After Saigon, I was a bit worn out and I feared Hanoi would be more of the same – busy, dirty and overwhelming.
Don’t get me wrong, I did love Saigon. But I just was in the mood for something a bit different when I came to Hanoi.
And gratefully, I got it! Hanoi is my undisputed favourite out of the two big cities in Vietnam.
It’s rather pretty
Okay, it’s still a bit grotty, and very crowded, but this city has a beauty that really surprised me. And it’s definitely not as grotty or crowded as Saigon.
The ex French colonialism is very evident in Hanoi, with French architecture everywhere and French names on some of the really old buildings, including the Hoa Lo Prison (“Maison Centrale”).
The Old Quarter itself actually feels like Bordeaux or Toulouse in some ways, except it’s full of Vietnamese people. The narrow, illogically planned streets and the French buildings really do feel European.
Hoan Keim Lake is a particularly appealing feature of the city. Lined all the way around with a walking path and beautiful trees, it’s a bit of a tranquil escape in such a big, bustling city.
Hanoi is a bit less crazy than Saigon
It’s busy, yes, but it’s manageable (just). The streets are much narrower than in Saigon, and so you have somewhat less chance of being killed when crossing the street. It’s easier to head out into one lane of traffic than to head into four!
However, there’s much less space (slash no space at all) for pedestrians in Hanoi. Saigon has wide roads and footpaths, so there’s usually space for motorbike parking, street food and pedestrians. Not so in Hanoi. The footpaths are chocked full of people sitting around eating, selling street food, and parked motorbikes. There’s even sometimes random dogs and chickens wandering around. I learned that the chickens are allowed to wander to make them taste better… I loved the chickens so much I amassed quite a big collection of photographs of them, entitled “Random Hanoi Street Chickens.” Anyway, the random stuff clogging the footpaths means pedestrians have to walk on the road. It’s all a bit of a nightmare, but it is fun!
There’s a lot of interesting historical sites to see, peppered with communist propaganda
I only had a few days in Hanoi, so I didn’t make it to everything. Thankfully, I did manage to cram in a few.
Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum
Unfortunately, I never got to go inside to see Uncle Ho’s preserved corpse. I tried to go twice and both times it was shut. Pretty shitty, I was hoping to break my “seeing a dead communist leader embalmed and on display” virginity.
Hoa Lo Prison (aka “Propaganda Central”)
The name loosely translates as “hell hole.” This was an extremely interesting hour of my life, and I recommend it to anyone with an interest in the French colonial history of Vietnam, or of the Vietnam War. It’s also appealing to anyone interested in a skewed version of history, because Hoa Lo is full of it. Propaganda abounds.
The Vietnamese prisoners of the French (many of them political prisoners/communists) were (according to the prison information and videos) treated extremely poorly, tortured, basically starved and were given no fresh air. This, I suspect, is perfectly true.
On the contrary, the information at the prison asserts that during the Vietnam War, American pilots who were held prisoner in Hoa La were treated very well. There’s a series of photographs of the American POWs playing sports, eating nice food, etc. This is definitely not the entire story. It’s well known that the American POWs were tortured there for years on end, held in solitary confinement, and driven mad.
As an aside, I must say that tours and tourist information in Vietnam goes to effort to portray the Vietnamese as a kind and benevolent people (which, in my experience here, they are), and the Americans as pretty evil. Fair enough, after what America did to this country. But the Vietnamese treated their POWs pretty badly as well. A fabricated documentary or removing a few photographs can’t hide that fact.
Hoa La contains in the Vietnam War section a particular propaganda video that is so convincing that even I left believing it, until I walked a few blocks and came to my senses. The video alternates between showing injured Vietnamese and rubble, and showing smiling American POWs playing sports at Hoa Lo Prison. Those shots were surely taken under duress. How could you not feel for the Vietnamese, who were so kind to the Americans who had killed so many of them, after seeing this video? The reality is while the parts of the video showing Americans bombing Vietnam are perfectly true (and horrible), the stuff about how happy the prisoners were at Hoa Lo is absolute bullshit. They even have supposed personal items of the American prisoners there such as guitars and sports equipment. The ex POWs say these items are fakes. The prison also has “John McCain’s flight suit” there, which McCain has publicly stated could not really be his as his was cut off him when he crash landed in North Vietnam. It’s all quite astounding, and the place leaves you with a supreme sense of the power of communist propaganda.
The re-writing of history here is extremely interesting indeed. After all, history is a matter of perspective, and is written by the winners.
National Museum of Vietnamese History
Admittedly, I didn’t love this, but I have to mention it because I went. A good thing was when I went there was virtually nobody there. It’s cheap (40,000 Dong entry fee, about $1.50). However, it seemed to focus mainly on ancient Vietnamese history (like minimum 10,000 years ago), which I’m not as interested in. I’m more interested in the French colonisation and particularly the Vietnam War. However, it’s worth a visit. There were some decent displays about the evolution of man in the region from ape to homo sapien sapien.
Hanoi is way more overtly communist than Saigon
In Saigon, I saw a few red flags.
In Hanoi, they’re literally everywhere.
In the Old Quarter and surrounds, they line every street. Wherever there’s a monument, there’s 10 red flags. And not just the Vietnamese Flag red flag (with the yellow star), oh no. I mean the red flags with the yellow hammer and sickle. The communist flag.
So many in Hanoi, not so many in Saigon. I can only speculate that it’s because the north of Vietnam is actually more passionately communist than the south. That would make sense historically, considering that the north was the home of the Viet Kong, and the south had to be forced to adopt communism.
Decent veggie options
Admittedly, by this point in my trip I was starting to get a bit sick of vegetarian spring rolls and vegetarian pho, which is basically all I’d eaten so far in Vietnam. I managed to find a joint in Hanoi called the Hanoi Social Club which is stacked out with expats, has a great western vegetarian menu, and is LGBTI friendly. The latter in particular is a rare thing in Vietnam.
It was disturbingly pleasant to eat a veggie burger after days and days of an exclusive diet of pho. I’d missed that too full, stodgy feeling that western food brings.
Another awesome cooking class
I also did a cooking class here (my second in Vietnam), and it was great. I wanted to learn some local dishes, as I’ve found food between North and South varies quite a lot in Vietnam. I did my vegetarian class at Countryside. I got taken around Dong Xuan Market before we started cooking and shown various vegetables and fruits. My guide explained to me what things are used for in different Vietnamese cuisine, which was great for a foodie like me!
I then used those ingredients to make three local vegetarian dishes. They all seemed to involve peanuts in some capacity, so I wonder if that’s a North Vietnam thing, as I saw zero peanuts in the South.
The food in Hanoi, like everywhere in Vietnam, is enough to make your mouth water. Scoff it down while you can!
Weird, weird delicacy called “egg coffee”
Yes, it is exactly what it sounds like. And yes, it is gross. Or at least I thought so.
In summary, Hanoi is super cool, a bit offensive to our western sensibilities, and totally worth a visit.