Hanoi was our first introduction to Vietnam. Many travellers either start at Hanoi in the North and travel South, or start at Ho Chi Minh and travel North. Either works depending on where you are arriving from or departing to.
One thing to be aware of when arriving in Vietnam is visas. With our valuable NZ passports we are used to just arriving and getting stamped in to a country with minimum fuss. Not so with Vietnam where you need to either apply for your visa in advance at an embassy or apply for an approval letter that you present to obtain a visa on arrival. The visas are also quite expensive. We found this website a useful source of information and an efficient service. The visa on arrival service is only available at 3 airports so check this information before confirming your Vietnam travel plans.
There is enough in Hanoi to fill a few days and it is a starting point for a number of popular overnight and day trips. In particular the famous Halong Bay. You should research your plans and what you want to see before booking accommodation, so you haven’t paid for accommodation in Hanoi when you want to do an overnight trip.
We made a decision not to do Halong Bay on this trip. It is quite expensive and we felt we had budget to do either that or the Mekong Delta trip but perhaps not both. Add in hours spent in a bus either way and reports that the whole experience is overrun with tourists and we decided to save it for another time.
We had 3 nights in Hanoi, arriving late on the first day from Bangkok but also leaving on the evening of the 3rd day on the sleeper train. Even the staff at our hotel suggested that after 2 days we would have seen everything and did we not want to book a day trip for the next day?!
We focused on the old town area of Hanoi near where we stayed. The first day we walked into the old town, towards the Hoan Kiem Lake. Passing through small streets on the way, getting our first glimpse of Vietnam, and exclaiming over typical Vietnamese street scenes.
We then walked around the lake stopping for the many photo opportunities and people watching the ‘Instagrammers’.
We veered off away from the lake in search of St Joseph Cathedral, suddenly the narrow streets open onto a small square – that is more of a triangle, and you could be in France with the Cathedral and quaint little cafes, their balconies overlooking the street below. The French Vietnamese juxtaposition is confusing at first, am I in Paris or Hanoi? But it is this mix of cultures that makes the city more interesting.
That evening we watched our first Water Puppet Theatre show, you can read all about that here. In short we had a fun time and the kids thought it was hilarious.
Vietnam Museum of Ethnology
This fascinating museum showcases the 54 different ethnic groups in Vietnam. It is a perfect place to learn about the Vietnamese way of life. Well presented exhibits cover everyday life, religious events, customs, costumes and agricultural practices.
Outside there are full size traditional Vietnamese houses in a village setting. You can walk amongst the different types of houses unique to each ethnic group, you are allowed to walk inside, climb steps, view the different rooms, sleeping and eating areas.
These houses are actual village houses that were purchased by the museum, transported and reconstructed at the museum by the local people or original owners to ensure their authenticity.
While most tours will do this as just part of a full day tour of Hanoi we spent almost a whole day here, 5-6 hours. We explored the indoors and outdoors area and went to another water puppet show, this time outdoors. We had lunch in their restaurant, a non profit organisation that supports students from disadvantaged backgrounds. By training in the restaurant they can go on to gain employment in hospitality. Finally we spent some time (and money!) in the Museum shop were the products are all fair trade and handcrafted by the different ethnic groups in Vietnam.
This was one of our favourite exhibits at the Museum.
Mr. Pham Ngoc Uy used this bicycle from 1982 to 1997 to sell fish traps throughout the Red River delta. He would often carry more than 800 traps, as in the picture, of different sorts, for catching river fish.
Our final day we walked around the West Lake and visited the Tran Quoc Pagoda, a 6th Century Buddhist Temple.
L and S then spotted the swan boats, so we ended up in a tatty old boat on a filthy, stinky lake, paddling round and round with hundreds of other tourists and local families, looking at plastic rubbish and dead fish. This was apparently one of L’s highlights of the trip so far?! Right up there with Elephants and a day at LEGOLAND.
We headed to a pavement café to people watch and recover from the Swan Boat experience, where S took this picture of us. You can see from my extra layers that it is a bit cooler this far North, it was March when we were in Hanoi, we enjoyed the more comfortable temperatures for walking and sight seeing.
That night we prepared for one of our biggest adventures since island hopping, the Vietnamese sleeper train!