Yay! Finally struck Vietnam off my list of places to visit in Southeast Asia. That leaves me with Myanmar and Laos. This trip happened on a whim, I booked and confirmed this trip 3 days before the departure date without telling my mum where I’m taking her haha. (Eventually I did coz I didn’t want to risk her bringing winter coats lol)
I always spend some time observing the sights offered from airport to hotel because that’s the first impression a country wants the visitor to receive. Singapore places great emphasis on that and you’ll see perfectly manicured trees and bushes with blooming bougainvillea outlining the roads leading to and from Changi Airport. I love that sight.
So I stared out into the late afternoon sky that was slowly turning orange, at endless hectares of greenery, grazing buffaloes, the occasional farmer with a straw hat, tall and narrow houses, labyrinth of cables hanging from shophouse to shophouse and…… a man peeing a waterfall worth of pee in broad daylight along a stone path. Well, didn’t expect that as part of a first impression! I was so shocked I jerked the curtain the shut, turned to mama and exclaimed “eeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee”. HAHAHA!
I also saw people standing along the highway road divider at random spots looking as though they were waiting for buses. Indeed they were, but there wasn’t anything to indicate it’s a bus stop! No shelter, no seats, no sign, no bus lane – nothing.
Where To Buy Data Sim Card In Hanoi
By the way, it’s a no-brainer getting a data sim card at Noi Bai International Airport in Hanoi. I did some research beforehand and most articles painted a gloomy picture of how difficult, tedious and scammy getting a data sim card is in Vietnam. I was prepared to go connection-less for the next 5 days and even downloaded the offline Google map of Old Quarter (for our food hunt). Turns out it was as easy as walking out of departure gate A1, turning to the right, and buying a sim card from one of the shops there. I got one with 15 minutes of local calls and unlimited 4G internet connection. Connection was reliable and speedy.
It was around 5pm by the time we checked in. I was so excited to try bun cha (grilled meat with rice noodles) we unintentionally ended up at the copycat when the real deal was JUST BESIDE it. For dinner Round 2, I had the best pho (beef noodles) in my life at 49 Bat Dan Street.
If you only have one day in Vietnam, go for a city tour. You can get around on your own by buses, but unless you have a local bring you around, you’ll probably waste a lot of time getting lost and melting in the merciless heat. Beware of taxis. Uber of Grab would be a safer choice. The best way to get around Hanoi’s places of interest is to book a city tour either from your home country or at the many tour shops in Old Quarter (if you’re staying there) as you’ll be travelling in a group, with lunch, transport, entrance fees, and guide included.
Places To Go In Hanoi:
- Tran Quoc Pagoda
- Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum + Stilt House
- One-Pillar Pagoda
- Temple of Literature
- Traditional Ceramic Village
- Hoan Kiem Lake & Ngoc Son Temple
- Weekend Night Market
Tran Quoc Pagoda
One of the oldest pagodas and situated in the center of the capital of Vietnam, Tran Quoc Pagoda is set against a beautiful backdrop and easily distinguishable from far away.
The Chinese domination of Vietnam began in 111 BC, and is considered to have ended in 938 AD. The Chinese periods of domination left behind plenty of Chinese culture, from religion to rice cultivation techniques to architecture. It was not uncommon to see temples and buildings with Chinese wordings when we toured around Hanoi.
Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum
Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum in Ba Dinh Square is one of the most visited attractions in Hanoi. It is the final resting place of Ho Chi Minh, the most iconic and popular leader of Vietnam, known to his people as ‘Uncle Ho’. His body is preserved in a glass case inside the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum, even though he actually wanted to be cremated and his ashes spread around the country. No cameras are allowed inside the Mausoleum. The changing of the guards happens every 2 hours and we arrived right when the guards came marching out to take their positions. Lucky us!
The Presidential Palace is situated just behind the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum. It was constructed in 1900 by French architect Auguste Henri Vildieu to be the president’s official residence but he had opted for a traditional Vietnamese stilt house instead. The three-storey, mustard yellow building features 30 rooms built in colonial French architectural style, an orchard, carp pond, and a 91-metre long boulevard surrounded by lush gardens.
In most Southeast Asian countries, yellow is the color of royalty.
Instead of the extravagant yellow castle, the president chose instead to stay in a simple house made of wood. I love it. I love the simplicity of it, the surrounding greenery, and the peace that comes with it.
The way President Ho Chi Minh led his life reminds very much of Singapore’s first Prime Minister, the late Mr Lee Kwan Yew, who led the nation from a third world to first. He gave his life to make this happen. After his passing, photos of his spartan home were revealed and everyone was shocked at how a man who had such authority and power led such a simple life. It showed that he knew what truly mattered – his family, and the people entrusted to his care.
The Emperor longed for an heir and one night he dreamt that the Goddess of Mercy handed him a male child. Not long after, the Emperor married a young peasant girl who borne him an heir. To express his gratitude to the Goddess of Mercy, the One Pillar Pagoda was erected, its structure symbolizing a pure lotus flower emerging from sorrow.
A singular icon of Hanoi, this Buddhist temple stood for 900 years before French colonial forces destroyed it in 1954. It has been carefully restored since, and you can climb the steps to pray for blessings or an heir.
May I be blessed with an heir too. 👶
Temple of Literature
This 11th-century temple was originally built as a university in 1070 dedicated to Confucius, scholars and sages.
Tip: Step into the rooms to admire pictures of educational achievements of Vietnamese students since ancient times and…….. escape from the heat.
In our guide’s own words, “Vietnam people are not so good with technology, but they are very good with artwork and handicraft”. Very true, as evident from visits to two traditional local handicraft factories – one dealing with painting on ceramics, the other breaking eggshells into tiny pieces to fill in silhouettes.
As a child, I always marvelled at the beautiful iridescent Mother of Pearl drawings on the furniture of my grandparents’ home. It was wonderful to witness how they’re made.
Hoan Kiem Lake & Ngoc Son Temple
Ngoc Son Temple is also known as Jade Mountain Temple, and in Vietnamese culture, similar to that of the Chinese, the significance and power of jade is multifaceted, its use as a protective or decorative ornament. Hoan Kiem Lake surrounds Ngoc Son Temple, a temple sitting in the center on a small island.
Hoan Kiem Lake translates to 还剑湖, meaning Lake of the Returned Sword. Legend describes how an emperor was once given a magical sword which helped him defeat the Chinese Ming Dynasty and in doing so saw the return of the Golden Turtle God to the lake. There is a preserved specimen of a giant turtle found in the lake weighting 250kg.
The red bridge that undulates over Hoan Kiem Lake symbolizes a dragon’s scaly spine. Inside, you can admire the ornate shrine of Hung Dao, a wily Tran Dynasty general who repelled Mongol invaders in the 13th century.
FOOD would be the biggest motivation for me to return to Vietnam in the near future. OMG, I cannot begin to tell you how in love I am with Vietnamese food! 😍
Days after I returned home, the taste of Cha Ca, Bun Cha, Banh Mi were still fresh on my tongue. It was a torture editing food pictures, especially at night.
When we returned to the hotel after the city tour at around 3pm, the frontdesk staff asked whether we had any plans for the evening. I honestly hadn’t thought of anything so no harm taking a look at what he had to offer. We were presented with a food trail detailing the places we’d go from 6-9pm, at a ridiculous price tag of USD60 PER PAX. In Chinese, we call this 砍菜头, loosely translating to ‘getting your vegetable head chopped’. BAHAHA.
I spent the next 30 minutes in our room, perusing a few websites recommending the best food in Hanoi Old Quarter, and by 4pm we were out on the streets, refreshed and with a properly mapped out food trail for the evening. I’ll show you the food places we went to soon. Still editing pictures!
We had Cha Ca twice, Bun Cha twice, Banh Mi twice, Pho twice. Only because I really loved these dishes and it’s always good to form your own opinions of a place after having experienced an alternative rather than relying only on one. Nah, just an excuse to eat more, really. LOL.
Make Friends From Over The World
Our land tour group was small, a perfect size of 7 from US, Perth, Melbourne and Singapore. I enjoyed the interaction we had, though brief. We had more time to interact with friends around the world aboard our 2D1N Halong Bay cruise since there were more activities and sights to see.
Such deep affection for his wife. <3 He took pictures of her every moment, filmed her with her favorite flowers and plants, carried her bag, took care of her. I offered to take pictures of them together coz it was always just one taking for the other. Besides, it was her birthday and in high spirits, donning such vibrant colors too. That reminds me, I need to email them their pictures.
Weekend Night Market
The Old Quarter night market takes place very weekend, from Friday to Sunday, 6pm till late. Roads are sealed from traffic and the streets come alive with peddlers selling everything from clothes to food to small furniture.
If you’re non-Asian, you might get asked by friendly local teachers to have a chat with their students in English so that they get to converse with native English speakers.
This was taken at the roof top bar of Cafe Pho, a cafe you’d think has ceased to exist due to its elusive entrance, that overlooks Hoan Kiem Lake.
Chill Like A Local
Roadside juice bars seem like a trendy place for young people to hang out. Stools do double duty as seats and tables. There was one right across the street from our hotel so we spent about an hour there, sipping our drinks, people-watching and enjoying each other’s company. 👩👧
So if you’re able and willing, map out your own food trail, it doesn’t take too much effort and it’s a much better experience exploring the city on your own. Everywhere in Old Quarter is within walking distance, when I Google Mapped, the results usually showed 2-7 minutes of walking.
After talking to our friends during the day tour and Halong Bay cruise did I realize how lucky we are to have access to so many different types of fruits back home. If your luggage allows, maybe bring home some rambutan, cempedak, dragonfruit, pineapple?