I mostly did self-guided walking in Hanoi, but I did go on a street food tour with a sassy and hilarious guide named Amy. While leading us to various eateries, Amy told us about aspects of Vietnamese life. For instance, she explained that a lot of owners live in the same buildings as their restaurants, so you often see photos of their families on the wall. During Tet, the Vietnamese new year, owners convert their restaurants into living rooms to entertain guests. This still didn’t explain why the owner of one restaurant on our itinerary decided to put a shirtless photo of his son on the wall.
Amy also told us to avoid eating the chili sauce offered in bowls or unlabeled bottles at restaurants. Many restaurants make their own sauce, and you have no idea what might be in it. Amy said even locals can get sick from eating chili sauce, so travelers should be especially wary. Instead of sauce, Amy advised us to use real, sliced chilis to add flavor: drop a chili slice into your soup and let the broth soak in the spice. One slice is usually enough, but you can add two if you have a high tolerance. If you’re a masochist, go ahead and eat the chili slice(s). Chili oil – the kind with pepper flakes – is also safe, but I didn’t see any offered at the places I went to in Hanoi.
On my first full day in Hanoi, I happened to walk by a statue of Lenin on my way to the Ho Chi Minh mausoleum.
However, the statue wasn’t the highlight for me. Instead, I was distracted by cute young kids driving around in mini cars in front of the statue. I later spotted these mini cars at a couple of other places in Hanoi, but the kids at the Lenin statue were my favorites.
I originally planned to see Ho Chi Minh’s embalmed body at his mausoleum but then became conflicted when I found out “Uncle Ho” wanted to be cremated. The mausoleum was built against his wishes. I decided I would just look at the outside of the mausoleum and not go inside. If you’re interested in viewing his body (no judgment from me if you do), you have to adhere to a strict set of rules: no exposed shoulders or knees, no photos, and no talking. The line was long when I went to the mausoleum on a Sunday, but it did seem to move at a consistent, slow pace. Other travelers reported that they saw the body for about 30 seconds before they were ushered out of the room.
The Temple of Literature was a respite from the crowds at the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum.
When I visited the Temple of Literature in early May, several groups of teens in formalwear and graduation regalia were posing for photos. One busy photographer seemed to be managing all the groups. He was a fan of action shots and directed the teens to jump, run toward him, and play tag.
I visited Hoa Lo Prison, which French colonists used to house Vietnamese rebels. The Vietnamese later used Hoa Lo for American POWs, including Sen. John McCain. It was interesting to get a Vietnamese perspective on French colonization and the Vietnam War, or the “American War” as it’s called in Vietnam. One theme consistent through the exhibits is how Vietnamese revolutionaries persevered in their mission while suffering cruel treatment by French colonialists. This is contrasted with portrayals of the humane treatment afforded to American POWs. Americans may be skeptical about some parts: one video claimed that Americans felt they were “lucky” to be prisoners in Vietnam. Nonetheless, I thought Hoa Lo was worth a visit.
Hoan Kiem Lake was one of my favorite places to hang out in Hanoi. It’s relaxed during the day, and both locals and tourists hang out in the shade. I saw a bunch of students practicing English with foreigners. Sadly, no students approached me, but their English sounded great from the snippets I overheard.
At night, Hoan Kiem is a different animal, especially on the weekend. Traffic is blocked off on the neighboring roads on weekends, so pedestrians have full domain. I saw singers, bands, double dutch masters, bubble machines, and cute dogs. On weeknights, when it’s less crowded, some people even jog around the lake. I have no idea how they manage to exercise in the humidity.
A school was across the street from my hostel, so I was entertained by the swarms of parents on motorbikes picking up their kids in the afternoon. Switch the motorbikes with SUVs, and this could be a scene from American suburbia.
A few other thoughts from Hanoi:
- As you can see in my photos, Hanoi was mostly overcast during my visit. This was totally fine with me since it helped temper the heat. The high was in the upper 80s during my visit, and humidity was a given. That said, the heat wasn’t as bad as I was expecting, and there was only about half an hour of light rain during my entire stay. Nights were still humid but definitely more manageable.
- Hanoi is walkable, and I didn’t hail a cab or use any other transportation to visit sights. The farthest sights I visited were the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum and the Temple of Literature, both of which were about a 30-minute walk from my hostel in the Old Quarter. Luckily, many of the streets were shaded with trees and awnings, which made the walks easier.
- Hanoi has a population of about 8 million people, and there are about 5 to 6 million motorbikes in the city. Locals like to say that stoplights are just a suggestion and not a rule. Sidewalks aren’t for pedestrians; their main purpose is to serve as parking for motorbikes. The general rule when crossing the street is to wait for an opening in traffic and then step onto the road. Proceed across the street at a steady pace – don’t stop, turn back, or make sudden movements – and motorbikes will swerve around you. If you come from a city like New York where jaywalking is common, it’s not too difficult to get used to this system. Apparently the traffic in Ho Chi Minh City is crazier than Hanoi’s, so I’m glad I got to use Hanoi as my training ground.
- I saw one motorbike accident in Hanoi: a man lost control of his motorbike and fell off in the middle of a busy street. He was a non-local (it was unclear if he was a traveler or expat) and wearing headphones. I’m not sure if either of these factors contributed to the accident. Several locals rushed to his aid immediately after he fell, and he seemed fine apart from a badly scraped and bruised elbow. I already knew I wasn’t going to drive a motorbike during my time in Vietnam, and witnessing this accident confirmed my decision.
- Touts are a common sight in the Old Quarter, and they sell everything from fried dough, cone hats, paper crafts, and cyclo (a rickshaw-like bike) rides. They’re eager to approach you if you wear shorts or carry a water bottle, the dead giveaways for tourists. I had no interest in any of these things, so a quick “no, thank you” was enough to ward them off. They weren’t aggressive and didn’t hassle me after I made it clear I didn’t want anything.