Things To Do in Hanoi – A Shortlist, Part One
By Hun Ohm
We spent a total of six days in Hanoi. Too much? Well, the northern capital has enough nooks and crannies to merit this amount of time for exploration, and it also serves as decent regrouping point in between journeys. For example, when not exploring the many streets of the capital, we arranged multi-day side trips to Halong Bay, Cuc Phuong National Park, and Kenh Ga (see other upcoming entries), and shipped parcels home. We also finalized our arrangements to exit the country and begin our travels in Laos.
However, you may find yourself without six days to spend in Hanoi (or perhaps no desire to spend that much time there). If either is the case, we think that you should consider including the following destinations on any itinerary. Without further ado, the shortlist:
Stroll the Old Quarter
The old quarter of Hanoi is famous for its "36 streets," which are all named after the thing they used to sell (onions, silk, shoes, herbs, fish, baskets, incense, combs, hats, tin, drums, coffins, bricks, chickens, beans, oils, scales, bottles, etc.). The streets don't really sell what they're named after any more, but certain items are concentrated in certain areas. The streets are not particularly wide, and there seems to be just as much traffic here as in Ho Chi Minh City. To make matters worse, everyone parks their motorbikes on the sidewalk, which only leaves a path about two feet wide for pedestrians. However, that area is usually taken up by vendors, or shopkeepers just hanging out, or people eating, so basically it’s impossible to walk on the sidewalk and you have to walk on the street.
If you can put up with the traffic, you will quickly realize that the district is very interesting to explore. You can browse and purchase just about anything you desire from souvenirs to dried noodles, but make sure to bargain politely. Since there is always a high concentration of tourists, some locals can demand exorbitant prices with an almost otherworldly persistence. However, we did meet a few genuinely helpful and nice storekeepers who were quite friendly. Also, the price-gouging is kind of "part" of the Vietnam experience, so don’t get too ill-humored about it if you can help it.
Vietnam Museum of Ethnology
The Vietnam Museum of Ethnology has excellent displays of the many ethnic minorities (a.k.a. hill tribes) that live in the country, including dioramas, displays of various textiles and artifacts, videos, and an outdoor collection of reconstructed houses in various styles. The houses are immense and very impressive – don’t skip them! The museum is very well done and a must-see, especially if you don't make it to the northern mountain regions during a trip to Vietnam. Even if you do decide to do some treks in Sapa, you should stop by this museum first to acquire a base of knowledge about the various groups you will encounter, which will vastly enrich your experience. The museum was created with the help of the French and is in our opinion one of the best museums in all of Southeast Asia in terms of design, display and content.
You should take a taxi to the museum, which is about 20 minutes from the Old Quarter. The entrance fee is 10,000 dong.
Temple of Literature
This complex was built many centuries ago to honor scholars and philosophers. It was also the site of Vietnam's first university. The collection of buildings and courtyards is a peaceful retreat from the streets of Hanoi and is worth a visit for the traditional Vietnamese architecture and peaceful ambience. We liked the rows of stelae balanced atop stone tortoises, tall golden cranes, and statue of Confucius at the back. An old wrinkled and bearded gentleman, reading the morning newspaper in traditional clothing and looking exceedingly scholarly, completed the picture. Entrance fee is 20,000 dong.
Afterwards, cross the street and do a little shopping at nearby Craft Link. The prices may be a bit higher than the typical stall, but the quality is high, and the proceeds support the artisan community.
Water Puppet Show -- Not Just for Kids
We thought the water puppets sounded childish, but since everyone recommended the show, we gave in and bought tickets at the municipal theater across the street from Hoan Kiem Lake (just south of the Old Quarter). We were very pleasantly surprised by the delightful collection of local folktales performed by wooden puppets that seem to "float" on water. The puppeteers are quite skilled at making the puppets seem life like and full of personality, and the band that accompanies the puppets was first rate. The skits are short and amusing -- the perfect antidote to any possible boredom. And of course you have never seen a puppet show where the characters, including dragons, fairies, fishermen, and farmers, glide over water like angels. 40,000 dong gets you good seats and a cassette of music.
We liked the show so much that we even bought a pair of water puppets in the Old Quarter the next day to take home with us.
Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum Complex
Uncle Ho's embalmed body is usually on display for all who want to see him here. However, not for us, as he was in Russia for his annual maintenance. Oh well. Other sites in the complex included the One Pillar Pagoda and Uncle Ho's Stilt House. The One Pillar Pagoda was much smaller than we expected it to be, so a bit of a disappointment. The stilt house was interesting, but we had to file by in a line as if we were waiting for a ride at Disneyland. The complex was very crowded, and a number of the venues were closed, much to our chagrin. Overall, the whole complex was a something of a let down, especially since we didn’t even get to see the main attraction (morbid as that may sound). Nonetheless, we feel the complex deserves a visit, particularly because Uncle Ho played such a pivotal role in shaping the country.