Hanoi Is Where the Heart Is

26Dec2016: Arrival in Hanoi

Our first night in Hanoi we had dinner with Lisa and Jared at Chim Sao for a hotpot dinner.  It felt wonderful to catch up about their trip details, where they’d hiked and the caves they’d explored, but also about their lives back in Oakland.

We went out in the Old Quarter after our meal to find a bar where Jared could watch the Arsenal game – he’s an avid fan.  We laughed that we were watching a London football club in Hanoi but we understood: he can’t watch games in Oakland at an decent hour just like we can’t watch the NFL in London at a decent hour.  It was our first night in the bustling Old Quarter, where the streets are named after the wares that have been sold there for almost 1000 years.  The cafes and bars are teeming and the tourists are weaving in and out of scooters, bikes, and street food stands.  The energy made us smile.  The scents were striking around every corner, and when we finished the night, we called an Uber to take us back ‘uptown’ to the Sheraton near Ho Tay lake.

27Dec2016: Let the Wild Rumpus Begin!

This was Lisa and Jared’s last day so we went back to the Old Quarter to wait for them to finish packing their bags. We sipped egg cream coffee at Cafe Pho Co, basically a wonderful cafe with an almost speakeasy-type doorway.  It’s down an alley through an art shop… an elderly gentleman ended up taking us inside because we couldn’t find the narrow passage amidst the other shops.  Those who know about the cafe are enjoying lake views from the rooftop so don’t give up if you can’t find the location the first time.

We had a yummy lunch at Bun No Nam Bo: huge noodle salad bowls with beef!  After our goodbyes and a sim card handover, Corey and I spent a portion of our afternoon at the Hoa Lo Prison, nicknamed the ‘Hanoi Hilton’ by American POWs (including John McCain). A section of the museum was focused on the American pilots who were incarcerated during the war.  Honestly, their accommodations seemed relatively civilized when compared to what the original inmates experienced.  The original prisoners were Vietnamese revolutionaries struggling for independence from the French (up to the mid-1950s).  It’s a pretty thought-provoking experience seeing the two different sections in the remains of the prison.

A fifteen minute walk away from the prison was the Vietnamese Women’s Museum, highlighting the daily lives of various Vietnamese communities from the highlands to the lowlands.  There are three different floors, exploring the cultural traditions, work and responsibilities of women in their daily lives.  My favorite floor was the ‘Women in History’ floor which showcased the role of women in the fight for independence.  Forty percent of the guerrillas in the Southern part of the country were women between the ages of 17-22!  They were leading troops and planning attacks and carrying out operations that were incredibly impressive.  The propaganda posters were also something to note and I made my way to a store afterwards to purchase a few with forest and farming themes.

For dinner, you have to stop at Pho Ga Hang Hom, and order the chicken pho.  It’s no frills and no additional sauces- just clear broth and deliciousness (maybe add lime, but that’s all).  This stall is staffed completely by women. We split a bowl on this night, and then made pho ga our final dinner in Hanoi because the steaming bowls were that good.  Then if you’re feeling super gluttonous after sharing a bowl of pho, walk around the corner to share a meal of bun cha at Bun Cha Hang Manh (with the crab spring rolls, please!)  You won’t regret a minute of it even if it’s hard to lift yourself up from the knee-high table at the end of the night.

28-29Dec2016: Halong Bay Excursion

We rode an early morning tour bus out to Halong Bay- a gorgeous UNESCO World Heritage Site with almost 2000 karsts (rock formations) jutting out of the serene waters.  The bus ride was a quiet one, aside from the one rest stop where all of the tour buses stop and tourists are pushed through a souvenir shop the size of Walmart.  The drivers drop you off on one end to use the toilets but then to get back to the parking lot, you have to walk through the entire store. Clever.

We booked a tour with Golden Cruises, which we learned was actually the largest boat on the bay- every room complete with a private balcony.  The balcony ended up being the highlight of the boat, as the food and the services weren’t stellar at all.  But who could complain? Having that balcony meant we could enjoy the beauty of the bay uninterrupted, with our bottle of wine, and that was exactly what we did.

There were some smaller boat trips off of our mini-cruise ship to Surprise Cave and Ti Top Island.  All of the tour boats hosting one night tours were dropping their passengers off at the same places at the same times so it does get crowded.  Corey did get some amazing sunset pictures from Ti Top island, and I did a bit of swimming as well once we docked.

The following morning, we also got to visit Amazing Cave, and saw monkeys scaling the karst walls. The water was incredibly blue, and the rock formations made me miss Addie (Earth science!!) I think the pictures speak for themselves.

On the bus ride back, you do spend a significant amount of time dropping off guests in the Old Quarter traffic, but we couldn’t be mad because we knew we were having dinner on BBQ chicken street!  You just need your nose to guide you to the street where there there are buckets of skewered chicken parts waiting to be grilled with a sweet glaze.  You just point to the parts you like, and order up some beers and plates of pickles at your small table.  Once your chicken served, staff members come to your table to cut everything off of the skewers to make things easier to eat.  The other thing you must order are these baguettes drizzled in honey.  We probably would have eaten a dozen of these since they look much smaller when you’re tearing into them.  The staff smashes down the bread to skewer and bbq it.  After our third one, I remembered that we were consuming entire baguettes in one sitting (these are the same sized baguettes as those used for bahn my).  It was a challenge to stop eating there!

We chose after-dinner cocktails at Betta Bar, a spot with a nice rooftop but it seemed like most tourists were strolling the streets this night.  We spent our evening sharing Halong Bay pictures and sorting out our plans for the last day in Hanoi.

30Dec2016: Final Day in Hanoi

For all of our organizing, we couldn’t have planned things to happen so perfectly on our last day in Hanoi.  It might have been one of the most memorable days of the trip for me.  For breakfast, we were finally up early enough to eat pho bo with the locals commuters at Pho Gia Truyen @49 Bat Dan.  We strolled to Ho Chi Minh’s mausoleum and museum.  Both are situated on a large green quad west of the Old Quarter neighborhood.  We thought that both were closed based on our guidebook hours, but the museum was open for one more hour when we arrived!  We spent the better half of that hour in the featured exhibition as this was translated into English.  The second floor chronicled Ho Chi Minh’s life through a variety of artifacts and documents, but Corey and I felt a bit out of our league without a detailed narrative next to each item.

We strolled to the Temple of Literature, dedicated to Confucius.  This temple was also cited as the first university in the city. Now it is a center of Scientific and Cultural activities with courtyards and gardens.  We took a break at Cong Cafe to have our last Vietnamese coffee and this time we wanted the sundae looking drinks that everyone seemed to be ordering. They didn’t disappoint!

Our lunch plans were foiled as we arrived just fifteen minutes after Cửa Hàng ăn Uống Mậu Dịch Số 37 stopped serving food.  But definitely try to visit if you are in Hanoi. The facade of the restaurant is almost scenic, and the inside is supposed to reflect the food subsidy days in Vietnam.  Admittedly, it was better that we weren’t having lunch because we ended up booking massages at Yakushi.  We didn’t know what we were in for, but this massage turned out to be the best I’ve ever had in my life- I swear I’m not being dramatic!  I actually felt like the masseuse had telepathic powers as she would apply pressure in the exact places needed! (Yes, I’m using all exclamation points when talking about this massage! If I had known it was this wonderful, we would have booked appointments for every day in Hanoi).  When my massage time was up, I blurted out ‘Noooo…’ instead of ‘Thank you.’

With our bodies feeling like butter, we walked out of the massage building into the most incredible sunset on the West Lake…and there was a cafe right there with open seats. We enjoyed an egg/pate bahn my and a coffee yogurt snack.  Too good for a pre-dinner appetizer.  We also had drinks right around the corner from our hotel at 88 Lounge.  This modern, dimly lit bar had floor to ceiling windows pulled open to see a lake view. The happy hour was a steal as well!

We weighed our options for our last supper over cocktails, and the pho ga soup stall won easily!  We were the first guests of the evening so we helped set out the tables and chairs.  I’m hungry thinking about it.  Later, we wandered the heralded night market in the Old quarter, packed with stalls of iPad covers, Nike knock-offs, funny talking t-shirts, and billowing elephant patterned pants.  The streets are closed off to traffic to make room for the number of visitors on Friday and Saturday nights.  I got a phone case made by a man who prints any photo that you email to him on the back of a phone case cover.  I choose the picture of the sunset from Ho Tay Lake earlier that evening.

Maybe Hanoi felt so easy because we started our time here with friends the way we would have spent time with them at home, or maybe it was the delicious food around every corner, or the serious history, but I’d definitely list Hanoi as a favorite city on our honeymoon!

Quick Shot:

Day 1: Arrival and the Old Quarter

  • Coffee at Ca Phe Pho Co (egg creme coffe)
  • Get lost in the Old Quarter
  • Walk along Ho Hoan Kiem lake
  • Get a massage at the Yakushi Center (outside of the Old Quarter- 15 min uber drive)
  • Dinner at Pho Ga Hang Hom or at Chim Sao

Day 2: Explore Historical Sites

Day 3-4 (or more!): Halong Bay Excursion

  • Don’t book with Golden Cruises
  • Consider a two or three night trip if you have time so you can go further out into the bay
  • Buy your beer, wine and snacks at that Walmart souvenir place or before you leave Hanoi because things are expensive on the boats

Day 5: (These are a collection of sites and food so keep in mind we didn’t complete this day in this order)

  • Bahn my for breakfast or pho
  • Get a massage at the Yakushi Center (can you tell I’m serious?)
  • Ho Chi Minh historical sites (check the dates and times because they have limited hours)
  • Lunch at Bun No Nam Bo
  • Stroll the Temple of Literature and the French Quarter
  • Dinner at BBQ chicken street or your favorite spot!

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