We arrive in Hanoi late in the afternoon after 5 hours by bus from Ha Long.
Before reaching Hanoi city centre, we pass by the most peripheral neighbourhoods where huge residential villages are being built, true islands detached from the world around.
We arrive in the Old Quarter, the most famous and tourist area in Hanoi. There are lots of accommodation in the Old Quarter, one we recommend is the elegant Hanoian Hotel, a beautiful hotel with very nice interiors and lovely city view rooms.
Later we enjoy the evening walking among the several stands of the night market, which takes place in one of the main roads of the Old Quarter every weekend night starting from 6pm. Besides clothes and souvenirs, we also find some snacks and we immediately notice the western taste all around the city: kebab, pizza, burgers, happy hour drinks, crepes, ice-cream, and everything else you can imagine. It could seem ordinary, but after a few months in Asia nothing is taken for granted anymore.
The long queue of vendors is not far from beautiful Hoan Kiem Lake, that shows up among the buildings: a charming red bridge links the shore to a small island on which there’s a nice small temple; according to the legend, the lake is home to the turtle that helped the gods to get back the magic sword lent to the emperor of Hanoi, who used it to fight and win against the Chinese.
All around the lake, a large park is decorated by a big variety of flowers; a perfect oasis of silence despite the chaotic traffic of the city.
The next day we explore the Old Quarter area on foot. We decide to follow the itinerary recommended by our Lonely Planet guide which is actually pretty nice. We immediately notice how the city is structured as a department store, and the streets are specialized in selling a specific kind of article or by groups of same profession workers: the blacksmiths street is followed by the street of mirror shops. Around the corner is what we call Herb lane, not far from the polystyrene, tape and toys area. And it goes on like this all around town. When simplicity meets geniality!
We reach the border of the Old Quarter in order to visit the old Hoa Lo Prison, nowadays a museum, where the French kept the Vietnamese rebels as prisoners, and later the Vietnamese incarcerated the American pilots. The visit is sad but also interesting because it lets understand the differences in treating the prisoners between the French and the Vietnamese; it makes you realize how cruel can our race be (in this case the Western men more than the Asian).
At night time we take a seat in a small theatre close to the Hoan Kiem lake to enjoy the Water Puppets show, one of the oldest Vietnamese traditions. The seats were assigned but since we bought the tickets in the morning, we manage to sit in the first rows. The 1-hour-long show sees the characters tell funny stories of the tradition that we can mostly understand even though the few dialogues are in Vietnamese. We end our night with a Bun Cha, a typical dish of the capital, a soup with noodles, pork meatballs, herbs, spring rolls.
We enjoy our last day in the capital visiting the site of Ho Chi Minh’s Mausoleum, the Vietnamese Communist revolutionary leader who was prime minister and president of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam. To get there we walk along a wide boulevard where elegant colonial villas pop up in numbers, nowadays they are mainly offices and embassies.
The site starts in front of a big square that’s impossible to cross: unaware of the prohibition, when we try to walk through a soldier stops us and shows us the long way around. Behind the fence, the Presidential Palace stands yellow and majestic, near the severe-looking Mausoleum where Ho Chi Minh’s remains are preserved, and the museum dedicated to the most famous person in Vietnam.
Between the buildings there’s a nice park where a pagoda rises on a pillar in the middle of a pond, a symbol wanted by the emperor to honour his newborn son.
On the way back we stop to visit the gorgeous Temple of Literature, that was the first national university in Vietnam. A well preserved and serene site with a nice lake and park enclosed too.
After many kms on foot, we go back to get our luggage and use a comfy local bus to reach My Dinh bus station. By 7pm we settle in our berths towards Cao Bang, a small city at the north-eastern border between Vietnam and China.
We leave Hanoi and its chaotic colours, smells, lights and history of the old times of the country.
- The Hanoian Hotel: great location in Old Quarter, fine interiors and city view rooms.
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