What To Do In Hanoi—Your Picturesque Gateway To Vietnam
This is a fact: Hanoi is about five million scooters and motorbikes, against only one million cars. In the daytime, you sense that disparity as you walk the streets of this capital city of Vietnam; but come the evening, you feel and hear it as you’re hounded off the streets and sidewalks, and their constant beeping assaults you from all sides. It’s like the whole scooter population has descended on the city’s Old Quarter for a night of dining and carousing—and the sidewalks are literally taken over, converted into miles and miles of parking space for these legions of Vespas and Hondas. These scooters are just one ubiquitous aspect of knowing you’re in Hanoi.
Known for its centuries-old architecture, and the deep cultural heritage that absorbs Southeast Asian, Chinese, and French influences, Hanoi is one of those Asian cities that foreign tourists love to visit. It’s an intriguing clash of the old and the modern; the urban vibe is chaotic, road safety is a big question mark as the motorists ignore the pedestrians—and in the height of summer, the heat is oppressive.
Yet, visitors from all over the world still flock to Hanoi as their start-off point to experience today’s Vietnam. It’s affordable with a capital A, and easily accessed via most major airlines; so despite the reports of rampant pickpockets and pushy street vendors, it’s on most travel must-visit lists.
And they’ve been coming in record numbers! As a Filipino, I have to confess I’m downright envious. Vietnam enjoyed 15.5 million visitors in 2018, a 20% increase from 2017. In the Philippines, we were ecstatic over our 7.1 million visitors in 2018, a single digit increase from the previous year. And I’m wondering what it is about Vietnam that has resonated so strongly with the global tourist that we haven’t mastered, or even figured out.
They have Ha Long Bay, and we can claim Boracay and Palawan. There’s Hanoi, and we have Manila—and we can insist till we’re blue in the face that there’s more to do in Manila, or that Bora is more of an island attraction. But at the end of the day, it’s 15.5 million and growing rapidly, to our 7.1 million.
I took a City Tour of Hanoi, and it was well-organized, informative, and illuminating. The Temple of Literature was built in 1070, and dedicated to Confucius during the Trân dynasty. It is the site of the Imperial Academy, Vietnam’s first university, and is a picturesque network of pavilions, halls, and ponds. The Thang Long Imperial Citadel dates to the 11th century, and the Ly Viet dynasty. It’s significant to both ancient history and contemporary history, as a lot of the military strategizing that went on during the final phase of the Vietnam War happened here.
Imperial Citadel | Photo by Philip Cu-Unjieng
And one can get a slice of history and contemporary Hanoi life by visiting the Hoàn Kiêm Lake of the Restored Sword. The story behind the lake and the Turtle Tower is how upon the request of the Dragon King, the Emperor returned the sword to a giant turtle that lived in the lake; thankful, as this was the sword used to drive away Chinese oppressors. And today, it’s a lake park that people flock to for some serenity within the city. There’s also St. Joseph’s Cathedral; built by the French in 1886, and utilizing the Gothic Revival style which Norte Dame similarly employed.
Hoàn Kiêm Lake Bridge | Photo by T.H. Chia on Unsplash
At the Vietnam National Museum of History, you get two floors of Vietnam prehistory, all the way to the 1945 Revolution. Hanoi’s West Lake is the biggest of the numerous lakes that dot the capital, and people visit the pagoda that’s found in one section of the lake. Nearby, are the edifices that the Vietnamese are extremely proud of—their Parliament, the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum, and the very French-designed mustard yellow, and red-roofed Presidential Palace. It’s a known fact that Uncle Ho would use the Palace when receiving foreign dignitaries, but refused to reside in it.
Given that this is a socialist country, there is a recurring theme of wonderful irony and juxtaposition. Their dynastic past, their colonial past, dueling religions, the striving for modernity and promoting tourism—this all goes hand in hand with showcasing socialism. There’s backhanded pride in this royal history of Vietnam; and how, despite its proximity to China, it has its own story to tell.
I especially loved how on one corner of the city, there’s a big mural of Uncle Ho celebrating Hanoi as a UNESCO City of Peace, and right beside is the Trang Tien Plaza, home to all these luxury retail brands. Couldn’t help wondering what Uncle Ho would have made of Louis Vuitton and Dior price points.
Uncle Ho right beside the Trang Tien Plaza, and interior of Trang Tien | Photo by Philip Cu-Unjieng
Street food is the be-all of Vietnamese cuisine; but do be prepared to be seated on low plastic stools with your knees just an inch below your cheeks. Uhóa is one traditional Vietnamese restaurant I would recommend, where one can enjoy Vietnamese food in relative comfort.
Uhòa Restaurant and Pho | Photo by Philip Cu-Unjieng
Vietnam today is more than Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh City and Ha Long Bay. Sa Pa is a mountain town that’s fast becoming a summer capital destination. And if it’s the gastronomic center of Vietnam you’re after, head to Hôi An, a coastal town in the middle of the country. There’s a delightful time warp quality to this town, like you’re back in time to a trading outpost in the 19th century. Officially, the State is promoting 21 tourist sites.
Hanoi is your gateway to all Vietnam has to offer today. And it’s a journey of many stories; one well worth taking.