Hanoi is the capital of Vietnam, and this is sort of a surprise to some because many perceive Ho Chi Minh to be the capital of this war-torn country.
Our journey to Hanoi from Ho Chi Minh was supposed to be by train, but we were ill advised to do so by Mr Nguyen of Bali Boutique Hotel as she said it can take up to 48 hours, or two days just to reach our destination. On top of that, she claimed that the trains are unreliable, and our checks online did somewhat confirm this.
That said, we decided to use Vietnam Airlines to Hanoi, spending an extra RM260 for flights each, while cutting travel time. I mean one day by train is fine for us, but two days is a little too much especially when we have little time left on the holiday.
FLYING VIETNAM AIRLINES FROM HO CHI MINH
There are numerous airlines flying the Ho Chi Minh – Hanoi route, but I decided Vietnam Airlines was the best choice since they provide meals and check-in baggage all inclusive. The reviews I read about local low cost airline VietJet was not so convincing, and JetStar’s information on check-in baggage was inadequate to be sure what was on the offering. That said, Vietnam Airlines was the choice which felt ‘safe’.
Domestic flights use the older terminal at Ho Chi Minh airport, and the situation there is much worse than the international terminal. From what we saw, each airline had their very own check-in gate with Vietnam Airlines placed the furthest.
The scenes at the check-in gates of Vietnam Airlines were chaotic with long queues leading to about seven or so check-in counters. Queue cutting seemed to be a normal thing here with Vietnam Airlines staff ushering last minute passengers to cut queues when their boarding time comes near. Despite being early, we were nervous enough that we might miss our flight because the queues were disorganized and pretty long. We managed to check-in just in time before dashing to the boarding gate for fear we were late. Fortunately, we weren’t, but if you are taking domestic routes in Vietnam, the advice would be to come extremely early.
Vietnam Airlines in-flight services are nowhere near to what Malaysia Airlines provides you. There was no selection of in-flight entertainment for the two hour flight, and no option for what meals you could have. Drinks were limited to only two choices although the Vietnamese stewardess did their best to make up for the lack of culinary choices on board.
ARRIVING AT HANOI: First impression
Compared to Ho Chi Minh, Hanoi seems more organized and less chaotic both in terms of traffic flow and development.
We caught glimpses of what ‘future Hanoi’ would be like as as we made our way via the hotel airport shuttle to our hotel apartment.
Our driver from the Grand Somerset Hanoi Hotel didn’t speak much English, and answered some bits of our questions with difficulty, but the ride was enjoyable enough, although a bit slow for a Malaysian who loves to move fast.
SOMERSET GRAND HANOI HOTEL: Best place for a group!
Somerset Grand Hanoi Hotel was probably our best hotel during the whole TrippinASEAN14 trip. The rooms were spotless, and we liked everything about the hotel.
All the amenities provided in our hotel apartment worked nicely and the hotel had complimentary drinks, detergent (for the washing machine) and internet connection which was blazing fast. To sweeten the deal, we had a good view of the city, and more than 50 TV channels at our disposal, including RTM!
Breakfast at the hotel was not so bad, but eventually it turned out to be the best selection if compared to all the other hotels we had booked during the whole trip. To top it all off, the hotel is not far from major attractions, making it possible to walk to almost every one of them.
WHAT TO DO IN HANOI: Exploring the city on foot
Perhaps the most popular thing about Hanoi is visit Halong Bay, which is magical, if seen on pictures. Well, we skipped that because it cost over RM200+ per person, and we had no time.
Instead, we went around the city to see what it had to offer.
The Old Quarter, which was just a stone throw away from the hotel seemed a little like Kuching’s Carpenter Street with cheap items and street food stalls found in abundance as you walk by. Some eateries we noticed served something which looked like dogs meat, but we didn’t bother to ask. Although the Old Quarter was highly rated, I didn’t find it that special because there was nothing that different from what I could find in Sarawak, or Bali in Indonesia.
Perhaps the most interesting thing at the Old Quarter for me was St. Joseph’s Cathedral (Nha Tho Lon) which we found by accident. The Cathedral looks majestic where it stands, and it well maintained with masses still being held every weekend. Like any church, anyone could go in to take photos regardless of your religion, but you are advised to be decently dressed, and be respectful when coming into the main hall. This includes being quiet when inside.
Our journey by foot through the Old Quarter brought us to the huge Lake of the Restored Sword (Hoan Kiem Lake) where we basically blended with the locals and took a stroll around the lake while seeking of what made the lake special. There were a few monuments and statues for photo taking, but I guess nothing beat the lush greenery the lake could offer. When we were there, there were at least three local couples taking their pre-wedding photos, and what I captured on my camera below showed why Hanoi does not need a photo studio for a photo-shoot.
Aside from monuments, the lake also houses the Ngoc Son Temple which stood proud on a small island on the lake. Remnants of an old building, later known as Thap Rua (Tortoise) Tower could also be seen right in the middle of the lake.
We wanted to visit another lake, known as ‘West Lake’, but ended up going to Ho Bay Mou, which is a massive lake with a park nearby. Not sure how we ended here, but the lake showed us what Vietnamese people do during evenings at Hanoi, and we somewhat followed suit!
I’m not sure if it’s a norm, but we were asked to pay to enter the park by some lady whom identified us as tourist. She had a counter and tickets on her table just outside the park, but what baffled us was the fact that not everyone needed to pay her to gain entry. Most locals seem to just shrugged her off when she asked for payment.
Anyway, Ho Bay Mou was so massive that we couldn’t explore it all. Since it was evening, it was full of people doing all sorts of things from aerobics, to skate boarding, to skipping, playing football and jogging. Even the police were doing some sort of marching rehearsal at one end of the park. It was not organized with people playing whatever they wanted as long as there’s space. Pretty cool if you ask me.
The number of people jogging was 5 times any park in Kuching could show off, and most of them, men and women, had bodies they could show off, in which some actually did. Dogs were seen in abundance with many owners walking them at the park.
We also spared some time walking towards the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum which I believe is the heart of all attractions in Hanoi. Along the way, we saw the Hanoi flag tower, and with the Lenin statue just opposite the Vietnam Military History Museum.
Upon reaching the Mausoleum area, we somewhat found ourselves queuing up with thousands of locals to enter the Mausoleum which we thought also had a museum.
Little did we realize that the whole hour long wait, with thousands of Vietnamese was actually to pay respects to Vietnam’s most respected leader himself, the late Ho Chi Minh. When we were done, we were ushered out of the Mausoleum where we were allowed to take our cameras back.
It was indeed interesting how the Vietnamese came in droves to pay their respects to their leader on a weekend, and even more interesting to see how they were willing to brave the heat and queue for so long just for a five minute glimpse of him.
Beside the Mausoleum was other interesting places such as the Ho Chi Minh Museum, Ho Chi Minh residences, and the Presidential Palace were also located around the Mausoleum although the one we really wanted to go to, which is the One Pillar Pagoda was closed for renovations.
NIGHTLIFE IN HANOI: Scattered and invincible
We couldn’t really enjoy the nightlife in Hanoi because three out of the four of us had a tummy bug. To add to that was the fact that the places for nightlife activities were rather far from our hotel, or should I say non-visible. We also failed to spot any bars or nightspots when we took a taxi at night, hence making it seem like Hanoi lacks the nightlife we love. We did however go for the Water Puppet show at Thang Long Water Puppet Theater after it was highly recommended by my cousin Tiff whom had traveled to Hanoi a few years ago.
The show was one of a kind although I’d much advise you to get the brochure provided in front of the entrance to fully understand what its all about. On top of that, I had this feeling that the ticket prices were rather low for such well choreographed effort during the show.
WHAT TO EAT: Food in Hanoi
Like Ho Chi Minh, food in Hanoi consist of a lot of vegetables although the portion of vege seems to be noticeable less. We were pre-warned that dog and cat meat is also available in some places like the Old Quarters, but we aren’t that adventurous when it comes to food. We still have about seven days to the end of the vacation and having a bad case of tummy upset is the last thing we want.
Anyway, we went to a popular place known as Quan An Ngon which had a variety of dishes. The place was packed with tourist and locals, and the service is good. The food was also not bad, perhaps the best Vietnamese food I’ve ever tasted in Vietnam by far.
Another place worth to mention was Minh Thuy’s Family Restaurant. This hidden gem was hidden in the backpackers area of the Old Quarter, and came highly recommended on Foursquare and TripAdvisor. We had to wait a while to be seated, but when the food came, it was so worth it. On top of that, the hospitality provided was on top of this world with the ‘boss’ coming up to apologize for the smallest of mistakes. Even the crew were always smiling even though you can see they are tired.
SCAMS IN HANOI: Almost similar to Ho Chi Minh City
Well, it’s like a nationwide scam in Vietnam, because what we saw in Ho Chi Minh was also seen in here. Other than that, you must be careful when selecting taxis because some of them have meters which can run very fast.
CONCLUSION: Would love to come back
Hanoi proved to be a lovely place to visit and there is so much one could explore if given more time, money and opportunity. The Vietnamese people are generally wonderful and hospitable although some do seem to take advantage if you are not careful (Happens in almost every country really). Food was basically a problem for me but this is very subjective, really. With a lot of massive constructions seen around the city, I can only imaging what future Hanoi would look like, and I do look forward to returning in the future if given the opportunity.
Well, Hanoi is done and sealed, and now, we travel back to Kuala Lumpur for a night’s stay at Tune Hotel KLIA2, before we head on to Phuket, Thailand for the last leg of TrippinASEAN14!
To see more photos, please visit THIS LINK.