Eating and Sightseeing in Hanoi
Our flight from Tokyo to Hanoi was delayed, so by the time we got our "visa on arrival," cleared customs and caught our waiting taxi into the city, it was nearly 1 am as we pulled into the Posh Hotel, a lovely spot on the edge of the Old Quarter and a block from Hanoi's famous Night Market. The manager was asleep on the couch next to the front desk (we would learn he is on site nearly 24/7!), but perked awake as we walked in and greeted us like long lost friends. He launched right in, asking if we wanted to book any tours during our stay and my New England guard went up. I was exhausted and it felt like he was trying to "sell" us (which you will get your fill of in Vietnam!). The next morning, I realized that he and his staff were some of THE nicest, most helpful people we have met on our trip. Their sole goal was to make certain that we had an amazing stay in Vietnam. After a short, but good, night's sleep In the honeymoon suite (it was only $46/night and included a cake, roses, balloons and fresh fruit every day!) and a huge breakfast (also included in the room rate - a dazzling spread of fresh fruit, spring rolls, banana crepes, stir fried rice, pho and awesome Vietnamese coffee), we sat with Diep to plan our excursions. First, 2 days to meander around Hanoi on our own, followed by a 2-day/1-night trip to Ha Long Bay and a 3-day/4-night trip (including an overnight sleeper bus in each direction) to Sa Pa in the northwest corner of Vietnam. The Posh would hold our luggage between trips, so we could bring just our day packs, and would have a room or a hot shower waiting on each return to Hanoi.
We wandered for miles and we ate, mostly on tiny plastic stools out on the street. Our rule of thumb for street food: if it smells good, looks good and is packed with Vietnamese people eating, sit down and attempt to order or at least point to the bowl of the person seated at your elbow. Our first attempt was down a tiny alley that suddenly opened just wide enough for doll house tables and chairs to be set up and still allow motor scooters to rush inches from our backs past us. The "server" said something incomprehensible and we nodded and were awarded with steaming bowls of Bun Ca - flat rice noodles, pieces of perfectly fried fish, savory broth, sides of sliced chilis, limes and a giant bowl of "salad" - lettuce, basil, mint, cilantro, banana flower - to mix in at your whim. Goodbye Ramen, hello Bun! We proceeded to eat our way through Nem - spring rolls with pork or crab (nem cua be); Bun Cha - round sticky rice noodles that you dump into a fish sauce-based sweet/sour broth with grilled pork and pork sausage patties and more herb salad; Pho - ga (chicken) and bo (beef); Banh Mi; Bo Bia - rice pancakes rolled around honey comb, fresh grated coconut and sesame seeds; all washed down with cold Bia - just say "beer" with a Boston accent and you have yourself a perfectly pronounced Vietnamese beer. Although we were pretty successful navigating the Hanoi Street Food scene on our own, it was still worth the extra money to join a Street Food Tour one night. There are a dozen or so companies that offer them nightly, but once again, we took the recommendation of the Posh Hotel staff. For $25, our guide led a group of 4 of us for 3 hours around the city to 6 different tasty stops. In addition to some of the standards we had already tried, we had Bun Rieu - rice noodle/crab soup; fresh fruit with coconut cream and ice; Egg coffee - so much better than it sounds! Imagine strong coffee, topped with frothy, sweet zabaglione-like custard that you mix together for a tasty treat.
And yes, we walked off our meals and saw the sights, too!
Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum and Stilt House - The Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum is open for just a few hours each morning. We queued up, what felt like a mile away, in a line that never stopped moving, albeit slowly. After passing through a metal detector and a spot to check large bags and cameras, we were split into 2 parallel lines and continued the slow journey up the steps, past the guards and inside. There, Ho Chi Minh's body was laying on a large bed, looking poised and restful, in a suit and with his hand placed gently on his stomach. There was a guard at each corner and creepy orange lighting. We were not allowed to stop or talk or snap pictures, so the 2 lines moved slowly and quietly past his resting place and out into the daylight. Bizarre, morbid and oddly worth the trip. Across the street is Ho Chi Minh's beautiful, simple 2 story wooden stilt house, where he chose to live later in life, rather than the Presidential Palace.
Ethnology museum - Indoor and outdoor displays of the 50+ indigenous tribes of Vietnam. The outdoor area includes 10 full size replica homes and village buildings built by different tribes.
Hoa Lo Prison - Sarcastically dubbed the "Hanoi Hilton" by the American POWs, the prison was built by the French to house Vietnamese political prisoners and later used by the North Vietnamese for US POWs. The remaining buildings are filled with fascinating political propaganda, depicting the horrors inflicted by the French on the Vietnamese, followed by the supposedly humane treatment of the Americans by the Vietnamese. There are 2 sides to every story. I trust the truth lies somewhere in the middle of what Americans learn in high school history and what the Vietnamese government portrays.
Hoan Kiem Lake - "Lake of the Returned Sword" sits in the heart of the Old Quarter. The streets are closed to traffic, so it is the perfect place to run or stroll without fear of getting hit by crazy scooter drivers. On the weekends, Vietnamese families are strolling and snacking, with kids playing in the street.
Old Quarter - Meander through the streets, get lost, go shopping, have lunch on the sidewalk, stop for a coffee or beer and watch the world go by.
Plus we heard great things about the Women's Musuem, but didn't make it.
If you go: Posh Hotel (http://www.hanoiposhhotel.com) - arranged the paperwork for our Visas on arrival, taxi from the airport and all of our excursions. Dorm beds and private rooms available. Great location and even better staff! Street food: 20,000-80,000 VND per dish ($.88-$3.50); dinner for 2 including beer runs $5-$12.