Until now we did not have to worry about winter because we were travelling in tropical countries so far. Having landed in Hanoi however, it was the first time that we were confronted with cooler and wetter climate. In winter, Northern Vietnam is often cloudy and there is drizzle every now and then, and temperatures drop below 20°C. I had to put on long pants and a sweater, the first time since our departure from Switzerland end of December. Compared to our winter back home in Switzerland though, this is of course not so bad.
First Impression of Vietnam
Having just landed in Vietnam’s capital after a short flight from Vientiane in Laos, the first thing that we observed is that everything is much better organized and clean here. Also, people seem to be very friendly and willing to help. But it is also clearly visible that we are in one of the more touristic countries in this region, as everybody wants to sell you thinks like SIM-Cards, transportation, tours, etc. But they do it in a less aggressive way than e.g. in Thailand.
Eating in Hanoi
A friend of mine told me that the food in Vietnam is the best in whole Southeast Asia. While I would not put it like that after only a few meals, I can say for sure that the food in Hanoi is really delicious and also healthy. Especially the local food with spring rolls, fresh vegetables, fish, and seafood, combined with a moderate spiciness, fits my taste. As a consequence we had much less western food in Hanoi than e.g. in Laos or Cambodia.
Tourist Sights in Hanoi
The tourist magnet in Vietnam is not its capital Hanoi but Ho-Chi-Minh-City (Saigon) in the south, however, Hanoi is still interesting to visit. There are a few historical sites that remind us of the time when Vietnam was a colonialized by France, and of course also of the Vietnam War when the Americans bombed the city and the whole north of Vietnam. We could update our history knowledge once more during this trip.
Hoa Lo Prison Museum
This former prison, now a museum, shows how the French occupiers during the time of the colonialization suppressed the Vietnamese population and visualizes how political opponents were imprisoned and sometimes executed. In a second part of the exhibition, there were personal stories of US Navy pilots whose plane have been shot down during the Vietnam War and that have been imprisoned for up to eight years. One of those prisoners was the former presidential candidate John McCain.
While the stories at the exhibits were mostly interesting, the way history was presented there was not very neutral. The propaganda from the socialist government in Vietnam was clearly visible in every single description. All Vietnamese that had stood up against the French and the Americans were declared as heroes, all French occupiers were automatically terrorists, etc. It was really a bit unfortunate that the museum could not simply present facts and leave the judgment of the involved parties to the visitors.
Temples in Hanoi
Ilinca and I should be temple experts by now, having visited so many Buddhist temples in the past months. And in Hanoi we extended our knowledge by visiting Den Bach Ma, which is said to be the city’s oldest temple, the Temple of Literature, another old and important temple in Hanoi, and some other smaller temples. In general, the temples in Vietnam differ a bit from the ones we visited in Laos, Cambodia, and Thailand. We had the impression that the Chinese influence is clearly visible in the layout and architecture of the temples. But because we are still not experts on temples, don’t take that statement as an objective evaluation.
Other Tourist Activities
Due to the bad weather, we spent almost half a day in a mall instead of visiting e.g. the Ho-Chi-Minh Mausoleum or the Skybar on top of Lotte. And some of the museums we skipped because of lack of time. But if somebody wants to spend a whole week in Hanoi, it is definitely possible.
Busy City Life
Apart from the tourist sights, Hanoi fascinated me because it seems to me like an authentic Vietnamese city (except maybe the touristic old town) and all the chaos that comes with it. At any time of the day and also in the evenings, the streets are blocked, and the countless scooters navigate through the narrow streets of the old town using whatever space is available. The sidewalk gets easily transformed into a scooter lane should the road ahead be blocked, or into a scooter parking should there be no parking available. If convenient, people simply drive on the opposite lane if there is less traffic on that side. It seems to me like complete anarchy and chaos, however, things seem to work out and I have not witnessed any accidents during my days in Hanoi, however, I am quite sure there is quite a high accident rate in the city.
For Ilinca and me, the biggest challenge in Hanoi was crossing roads. Hanoi is really no place for pedestrians because the motorized traffic shows no respect at all. Whenever there is 30 cm of space in front or behind you when crossing a street, you can be sure a scooter will drive right in between, expecting you to stop to avoid collision. We slowly got used to it during our stay, but that does not mean we now feel comfortable crossing roads in Hanoi. So far we survived though.
Going to Halong Bay on a Cruise
After three days in foggy and cold Hanoi, we decided to go on a cruise in the world famous Halong Bay. The weather forecast unfortunately is not too optimistic, but let’s see, maybe we are still lucky.