Returning to Hong Kong from Bali, I begin to slowly ease my mind into the bittersweet idea of moving back to London as my year abroad draws to a close. My time in Asia has provided me with precious new adventures, friendship, and love, and while looking forward to reconnecting with family and friends at home in the UK, my heart is heavy for the place I will leave behind. To my surprise and pleasure, my boyfriend Greg gifts me with an early birthday present to enjoy while he makes his own journey home, traveling across China, Kyrgyzstan, and Istanbul before arriving in France (you can read his posts about this journey here). My gift is a solo trip to Hanoi, Vietnam where I have two full days to discover the city and all it has to offer. To read a full breakdown of this trip, click here. Otherwise, scroll down for more.
Pho for breakfast
A trip to Hanoi without tasting a bowl of Pho would be like visiting Paris and not viewing the Eiffel Tower (something I admit to doing but have recently rectified); to put it bluntly, it wouldn’t be a true trip to the city. Pronounced ‘Fuh’, pho is essentially a noodle soup made with a flavorsome broth, sumptuous rice noodles, some herbs and the topping of your choice.
The locals eat it for breakfast here, so instead of waiting until the evening, which at home would seem like the more logical way to indulge in some noodles, I do the same. For 30,000VND (around 90p) I get one bowl, a side of some kind of puffed savory to soak up the broth with and a drink at one of the many pho vendors on Hanoi’s streets!
Hanoi Police Museum
I set out with the idea that my first stop of the day would be the Hoa Lo Prison, but discover the Hanoi Police Museum on my route there. In all honesty, amidst the last minute surprise of going on the trip and preparing to return to England after my many months of traveling, the historical context of Vietnam had completely flown out of my mind.
The Hanoi Police Museum is a great way of refreshing my memory of the country’s history, starting from Vietnam’s occupation by the French, moving onto the monumental events of their war with the US and ending with the state of police relations with the public at present day, making it a truly informative and worthwhile visit.
Hao Lo Prison
After having the contextual foundation set there, Hoa Lo Prison really brings to reality the grueling experiences and injustices experienced by the Vietnamese during their years of strife. The prison was used by the French colonialists for political prisoners and later by North Vietnam for US prisoners of war. I spend over an hour here discovering the dim and damp cells endured by these prisoners and learning about their harrowing stories.
St Josephs Cathedral
Before I arrived in Hanoi I only exchanged enough money to get me my initial taxi from the airport and to buy a couple of meals with the intention of changing more when I arrived. Flying from Hong Kong, all my currency was in HKD which led me to discover that it is extremely difficult to find somewhere that exchanges anything other than GBP, EUR, and USD in the city. If you’re coming from a country that doesn’t trade in these currencies and want to avoid frantically searching for somewhere while your stomach growls for Bahn Mi Thit, I strongly suggest you either exchange to VND or one of the three above before you arrive.
I spend a very long time looking for somewhere that would exchange HKD and even when I do, I’m uncertain that I get a great deal, but exhaustion from walking in the humidity made this a concern I’d rather not give too much time to. Conveniently, the currency exchange was right by St Joseph’s Cathedral. After taking some photographs (as there’s not much else you can do here) I stop for lunch at a place with a name I honestly can’t remember. Here I got a satisfying plate of four rice rolls for 60,000VND – a bit more than I wanted to pay but still considerably cheap.
Hoan Kiem Lake
Just one road over from the cathedral is Hoan Kiem Lake which is home to the iconic red bridge that leads to the Ngoc Son Temple. The lake itself is beautiful, and it’s surroundings are well maintained and decorated with thousands of flowers. The bridge was a nice sight to see and its bold red coloring made it pop in stark contrast to its natural surroundings.
In all honesty, I believe the Ngoc Son Temple is overrated and something that isn’t worth the 30,000VND entry fee, so I recommend buying an ice-cream instead.
Before arriving in Hanoi I had spent a long time searching for information revealing where I could find one of these train-track streets. Being the scatter-brain that I am, by the time I actually arrived in Hanoi I had completely forgotten about their existence. Luckily, while on a serious hunt for food I stumbled across what I had been so eager to find. There are quite a few roads like this running through the city, this one was connected to a road called Kham Thien, (at the end near Le Duan).
Temple of Literature
After stopping for some fried noodles, I make my way to Temple of Literature. The temple was built in 1070, is home to Vietnam’s first national university (the “Imperial Academy) and is dedicated to the Chinese philosopher Conficus. During my travels in Asia I’ve seen more than a fair amount of temples and after a while, it’s easy to develop a ‘once you’ve seen one you’ve seen them all’ mentality. While many aspects of the Temple of Literature are very much in accordance with most traditional temples with Chinese influence, equally, there are many aspects that make it stand out: The lush greenery, huge courtyards and the 82 turtle stele that depict the names and birth places of graduates of the Imperial Academy’s triennial royal exams.
Vietnam Fine Arts Museum
Following this, I decide to stop into the Vietnam Fine Arts Museum which the opportunity to see work produced by the country’s artists across the span of decades. If you’re an art fan I would recommend adding this to your itinerary, if not, it’s a great place to go and cool down from the heat and hectic streets.
Vietnamese Women’s Museum
As someone with a penchant for anthropology, the Vietnamese Women’s Museum became on of my favourite stops on the trip. Over the span of four floors, the museum exhibits information and artefacts that reveal details of lives of the women of Vietnam from a cultural and historical perspective. It’s an amazing way to get an insight into how tradition and politics can make another woman’s life so different from your own. Particular focus was drawn to the rituals of marriage and roles within the home, both of which vary greatly across the numerous Vietnamese tribes, as well as the monumental role Vietnamese women played in their country’s war efforts and the contribution women are making to their country today.
Hanoi Old Quarter
My last stop during my time in Hanoi is the Old Quarter. This is the city’s major commercial district and, in all honesty, having spent a lot of time surrounded by similar markets in Hong Kong, when I visited Hanoi’s Old Quarter I was confused about what was so special about it, and wasn’t even sure that I was in the right place. Because of this I didn’t take the time to explore it properly and went home in frustrated confusion.
In retrospect, this was a mistake on my part but also a learning curb. When traveling in somewhere like Asia, where each country has been influenced by its neighbor, there are many instances where something may look the same as what you’ve seen elsewhere and so you don’t take the time to really appreciate its unique detail that sets it apart from the others. If I had taken my time in the Old Quarter, I would be able to appreciate recognized its eclectically cluttered store fronts and French colonial architecture.
How I traveled: I flew from Hong Kong International Airport to Hanoi (Noi Bai) Airport with Hong Kong Airlines. I got to my AirBnB by a taxi organized with my host and when in the city I traveled everywhere by foot! This was tiring but a great way to see every part of the city. I used the app Maps.me which allowed me to download an offline map that tracked my position in real time via GPS.
What I did: On my first full day in Hanoi, I visited the Hanoi Police Museum, Hoa Lo Prison, St Joseph’s Cathedral and Hoan Kiem Lake. On my second day, I visited one of Hanoi’s famous train-track roads, The Temple of Literature, Vietnam Fine Arts Museum, The Vietnamese Women’s Museum and Hanoi Old Quarter. All of the Museums (bar the Police Museum which is free) charge 30,000VND (90p) entrance fee but offer a 15,000 VND ticket for student card holders.
Where I ate: I tended to just eat at wherever was closest to me when I felt hungry. This is easy to do in Hanoi as there are food vendors everywhere. Traditional food like Pho or Bahn Mi That in restaurants used by locals should cost you no more 30,000 VND including a drink. More upscale restaurants targeting tourists will cost considerably more, but by Western standards will still be relatively cheap.
Where I stayed: I stayed in a clean and spacious AirBnB with a balcony that gave a great view of a busy Hanoi street.
Tips & Tricks: Convert all your money before arriving or ensure you have either GBP, USD or EUR.