Ever been a first-time visitor intimidated by the crazy traffic in Ha Noi? Crossing the road in the city is quite a challenge for foreign travellers. Do not let this spoil your time here though, as you will learn the ropes soon and enjoy the trip.
The must-sees for visitors are definitely the Old Quarter, the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum Complex, the Temple of Literature and other places of scenic and historical interest.
Before heading out, take a stroll around Hoan Kiem Lake early in the morning to mingle with local people. Eat like a true Hanoian by sitting on a stool to have a bowl of pho and then slowly sip traditional Vietnamese coffee.
Interested in Vietnamese history and how the country gained its independence? Don’t miss the Ho Chi Minh memorial complex, especially his house on stilts. If you have a tour guide, you can skip the museum because they will be able to tell you all there is to know about the great man. But if you’re travelling alone, spend time exploring the exhibits to discover how President Ho inspired the nation. If you want to visit his mausoleum, enter by the door on Le Hong Phong Street, otherwise the queues take a long time.
The Temple of Literature, with the Confucius altar and the first Viet Nam National University, will give you a perspective of the religious practices, education system and the keen learning spirit of the Vietnamese people during feudal times.
Here, you should definitely notice three things: the tall barrier on the doorstep of the holy house; the image of a crane standing above a turtle; and a tiny house with votive paper ashes. They are the three unique features that you will see in almost all temples and pagodas in Viet Nam. In autumn or early winter, you will see groups of local students there, looking very charming in the traditional ao dai dresses. The temple is one of the most popular destinations to take graduation photos.
Then you can indulge in Vietnamese cuisine. Quan An Ngon is a good choice, offering a wide range of Vietnamese dishes. Banh xeo (sizzling crepe) is a must-have here. Pho (noodles with beef/ chicken), Bun bo Nam Bo (noodles served with beef, sauce and herbs) and bun oc (noodles with snail), as well as bun cha (noodles with grilled pork, fish sauce and herbs), banh tom (shrimp pancake) and pho xao gion (crispy stir fried noodles with beef and vegetables) are specialties at the restaurant. These dishes are healthy combinations of meat, fish sauce and different kinds of aromatic herbs. Che, a sweet pudding with different flavours of tapioca, green beans, coconut milk and lotus seeds, tea and coffee, are good choices for dessert.
For adventurous travellers, the Old Quarter is no doubt the best place to find food. Ngo cho Dong Xuan lane, an alley near Dong Xuan Market, is a foodie’s paradise. It is better to ask the price first so you are not overcharged.
Old Quarter, crazy traffic, foreign travelers, walking
Pedal to the metal: Before renovation in 1986, Ha Noi was a biking city with millions of local Thong Nhat bicycles. Now the vogue is back.
Afternoons can be spent in museums. At the Museum of Ethnology, get to know the main themes in advance so you can follow the development of the country’s ethnic groups. You can visit the Southeast Asian building, which is mostly about handicrafts, jewellery and costumes. The outdoor area includes traditional ethnic houses and folk games for children, so it is suitable for kids if you need some space for them.
The Vietnamese Women’s Museum is better organised with distinct themes. If you are curious about the war and how a small country like Viet Nam managed to beat pig powers, you should not miss the exhibition about women during the wartime. You will be stunned! The documentary about vendors in Ha Noi is also worth watching.
Back in the Old Quarter, you’ll find it is definitely the soul of the capital, a combination of old and new and full of paradoxes. You will soon fall for its coffee culture, street food, ancient architecture and local handicrafts. Get lost in this area, visit a random coffee shop or simply stop at a tranquil pagoda, leaving behind the hustle and bustle of the outside world to enjoy the peace, aroma of incense and the awakening sound of the bell.
It is important to bargain at markets and souvenir shops. Some vendors may try to put their baskets on your shoulders for you to take a snap shot, but they will ask you to pay for that. If you are not interested, just keep walking.
And one last thing, while you’re resting by Hoan Kiem Lake, some students may come over to talk to you. Don’t worry, they just want to practise their English with native speakers.