Water Puppets

The Thang Long Water Puppet Theatre is the best place in Vietnam to enjoy the Vietnamese folk art of water puppetry. Water puppetry was born of the river delta farmer’s need for entertaining himself when his paddy fields were flooded in the rainy season. Over time it has been developed into a fine art. It will appear like simple, childlike entertainment until you try to visualise what the puppeteers standing waist deep in the water behind the curtains must be doing to accomplish the coordination on the stage (read water puddle).

Thang Long Water Puppet Theatre
Intricate Water Puppetry

The show depicts life in the agrarian countryside and folktales of Northern Vietnam including the legend of the Sword Lake. There are water spewing and fire-breathing dragons and friendly neighbourhood mythical birds thrown in for good measure. The tickets are priced at VND 100,000 or ~$4.5. Show timings can be found on their website http://thanglongwaterpuppet.org/en/. The website also has interesting details about the origin and evolution of the art over the last ten centuries. I strongly recommend making this a part of your Hanoi plans.

Schedule this towards the end of your visit in Hanoi. Book tickets for the show from the counter as soon as you arrive. Tickets often sell out a couple of days in advance, especially for the weekend shows. If you have the choice, try to get seats in the front for a better experience.

Hoan Kiem Lake & Ngoc Son Temple

Feel the Pulse of Hanoi

Hoan Kiem Lake Hanoi Vietnam
Fun and games near Hoan Kiem Lake (Pic Courtesy: Moulika Mukherjee)

Hoan Kiem Lake is unmistakeably the heart of Hanoi. It’s an oval-shaped lake having a perimeter of just about 2km with a paved walkway all around. In the mornings, droves of people can be seen doing Tai Chi or taking morning walks. Throughout the day you will see locals and tourists alike flock to the lake. It is a fantastic place to just laze and people watch.

Hoan Kiem Lake Hanoi Vietnam
This guy was playing Jianzi (foot shuttlecock) with the grace of a ballerina

 

During the weekend evenings, the street around is closed to traffic and the entire area dons the look of a carnival. There are parents strolling with kids in tow, youngsters playing Jianzi or foot shuttlecock, beat-boxing and ball dancing competitions being held and delicious street food being peddled. A lovely market in the evenings on weekends livens up the area bordering the French Quarter.  There are stalls selling pop-up arts, ceramics, fridge and myriad other souvenirs. The beautifully lit up traditional bridge connecting the shore to the Ngoc Son temple adds character to the place. Spend an evening here and you will not stop feeling that this is how life is meant to be.

Hoan Kiem Hanoi Vietnam
The lit up Huc Bridge connecting the Ngoc Son Temple

Ngoc Son Temple stands in the middle of Hoan Kiem lake, connected to the shore by the small but pretty bridge. It is dedicated to a General who defeated the Mongols in the 13th Century and also to Confucian and Taoist philosophers.

Bia Hoi Junction

A taste of Hanoi’s Nightlife

The Bia Hoi Junction is essentially a cluster of bars with outdoor seating located in the old quarter close to the lake. Go there if you want a glimpse of Hanoi’s nightlife. In case you are in two minds, here’s the argument that will resolve it for you. Bia Hoi is light draught beer unique to Vietnam that sells for as little as VND 5000 ($0.25) a glass! Bia Hoi junction is where the locals come to get their fix of this quintessentially Vietnamese brew.

I visited this place on the evening of Vietnam’s semi-final triumph in the U-23 AFC soccer tournament. Everyone in Hanoi and their aunties were there. It is surprising the watering holes didn’t run out of stock. Many party zones around South East Asia like Lang Kwai Fong in Hong Kong or Khao San Road in Bangkok rely on tourists and expats to lend the vide to the place. That’s not true for Bia Hoi Junction which is thriving with locals.

Old Quarter

From the pages of history

Hanoi’s Old Quarter is a mesh of streets each of which was populated by traders of a particular kind of article back in colonial times when the place was established. To date, some of the stores still deal in the same trade but many have now switched to catering to needs of a more modern society. The streets bear names such as Hang Ma, Hang Tre and Hang Dong, where ‘Hang’ means a traded article and the following word names the article like Paper, Bamboo or Copper.

Old Quarter Hanoi
Paper artefacts are being sold in Hang Ma for centuries now

If there is just one place you must see in Hanoi, it is the Old Quarter. The diversity of goods on display is so vast, the quality so good and the prices so affordable that I dare you to spend an evening there without shopping. The Old Quarter is also home to many of Hanoi’s tourist attractions like the Bach Ma Temple and One Pillar Pagoda as well as some of Hanoi’s most popular eateries.

French Quarter

A fix for your Paris throwback

Walking along the French Quarter brought back memories of Paris from our trip to France last year.  The Hanoi Opera is modelled on the Opera Garnier in Paris. It is in truth only a shadow of the Paris Opera. The Sofitel Legend Metropole is the granddaddy of Hanoi hotels and dates back to 1901. It is majestic and regal. We made an exception to our budget meals regimen in Hanoi to have breakfast here one morning. The food is superb and the service impeccable. The white tablecloths, fine cutlery and the interior design all loudly invoke the Belle Epoque.

Sofitel Legend Metropole French Quarter
A dose of opulence at the Sofitel Legend Metropole

The fine French buildings make lovely backdrops for some portrait shots. The broad tree-lined streets are a stark contrast to the Old Quarter and are ideal for a leisurely walk.

French Quarter Hanoi Vietnam
French Quarter

A few places that I would have liked to add to our Hanoi itinerary with more time on hand would have been the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum and Museum, Temple of Literature and Hoa Lo Prison (fondly called Hanoi Hilton by the US PoWs during the Vietnam War). The thing that kept me away from these was partly bad weather and partly the frenzy around Vietnam’s soccer team’s showdown in the AFC U-23 final. And that’s how I spent my last day in Vietnam. I spent less time watching the game and more of it watching the people watching the game!

A Photo-essay of Vietnam’s Football Frenzy

The day we arrived in Hanoi was the day the underdog Vietnamese soccer team inflicted a shock defeat on the much better ranked Qataris in the semi-finals of the AFC U-23 Cup. Within moments, the entire city was on the streets celebrating the victory. The scenes around Hoan Kiem Lake had to be seen to be believed. I felt blessed to be a witness to this grand spectacle. I doubt whether freedom from the French was celebrated with as much fanfare!

Hours before the final, fans started gathering around giant screens installed in various public places for communal viewing of the match. The atmosphere was electric.

 

Football in Vietnam
A mad scramble for the best seats (sic)
Football in Vietnam
Vietnam Scored!
Football in Vietnam
Anxious moments

 

Football in Vietnam
Men and women, boys and girls – all out in support
Football in Vietnam
Hanoi is full of colourful people ( Photo Courtesy : Moulika Mukherjee)
Football in Vietnam
Caption this!

It was refreshing to see people cutting across gender, age and social strata assembling together to root for the thing that unites them all – their Vietnamese identity. The Vietnamese team made a valiant effort but ended up on the losing side courtesy a last minute goal by Uzbekistan. But the loss brought to the fore how gracious they were in defeat. What followed that evening was a celebration of Vietnam’s achievement at having made it this far rather than a mourning of the day’s defeat.

Food in Hanoi

Vietnamese cuisine is making waves globally. Before our trip, I had shortlisted some iconic places to sample the most celebrated specimens of Vietnamese cuisine. Pho 10 Ly Quoc Su for Pho, Bun Cha Huong Lien for Bun Cha, Giang Café for Egg Coffee and so on.

Egg Coffee
Dense and delicious Egg Coffee – I like!

On our first evening out in Hanoi, we were famished and we stepped into the first decrepit Pho joint in sight after stepping out of our Airbnb. After the first slurp, I knew there was no need to go hunting for good food in Hanoi. A bowl of Pho costs just about 20,000 -25,000 Dongs (less than $1) and is a riot of flavours. Delicious food is ubiquitous in Hanoi. Just see where the locals are eating and barge in. I am sure the hallowed establishment which are favourably reviewed by critics are excellent. But to sample great Vietnamese there is no need to go hunting for these joints.

Pho Vietnamese Food
Pho – Vietnam’s national dish (Photo Courtesy: Inspired Taste)

Another thing one mustn’t fail to try is Vietnamese Coffee. The local Vietnamese coffee is predominantly Robusta which has more caffeine and is bitter. It is often made with condensed milk which beautifully balances the bitterness and lends a unique taste. Remember, Vietnamese coffee is served cold by default. Be sure to check before you order.

A word of caution for vegetarians – vegetarian Vietnamese food is tough to find. In Hanoi, our saviour was Minh Chay Vegan Restaurant where we kept going to for takeaways for my mother. The menu is extensive, the food is delicious, the prices are reasonable and the locations are central.

My lasting memories of Hanoi will not be of places seen but of people met. Hanoians are a vibrant, colourful and expressive lot who can turn the most touristy of visitors to street photographers. The locals are, the odd freak apart, very friendly and helpful people. It was with a heavy heart that I boarded the flight back. But make no mistake Vietnam, we are not done yet.

 

 

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