By all accounts we should have hated Hanoi. There are scams galore, the weather is miserable, the people are less friendly and the food sucks. Or so we’d heard.
In fact we found none of the above to be true. Hanoi turned out to be one of our favourite places in Vietnam.
Even first impressions were good. We arrived by train around midday, jumped in a taxi and went to our hotel in the old quarter. This area is full of tightly packed streets, countless shops and restaurants, and most importantly atmosphere! In fact we ended up barely leaving the old quarter the whole time we were in Hanoi.
We were staying close to the Hoàn Kiếm Lake and it was the first place we went to visit. It’s a lovely scenic and chill out spot, with benches all around so you can sit back and admire the view.
In the centre of the lake is the tiny Turtle Tower, which you can’t visit but looks pretty all the same. At the north end is an island on which the Temple of the Jade Mountain sits. For a small fee you can walk across the bridge and explore the small but attractive temple.
We also visited the infamous Hanoi Hilton (Hỏa Lò Prison) which was originally built by the French to house Vietnamese politica; prisoners, but was also used to hold American POW’s during the war. Most of the prison has actually been demolished, with just a small area turned into a museum, probably because the land was too valuable.
The majority of the museum is dedicated to the colonial times and the awful conditions they faced simply for opposing the French occupation. The Vietnam war section is towards the end and is interesting with many photos and artefacts from the POWs, but is very biased, stating that the prisoners were treated very well which is somewhat different from what the ex POWs have said! One amusing part is the caption stating that the prisoners called it the Hanoi Hilton because it was like a hotel – totally missing the point that it was a sarcastic nickname.
Another war site we went to see was the B-52 lake. It’s actually more like a large pond, located in some residential backstreets. Despite it’s small size, a US B-52 bomber was shot down and crash landed in this lake in 1972 and the wreckage has just been left, looking almost like a abstract sculpture if you didn’t know it was the mangled wreckage of a plane. A lot of people online said they couldn’t find the site, and with just a map it probably is very hard. But that is where GPS is useful! There is very little else around aside from a small plaque and some propaganda posters but it was such an unusual site it was worth visiting.
Close to the lake is the B-52 museum which was closed when we visited. Luckily though the grounds were open so I got to see some anti aircraft guns, a MiG, and almost complete wreckage of a B-52 – the size of which makes you realise that the wreckage in the lake is only part of it! It’s quite sad that they had to shoot down planes over populated areas.
Away from war related sites, we visited the Temple of Literature, which is devoted to the philosopher Confucius. It consists of several stunning courtyards, lakes and gardens, and really needs to be included on anyone’s Hanoi itinerary.
I had wanted to see the Ho Chi Minh mausoleum but the limited opening times and reports of very long queues put me off. We did however see the building itself and the immaculate surroundings, which along with all the guards gives you a sense of just how important this site is and how much ‘Bac Ho’ was revered and respected by the north Vietnamese.
Nearby to the mausoleum is the One Pillar Pagoda, which we did see, and while interesting, probably isn’t an essential sight.
So what else did we do in Hanoi? Well we relaxed and drunk copious amounts of ice coffee, visited some cool bars and of course ate plenty of great food.
Such as Bun Cha
Banh Chung (Katy was very excited to find this for sale on the streets)
And stir fried frog…
There’s no doubt about it, Hanoi is just a cool city to hang out in, and was a perfect end to our hectic but enjoyable month in Vietnam.