The last time we were in Vietnam was in January 2010, where we celebrated the New Year’s Eve in Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) in the South of Vietnam. I was excited when we decided to spend our 2013 Christmas holidays in the North of Vietnam, particularly in Hanoi and Ha Long Bay, and to experience winter season in South-east Asia.
Hanoi is the dynamic capital city of Vietnam. It is entirely different from Ho Chi Minh City which is more tropical, liberal and modern. Hanoi offers contemporary comfort such as world-class cuisine, art and hotels. It is encased in Chinese heritage and French colonial vestiges. It is infused with conservative historic charm and character, strong village feel, great street food, friendly people, a mixture of seasonal and tropical climate, dodging scooters, beautiful garden, many varieties of places to see and visit, numerous museums, loads of preserved French colonial architectures, and a sense of hospitable tourism. I would say, Hanoi is where Paris meets Asia.
We stayed in Hanoi Serendipity Hotel, located in the Old Quarter, the heart of the city. The hotel is beautiful and the staff is friendly, helpful, and they pay attention to every single small detail.
On our first day, we wandered around the Old Quarter area. I noticed that this area was very lively every day, both day and night. There were many cafes, eateries and small shops spilling into the streets and coffee/tea and baguettes were served on the roadside. The streets were busy with motorbikes, taxis and bicycles zoomed by and many people walked on the footpath. I noticed that the streets were humming and buzzing especially during the night time when families go out for dinner. I was also impressed with the abundance of bougainvillea flowers swaying out from the balconies in almost every house and I liked the old picturesque buildings around.
In the morning, we had a refreshing pleasant walk while holding hands around the wonderful and scenic Hoan Kiem Lake, also called Lake of the Restored Sword. Many people were walking, exercising, relaxing and sitting down around the lake.
From the lake, we visited the beautiful neo-Gothic St Joseph Cathedral. It looks like a smaller version of the Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris. It was built in 1886 when French colonized Vietnam. I have learned that about 6 million of Vietnamese people are still practicing Catholicism.
Then we headed to the Opera House in Hanoi. It is a lovely French colonial building. Since we couldn’t get in, we had a cup of coffee at Highland Coffee next to the Opera House. To me, it is one of the good places in Hanoi to sit, relax and watch people while drinking great coffee.
After lunch we visited the Museum of History just down the street from the Opera House. The entrance fee was inexpensive. It contains some great exhibits from pre-historic period to the 20th century. To me, it was worth a visit as it was one way to get acquainted with the Vietnamese history for the last 100,000 years. The museum was very quiet and very easy to navigate. We were very pleased with what we saw inside the museum.
After we spent about two hours in the museum, we continued walking back to our hotel and took a late afternoon nap. Then we went out again in evening and kept strolling around the Old Quarter on a chilly evening.
We began our second day at the One Pillar Pagoda. It is a very busy cute Buddhist temple surrounded by a beautiful green setting. It was built in 1049 by Emperor Lý Thái Tông who at first had no child and dreamt that he would meet a woman who would give him a son while seated on a lotus flower. He got married to a peasant woman who bore a son for him. So then, a monk told the Emperor to build a temple similar to what he saw in his dream. Part of the temple was rebuilt after the French destroyed it in 1954. This temple served as one of the iconic symbols of Hanoi located nearby the Ba Dinh square, the Ho Chi Minh Museum, the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum and the Presidential Palace.
Then we walked around the Mausoleum of Ho Chi Minh. It is a large building which contained the embalmed body of President Ho Chi Minh, who remained an inspiration for Vietnamese people. He was a communist revolutionary leader who became prime minister and president of Vietnam. He led the Viet Minh independence movement and defeated the French Union in 1954.
Not far from the Mausoleum is the Presidential Palace, the former Indochina’s General Governor Palace. President Ho Chi Minh lived and worked there for 15 years. The entire site was full of wind, light and fragrant flowers. Inside the palace compound we saw the Presidential Palace (only the outside part), the fishpond of Ho Chi Minh, the cars that were used by President Ho Chi Minh, the historic house-on-stilts of Ho Chi Minh, and many more.
Then we continued walking around the place and decided to try water bicycling for an hour. We had fun like a pair of kids. Then we had a late lunch and went back to the hotel for an afternoon nap.
In the evening, we strolled around the night market, also known as Dong Xuan Night Market, even though it was very cold. It operates only on weekends from Friday to Sunday in the Old Quarter of Hanoi. The market started setting up at around 6pm and opened at 7pm. We saw many locals and tourists mingle along the streets, but the majority of people at the night market were Vietnamese. I noticed that many stalls were selling the same things and most of the stuff being sold was geared towards the locals such as basic clothing, jackets, belts handbags, cell phone cases, shoes, kitchen wares, etc. I think it is worth visiting the Night Market to experience the lifestyle of the locals.
On the third day, we spent the whole day shopping. We bought some silk products, souvenirs and many more from different boutique shops.
Even though the weather was bad since it was winter when we went there, we had a memorable stay there. I’m so impressed with the old town as it is charming and picturesque.