The Saturday City: Hanoi

hanoi traffic in the old townThe capital of Vietnam, Hanoi is located in the north of the country. Crowded (pop. 6,000,000+), a little polluted, and slightly run-down, it nonetheless is very quaint.

Though I did not like Vietnam, I liked Hanoi. A lot. I thought it had a certain charm to it.

Time, and poor rebuilding, have worn down the city. All over Hanoi, old French colonial homes lay crumbling as modern buildings spring up around them, slowly bringing the city into the modern age. The city’s old quarter, located right by Hoan Kiem Lake, is a fine example of French Colonial architecture, even if it is slightly run-down. I imagine this is what New Orleans would look like if it was left to decay.

This part of the city is a great place to wander. Navigate tiny streets and outdoor markets as people crush you from all sides. Hanoi is very busy, and this quarter is one of the busiest – flooded with bikes, buses, markets, and tourists. Buses cram down streets I didn’t think even motorbikes could get through. A bus of mine went down one the wrong way and I was sure we were done for. And crossing the street here is a fine art, as motorbikes and cars don’t stop for you. But, despite the crowds, these densely-packed streets have a lot of charm as the old battles the new for dominance.

The old quarter is also a great place to sit and drink Bia Hoi, cheap Vietnamese beer. All around the country, little stalls sell beer by the glass for as little as 2,000 dong (about 15 cents). Hanoi is a great place to pull up a little plastic stool, sit down, chat with the locals, and watch all the craziness go by. At 15 cents a beer, you can’t go wrong!

the presidential palace in hanoi, vietnam

Centered here is also the famous Hoan Kiem Lake. Hoan Kiem Lake is said to be the home of great giant turtles. Legend has it that King Le Loi was given a magical sword by the gods, which he used to drive out the invading Chinese Ming Dynasty. Later, while boating on the lake, he encountered a giant turtle, which grabbed the sword and carried it down to the depths, returning it to the gods. Large turtles are said to still roam the lake, though increased pollution has made it unlikely that they will survive much longer. You can see a mummified turtle on the Jade Island in the north part of the lake. The turtles are revered by the Vietnamese and this legend/battle is a source of huge pride for all of Vietnam. Turtle sightings in the lake still send the locals into a fervor!

Outside the old quarter, a modern city sprawls out, intermingled with ancient colonial homes. There’s a lot to do in Hanoi. For those interested in history, there’s the Temple of Literature. Built in 1070, this was the country’s first university. The huge complex is lined with stone tablets listing all the graduates of the university. There are also a few buildings and some little ponds.

For those interested in war history, there’s a lot to see, from the American Vietnam War to the French Vietnam War. There’s also the Museum of the Vietnamese Revolution, the Army Museum, B-52 Lake, as well as the infamous Hanoi Hilton (whose most famous prisoner, John McCain, is now running for president).

one of the busy locals in hanoi

Looking for something more morbid? Visitors can take a tour to see the preserved body of former leader Ho Chi Minh himself. Despite wanting his body to be cremated (so as to not waste agricultural land), his countrymen mummified him and put him on display. It’s a creepy sight and he looks very “plastic.” No cameras are allowed in, and soldiers stand guard to make sure you do not speak either. Make sure you time your visit right, though – Ho Chi Minh spends a few months out of the year in Moscow getting “worked” on.

For those interested in Ho Chi Minh, you can see his old presidential palace as well as a museum dedicated to his life. The museum isn’t that great. In fact, I found all the museums in the country to be very poorly done; they skip a lot of historical details. The museum is really more of a propaganda tool designed to show how Ho Chi Minh led a revolution against imperialist pigs instead of being a chronology of his life. I found that to be disappointing, as I was really looking forward to learning about his life. I left that museum learning a little but missing a lot.

hanoi traffic in the old town

For those who find the hustle and bustle of Hanoi too much to handle, there are many trips outside the city you can take, too. You can head out to the World Heritage site, Halong Bay, and sail through limestone krysts. Or head west to Sapa, one of the most beautiful regions of the world and home to many hill tribes. Sapa was really beautiful. In fact, Vietnam’s natural beauty was the highlight of my time there.

In the end, Hanoi is a great city. There are plenty of other cities I enjoy more, but Hanoi certainly has charm all its own.

  1. Amanda

    Matt, how could you not like Vietnam? One of my favourite ever trips … but you’re right, Hanoi is especially lovely.

    You also got it exactly right about crossing the road being like Frogger! Since I started my trip in the south, by the time I got to Hanoi I’d got the hang of the “game” but if I went back again I’d be terrified, I’m sure. Nice post!

  2. as a girl who was born in vietnam and lived there for several years before moving to the states, i still take a liking to visiting the country. it’s nice to go back once in a while to visit family and learn more about my heritage, but i do agree with matt that just like the museum, you can end up missing a lot of the details when you are in this country (i’ve had my share of arguments about propaganda).

    i’ve mostly traveled around saigon (ho chi minh city), and one of my favorite places in the world was actually on the balcony of my aunt’s house right in the center of the market where everyone gets up and moving before the crack of dawn, looking down at the traffic of people below me. there’s just something really quaint about that. i love the random food places on the street where you just pull up one of those kids’ plastic chair, gambling with how your stomach will react. everything just tastes so fresh.

    matt, did you get a chance to visit saigon, especially the “downtown” area? i haven’t traveled up north yet, but i’ll be sure to check out hanoi when i visit vietnam next year.

  3. NomadicMatt

    @amanda: i just wasn’t a fan! beautiful country but i thought the food was only ehhh and the people were kind of rude. vietnam and i just didn’t click.

    @trang: Yeah, I went from north to south. Overall, I liked the south better than the north. I really liked HCMC. it was my kind of crazy!

  4. Hi Matt, it was great to find your blog; nice pictures interesting text ! And a great list of travel goals, including travelling First… 😉 It’s so good that one may even live with the Google ads that haunt the page… 😉
    Now serious, loved to read the Hanoi post, nd in particular your views on Boston! Great job!

  5. NomadicMatt

    @trotter: thanks for visiting!! The google ads help pay for hosting fees! :)

    @suzen: The people were friendlier in the south but overall, I think other south east asians were friendlier.

  6. KIRAN

    I am also planning to visit Vietnam. But overwhelmed by the number of sites offering Visa approval letter and some of them seem fake. Which site did you use to order your Visa approval letter. Thanks for help!

  7. Ashley

    I am glad I came across your different posts of Vietnam. I leave for there in a little over 3 1/2 weeks and am going alone which is exciting, yet nerve racking as I have never been out of the country alone. Ill be there for 3 weeks and was happy to see that some of the place I have decided I would like to travel to, you have talked about. Thanks again for your posts!

  8. Hello Matt,

    My name is Binh and I live in Hanoi.

    I would like to update that due to financial inflation, a cup of beer is now 15000VND = 75c.

    But I still see a lot of travellers sitting in the corner of Ma May street. It’s still a very crowed and fun place for visiting.


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