Hanoi – A first timer’s primer
Pack lightly, but not too light lightly
Am I boarding an airport bus in Ulan Bator or Vietnam’s capital? I can’t tell because every passenger is wearing scarves and mittens. It’s not Arctic cold, but I’ve just swooped in via the tropical bliss of Ho Chi Minh City wearing nothing but shorts and a t-shirt. Little wonder my tightly bundled fellow travellers smirk and my wife gives me that ‘I told you so’ look. Hanoi, chilly in January? Believe it.
Shuttle to Hanoi City
Just for kicks we fly to Hanoi on a budget carrier and board the airline’s shuttle to the Old Quarter. It costs VND 80,000 (about USD4), no hassles. A taxi ride would have cost nearly five times as much, maybe more – it’s largely dependant on one’s bargaining prowess. Interestingly, a competing airline’s shuttle tried to cajole us onto their bus: ‘Same thing, same ride’, said the clerk at the airport. Yeah, right!
Boutique hotel in Hanoi
It’s a brisk 15-minute walk from the drop point to our hotel in the Old Quarter. When you visit Hanoi, stay in the Old Quarter. Consider it a strategic move that gives you access to most of the action. Our boutique digs, freshly built this year, are on Hang Be Street – The Street of Rafts, although today it’s more like the street of motorbike maniacs and pedestrians on autopilot. At our hotel they lay out the red carpet, for real: we arrive the night of an early New Year’s party and celebrations are in full swing. A warm crystal glass of mulled wine is thrust into my hands before I’m able to set down my Samsonite. Here comes the chardonnay and champagne! Then the hotel manager, all smiles up front and all business out back, introduces himself and beseeches Sue and I to ‘Come downstairs later and join the party.’ So we do – indeed we do! – and feast on fried fish, spring rolls, salads, fruit skewers and panna cotta. Best check-in ever.
Our room is tiny, like a Barbie condo, but fresh and modern. There’s an LCD TV on the wall. Custom embroidered cushions and towels. Teak furniture, blackout curtains and a lacquered tissue box on the writing desk. Bathroom fittings are European standard. Our sole gripe is the lack of hot water, only available in 40-second bursts each half hour, which makes showering together not only romantic, but a necessity!
Hoan Kiem Lake and Ngoc Son Temple
Hoan Kiem Lake is the showpiece of Hanoi. Even with the winter wind whipping off its surface, chilling one’s beak, Hoan Kiem is a marvellous place for a stroll or some Chinese aerobics. Built on a small hump of earth on Hoan Kiem, Ngoc Son Temple is accessed via a flag-lined pedestrian bridge, the Huc. Pay VND20,000 (USD1) to cross, and then fight the crowds to get a look inside the temple, home to an enormous taxidermic turtle caught in the lake 45 years ago.
Exchange Cafe in Hanoi City
Set in a lively lane off Phan Chu Trinh Street, Exchange Café serves up world-class cappuccinos and creamy, comforting soups. What the café lacks in central heating it makes up for with piping hot drinks and a cosy ambience, sort of like grandma’s place at Christmastime. Although a tad drafty, Exchange Café makes for a good pit stop near Hanoi Opera House.
Mediterraneo Italian Restaurant
What’s better than authentic Italian food on New Year’s Eve? (In Vietnam no less!) Just a frankincense canister swing away from St. Joseph’s Cathedral, Mediterraneo Italian Restaurant stands on one of Hanoi’s most gorgeous streets, Nha Tho. As 2012 ticked over, Sue and I shared a della casa pizza, followed by tiramisu. I’m one cigar down and we’re off to the reflexologist for a much needed foot massage.
Massage is good business in Hanoi and you’ll find a clutch of studios near St. Joe’s. Expect to pay around VND200,000 (USD10) per hour, including tip. My masseur is a keener who keeps asking me questions in Vietnamese based on the scrap of Tieng Viet that I use to get our conversation rolling. But he speaks too fast and I’m caught up on a roiling sea of lingual confusion. It’s a short walk back to the hotel where the music of ABBA has been looping since we’ve arrived. I exchange words with the DJ. (But, having learned my lesson, not in Swedish.)
Revolution museum in Hanoi City
The Revolution Museum is across the street from the Natural History Museum, though you wouldn’t know it because it’s well cloaked and there are no signs advertising the place. God’s honest truth, I stumbled in here by happy accident. Inside, there are thousands of pieces of memorabilia that document Vietnam’s liberation movement from 1858 to today. Exhibits cover two floors, and yes, you begin your self-guided tour on the second floor – follow the wall signs. Admission is VND20,000 (USD1).
Water Puppets in Hanoi
No trip to Hanoi is complete without attending a water puppet performance at Thang Long Water Puppet Theatre. Made of lacquered wood, these colourful marionettes dance across a pool of shallow water and are manipulated by veiled puppeteers using underwater sorcery. The multi-act extravaganza presents a condensed version of Vietnam’s cultural history and folk tales. Live singing and musical accompaniment performed on traditional instruments enhances the experience. Show times vary and you’d be wise to buy tickets in advance as the shows are usually jam packed.
Highway 4 restaurant
In addition to an extensive menu of regional Vietnamese cuisine, Highway 4, under its Son Tinh brand, sells top-shelf liqueurs made from herbs and fruits. My nip of Passion Fruit arrives swiftly and goes down likewise. Although service is a little inattentive and our table spot draughty, the food is very good. Try the aubergine claypot even if you’re not vegetarian.
Fly from Ho Chi Minh City to Hanoi daily on Vietnam Airlines, Vietjet Air and Jetstar Pacific.