Stray New Zealander Keys continues to make us all jealous as she travels on Stray’s very first Vietnam trip… Our final day. We arrived in the capital Hanoi on a Friday afternoon at about 4pm just in time for rush hour.
This did not stop our driver from backing up about 200m on a motorway, after he had missed his somewhat confusing turn on a new section of road. As in Saigon (at the start of the trip), traffic flicked around us on either side, nobody honked and we were soon on the road to where we needed to be. Needless to say my respect for Vietnamese driving, their ability to merge and awareness of other road users continues to grow. As we got into the centre of the city, the traffic became thicker and thicker and the number of pedestrians increased to the point that it would have been faster to get out and join them. We had arrived in the Old Quarter, our home for the next few nights. Officially our Stray tour was over, but most of us were planning on staying in Hanoi for the next few nights anyway.
After checking into our accommodation we arranged to meet on Bia Corner (beer corner), a famous landmark where you can sit on little stools and drink beer at 15c a glass while all of Hanoi and its motorbikes whiz around you. Tour Leader Richard set a time for us to meet and we showed up in our glad rags from Hoi An for one final night out together. Rich brought the first round of beers for the evening, for the princely sum of $2 or something ridiculous, and then we moved to one of his favourite restaurants. The coal buckets beside our seats were welcome to ward away the cold. Although it was still warm when we drove into the city earlier in the day, we were now into single digits on the temperature gauge, something I had not anticipated in my preconceived picture of tropical Vietnam. After dinner, we moved to a nearby street, which had a string of bars in relatively short succession. This part of the city closes down about 1am so after that it was on to the omnipresent moto taxis to track down more nightlife on the other side of the river (outside the Old Quarter). The crew had a big night out, as was evident the next day.
The Old Quarter of Hanoi had a really different feeling to Saigon. The streets were narrow and yet there seemed to be just as many people and bikes on them, adding to the feeling of hustle and bustle in the city. I was glad we had started our Stray tour in Saigon from a pedestrian’s point of view. Negotiating your way around the streets of Hanoi could be likened to extreme frogger but we were all well accustomed to walking in the traffic by this point.
Something else that was noteworthy in the Old Quarter is that you would have streets designated for specific products; one block would be full of shoe shops and the next one might do pots and pans, another one for gold jewellery and another for coffee. This definitely added to the air of shopper’s paradise because you could target specific streets for whatever you were looking for and do a price & product check in a relatively short space of time.
I had two full days to explore Hanoi and wish I’d had longer to make the trip to Ha Long Bay – this can be done as a day trip or overnight trip and some of our crew did the latter. I can understand why UNESCO have made it a World Heritage site; the photos look absolutely stunning. I confined my efforts to explore the city itself and highlights included the Hanoi Hilton. This is a museum in the old prison, which was originally built by the French in the late 1800s. Initially it was used for holding alleged subversive Vietnamese prisoners however during the time of the Vietnam War, the American P.O.Ws were detained here. Nowadays there really is a 5 star hotel built right alongside it, although it’s not the Hilton.
One of Hanoi’s famous attractions is the Water Puppet theatre. I didn’t know what to expect but was pleasantly surprised to find oriental music played by a small orchestra with traditional instruments in a theatre that seated about 150 people. The show went for a bit under an hour and was well done. I’d recommend this to future travellers although you have to buy the tickets well in advance.
On my last day in Hanoi I ended up at the Women’s Museum and this turned out to be an unexpected delight and definitely the best museum I visited during my time in Vietnam. The first level was dedicated to the role of women in modern-day society. Many women are street vendors because couples often have to live apart, with the husband working in the village and the mum raising the kids in the city so they get a better education. The next level was dedicated to different marriage traditions in the various ethnic groups around Vietnam. It was intriguing to learn of the diversity of customs from group to group. In some cases, it was the woman who was sent to live in the husband’s village and vice versa. Some ethnic groups expected a dowry from the bride’s family, others from the man. In some cases certain obligations had to be fulfilled such as making a certain garment or dish before the marriage could take place. The next floor described the importance of women in Vietnam’s history. Famous women had often been responsible for initiating certain rebellions, hiding subversives or in more recent times had run the underground tunnel villages during the Vietnam (American) War. The government had also honoured a number of women who had lost children during the war with a special medal of valour.
I also learned that Vietnam celebrates two Women’s Days. The 8th of March is known as International Women’s Day but it’s mainly celebrated in socialist countries, while the 20th of October is Vietnamese Women’s Day. These two days are the occasion for men to express their love to important women in their life such as mothers, wives, girlfriends, classmates/colleagues, sisters, and teachers. The most popular gift is flowers but a lot of men choose different gifts and their own way to show their love. These are not national holidays but Vietnamese people will have a more relaxed day at work or school, and spare time to organise a small party for the women in their lives.
The culinary highlight of my visit to Hanoi was being invited to Cha Ca La Vong which is the oldest restaurant in Vietnam and has been operating for five generations since 1871. Our Stray tour guide Hang is originally from Hanoi and she suggested this spot for grilled fish. It turned out this restaurant is so famous that they named the street after it. The fish was prepared in a turmeric sauce with lots of green leafy vegetables, not unlike spinach. The sizzling frying pan was set down on our table and my taste buds were in for a treat.
Hang also had tipped us off at her favourite café in the city. The java was fantastic moreover it was also a great spot to watch the street action from our tiny stools hovered just above the pavement! This spot was definitely popular with the locals and proved a great vantage point on one of the busiest streets of the Old Quarter.
I’m really grateful to Stray for providing such awesome local staff, as well as a super off the beaten track itinerary. I definitely feel like I have experienced the authentic Vietnam, in fact it was so good I have completely fallen in love with Vietnam, its people and culture. I know this will be the first of many trips to this amazing country.