Still wrapped up in the buffoonery as a newlywed couple, me and my husband recommenced our 2-week straight holiday in 2017 by first dredging into Hanoi.
This city will coax you with its mystical pull; basic necessities are cheap, food is supreme ––and then the intoxicating mix of the bygone and modern times has incessantly flustered me ever since I watched Anthony Bourdain eat pho from a side street seller, followed by him sharing Bun Cha in a local dining place with President Obama, and even when Samantha Brown visited the floating village of Halong Bay (I’m a TLC girl from morning til night 🙋🏼♀️). These are the influencers I look up to, and I actually have the advantage of living 3 hours away by plane from this city, whatever else is stopping me?
Even now that I’m trying to chronicle the rip-roaring 4 days we had in Hanoi, it still addles me why I have such strong reverie to return in Vietnam.❤️
Snippets of what you should know…
Point of Compass
The capital and the second largest city by population in Vietnam, Hanoi is located north of Ho Chi Minh City. It sits by the banks of Red River Delta, and has been the center of political and economic activities.
It falls under the ruling of the French in 1800 and was occupied by the Japanese during WWII. But in September 1945, by the efforts of their revolutionary leader, Ho Chi Minh, they were able to regain their independence and was declared as the Democratic Republic of Vietnam.
Hanoi’s Human Development Index is the highest in Vietnam, and is one of the fastest growing cities in Asia from the recent years. Other sectors that contribute to their brighter economy are trades and real estate. But of course, majority of trades would be from their agriculture sector especially since they have developed high-yield varieties and modern farming.
One of the most unforgettable travels I had with my husband was our 5-day adventure in Ho Chi Minh City back in 2012. I fell in love with the laid back ambience and our all-the-time satisfying quest for Vietnam local food. Their culture and way of life never left my heart and I was extremely impressed on their patriotism.
Then in 2007, Ha Long Bay was listed as one of the 7 Wonders of the World. I knew instantly that some time in the future, I have to include Vietnam again in our travels. So in our second year of being married, Hanoi was obviously the perfect choice to fire up another series of holidays.
Communication, transport and simple day to day experience (and blunders) can all be read in my blog post about Ho Chi Minh which I have written 5 years ago. Although these 2 big cities differ in a lot of ways, Hanoi having more civilized (with lesser street tricksters & scammers, honestly) inhabitants in general, both have the same strength in passion to local cuisine & history. It took a while for us to re-sumberge our lives into Vietnam atmosphere, but both travels have given us similar and confounding layoff in the end. Click on this link to know more:
The point of entry in Hanoi is Noi Bai International Airport, the busiest and largest in all of Vietnam. It is located at Phu Minh Commune, about 30-minute drive from the main city. 2 major terminals make up this modern travel hub: Terminal 1 for domestic, & Terminal 2 for international flights.
Their airport really has modern facilities, is well-maintained and was not cramped even if we were there at peak hours. This is a far-cry from what my own country has. Sorry NAIA, you really are one of the worst in Asia and in the world even after government efforts of rehabilitation. PH’s immigration people are also one of the least friendly and most “maangas” (arrogant or haughty in English) I have ever encountered in all my travels. Shame isn’t it?
Anyway, if you need to change money, stepping out of the arrival hall are currency changers with competitive rates. Though my flight landed a little before midnight, most of them are still open. The guy who assisted me was also very helpful and advised me not to give in to taxi drivers offering rides outside the airport.
Bo Nuong Xuan Xuan BBQ
The foremost challenge is to find its true location, especially after reading so many online write ups that there are actually 2 shops with exactly the same name: one of them the real thing & the other one a poser. Funny isn’t it? But it only goes to show that the restaurant has become so famous that it is being copied by competitors. Obviously, this side of Asia could not be bothered by Intellectual Property Rights.
So how did we manage to spot the real Bo Nuong Xuan Xuan BBQ? First was the address, second a clear photo of how the facade looks like and lastly, tips from previous travelers who have sampled their food. This bbq heaven is so unassuming and simple, and I guess that is where really good food thrives as compared to fancy places with pricey servings.
The menu is pretty direct, I notice that per platter was designed for sharing. 1 serving of either beef/pork/chicken is VND200,000 (or about S$12), it includes 2 bread buns and veggies. You have the choice to combine any 2 meats, and each will cost you about VND300,000. Still very affordable.
This was the best dinner I had in my entire stay. The meat was surprisingly tender even after a few minutes of grilling; the spicy dip adding up tons of flavor on the already tasty veggies & pork. One platter is well enough for two, and the set up of dining in low stools and table right beside a busy street is one major experience I could never forget. Classic Vietnam!
Name: Bo Nuong Xuan Xuan BBQ in Hanoi
Address: 47 Mã Mây, Hàng Buồm, Hoàn Kiếm, Hà Nội, Vietnam
Open from 10AM – 11:30PM, Mon-Sun
Another famous restaurant you can search online is Linh’s Kitchen. There are many positive reviews about it and the best part, it is located just across Bo Nuong Xuan Xuan BBQ. So when I spotted the signage while dining, I immediately knew where to eat dinner the next night. I was sure that their food is excellent but it was a surprise that they do offer a diverse choice of cuisine: Western, Mexican, Chinese and the one we had was Korean.
It seems that I hadn’t fulfilled much of my BBQ addiction, and so the Korean set we had consists of all three meats: chicken, pork & beef. We were ravenous after a full day spent in Halong Bay. One thing though, their servers weren’t attentive enough to customers’ needs, as we had to call the young lady 4x to follow up our drinks.
Price range as compared to Bo Xuan is a little bit higher, we paid VND380,000 when the food we consumed to both shops were almost the same in quantity. Over all it was still nice, there was a little factor missing to the Korean taste I am used to, but I think it’s perfectly alright. It is Vietnam anyway and not Korea, trimming down our expectation would be nice.
Name: Linh’s Kitchen
Address: 22 Phố Mã Mây, Hàng Buồm, Hoàn Kiếm, Hà Nội, Vietnam
Open from 10AM – 11:30PM, Mon-Sun
Pho! Pho! Pho!
Of course we didn’t let the opportunity to dig in to the real deal pass us up! Pho constituted our entire Ho Chi Minh food escapade years back, and so having it in Hanoi is definitely fundamental. This side street pho shop was just a little stall situated in one of the tiny alleys found in Hoan Kiem. If not for the mini tables spread out by the sidewalk, you would definitely miss the thing.
Expectedly, the broth is rich and glorious! We ordered the beef variety and some pork ribs to go with it. I love Vietnam food so much, it is always gratifying at the end of every meal. No wonder someone gained some stones on the scale after only a few days. 😜 I actually don’t give a sheez.
Colonized by the French during WWII, Vietnam’s most famous street food Banh Mi has got to be their major contribution to Viet’s lifestyle. It is cheap, protein rich, tasty and a cinch to devour, a complete meal that will make your momma proud when you eat, lol. The stall where we bought our banh mi was located in an alley a few meters away from St. Joseph’s Cathedral.
Through observation, preparing one isn’t that complicated. The lady grabbed one bun, then stuff it with meats, veggies and smothered some mayo, cheese & ketchup. Done. I believe that you can buy this practically anywhere, in fact, there are vendors on wheels I’ve noticed on their streets, selling Banh Mi and also fresh fruits. It is the quickest & perfect filler in between meals.
Never Dare Miss…
Hoan Kiem District & The Lake
When in Hanoi, all roads lead to Hoan Kiem District! From luxurious hotels to budget accommodations, to good food and cheap shopping. It is a lively district teeming with both locals and visitors in all walks of life.
At the heart of Hoan Kiem is the lake, locally known as Ho Guom. In the middle of it stands the Turtle Tower, a structure built according to the legend of the Golden Turtle God. It was believed that this god provided the magical sword in their revolt against the Ming Dynasty of China. Around the lake, soft shell turtles of different species are also inhabiting.
This red bridge is a notable focal point in this lake. At night, it is being illuminated by colorful lights. It surely draws attention to the people visiting Hoan Kiem district.
Hanoi Old Quarter
This is the area where local meets west. International restaurants and shopping brands are clustered in Hanoi Old Quarter, but there are also a lot of Vietnamese restaurants and shops. A rotunda with a fountain at the center is the most distinguishing feature of this area and the series of old buildings transformed into modern hubs.
As soon as it gets dark, this wide area becomes a night market that is a perfect shopping spot for souvenirs and also a cheap go-to place to sample local food. You can watch Vietnamese performers doing little side street shows like singing and dancing. There are squealing kids, skater boys and groups of fashionable teens scattered all over this place. A circus you may say, and yet the liveliness is still not that irritating to be in.
Food Trip + Night Life
Both Hoan Kiem and Old Quarter are not only ideal if you’re looking for a place to stay in Hanoi, both are also the heartland if you are in for a gastronomic adventure. In fact, the two best dinners that my husband and I enjoyed all happened here in this area. I noticed that here is where young people spend their nights after work, and where tourists drink the night away.
The vibe is extremely energetic: blaring sound systems, restaurant staff luring passers-by to dine in their restaurants, inebriated youngsters just having fun, and a ton of people delighting on satisfying sustenance by the road ––all typical at any given day. I could spend one whole night just observing all the happenings in one corner and I’m fully sure I will never get bored.
Dong Xuan Market
We tried our best to locate Dong Xuan market, which is famous for being the wholesale center of almost everything, because I really intend to bargain shop before we head home. Unfortunately, it wasn’t open that night aside from the few lined stalls outside. It was quite a walk because it is situated at the far end district of Hoan Kiem. Good thing, the major road leading to the market itself was filled with tiny tiangge shops.
St. Joseph’s Cathedral
It is the kind of architectural genius I always look for in any place I travel to. I mean who would not be awed on the intricacy of that design? Especially if you take into consideration the workmanship and effort exerted to come up with this wonderful facade.
The location is Nha Tho street in Hoan Kiem, and its neo-gothic style is famous not only to local Catholics but also to tourists. It is noticeable that the design is that of Notre Dame de Paris because it was one of the first structures created by the French colonists in the 1800’s. St Joseph Cathedral is the oldest catholic church in all of Vietnam.
Ho Chi Minh’s Mausoleum
Ho Chi Minh is the most important revolutionary figure in the history of Vietnam. That is why when he passed away in 1969, their people lodged him into this massive granite mausoleum to honour his life and contributions to the nation. It is another spot that should not be missed if a traveler is keen to understand how Hanoi emerged as a free nation.
The entire area is always heavily guarded because the embalmed remains of Mr. Ho is placed in a cooler inside the mausoleum. There is a scheduled tour every morning so you could take a peep inside and see first hand the body of this great leader. But we visited in the afternoon so we never had the chance to get inside.
Ba Dinh Square
Ba Dinh square is the huge open space right in front of the mausoleum. It looks unremarkable on ordinary days, but this is a historical site as the proclamation of their independence was held here in 1945. It is surrounded by many relevant government offices, and is nowadays used as gathering area for important activities and pilgrimage.
Nope this isn’t Europe, it is the dwelling place of the Governor-General of Indochina. It is a beautiful, yellow building beside HCM’s mausoleum, and was constructed by a French architect between 1900 and 1906. Inside, the palace embodies Italian Renaissance design that includes a grand staircase and classical columns.
It is not open to the public, but for a fee, you can actually explore the outside grounds. The palace is now used for government meetings as well as for receiving state guests from time to time.
Ha Long Bay
The honest truth, Ha Long bay is the primal reason why I have been so eager to visit Hanoi. If your bucketlist is like mine, quite certain that ticking off any of the places listed in the 7 Wonders of the World is a priority. This is what happened here: you want to see one thing, but you end up falling completely in love with a thousand more. It is such a wonderful feeling seeing your list getting shorter each time, but what’s more pleasing is you get a different perspective about a culture and life, in the most peculiar way.
The tour I booked is Full Day Halong Bay package, and it started when the driver picked us up from our hotel in Hoan Kiem. The itinerary includes some stop over, notable is the one to a marble and gemstones factory ran by disabled people.
Then we reached the pier which is the gateway to the bay itself. We boarded a medium sized cruise boat which was surprisingly spacious and was airconditioned. It was a smooth sail mostly, and after about 20 mins of cruising, our boat docked in the middle of the ocean where we are surrounded by the humongous karsts that made Halong bay popular. For a full 360-degree vista, our boat is equipped with a viewing deck where guests could go up to and soak in the surroundings. Oh yes, feel that? That’s what we paid for honey. ☺️
After about half an hour, we were again ushered in into the boat as lunch will be served any minute. We feasted on some fresh seafood that includes a big, deep-fried tilapia, prawns, squids and crabs. There were also stir-fried morning glory and platters of fresh tropical fruits.
On our table, we met some fellow tourists, 2 men from the US who are enjoying retirement, and a couple of Malaysian Chinese who were raised and are currently living in Australia. It was fun sharing our travel experiences while having lunch, and just like us, they have been to many Asian countries and are heading to a different city after Hanoi. Call that the fellowship of the wing. Fly, fly. ✈️
The package includes the meal on board aside from the transportation and entrance fees for the day. I saw this package when I came across Lily’s Travel Agency online. Same old drill: send email, inquire availability and fee and ask for itinerary. In the Globetrotter Tips section, I will be discussing more about this tour agency and the reason why choosing them to take care of our Hanoi trip was worth it. As for the package in Halong Bay, we paid $42 USD per person.
Thien Cung Cave
The Halong bay I know, is the Halong bay most of you know –– wonderfully scattered lime rock formations all over the Gulf of Tonkin. When I signed up for this tour, the cave I had in mind is the sort where our boat could pass through. So when we reached this dock where fellow tourists were asked to disembark, it hits me hard that we are really gonna go caving. Colour me appalled!
To my guess, there was about a thousand people converged by the mouth of the cave when we reached the place, NO joke. Since it involved climbing up a high set of staircase, it took us half an hour and enormous amount of sweat to finally go in. But the scenario inside wasn’t different at all; the sluggish move of people, the rancid smell of the cave and the musty human odour could make you pass out if you fail to guard your wits. It was so hot and so cramped, and if only we are claustrophobic I don’t think none of us will survive.
But once you are really inside, you will be greeted by stalactites and stalagmites and the rainbow-coloured lights focused on them. The temperature starts to go down the deeper you get into the cave, and the portion where the sun was able to get through is my absolute favorite!
No one is suppose to stay for so long inside the cave as the flow of crowd should not be interrupted at any given point, but we have managed to still take lots of photos. It was so beautiful, now I understand why this tour is almost always fully booked.
Kayaking in a Lagoon
After the cave, we were sent to the last activity of the day –– kayaking. It was the peak of the sun’s heat, so it made us both lazy and just too not into kayaking. But when we started paddling and followed the other people going to the lagoon, the breeze has suddenly shifted into a much colder state, it made everything easier by lots.
We reached the lagoon after a few minutes, and oh boy awesome it was. Some days the tide could be low enough for people to step off the kayak and walk on some parts of it, but that day, tide was quite high and so we settled on kayaking every inch of it. It was fun to synchronize our paddling while exploring the lagoon. Definitely worth every sunburn!
Ninh Binh Province
For a mere hour drive from Hanoi, one can visit Ninh Binh province for a closer look on its wealthy collection of historic monuments and cultural attractions. And since a day trip to Ninh Binh could easily be booked, I decided to sneak out of Hanoi for a day and discover the neighbouring province for a change.
Hoa Lu Temples
These temples are located in the largest Buddhist worshipping complex in Vietnam. It is the first stop on our day tour, and we arrived just before lunch. According to history, Hoa Lu was Vietnam’s capital in the 10th and 11th century. There are literally dozens of temples inside, and I could not remember the tongue twisting names of each.
Every year, they celebrate the festival of Hoa Lu to commemorate the history of Vietnam between 900 and 1010 AD. There are ceremonies, gatherings and state fairs for local people to attend. But most importantly, there is a procession that leads to the major temples in the area to offer prayers and gifts.
Indeed, there were too many places of worship inside the compound. We went inside the 3 biggest ones and just pass through the others as we were only given a specified amount of time to spend. By the way, they are not imposing strict dress codes when visiting. According to Nguyen, they are not as strict as Indonesia or Thailand when it comes to visiting religious places. That, I can attest. How convenient.
Tam Coc River & Caves
The highlight of our Ninh Binh province adventure is visiting Tam Coc-Bich Dong river. It was declared as a UNESCO Heritage site. Yayy, 7 Wonders of the world, then a UNESCO heritage site in one travel destination ––my gypsy soul is dancing on the right notes. 💃 You have no idea!
So the boat ride was paddled by an old lady and it was startling to see that she and the others are actually using their feet to do so. It was my first time to see such an odd sighting, it was kinda cool considering that she may actually be thrice my age. Oh dear God! Since she is single-handedly maneuvering the tiny boat, it took us at least half an hour to pass through the 3 important caves.
Tam coc literally means 3 caves, and they were Hang Ca, Hang Hai & Hang Ba. Our direction is towards the sun, making the travel super duper, agonizingly hot. But whenever we pass through a cave, the temperature drastically changes. At one point I even wanted to request to stay a bit longer inside one of them.
There are so many lovely areas in the river, there are parts where the river is in between 2 rice fields. I think it wasn’t the farming season when we were there, because some appears to have been harvested already. I could just imagine how beautiful it would be when the rice plants are in full swing.
At the end of the river where we are to make a u-turn, there were boats selling products like fruits, flowers and drinks. On the bus before we head down to the river, our guide, Nguyen warned us about this tricky scheme. The person paddling for us will ask us to buy her some drinks and act like very tired and thirsty. Your kind self will eventually buy her a soda or bottled water, pay the vendor and your paddler will take the drink. But, she will not consume the drink at all. After your tour, your paddler will return it to the vendor and they will split your payment.
I was torn upon knowing this scam. First, it involves too little money. Second, it is more of pity I felt and not anger. Life must have been toilsome for these people that they resort to doing petty crimes for such a small amount of cash. Oh. Well.
Bicycling on the countryside
The last time I rode a bike was eons ago, I could not even remember when exactly. So when I saw that this is the concluding part of our tour to Ninh Binh, I was more than thrilled to get back on the saddle. Well not saddle saddle, but to be able to see Vietnam’s countryside in an openly moving piece of transportation while breathing in fresh air is an impelling thought.
The cycling tour lasted for half an hour, we have covered 15km to my estimate. On the way, we passed by rice paddies, with all sorts of farm animals enjoying their big piece of sanctuary. Some roads were so narrow that only 1 bicycle can pass through at a time. One wrong move and you’ll find yourself swimming in mud and cow feces, seriously. You’d be compelled to pedal slower in these areas, which is a better idea because it makes you more aware of the tranquil and simple life around.
Though we were all filthy and sweaty after the bike ride, I was still so happy and relaxed. What a way to end a tiring day. ❤️
Ninh Binh province whole day package tour is $33 USD per person, inclusive of private coach, entrance fees, buffet lunch, cold bottled water and English-speaking guide.
Where to Stay
Asia Palace Hotel is located at the heart of Hoan Kiem. It is a 3-star, modest and tiny accommodation that was fairly decorated and equipped with basic stuff. Booking site: AGODA. Amenities include a lift that has plenty of room for improvement but is only enough for 2 persons with big luggages. It was one of the smallest elevators I have seen, but at least it’s functional.
Breakfast is served at the 7th floor, it has an open concept which was great if only it was a bit bigger and if only you don’t smell like your breakfast after eating. They are in dire need of industrial type exhaust fan I should say. Variety of food is the same every morning, but the best part is that you can choose whatever you want from the menu.
I honestly seldom divulge our hotel name in any of my travels, but as reflected on my Agoda review, this is the only hotel that asked us to pay for the bottled water provided in the room. The concierge explained that the water was only free for the first night, the succeeding ones, you have got to pay. I was disappointed, but my spirits were high from traveling, so I let it pass and paid for it. I hope they already edited the hotel description in the site.
Airport Transfers & Tour Package
After going through both bad and not so bad blunders from many cities and airports, one crucial thing I have learned is to always pre-book transfers especially to cities with no available convenient public transport, and Hanoi falls to that category. Back in Saigon in 2012, we had a disastrous experience where the taxi driver stole money from us.
When I browsed Lily’s Travel Agency, the main purpose was to look for package tours going to Halong Bay. But the agent whom I have exchanged emailed with offered me a deal: if I book both Halong Bay and Ninh Binh province tours through them, a big discount will be given to me for the return airport transfers. It was the kind of negotiation every traveler always hopes for.
Their office in Hanoi was very easy to locate, it was just 200 meters away from St. Joseph’s Cathedral. When we reached their office on the first day, we were greeted by english-speaking agents who were cordial, and who served us with cold water and watermelon to beat the heat. We paid $30 USD for the return airport transfer plus $84 USD for Halong Bay & $66 USD for Ninh Binh province tour –– all for 2 persons. If ever you will try to search online for similar activities, you will realize that Lily’s Travel Agency is offering really lower rates as compared to other agencies. Why else would I book from them if that was not the case? 😎
Motorbikes are a THING!
This is Vietnam, and the only sign you need to look for to confirm that you really are here is the gazillion motorbikes practically everywhere. Their population as of this writing is close to 93 million people, and the motorbikes statistics according to VAMM (Vietnam Association of Motorcycle Manufacturers) is a staggering 45 million, and is still rising by the minute. No wonder that tourists around the world dubbed Vietnam as “motorcycle kingdom“.
While I was trying to sum up this blog post, the tragic news of Anthony Bourdain’s death percolated online. Fans around the globe were in complete shock, and that same reaction has paralyzed me for I don’t know how long. He has mentioned depression in few of his interviews and even episodes of his shows, but no one really knew that what he has been going through is something that could result to this kind of heartbreaking end.
It wasn’t only his Hanoi adventure that made me dream to be his female counterpart. My favourite episodes of both No Reservation and Parts Unknown are those off-beaten destinations where he showed us/me the very reasons why we should never hesitate to leave our comfort zones and begin traveling. My heart is still silently bleeding, the world has lost a brilliant and inspiring man with unmatchable influence.
And so for Hanoi, I’m giving my experience a humble 8. Your budget could go a long way, your digestive system will cease from regurgitating at some point, and your heart will always be satiated with the type of joy comparable to none. I will infinitely associate this experience to abounding happiness, while always praying to explore more of Vietnam in the coming years. 🖤
Anthony Michael Bourdain ✟
Writer. Host. Celebrity Chef. Explorer. Storyteller.
My Forever Inspiration. 💔