Vietnam: Hanoi

Oldest pagoda in Vietnam.

Gate from the highway into the Old Quarter of Hanoi.

On January 14th, I set off on an adventure across northern Vietnam and Taiwan. With only a week in each location, we chose to explore the north of Vietnam and save the south for another trip. The north offers an incredible landscape, bustling city life, and a fascinating culture and history. We purchased our tour through Vietnam Unique Tours, which provided us a glimpse into the city of Hanoi, Ha Long Bay, and my personal favourite, Sapa Valley. If you ever take a trip to Vietnam, I would highly recommend purchasing a tour. The cost was nearly on par with anything we could find independently, and a lot of the destinations like Halong and Sapa require a tour company anyway. With the inclusive tour, we saved a lot of hassle booking hotels and transportation, making our vacation totally worry-free and relaxing, just as it should be! For 8 days, 8 nights, we paid $410 USD each which covered all of our transportation, accommodations (which were clean and comfortable), attraction fees, and most of our meals.

Our first stop was Hanoi, the capital of Vietnam. A country with a complex history of invasion and colonization, Hanoi is a nexus of cultural influences, most notably from China and France. One of the most interesting pieces of this history is the present attitude towards former colonizers and invaders. I expected a sense of animosity towards nations like Japan, France, and the United States that forced themselves into Vietnamese history through colonization, occupation, and war. However, there seemed to be a sense of forgiveness and reconciliation towards these dark histories. Of course, our exposure to these attitudes was limited and likely censored to some extent.

Houses in Hanoi tend to be very tall, long, and narrow, to maximize use of real estate that is valued by the width of the property.

We arrived in the Old Quarter of Hanoi past midnight to find the streets around our hotel swimming with foreigners, beers in hand, singing or dancing or enjoying street food, even one party-goer with his shirt nearly torn off. The next morning however, the streets were replaced with the steady humming of motorbike traffic, women carrying baskets bursting with fresh vegetables or flowers, locals enjoying coffee at miniature tables and chairs on the sidewalk, and barely a foreigner in sight.

Local markets all over the city!

Lanterns everywhere!

One of my favourite things about Hanoi is the combination of colonial-style buildings, traditional architecture, and lush green trees and bushes that line the streets. We had a fantastic day getting lost in the streets and stumbling across some of the treasures of the city, including Hoàn Kiếm Lake, a rooftop cafe, locals of all ages playing games in the streets when they were closed off to vehicles for the evening, and cheap vendors selling all types of goodies.

Just outside our hostel.

View of Hoàn Kiếm Lake.

Enjoying a Hanoi beer at Hoàn Kiếm Lake.

Playing games in the street, closed off to motor traffic.

“Pokermon Fries.” No copyright infringement there.

Delicious donair street food!

Our second day in Hanoi was spent on a guided tour through the city where we learned about Vietnam’s intense love for Ho Chi Minh, also known as Uncle Ho and regarded as a key figure in uniting the country. We visited the mausoleum dedicated to him, and the presidential palace where his own humble home is located. 

Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum.

Presidential Palace. Ho Chi Minh preferred a humbler home than the mansion pictured, so it was used for guests, while he resided in a smaller accomodation.

Ho Chi Minh is known for his intense love of nature, which is reflected in the property.

Cyprus roots growing up through the water.

Gate to the temple of literature.

Inside the main temple.

Offerings to Buddha.

A blossoming apricot (central and south Vietnam) or peach (northern Vietnam) tree is a symbol of the Lunar New Year, known in Vietnam as Tết.” The tree symbolizes fertility and fruitfulness for the coming year.

Crane and Turtle outside the temple.

Similar to blossoming peach trees, mandarin trees are another symbol of good luck for the Lunar New Year.

After the peaceful stroll through the Temple of Literature, we took a turn down the darker history of Hanoi and Hỏa Lò Prison. This prison is the site of complicated histories, starting with its use by the French in the 1800s to lock up, torture, and often execute political prisoners. Despite attempts to silence and subdue revolutionary thinking, the prison became a site of rebellious beginnings for imprisoned Vietnamese during the French occupation.The prison was later used to hold American Prisoners of War, which we were told, was regarded as the “Hanoi Hilton” due to their gentle treatment. Further reading however, revealed that perhaps this narrative we heard was slightly augmented from the truth. 

Finally, we finished the day with a famous cyclo tour. Our guides took us through the streets, seemingly bargaining our lives against the choices of motorbikes and vehicles weaving around us.

We also explored the Temple of Literature, and important fixture in Vietnamese education since its creation in 1070. A Temple of Confucius, it was the first national university in the country. Within, there is a temple with two bronze statues of a crane standing on a turtles back. It is said that rubbing the belly of the crane or the head of the turtle before entering will bring good luck. Together, the animals represent a life of longevity and happiness, as well as a balance between heaven and earth.

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