Exploring the Past and Future in Hanoi, Vietnam

Hanoi is a beautiful, hectic, vibrant, colorful, historic, modern yet traditional mix of French colonial buildings, pungent aromas and millions of people and even more motorcycles in constant motion. Halong Bay is 3 hours away. If you had told me I would be paddling a kayak (with Steven) in the middle of Halong Bay in the South China Sea, I’d have told you you’re crazy. Hạlong (or Ha Long) Bay, in northeast Vietnam.

Halong Bay Vietnam

I really didn’t have much desire to travel to Vietnam until I moved to South Korea a few years ago. Vietnam wasn’t on my bucket list because my father, like many of yours, had fought in the Vietnam War in the 1970s. Vietnam has shaken its communist roots and developed into a world-class tourist destination. And a Halong Bay cruise in combination with a Hanoi city stay is a great way to explore charm, food, and history of Vietnam.

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Exploring the Past and Future of Hanoi

I had no idea that according to the Japan External Trade Organization, the average monthly salary of a Vietnamese worker last year was $145 in Hanoi. I spoke to a lot of locals who talked about the atmosphere and attitudes towards the West in general and the United States in particular. And I was surprised to hear so much praise leveled in both directions and especially towards President Obama who btw… recently visited Hanoi with Foodie Anthony Bourdain for an upcoming episode of Anthony Bourdain Parts Unknown.

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Exploring Hanoi, Vietnam

There are several terrific cities to visit in Vietnam: Hoi An, Ho Chi Minh City, Hue, Da Nang, and Hanoi are the most popular. In the interest of time, we decided to concentrate on one city. We choice Hanoi because it’s close to Halong Bay. As well as its French colonial architecture and popularity with Western tourists. And boy did Hanoi live up to our expectations. It’s a beautiful, hectic, and historic city. And yet it’s a modern mix of traditional Vietnamese and French colonial buildings. Delicious pungent aromas, millions of people, and even more motorcycles are always in constant motion. Here is a list of my favorite top 10 Hanoi activities.

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1. Intercontinental Hotel

Arguably the best hotel in Hanoi, it is beautiful. The Intercontinental Hanoi is comprised of several buildings on stilts upon West Lake adjacent to the famous 800-year-old Golden Lotus (Kim Lien) Pagoda. I picked a hotel away from the city center for peace and quiet, but its only minutes away by taxi. You know you are in for something special as you approach the entrance and you are greeted by a couple of locals dressed in traditional attire who open the doors for you, bow and welcome you into the massive lobby adorned with towers of fresh flowers.

Whether you choose a room over the water or in the main building, you’ll be treated to a gorgeous view over the lagoon or pool. If you are looking for a lovely hotel in the historic French quarter check out the historic and beautiful Metropole. Staying at the Intercontinental is a great companion hotel to a Halong Bay vacation.

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2. Massages

There are tons of massage parlors all over the city. You can get a really good one for about $23. More than you’ll pay in Thailand, but only a pittance of what you’ll pay in South Korea or the United States.

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3. Egg Coffee at Dinh Coffee

Egg coffee is a Vietnamese drink, which is traditionally prepared with egg yolks, sugar, condensed milk, and Robusta coffee. It apparently originated during the war when milk was in short supply and egg yolk was substituted and whipped up into a yummy frothy drink. Egg coffee was described by BuzzFeed as a “liquid tiramisu”. I was surprised, but not as many places offer it, but Dinh Coffee is an institution in the city and an adventure once you find it.

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4. Walking Around Old Hanoi

There is so much to see walking down the narrow streets of the old town. It’s hard to discern what’s going on sometimes, so a guide or a food walking tour is a great way to cut through the confusion.

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5. Hỏa Ló Prison

Hỏa Lò Prison was a prison used by the French colonists in Vietnam for political prisoners. Later, North Vietnam used it to house U.S. Prisoners of War. Called the Hanoi Hilton, by  American POWs, the majority of the prison was demolished in the 1990s.

However, the gatehouse was opened as a museum complete with a totally inappropriate gift shop on the way out. It’s most notable resident was Senator John McCain who was imprisoned here after he was shot down over West Lake. I’ve read that several planes still reside in the murky water.

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6. Vietnamese BBQ and Street Food Tour

I ate a ton of noodles and spring rolls. I couldn’t help it– they began calling me in my sleep. We ate noodles every morning for 9 days, lol. Why? Because they are delicious and cheap. But make sure you also try the Vietnamese BBQ. You can order any combination of pork, beef, fish, stuffed crab, or squid. And they are served with a tasty mix of greens, vegetables, and herbs. Don’t forget to grab a .50 cent beer too.

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7. Get Ice Cream at Trang Tien

Coconut, sticky rice and taro are just a few of the tasty flavors on sale as this famous ice cream shop. Opened in 1958, it’s not your neighborhood ice cream parlor. The locals drive-in on their motorbikes and enjoy a tasty treat there too. 35 Tràng Tiền, Hoàn Kiếm, Hà Nội, Vietnam.

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8. Hoàn Kiếm, Ngoc Son Temple and Turtle Tower

Hoàn Kiếm or the Lake of the Restored Sword is a pretty lake in the middle of the city. And it’s conveniently located across from Dinh Coffee. Walk across Huc Bridge, a bright red bridge to Ngoc Son Temple for a small fee. You can’t help but stop to admire and take a few pictures of the other structure visible on the lake, Turtle Tower in the center.

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9. Hire a Driver/ Tour Guide 

Some cities are easy to navigate on your own. Hanoi is not one of them. The street signs, if there are any, are small and hard to read. And if there is any saving grace, the neighborhoods have remained the same for hundreds of years. Like many cities in Asia, there are streets devoted to producing, seafood, clothing, home goods, and electronics. Although the latter may not have existed until recently. The traffic is always heavy. All the above combine to illustrate why you should hire a tour guide.

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10. Markets, Street Stalls and Carts

If you can’t find it in the markets, it probably doesn’t exist. Go to the area around Don Xuan Market for food, clothing, souvenirs, and people-watch. Grab a banh mi, a Vietnamese sandwich made with a French baguette and grilled pork, chicken, or pate. Đồng Xuân, Hoàn Kiếm, Hà Nội, Vietnam.

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14 thoughts on “Exploring the Past and Future in Hanoi, Vietnam

  1. I would love to do this. Was it expensive? And although you recommend 3 days/ 2 nights, can you enjoy a shorter or longer stay?

  2. I would definitely be up for trying egg coffee because I love to be adventorous and try new Food and drink. I like the sound of the Lake Of The Restored Sword it is absolutely gorgeous!

  3. Great post. Thanks so much for sharing what to do in Hanoi. I will be visiting later this year and can’t wait to try the noodles, street food and ice cream 🙂 I’m also looking forward to visiting the Hỏa Lò Prison. Can’t wait!!

    1. You will enjoy it Rosemary. If you have limited time, make sure you hire someone to take you around, its so much easier.

    1. Egg coffee is really delicious. It’s creamy and frothy, you really can’t taste the egg at all. And yes, if you get a chance you should visit, I hope we get a chance to go again. They recently changed the VISA requirements for US, so its $135 for a year and multiple entries.

    1. Egg coffee is really delicious. It’s creamy and frothy, you really can’t taste the egg at all. And yes, if you get a chance you should visit, I hope we get a chance to go again. I thought about the puppet show, but it just seemed so touristy and without kids we didn’t feel like it would be worth it, but thanks, if we go back, we’ll check it out.

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