One Final Stop in Vietnam: Hanoi

We had been told that of the two biggest cities in Vietnam, one was the economic capital and the other was more vibrant. For our entire stay in Vietnam we had mixed them up, thinking Ho Chi Minh was the vibrant city and Hanoi was the economic powerhouse. We discovered how wrong we were as soon as we arrived in Hanoi. 

We were staying in a hostel in the Old Quarter. We walked to the hostel from the bus and could immediately tell this was going to be a fun place. There were tons of shops with little tables and chairs lining the streets with ladies outside cooking something in big pots. Where there were not little sidewalk cafes, there were rows and rows of motorcycles parked on the sidewalks. The narrow streets were full of mopeds, cars, and pedestrians bustling about their daily business. It was chaotic, but nothing like the insanity of Ho Chi Minh City.

A quiet street with sidewalk cafes and sidewalk mopeds

What was insane was the increasing amount of stuff people carried on their bicycles and mopeds! It was as though they were in silent competition with each other, and it definitely made for some interesting scenes around town.

What can you carry?

After we checked into our hostel, which for once we could get into right away, we went out exploring. Walking around, we noticed many streets seemed to be dedicated to selling one particular type of item: bamboo poles and ladders, or flowers, or shoes. It makes a lot of sense as an organizing principle. If you need a bamboo item, you only have to go to one part of the city.

We walked to the Imperial Citadel of Thăng Long a.k.a. Hanoi Citadel, but none of the entrances were open. The Lý Dynasty constructed the original Citadel in 1010, and it was expanded by subsequent dynasties. In 1810 it ceased to be the location of the Vietnamese Court when the Nguyễn Dynasty moved the capital to Huế.

As we tried to find another way in, we noticed we were very close to some government buildings, and there were signs indicating the area was restricted. Roughly a block later, we were asked by two guards to cross the street so we would not be too close to the Ministry of Defense building. We walked around the block containing the Citadel, but still had not found a way in when we encountered a large grassy area next to a large concrete square lined with planters

Large grassy area and concrete square

Not realizing what it was – there are no signs – we were promptly yelled at by the guards when we tried to enter between the planters. They blew their whistles and waved us over to a small building where we were sent through a metal detector and Jess was told to cover her shoulders.

We were now in the concrete square, which we have subsequently learned is the Ba Đinh Square where Ho Chi Minh declared Vietnam’s independence from the French. As we tried to walk around and explore, the guards kept blowing their whistles. More whistles? What are we doing wrong now? We thought they were saying we were not supposed to walk on the sidewalk, and maybe that we were not supposed to go that direction. The guards nudged us towards a closed gate which someone came over and opened.

We were then directed to the ticket window where we paid an entrance fee of đ40,000 ($1.72) each and received a pamphlet which outlined the various exhibits. The pamphlet also seemed to indicate this attraction (where exactly were we?) had just closed. This was a bit confusing, but there were many bus loads of Chinese tourists inside with us, so we followed them around to the various exhibits where we discovered this was Ho Chi Minh’s stilt house! The house he allegedly lived in from 1958 to 1969. Visitors can see the sparsely furnished house, study, and office in the middle of a pretty garden of fruit trees and a fish pond.

We lingered behind the Chinese tourists in an exhibit that displayed history of Ho Chi Minh until a guard blew his whistle and told us to keep moving. We walked through the complex with this large group fairly quickly with the guards at our back and then were dumped out into another square with a large museum building that was actually closed. This it turns out is the Ho Chi Minh Museum which has photos and artifacts dedicated to Ho Chi Minh.

Ho Chi Minh Museum

We were a little bit turned around at this point. The Chinese tourists seemed to be heading back to their buses in the parking lot, and we did not need to go there. We pointed ourselves in the direction of a large green park we could see on the map. The park was pretty and there were lots of people hanging out playing this foot badminton game, cycling, doing tai chi, etc. We walked through the park until we found an exit and circled around again to Ba Đinh Square.

The guards had just blown their whistles at two people walking their bicycles ahead of us on the sidewalk in front of the planters, so we walked with them in the road. We had no idea what the big deal was with this sidewalk or if we were completely misinterpreting the whistles! As we turned the corner on the edge of the green space, we realized we had somehow missed Ho Chi Minh’s mausoleum while we were turned around.

Ho Chi Minh’s Mausoleum

We walked passed the Citadel again on our way to Hoàn Kiếm park and discovered an entrance that might have been open earlier, but now the Citadel was definitely closed. We continued on to the park which surrounds Hoàn Kiếm Lake. It is supposed to be beautiful at dusk when the lights come on.

The Temple of the Jade Mountain in Hoàn Kiếm

We arrived a bit too early for the lights and were walking through slowly when a young girl came up to us and asked if she could practice English with us. We agreed to chat with her for a bit. Her English was extremely good, although she told us she was not the best in her class. There was another younger girl there with her mother who asked if she could speak English with Jess. While Eric and the first girl were making up silly riddles for each other, this other girl was asking Jess questions and telling Jess about her baby brother. Her English was not as good, so the conversation was pretty stilted, but she was trying.

After a while we announced we needed to get going; we had to find dinner and wanted to visit the night market. The first girl was adamant we should skip the night market as it always sells the same stuff and none of it is good. We told her we still wanted to see it as it was all new to us. 

Hanoi night market

The night market was cool! There was a man, who Eric describes as a “local folksinger pop star,” playing the erhu while four women danced near him with fans on stage. He was clearly a popular artist because he had drawn a big crowd, and there was a man in a grey shirt in front of the audience who was dancing, also with a fan, in time to the music.

There were lots of stalls selling trinkets, handbags and clothes. We did not buy any stuff there, but we did eat dinner there both nights. There was a lot of delicious Vietnamese street food and so much variety! We tried meat sticks, Vietnamese pizza, quail egg cups, noodle soup, fruit with yoghurt, ice cream rolls, and this weird thing we thought was going to be ice cream but turned out to be dry-ice rice puffs. 

Hanoi night market snacks

That was actually disappointing. We had seen these cups of colorful balls that Jess was sure were delicious scoops of gelato a few times and finally decided we had better try them. Instead, they were like super cold Cheetos without the cheese flavor. They did not have any flavor to match their color. The only thing cool about them was that you could breathe smoke like a dragon. Or, at least, Eric could. Jess could not make any smoke come out but she did make some ridiculous faces trying.

Jess trying and failing to be a dragon

Given this disappointment, we were definitely also going to try the ice cream roll ups we had seen all over Vietnam but had not yet tried. People set up these small stands with a freezing surface, pour a sweet milk on the surface, add a flavor (we chose peach), and then use these scraping spatulas to mix everything together. The scraping makes a lot of noise which serves to attract other customers – pretty clever really! The mixture which is scraped flat onto the freezing surface is then scraped up into five rolls. The roll ups are put into a cup and served. It tasted like peach ice cream and was much more satisfying than the rice puffs.

Ice cream roll ups

The next day we went and got what we expect are our final massages of the year. Eric had identified two possible options. One was a spa with blind masseurs that offered an early morning special. The other was a place with less atmosphere but solid massages that offered a two-hour foot and body massage special. We checked the blind place first. The massage therapists were having a meditation session in the middle of the lobby. We unceremoniously interrupted their meditation only to discover the special is only offered on week days. We felt bad having disrupted them only to turn around and leave again, but we could get double the massage for the same price across the street, and it was our last chance for massages. 

The place across the street was in a building that looked like an undecorated hotel. We were led up many flights of stairs to a large room with five recliner chairs and five massage tables. We started in the recliners and had a very relaxing foot massage which felt amazing after so many miles of walking. In the preceding week we had walked an average of 7.7 miles a day. After an hour we moved to the massage tables and had a great body massage. There were no cucumbers or hot stones, but it was a very good massage. 

Afterwards we set off to find the train street in Hanoi which almost has to be seen to be believed. It was about two miles away, so we stopped along the way at one of the “street cafes”. Jess had read that some of the best food in Hanoi came from these little places with tiny chairs and tables.

Our street cafe

The one we stopped at had a woman sitting behind a bunch of trays of food of varying sorts. Each plate came with rice, but you could choose a few additional items to put on the plate. Jess chose something she thought might be frog with a yummy looking sauce, sautéed cabbage, some pork, and a spoonful of bugs. The frog thing turned out to be pig knuckle, which Jess had never tried before. It was really good! Jess had no idea pig knuckle had so much meat on it! The bugs, we have since learned they are boiled silk worm pupae, were a bit chewier than the bugs we had tried in Thailand a few years ago, but these ones did not get stuck in your teeth. 

Pig knuckle and boiled silkworm pupae

While we were at lunch, the guy at the table next to us had his shoes shined. The woman with the portable shoe shining service gave him a pair of flip flops to wear while he was eating and took his shoes away to polish them. It seemed quite efficient actually. 

After lunch we found the train street. We were aiming to be there when the train passed by there at 3:30pm, and we were going to arrive quite early, but you can have a beer or an egg coffee at the little cafes in the street while you wait. When we got there, people kept trying to get us to stop at their cafes. It took us a little while to understand they were also saying, “there’s a train coming soon.”  

Train Schedule

Shortly after we arrived, and right on schedule, the 2:30pm train came by. The little cafes had all picked up their little tables and chairs and moved their customers to the sides of the street.

Train passing through Train Street

The owner of our cafe told us the 3:30pm train was quite delayed, so we were pleased to have fortuitously caught this one. As we were leaving the street, Eric said, “with a booming tourist economy, this can’t last forever.” (Update: As of October 6th, 2019, the Ministry of Transport has ordered Hanoi’s Train Street closed after a close call with a tourist.)

The train is a full-size train with at least twenty carriages and it goes quite fast down this street which is only slightly wider than the train. It is an insane sight! Shortly after the train goes by, all the little tables and chairs come back out and the customers go back to their beers and coffees. We picked a cafe in the middle of the block and enjoyed two egg coffees.

Train Street complete with train track cafes

We were planning to spend our final day in Vietnam with Ben, the South Korean we met learning to scuba dive. His parents live in Hanoi where his father runs a large padding and bedding business, and Ben recently moved there to work at the company. He had offered to give us a tour of the factory, which we were pretty excited about. He sent a car to pick us up at our hostel and take us to the factory roughly an hour away.

Ben gave us an awesome tour of all the parts of the factory. We saw how the raw fiber is turned into long flat sheets which are then heated and pressed into a firm padding. The padding is then cut into three pieces which are put into three sections of a mattress cover to produce a full size mattress.

Mattress making thin layers of fiber

We saw the machines for the part of the factory that makes spring mattresses for King Coil.

Making spring mattresses

He showed us where the embroidery for bedding is done – those machines are crazy impressive!

Embroidery machine

We visited the floor with hundreds of sewing machines where people were making pillow cases and sheets. We saw machines doing quilting. 

Ben told us a little bit about the differences in mattress and bedding preferences between different cultures. Most Vietnamese, for example, would not sleep on a spring mattress. We were a little confused when Ben was telling us about the quilting process because he kept talking about it being on top of the mattress. We did not know that in South Korea it is typical to sleep on top of a quilt rather than underneath.

In the middle of the tour, we went to the company cafeteria which serves delicious Korean food – a primer before we caught our flight to Korea that evening.

Entrance to the Literature Temple

After the tour, the car took us to the Literature Temple near the Old Quarter of Hanoi. We were, unfortunately, a little templed out at this point and decided we did not want to spend even the small number of dollars needed to visit this one. We found a coffee shop instead and enjoyed some people watching while catching up on some blogging/ work. 

While we were at the cafe, a small accident happened in front of us. In the chaos of the three-way intersection, a car ran into a woman on a moped. Nobody was moving very quickly, but the accident did cause the woman’s scooter to fall over and dump her on the ground. Many people ran over to help. She seemed to be ok, probably mostly shaken, and was able to get up and get back on her scooter. We are a little surprised we have not seen more of this kind of accident in Vietnam given all the motorbikes, but it seems to be mostly controlled chaos. 

Late in the afternoon, we walked back to the hostel to retrieve our bags because we had plans to meet Ben and his girlfriend, Hang, for dinner. On the way we came across a chaotic scene with motorbikes pointing all different directions blocking the road. For some reason, they were all just sitting there. It took us a moment to figure out this was school pickup!

School pickup in Hanoi

Ben and Hang had chosen our dinner spot, which was a restaurant selected by CNN (of all random things) for having the best spring rolls. It also served Bùn Chả Hanoi. You may recall from our Đà Nẵng post that Bùn Chả Hanoi was Jess’s least favorite food in Vietnam, but she was game to try it again, especially with people who could explain it to her. 

Ben ordered three Bùn Chả Hanoi. The “three” really referred to the plate of meat that comes with it because we could have as many dishes of leaves, noodles, and sauce as we wanted. This time, the meat (patties and strips of fatty pork like bacon) came on a little hot plate. We were supposed to put the meat, leaves and noodles in the sauce and then pull them back out again with chopsticks. To distinguish it from soup, we never had a spoon to eat the sauce. Here, this dish made more sense, and it was also more delicious.

Ben also ordered two spring rolls for us to try. They were fried and each came as one large roll which the waitress then cut into four pieces with scissors. It was unlike any other spring roll we have had and quite good. 

During dinner, we chatted with Hang who is Vietnamese. She is a newscaster with Vietnam TV and had to go back to work for her nightly broadcast after dinner with us! Ben and Hang told us about their first trip to the US together where their rental car got stuck on a muddy road in Vermont and they had to be rescued. It sounded like quite the adventure.

While Hang went back to work, we went with Ben to the top of the Lotte Tower for a drink. The bar at the top of the tower is an open-air bar which was really cool. Unfortunately, it was pretty hazy, so it was hard to see very far, but we could see the building where Hang’s TV station was, and we streamed part of her broadcast when it came on at 9:30pm.

We had a few expensive drinks on top of the tower while chatting with Ben about his plans for an education startup in Vietnam. After a few hours, we left to catch a taxi to the airport. Since we had carefully used up most of our Vietnamese currency, we had to give Ben dollars pay for our drinks. He says he is coming to the US in January, so he will have to remember to bring the money with him. 

We got to the airport two hours before our flight to Korea and stood in line for an hour to check our bags. Note to selves: we miss traveling without checked bags. 

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