A city with a 1,000-year-old pagoda sitting in a lily-pad pond, a belief in the legend of a magical turtle, mysterious limestone islands, and a mausoleum to a man revered as much as Mahatma Gandhi—the capital of Vietnam is all things bright and beautiful, without being crass. The pictures of Hanoi I’d seen online before my visit matched the reality of the city—it is every bit as colourful, every bit as vibrant and bustling. And the cross-cultural influences from Southeast Asia, China, and France are abundantly apparent in its language, food, traditions, architecture, and yes, the impeccable manners of its people.
Flying to Hanoi from India requires a layover at a hub like Bangkok or Kuala Lumpur. Wangle a complimentary airport pickup and drop when booking a hotel. At the airport the fixed-price taxi stand is at the exit of Noi Bai International Airport ($15-25/₹1,030-1,718 into the city).
Indian travellers to Vietnam require a visa. Vietnam has recently started the Visa on Arrival facility for Indian passport holders travelling by air. Applications can be filled and submitted online and approval letters come in two working days (www.vietnameseembassy.org/vietnam+visa.html; Visa on Arrival fee $25/₹1,712; does not include stamp fee, an additional $25/₹1,712 paid on arrival in Vietnam).
The Vietnamese Dong (VND) is the currency of Vietnam. Because the currency has been devalued many times, everything is in tens of thousands and sometimes millions. It can be hard to navigate and calculate costs unless you figure out a ready method in advance. One Indian rupee gives VND326. US dollars are accepted and preferred everywhere, but when paying in USD it is important to have small change handy since the conversion rate is approximately VND22,000 to the dollar.
Get a hotel in the Old Quarter since all major sightseeing spots are within a three-kilometre walk of this neighbourhood. If it’s too hot to walk (May to mid-Oct), rent a cyclo. These are just like the cycle rickshaws of Kolkata, only more comfortable (VND1,00,000/₹307 for a 40-minute ride, plus a $2/₹137 tip recommended). For the farther reaches of the city hire a cab. The hotel should be able to provide an estimate of what a ten-kilometre drive costs before booking. Metered taxis are also available, but some guides say that they are often rigged and drivers invariably take a longer route.
Apricot Hotel is worth the price only for its location in the Old Quarter. This neoclassical, five-star hotel with Vietnamese flavour overlooks Hoan Kiem lake and is close to major city sights (+84-4-38289595; www.apricothotels.com, doubles from $111/₹7,601). For a less expensive alternative, try the Hilton Garden Inn Hanoi, a ten-minute walk from the magnificent opera house (+84-4-39330500, www3.hilton.com; doubles from $76/₹5,204). Interestingly, American prisoners of war who were held in the infamous Hỏa Lò Prison in Hanoi during the Vietnam war, used to call the prison the Hanoi Hilton. Budget travellers can try Hanoi L’Heritage Hotel, located in the Old Quarter at Hang Ga Street. It serves a mean breakfast (try the goat soup). The rooms are small but spanking clean and the staff is eager to please without expecting a tip (+84-4-62993666, www.hanoilegacyhotel.com/hanoi-l-heritage-hotel; doubles from $48/₹3,287).
For a convenient and cost-effective way of exploring Hanoi, book a Hanoi city tour and a Halong Bay tour (discounted if booked through the same operator). We booked through www.vietnamuniquetours.com and paid approximately $190/₹13,057 per head for a 2-night B&B hotel in Hanoi, one-day city tour, one night on board a Chinese junk boat at Halong Bay, and an airport pickup.
In the early 1970s, I spent summer holidays with my grandparents in Kolkata. Apart from load shedding, palm leaf hand fans, and cooling rainstorms, I remember my uncles and aunts, granduncles and grandmoms arguing over the Vietnam War. I recall going to Harrington Street and abandoning our taxi when it got stuck in a sea of anti-Vietnam war protestors. I remember my parents laughing when Harrington Street was rechristened Ho Chi Minh Sarani. I understood the delicious irony only years later: the U.S. consulate happened to be on the street named after its arch enemy.
So, it was a special moment when I visited Ho Chi Minh’s mausoleum in Hanoi. Uncle Ho, as he is fondly called, lies embalmed, in the manner of Lenin or Stalin, inside the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum. The atmosphere within the shrine is reverential, and even large, normally boisterous groups of Vietnamese students tend to be quiet.
The austere shrine was built at the centre of Ba Dinh Square, a miniature of Tiananmen Square, and as sombre. It was from this courtyard that Ho Chi Minh delivered the Declaration of Independence of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam in 1945, following the surrender of the Japanese. (Open 7.30-10.30 a.m. May-Oct, and 8-11 a.m. Nov-Apr. Closed Monday and Friday. The body is taken to Russia for maintenance for a couple of months each year, usually between September and November. Check with your tour operator before booking. Wearing shorts and tank tops is not permitted. Entry free.)
To the right of the mausoleum in the Ho Chi Minh Complex, is a former governor’s palace, now known as the Presidential Palace. The opulence of the yellow French colonial building is in stark contrast to Ho Chi Minh’s House on Stilts, located inside the palace grounds, where the nationalist leader lived from 1954 until his death in 1969. Look sharp for his desk, spectacles, clothes, cars, and other personal memorabilia. The glass-fronted house sits pretty along a pond filled with bright orange carp, in a tiny but tranquil wooded park (open 7.30-11 a.m. and 2-4 p.m. May-Oct, 8-11 a.m. and 1.30-4 p.m. Nov-Apr. Closed Monday and Friday afternoons). Also in the Ho Chi Minh Complex is the One Pillar Pagoda, so named because the shrine sits atop a single massive pedestal. What visitors see today was rebuilt by the Vietnam government. In a final act of vengeance, just before they left the country in 1954, the French had destroyed the original pagoda.
Our next stop is the Temple of Literature—the first university in the country—founded in 1070. It’s a tourist spot now, with frangipani trees, lotus pools, and a courtyard with stone tablets with the names of graduates inscribed on the backs of stone tortoises. Quite fittingly, the place is also used for graduation ceremonies. At the gates we spotted young girls in traditional ao dais (tunics) and boys in suits and graduation caps, primping before cameras (entry VND40,000/₹122; open 8.30-11.30 a.m. and 1.30-4.30 p.m., Tuesday to Sunday).
For lunch, try 69 Bar-Restaurant, located in an atmospheric, renovated old house. A three-course meal of pho bo noodle soup, cucumber-carrot salad, and stir-fried prawns in black pepper sauce served with rice is highly recommended. The portions were a little small, but the taste made up for it (69 Ma May, Hoan Kiem District; meal for two around $15/₹1,030).
Onward to the Vietnam Museum of Ethnology. Even those who aren’t keen on museums will find this place worth the two hours or so it takes to explore the various exhibits of clothes, jewellery, pottery, bullock carts, musical instruments, and more, of the 54 ethnic groups of Vietnam. Don’t skip the open-air exhibition of life-size houses of some of the ethnic groups, especially the Jarai tomb houses. If you have kids with you, brace yourself for questions on the copulating statues around the house (www.vme.org.vn; open 8.30 a.m.-5.30 p.m. Tuesday to Sunday, VND40,000/₹122).
The tour ends at Hoan Kiem lake. This is to Hanoi what Naini Lake is to Nainital, the epicentre of life in the city. It is a tranquil lake with the tiny red wooden bridge across it that features in every single brochure on Hanoi. Come here during different times of the day to see its different moods. In the two days that we spent in Hanoi, we saw a badminton match at the lake; early morning t’ai chi classes and bare-chested sprightly Vietnamese joggers; and in the evenings—romancing couples, locals playing chess, and tourists taking pictures. It’s a vibrant, noisy, and happy place. Walk down the red bridge to the 13th-century Ngoc Son Pagoda in the middle of the lake. There are two ornate sanctuaries inside, one dedicated to a brave general and another to a Confucian scholar. The view of the other side of the lake with its weeping willows is rather lovely (entry free).
Leaving Hanoi without a visit to Halong Bay is like visiting Agra without seeing the Taj Mahal. And like the Taj, it is spectacular. The bay is an archipelago of about 1,600 islands, all limestone karsts, some inhabited. Large areas of the bay are barred from development and in 1994 it was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
It’s a four-hour drive to Halong city from Hanoi, past rice fields tended by women in conical bamboo hats, and from there another ten-minute drive to Halong Bay.
As the motorboat leaves Hon Gai Ferry Pier for the ship, the islands topped by dense green foliage embrace you. Halong means “where the dragon descends into the sea” and the islands are believed to be parts of the dragon’s tail. They look stunning, rising from the azure sea and up-close the place was even more dramatic than its photographs.
Cruise ships at Halong Bay are Chinese junks with sails, and embrace a traditional design. They can accommodate between 30 to 75 passengers. The en-suite room I had was lovely, with wooden floorboards, large bay windows, and a deliciously private balcony with deckchairs. It smelt faintly of varnish and lavender, the bed was soft, the linen spotless, white, and inviting.
Set meals are served in the dining room and every meal is a ten-course, wholly Vietnamese event that begins with a salad and ends with fruit. Vegetables, pork, beef, chicken, fish, squid, and tiger prawns drop by at our table. The meals are exceptionally tasty, with light, delicate flavours—they are the best prologue to Vietnamese food if you’ve not had a chance to taste it in Hanoi.
Many guests stay on board to sleep off the lunch. I suggest hopping on to a small boat for an hour-long journey through the Dark and Light Tunnels that are part of Cat Ba National Park. Our boat was rowed by a woman, who deftly weaved in and out of the limestone karsts (duck when told or you will bang your head on the cave roof) with a single oar. Don’t skip this for it is the closest visitors can get to the islands without actually landing on them. After dinner (again a ten-course meal), most cruises offer squid fishing. Squids were aplenty, just a few inches below the surface, but way too smart to take the bait. At night, most of the junk boats drop anchor in comforting proximity of each other. Through the port hole, within easy swimming distance, the outlines of the islands appeared dark and mysterious. I walked out to the little veranda and watched the lights of Halong city twinkling in the distance and tried to push sleep away as long as I could.
In the morning, there was t’ai chi on the upper deck. As the sun rose so did the mists enveloping the islands. It’s one of those rare moments when you say a silent thanks to have witnessed such beauty.
After a light breakfast, a boat takes travellers to the Cave of Surprises or the Hang Sung Sot. It was discovered in 1901 by the French, though it had its first visitors as late as 1993. The entrance to the caves is high above the bay on Bo Hon Island and accessed via a narrow flight of stairs hewn from rock. Visitors cannot enter without a guide. Inside are three grottos with extraordinary stalactite and stalagmite formations, aesthetically and discreetly lit. Watch your step and keep in mind that it can be oppressively hot inside between April and October. (All meals, except beverages and activities unless otherwise mentioned in the tour, are part of the package cost. Prices range from $125-344/₹10,243-23,650 per person per day for a one-night cruise. Some cruises include a pick up and drop from the hotel in Hanoi, some charge extra for transfers—$40/₹2,750 per person each way in a coach. Carry your passport and visa. An overnight cruise is just enough to get a feel of the place, though there are two or three-night cruises as well. Rooms with verandas are rare but cost the same as other rooms, so do request one while booking).
The third day is a time for indulgences. First up, a bánh mì breakfast at the eponymous Banh Mi 25. These are sandwiches made in fresh, crisp baguettes, introduced to Vietnam by the French. The fillings include pork, ham, veggies, with a generous dollop of tangy sauce. Pâté is normally used in a bánh mì, but if you find it smelly opt out. It was the most incredible sub I’d ever had. To accompany it, get a cup of strong, rich, and fragrant Vietnamese coffee. (25 Hang Ca Street, Old Quarter; VND24,000/₹74 for the baguette; VND11,000/₹34 for a coffee; 100 gm of filter coffee costs VND40,000/₹122).
Devote the next few hours to rambling around Hanoi’s Old Quarter. The area has been lived in for at least a thousand years and is shaped like a triangle, with streets named after the goods sold in them. So Hang Gai means Street of Silk, while Hang Ma means Street of Paper. The area is great for handicraft shopping since it is inexpensive. I came back with a beautiful hand-painted lacquer bowl for VND80,000/₹245, an intricately embroidered bag VND1,00,000/₹307, fridge magnets VND20,000/₹61 each, silk embroidered wall hanging VND85,000/₹261, lacquer wall plaque VND1,00,000/₹307. Bargain hard and without embarrassment.
Then head to Pho Bat Dan restaurant which serves ecstasy for lunch in the form of pho ga. This is a clear, fragrant, delicious soup with spring onions, barbecued chicken strips, chillies, and flat noodles. Also try gỏi cuốn, which is Vietnamese spring rolls—rice paper stuffed with minced pork, glass noodles, and spring onions that are fried and served with a sweet and chilli soy sauce dip. Sound like Chinese spring rolls? They’re similar but taste infinitely better (49 Bat Dan street; meal for two VND1,60,000/₹492).
Take a cyclo tour (cycle rickshaw) of the rest of the Old Quarter. Finish up at Thang Long Water Puppet Theatre across the street from Hoan Kiem lake. Here, scenes from Vietnamese rural life, folklore, history, and battles are performed by colourful lacquered puppets in an indoor pond, accompanied by traditional Vietnamese folk music. Sounds like just the kind of thing one would skip for some beer, right? Don’t. (57 Dinh Tien Hoang St; www.thanglongwaterpuppet.org; tickets VND60,000-1,00,000/₹185-307; 1 hr; take front seats only if you don’t mind getting splashed.)
By the time we were done, the sun had set and the lights were out at the tranquil Hoan Kiem Lake. All around the promenade was a canopy of fairy lights. The little red bridge was lit up and the trees strung with green lights. Uncle Ho was bidding farewell in style.
Appeared in the May 2016 issue as “The City and the Dragon”.
This is National Geographic Traveller India’s handy guide to a long weekend in Hanoi and Halong Bay, Vietnam. This holiday includes taking organized tours with established operators to make the most out of a short time in the two places. There are prices for everything, so you can plan and modify your trip depending on your budget and requirements. On the basis of this itinerary, the cost for a three-day holiday in Vietnam for two adults is ₹31,000 for a budget trip and ₹50,000 for a more comfortable mid-range trip on your own. You can cover this itinerary for as cheap as ₹31,000 for two if you book tours and a B&B through a single tour operator and avail discounts. Alternatively, you can explore Hanoi on your own, stay in a better, mid-range hotel, and book the Chinese junk boat cruise separately. This will cost about ₹50,000 for two.
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