Let's start with semantics! I was wondering as to why in Vietnam and in some books, you always see the Vietnamese capitol spelled as Ha Noi. So I asked … 'Ha' means river, and Ha Noi means capital surrounded by a river. Or in this case, three rivers. Similarly, Viet Nam stands for Viets (the race) living in the south, as to differentiate themselves from the Chinese race who occupied Vietnam for more than 1,000 years.
Talking about 1,000 years … 2010 is a special year for Hanoi … it's their millennium celebration. 1010 to 2010 makes for a long and rich history! The grand celebration is to be on 10.10.10. so that may be as good of a time as ever to visit Hanoi.
Vietnam is a very large and rapidly developing country of 90 million very young people, out of which 6 million live in the capital Hanoi. The Viet people inhabit all of Indochine … Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia … and are very friendly, genuine and warm.
Hanoi is very different to the more commercial Saigon. It's smaller, to me less chaotic, more grand, has a stronger French colonial architectural influence, yet although surrounded by three rivers you would never get that impression strolling around the the city centre for there is no sign of a flowing body of water nearby. Actually, that's one thing I really loved in Saigon. Not sure what the French were thinking when they designed the city! I always say that if you have a river … use it!
As in Saigon, the motorbike is the main mode of transportation - which you see everywhere! So much that in each store, restaurant or home you would see motorbikes parked within the shops. So in a jewelry store, it was not uncommon to find 4 motorbikes parked amongst the display cases. Very unusual! And the houses in the city are fairy-like. They are tall, narrow and very ornate. Given that taxation is based on the width of your house, you can understand why the houses are built so narrowly. And because generations of families live together, the way you include a new family member is by building another floor. Sounds similar to Slovenia!
After having seen both Saigon and Hanoi … my decision is you really need to see both for only then will you have a good sense of Vietnamese urban living. As Asians would say … same, same, but different!
HOW TO GET THERE:
> the cheapest way to get to Hanoi's NoiBai Airport from Singapore is with Tiger Airways. Departing from the budget terminal in Singapore, this 3 hour flight is fast, economical and basic. But Tiger does the job … grrrr! … and doesn't cheat (!!) … and if you book well in advance, you'll also get a great deal. We didn't!
> visa: don't forget that to enter Vietnam you need to get a visa beforehand. And I have never spent more time organizing visas for 6 people than this time. To be fair, it wasn't necessarily Vietnam's fault. Happened to be that our family arrived to Singapore during Chinese New Year and thus the embassy was closed for the whole week. Which meant we had to be very creative with our applications. Let's just say that if I hadn't done it through a travel agent in Singapore, I would have pulled all my hair out!
WHAT TO SEE:
> Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum and Museum: unfortunately on Friday's the mausoleum is closed, so we were not able to see the embalmed body of Ho Chi Minh. The whole square, including the mausoleum, is not unlike the Red Square in Moscow with Lenin's mausoleum. They even say that the corpse of Ho Chi Minh gets taken to Moscow every year for three months, to be treated … or perhaps to be taken to Madame Tussaude for a waxing!! Beautiful square surrounded with memorials and monuments along with many old palaces and embassies in the neighborhood.
> One Pillar Pagoda: located right next to the mausoleum, this is a simple small pagoda built of wood on a single stone pillar. Right behind it there is a beautiful temple where we noticed hundreds of metre high puppets leaning against the walls. It looked like a papier mache army ready to march away. When asked what they were for, we were told that the locals burn them, so that the accident is incurred by the puppet and not by you, thus promising you health and luck for the coming year. I like the idea.
> Literature Temple: now don't ask me why this complex is called the Literature Temple. It's something to do with honouring scholars that have achieved a doctorate over the last several centuries and recording their names for posterity. The tablets on which the names of all the scholars are listed sit atop large turtles. The complex has five separate courtyards, and if for nothing else, come here for a reprieve from the crazy streets of Ha Noi.
> cyclo tour around Hanoi's Old Quarter: although the cyclos move around very slowly, they take you through the historic streets of the old quarter which are all dedicated to a certain trade. From book stores to shoe shops, markets, art galleries, textile … everything is to be found in these chaotic streets which form the heart of Ha Noi. I somehow imagined the streets to be much narrower though … yet they were still bustling with life.
> drive around Hoan Kiem Lake: located adjacent to the old quarter, the lake was decorated in splendid lights at night. I'm sure to a large extent this was due to the New Year celebrations. Nevertheless, the lake in the evenings is abuzz with activity: joggers, tai chi practitioners, vendors and lovers can all be found jostling for space along the lake shores.
> Water Puppet Show: we saw this at the end of the day, after dinner … and perhaps due to that we nearly fell asleep. The stage in the theatre has a pagoda built into a pool, in which they do a 19 part programme depicting rural life utilizing puppets. It's quite the artistry to manage and manipulate marionettes of all shapes and sizes in water. The show is original … yet perhaps a bit too long.
> Galleries: although there are many galleries in the old quarter, the following ones really stood out. Apricot Gallery (40B Hang Bong Street), Green Palm Gallery, Thanh Mai Gallery - beautiful interiors, some with imposing stairways, the Vietnamese art on display is very distinctive and captivating ... and relatively expensive.
You won't go hungry in Hanoi. From the French baguettes that are sold everywhere to the famous Pho. The food is fresh, healthy and flavorful. I'm not even going to try and name all the small restaurants we saw and tried … for it's best to discover them yourself.
> Le Beaulieu (Metropole Sofitel): we came to the hotel at around 2130 - starving! So before checking in we were whisked to this restaurant for a late meal, for the kitchen closes at 22:00. I don't know what made me decide to eat Angus beef topped with foi gras this late in the evening, but I didn't regret it. It was delicious!
We were told that there are seven 5-star hotels in Ha Noi.
> Sofitel Metropole Hotel: and this is the best one of them all! An old French dame is the closest association you can make. Elegant, seeped in history and gossip, this hotel falls with the likes of Raffles Hotels. There are two wings to this hotel, make sure you book yourself into the old-wing, which has been beautifully refurbished and exudes the elegance of the old French colonial days. Our room was large with a spacious bathroom … and a heart-shaped tub. The odd room numbers all face the pool (versus the street). So if you want to stay in a hotel with the likes of Charlie Chaplin and Jane Fonda, this is the place to be. Plus the baguettes at breakfast are to die for!
> Hanoi Elegance Hotel: located in the old quarter, this is a no-nonsense hotel. For the price you pay this is a remarkable deal. The rooms are very clean and well appointed, albeit small. Yet you're right smack in the middle of the old quarter. If you're looking for a budget deal, this is it. Now my conundrum is why does this hotel have free internet and the Metropole not. Hmmm!!