Hanoi is the capital of Vietnam and the country’s second largest city by population with over seven million people. Hanoi is 1,090 miles north of Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon). The flight from Saigon to Hanoi was ninety minutes. The first thing I noticed was the French architecture and influences throughout the buildings. Everything seemed more orderly and polished than the madness of Saigon. The multilane highway was nicer than some highways in America. After a short ride from the airport we arrived in the Hoan Kiem district (aka Old Quarter) to our hotel.
Upon arriving to Hanoi we were warned many times of the scams going on with tourist. Especially the taxi meter scam. Even the hotel told us to avoid taxis and to use Uber if we had to go anywhere. Apparently they have the meter fixed for foreign tourists. Our hotel was situated in a lively location so we could walk to most of the sightseeing points. However when we did need transportation we used Uber. No cash or tips are exchanged when using Uber, its all done through the application and our personal credit card.
The weekends are packed with action in Hanoi. People line the streets on small plastic stools and low tables eating food and drinking beer. The weekend market takes up blocks of streets selling knock off Under Amor and Nike shoes, hair accessories, phone accessories and no name clothing and shoes. There are deals to be made but the prices start off so low that the dealing is a matter of a few cents rather than dollars. I bought a make up brush for less than [$1.00] without even haggling. How do you ask to pay less than that?
Pharmacies in Vietnam do not require prescriptions for drugs normally prescribed by doctors. We took full advantage of this buying creams and other prescription medicine that would normally cost a lot in the United States. I even picked up prescription face cream for my face. In America this would have been expensive considering I would have to pay a doctor’s visit to a dermatologist plus the cost of the prescription. The pharmacies do not carry any narcotics, heart medications or serious condition medications.
Another thing to watch out for in Hanoi is businesses and stores with the same name, signs and items. We took an Uber to a famous bun cha restaurant. The Uber dropped us off on the corner of the block. We could see the sign of the restaurant as it was on the corner. As soon as we left the car, the restaurant owner approached us and sat us down. It was literally a hole in the wall place. We ordered, ate and praised them about how good the meal was. When we left we walked a few feet and saw that we were in the wrong place. Thinking back the red flags were flashing. For one, the meat was in a plastic bag hanging on the wall (literally), we were sat in the kitchen area next to the fridge, the owner didn’t smile or give us any indication of the rave reviews stated on TripAdvisor and last we were the only foreigners there.
The original restaurant was next door! The signs, colors and items served were the same only the original was much nicer. We looked back at the place we had just left and the owner gave us a deviant smile. We explained to the other owner what happened and he wasn’t surprised. There was no record on the internet of the place we were at, it was literally a hole in the wall. This is something that would never be tolerated in the United States.
After this incident we started to see just how many business clone themselves after successful businesses to get business of their own.
During Obama’s presidency he visited Hanoi and had dinner at Bun Cha Huong Lien, restaurant with Anthony Bourdain. This made the restaurant extremely popular with tourists and locals. Food tours even added this to their routes. Seeing the success of Bun Cha Huong Lien, another business owner opened a restaurant named “Obama’s Restaurant” and put a huge picture sign above the door of Obama smiling and holding a beer from his visit at Bun Cha Huong Lien! Talk about brazen.
Hỏa Lò Prison in Hanoi is a landmark in Hanoi. This is where American pilots (including John McCain) were held during the Vietnam war. Part of the prison is open as a museum for visitors to tour. Like all prisons, some horrible things went on inside these walls, especially when it was run by the French in the early years of the 1900s.
This is where the first guillotine was introduced to Vietnam and as a result many heads were chopped off. The original guillotine is on display along with the bucket the heads rolled in. The French really knew how to torture people and when the prisoners weren’t being tortured they were shackled in a seated position and fed moldy outdated food twice a day. Some of the prisoners had to wear a heavy bamboo latter around their necks. After the French left it was turned into a prison for the POWs of the Vietnam war. Luckily the prison was renovated and the conditions weren’t as barbaric as before. The renovated area is where the American POWs were housed.
While having dinner on a Monday night the cops pulled up in a small paddy wagon and removed all of the plastic tables and chairs outside of the restaurant we were eating at. They loaded them in the truck and left. We found out the restaurant was not allowed to place the tables on the sidewalk during the week. For the people already seated at the tables on the sidewalk, they were asked to get up and the tables were moved inside the very small dining space. During the weekends the streets are lined with tables and diners enjoying their meals or drinks. It was exciting to see the cops in action but we felt bad for the owners of the restaurant.
Taking a cyclo is a very touristy thing to do in Hanoi and an experience we loved. Hiring a driver cost $8.00 (USD) for an hour tour of the city. Our driver hardly spoke English but he tried as best he could to tell us a few landmarks we were passing. I did understand that he had four kids and he only had a cyclo and no motorbike for his entire family. Based on previous experiences with tour guides, I wasn’t sure if this was a sad story for tips or just the little conversational English he knew.
Cafe Dihn is a very famous coffee shop in Hanoi known for their egg coffee. The shop is located through a clothing store, down an alleyway and up three flights of cement stairs passing private homes before entering through the front door. After the second set of stairs I was sure we were in the wrong place until I saw a couple of foreigners coming down the stairs.
The coffee filtered into glass jars and a big basket on a shelf with a big basket of eggs. Egg coffee is famous in Hanoi. Egg coffee is made by beating egg yolks with sugar and coffee, then extracting the coffee into the half of the cup, then topping it with egg cream by heating and beating the yolks.
Cafe Giang is one of the pioneers of this drink. After walking down a narrow alley we arrived at this very small cafe where Mr. Nguyen Van Dao sits at the counter collecting the money. His father is the person who invented the egg coffee in 1946 while working as a bartender in the Sofitel Legend Metropole hotel. Family photos are posted all over the cafe and it was really cool to see Mr. Van Dao because he is a living part of the history behind this famous drink. Many places sell egg coffee and we tried at least five different places known for their egg coffee but Cafe Giang had the best tasting of all of them.
While shopping in stores, the store clerks like to stand right on top of me as I’m looking at items. One lady stood so close to me, occasionally my shoulder would bump into her when I turned the hangers. At first I was really offended because it feels like they are watching me as if I’m going to take something. Nine out of ten stores this happened. It’s always uncomfortable and I never got use to it. Even when I told them I was as just looking the person still stayed that close the entire time. This brings me to mention a scam that involves a local being nice at first.
The donut scam. A cute happy girl approaches us with a basket full of fried donuts. She says hello in English and is playful in demeanor asking us where we are from and how do we like Vietnam. She starts pointing to the donuts with her tongs and said, “Chocolate, banana, plain and vanilla. We take a picture of her and she smiles and poses. I tell her I would like to buy the banana donut. This is where the scam starts. She starts loading a sandwich bag full of donuts – I tell her I only want one. She says it’s okay. Then she passes the bag full of donuts to me and asked for [$5.00 USD]. I was expecting it to be [.50]. I tell her that’s too much I only want one, she tells me no [$5.00] you take photo. Thankfully Doug chimes in, spotting the scam and tells her in a stern voice we only want one. Her attitude gets really nasty as she unloads the donuts except one then asked for [$3.00 USD]. Now we realize she’s on the take. I try to give her [.50] for the one donut and she looks at me like I’m nuts. Now I’m starting to get mad too and she takes the money out of my hands [.50] and says something really nasty under her breath and walks away. Doug and I laughed and laughed about the whole situation and chalked it up to another Vietnamese scam on tourist. Later that night we say a bunch of different ladies with baskets of donuts doing the same thing to other tourist. We spoke to a guy who got scammed for the [$5.00 USD] and he had a disgusted confused look on his face. We ran into the same girl who scammed us the day before. She say us coming so she immediately took off her hat and put her head down. When Doug acknowledged her with a smile and a high five she lightened up only to ask us to buy more.
This brings me to the food in Hanoi. Some of the best dishes I’ve had are from Northern Vietnam. Spring rolls are made differently in Hanoi than in the south. Hanoians are very proud of their spring rolls people here call it “Nem Sai Gon” and they are sold in almost every restaurant. All of the ingredients are mixed thoroughly before being wrapped with rice paper into small rolls. These rolls are then fried in boiling oil. The cooked rolls are usually garnished with fresh lettuce and herbs.
Bun Cha is another staple dish of Hanoi. Bun Cha is a Vietnamese dish of grilled fatty pork (chả) over a plate of white rice noodle (bún) and herbs with a side dish of dipping sauce. The proper way to eat this dish is wrapping the meat patty, spring roll and fresh herbs in a piece of lettuce then dipped in sauce.
And my favorite dish of Hanoi is Cha Ca thang long. Cha Ca is originated in Hanoi and still remains a favorite of locals and tourists alike. Firm white fish is marinated in turmeric, ginger, garlic, and fish sauce. The fish is cooked over hot heat and seared until crispy on the outside, then served over the onions, scallions, and lots of fresh dill along with rice noodles, chopped peanuts, and a few dipping sauces. This is all done table side per order. Luckily we were able to try this dish at Cha Ca Thang Long restaurant. The restaurant only served Cha Ca and has been in business over 100 years.
Hanoi’s old town is packed with people nightly enjoying food, drinks and people watching from tables set up outside of the restaurants and bars. The streets can get very narrow as the tables spill out to the edges of the curbs. This is something you have to see to believe. During the week, restaurants are not allowed to set up tables outside of the restaurant which limits the amount of customers they are allowed to serve. During the weekends the rules are out the window. The entire block becomes a street party of people.
A trip to Hanoi wouldn’t be complete without visiting the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum. This is the final resting place of former Prime Minister Ho Chi Mihn. He led the Việt Minh independence movement from 1941 establishing the Communist-ruled Democratic Republic of Vietnam in 1945. The former capital of South Vietnam, Saigon, was officially renamed Ho Chi Minh City on 2 July 1976. We arrived in the afternoon to view his embalmed body in a glass case inside the mausoleum. Unfortunately for us it was too late in the day and the tomb was closed. On a high note we did get to see the changing of the guard in front of the mausoleum.
Hanoi is one of my favorite cities in Vietnam. The food, culture and architecture is much different than southern Vietnam. One thing for sure is there is always something to do or see here. Even though we were scammed and mildly ripped off, we loved it here. Our next stop is out of the city and into the country side of Vietnam.