Vietnam Part 1: Hanoi

Vietnam Part 1: Hanoi

For my birthday, Rachel and I went to Vietnam. We had both always wanted to go and there was a very cheap plane ticket from NY. We were going to see my grandfather for his birthday anyway, so it seemed like the perfect opportunity. Unfortunately, as cheap tickets usually go, it was not the most direct flight… JFK-DTW-ICN-HAN. Let me just say, that DTW-ICN leg was a bear. On the plus side, it was on the soon-to-retire Delta 747-400s.

Aerial view of JFK and NYC
Leaving JFK, we got a nice view of the airport and the city on our way to DTW.

After many airport lounges, many airport/airplane meals, and too many bags, we arrived in Vietnam. I know people say to negotiate with cab drivers, but I spent the $20 on Expedia and had a driver waiting for us with a sign to take us to our hotel, the Hanoi L’Heritage Hotel. It was a good location. Right in the old quarter but far enough from the backpackers that all the closest stores weren’t the same t-shirts and terrible patterned pants that crowd out the backpacking area.

After we woke up and starting walking around, I was struck by how surprisingly different Hanoi is from anywhere I’ve ever been. It is very difficult to capture how it is different. It is the anti-Singapore. There are scooters EVERYWHERE. There are seemingly no rules whatsoever. Every street-facing lot has a store. Did I mention the scooters? I know this is about as poorly written a description of the city as possible, but it’s all I’ve got. It’s overwhelming. And amazing.

A Hanoi Street Scene
A Hanoi street scene with scooters, jumbles of wires, storefronts, and.. scooters.

There are so many scooters and restaurants and shops and people on the sidewalks, you have to walk in the street. But the streets are filled with hundreds and hundreds of scooters. As has been well documented, the only way to cross the street is to wait for the slightest gap, and slowly but steadily walk across the street. The stream of scooters deftly maneuvers around you, sometimes coming so close you swear you can feel their shirt brushing against you. It isn’t so dissimilar to crossing streets in Rome, but there is so much more scooter traffic.

Scooter valet in Hanoi
Scooter valet!

There are a lot of scooters. Ok, I promise I’ll stop saying scooter for a while.

Our first day, we walked to Ho Chi Minh’s mausoleum and the Presidential Palace. Unfortunately, the mausoleum was closed so, just like in Moscow, I couldn’t see the embalmed Communist leader. Oh well. Walking around the back of the mausoleum, I captured the most patriotic photo I’ve ever taken. The changing of the guard in front of Ho Chi Minh’s mausoleum with *two* Vietnamese flags flying in the background.

Changing of the guard at Ho Chi Minh's Mausoleum, Hanoi, Vietnam
The changing of the guard at Ho Chi Minh’s mausoleum, Hanoi, Vietnam

This is a lot more serious looking than it actually was. One of the soldiers had a radio that was playing a tinny version of what was probably the Vietnamese national anthem. The soldiers were kind of smirking. But, whatever, don’t let that ruin this picture, possibly the most patriotic picture ever taken. We walked around to the presidential palace. While we couldn’t go inside, we did get to see Ho Chi Minh’s old house, modest, open-air wooden structure. The grounds of the palace were very pretty and aside from mostly Vietnamese tourists, it was pretty empty.

After we left the presidential palace, we had a coffee and a beer, and stopped in at the Vietnamese Military History Museum. This museum is on the grounds of the Hanoi Citadel, the center of the royal court until the Nguyen moved the capital to Hue.

Hanoi Flag Tower, Hanoi, Vietnam
The Hanoi Flag Tower at the Hanoi Citadel, now a part of the Vietnam Military History Museum

Like many of the museums we went to, there was a major emphasis on the battles the Vietnamese people fought for independence. While it wasn’t shocking to hear the Diem government described as “puppet” and Americans as “imperialists”, but it was interesting.  They have tons of captured materiel in the courtyard. After being thoroughly dressed down for our imperialist motives, we continued to walk around the city.

Railroad track going through a commercial area, Hanoi, Vietnam
Railroad track going through a commercial area

As if there were any doubt about the Vietnamese’s use of every available spot for commercial use, we found a street that has a full train track going through it. There are restaurants, shops, and residences just a couple feet from an operating train track.

A man working at a sidewalk mechanics shop in Hanoi, Vietnam.
A man working at a sidewalk mechanics shop in Hanoi, Vietnam.

And I didn’t do a great job documenting it, but Hanoi (and Vietnam in general), has the most vibrant, raw form of the free-market I’ve ever seen. Every single spot that can be used to sell goods or services is used. It wasn’t until we left Hanoi that I saw a store larger than about 10’x20′. There would be dozens of competing stores within a couple blocks. A block full of welders and basic machine shops followed by a block of restaurants followed by scooter repair shops. It’s the most foreign and amazing operation of a city I’ve ever seen.

I absolutely love bun thit nuong. It’s one of my all time favorite dishes in the entire world. Hanoi has a very similar dish that is extremely popular called bun cha. It basically consists of vermicelli noodles, fried spring rolls, fresh herbs, and pork in a fish-sauce based marinade. To get an idea of the popularity, when Anthony Bourdain took President Obama out to eat in Hanoi, it was for bun cha.

Rachel eating bun cha at Bún chả hàng mành - Đắc Kim, Hanoi, Vietnam
Rachel eating bun cha at Bún chả hàng mành

Since Rachel and I have to research nearly every place we go obsessively, we found a well-reviewed bun cha place, Bún chả hàng mành (Tripadvisor Link). Like many smaller restaurants in Hanoi, it seemed to only sell the single item for which it was known. We walked in, the lady sat us down, and asked “one or two?” There were a few ladies in the tiny shop and on the sidewalk out front preparing each of the ingredients for a full day of service. The meal was delicious and cheap, as nearly every meal we had in Vietnam was.

We were scheduled to take a 14 hour train ride in a sleeper car from Hanoi to Hue the next evening. But unfortunately, we contracted a miserable bout of food poisoning at another restaurant which was otherwise quite good. We think the culprit was some bad sausage. In any case, we had to move hotels, skip our train ride, and sleep for 24+ hours. We caught a cheap flight from Hanoi to Hue to continue our trip. Hopefully Part II: Hue will be up soon!

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