Is Hanoi on your bucket list? Probably not. It’s not a city you go to. It’s a place you pass by. Where your plane lands and your train to Sapa or your bus to Halong Bay leave. In between, you can discover a dynamic city with charming Avenues, Frenchy cafes and a thriving art scene. So many places, so many faces.
1. Crazy Hanoi
In Hanoi, everybody needs to be somewhere, sell something or cook something. Nobody stands still. Everybody moves, on millions of scooters. They are everywhere. On the road, on the pavement, even inside buildings. Half of them are honking, the other half driving through red lights. It is total madness. Crossing the street is like throwing yourself to the lions. It takes quite some guts to step in front of hundred of scooters coming straight at you. It’s a test of character. The trick is to keep going so the scooters can predict your next move. Do not hesitate and do not stop.
2. Shopping Hanoi
Every square inch in the Old Quarter is used to sell food, clothes or souvenirs. The pavement is filled with pop-up restaurants. Men are slurping noodles on tiny stools. A chair and a mirror are enough for an improvised hair salon. Women carrying poles with balancing baskets pass by. Revolutionary posters are sold for hard cash. Communism rules the country but capitalism rules the street. If you’re planning to hike in Sapa, you might stock up some faux North Face gear. Bargain hard (a fleece or jacket should be around 15$). Competition is fierce.
3. Romantic Hanoi
The Hoàn Kiếm Lake is to Hanoi what Central Park is to New York. An oasis in a hornet’s nest of scooters. A rendez-vous for shy couples holding hands. In the middle of the lake you can see the landmark turtle Tower. On the other side lies Jade Island, with its signature red bridge. In the evening, the Corniche around the lake is bathing in kitsch lighting. Romantic souls might also take a taxi to the West Lake. The Tran Quoc Pagoda looks like a scale model sitting in the water. There’s no point entering, but it's a great Kodak Moment.
4. Commie Hanoi
Welcome to Vietnam’s Holy of Holies: the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum. This must be one of the world’s saddest buildings. A cold granite block overlooking an empty parade field. Guards in spotless white uniforms are watching your every move. Inside is Uncle Ho’s embalmed body. You can greet the Vietcong leader in the morning (April-Nov: Tue-Thu 7u30-10u30 am / weekends: 7u30-11u00 am - Dec-March: Tue-Thu 8-11u00 am / weekends: 8-11u30 - free entrance). Visitors have to surrender cameras and phones, dress properly and act with an attitude of respect.
Comrades might also enjoy the Ho Chi Minh Museum, the Museum of the Revolution and the modern section of the History Museum.
5. Historical Hanoi
The Museum of Vietnamese History (40k/person) is spread over 2 buildings. A charming colonial building in faux Chinese style houses the section from pre-history to 1945. Vietnamese art history is a total mystery to me. I can’t even pronounce the names. I like the first rooms, giving a quick overview of all the mythological animals in Vietnamese art. Well picked artefacts show lions, dragons & turtles in a lovely mis-en-scene. A bit further, richly decorated Dong Son bronze drums steal the show. On the first floor, I gaze at the hundred hands of a wooden Guanyin. Absolute highlight is the collection of refined Champa statues. Check out the playful realism of a walking elephant.
Cross the road for the post-war collection. Hundreds of gruelling pictures show ‘crimes committed by the imperialist enemy’. Vietcong items are worshipped like sacred relics: guns from Dien Bien Phu, the chair of the French commender, the uniform of a shot down American pilot, the shirt of Ho Chi Minh … This is a Hard Rock Cafe for commies.
6. Kitsch Hanoi
The Thang Long Water Puppet Theatre is 1 hour campy entertainment from a different century. Against a kitsch backdrop of a pagoda, wooden puppets are moving through a pool of water. The dialogue is in Vietnamese, but the stories are so naive, even the hearing impaired can understand. Fishermen are scooping fish, a monkey steals food and rushes into a tree, dragons with fireworks swirl through the pond. It’s so kitsch, it’s absolutely brilliant. Meanwhile, a bunch of extremely bored musicians with fake smiles, play traditional muzak on strange instruments. Like the one stringed Dan Bau. By pushing a handle, the pitch can be adjusted from ‘ping’ to ‘piiiiiiinnnng’. It quickly becomes clear why the Dan Bau didn’t make it into rock n roll history. Priceless.
Buy your tickets upfront. Groups are taking the cheap 60K (3$) tickets. So you might be forced to buy the more expensive 100k (5$) front row seats. 5 to 6 shows/daily.
7. Sacred Hanoi
In the old days, writers were considered living Gods. In Hanoi they even got their own place of worship. Built in the 11th century, The temple of Literature is dedicated to Confucius. A series of gates takes you from one courtyard to another. They are housing square ponds, romantic gardens, wooden pavilions and carved turtles carrying big stelae. The fifth courtyard houses the actual temple house and Imperial Academy. It’s a lovely construction, the only must-see temple in Hanoi. You can skip the others.
8. Artsy Fartsy Hanoi
After years of dreadful Social Realism and Commie Objectivism, the Vietnamese art scene is booming. Galleries are popping up all over town.
The fanciest gallery-slash-hipster-cafe is Manzi Art Space (14, Phan Huy Ich). Housed in a traditional mansion, this independent art centre brings outstanding artists like Le Quy Tong. In his ‘True Blue’ series he departs from pictures of significant meetings. Textures and motives are added until round table conferences become abstract spaces. It’s original but so is the price tag (2400 to 12000$). On the first floor, the art shop sells smaller paintings, sculptures and wood cuts (starting 150$). The gallery also shelters a colony of dead serious digital nomads, working on their laptops while sipping coffee. We settled for the Pumpkin soup with toasted bread (40k).
On the other side of town, there’s the Japanese Foundation (27, Quang Trung, Hoan Kiem / www.jof.org.vn). In a small pavilion we see the creepy installations of Le Hoang Bich Phuong. Hundreds of ceramic fingertips are sticking out of the walls or growing out of potatoes. A spooky homage to the talented artisans of the Bat Trang ceramic village.
9. Sweet Hanoi
While walking to the Hanoi Opera house, you’ll pass the big exhibition space of the Institut Francais. The art is rather dull. The real masterworks are hiding in the cafeteria. Buttery croissants, crunchy meringue and the finest patisserie … Vive la France! This is art on a plate to satisfy your inner hipster. As for the other cafes, most only serve spongy gateaux. 50 years of communism seem to have destroyed the noble art of French Pastry.
10. Quiet Hanoi
Make sure you book a quiet hotel to escape the madness of the street.
Madam Moon Guesthouse 2 has 6 spacious rooms, 1 per floor. If you want the fancy lake view, you’ll need very good legs. Location is top, just a little noisy. There’s heating. We paid 26$ via booking site. Contact them directly and ask for discount. (tel: 84-4-3938 0560 / email@example.com)
A better option is the Nova Hotel (75, Hang Dieu street / 84-4-3923 33 66 / firstname.lastname@example.org) in the French quarter. Expect 5 star service at hostel price (25$). We are welcomed by friendly staff dressed up in suits (I started wondering: are you sure this place is 25$?). The hotel threw a wild party on Xmas eve. Our corridor room was tiny but design-ish. The most important: you won’t hear a thing. Airport transportation is a correct 16$. An outstanding address.