Many of us often look to Japan or Bangkok, or perhaps even Hong Kong when considering a holiday in the region. Two weeks ago, I decided to book myself tickets to a lesser known country, just for the fun of it. I found myself in Hanoi, Vietnam, not expecting much. But while there - and as clichéd as it sounds - I found myself falling in love with the magic of the city and its people. From its food, to the noisy streets, to the rich history, Hanoi is an oft-overlooked gem of a city brimming with culture and life. Here’s what’s worth checking out if you decide to take the road less travelled:
Vietnamese Cuisine, the Vietnamese Way
Dao Duy Tu Street lined with food stalls
When in Vietnam, of course, try Vietnamese food! And I don’t just mean food from restaurants in Hanoi: brave the busy streets of Hanoi that feature many food stalls selling authentic Vietnamese cuisine like phở (Vietnamese noodle soup), bánh mì, (baguette sandwiches) and Bún chả (grilled pork served with noodles and fresh vegetables). Each stall usually has tiny chairs and tables set up conveniently on pavements for customers to enjoy their meals on! Coupled with the chatter of shop owners and the roar of motorbikes zooming past, the meals are truly an experience. The best part: food in Vietnam is extremely affordable! Meals there can cost as low as $1, which is definitely something to be happy about especially if you’re travelling on a budget.
Bún Chả, a local delicacy
However, like most Singaporeans who are used to certain standards, I did have misgivings at first: the food stalls seemed unhygienic and it felt odd to have a meal by the roadside. But I reasoned that there was probably no better way to get to know a country than through its unique culinary offerings and experience! I got over my initial doubt and my favourite dishes has come to be Bún Chả, Bánh Mì, Bún Riêu (crab and tomato noodle soup), and of course, the well liked Phở dish.
Phở sold at a random street stall near where we stayed. Delicious!
An amazing bowl of Bún Riêu
Hipster Cafes and Amazing Coffee
A corner in Cong Caphe
The city of Hanoi is packed with hipster, retro-style cafes that serve delicious, aromatic Vietnamese coffee that will leave you wanting more. (Don't say I didn't warn you!) Even if regular coffee isn’t your thing, they offer so many renditions of coffee like coconut coffee, egg coffee, and even yogurt coffee, that you'd be hard-pressed to refuse trying a cup! Exhibit A: I have never been a fan of coffee (more of a Milo person, *shrugs*), but in Vietnam, I couldn't resist trying all their famed coffee varieties. And I have no regrets whatsoever!
If you don't give a frapp (HEH), try popular coffee chain Cong Caphe, which is famously known for its iced coconut coffee. The cafe is Vietcong-themed (as you can already tell from its name), and adopts a sports rustic, military chic decor.
The famed iced coconut coffee in Cong Caphe. SO GOOD!
Another must-go café in Hanoi is The Hanoi Social Club. After getting some strong recommendations from a few friends, I decided to give it a shot (HEH) to see if it could live up to its name. Spoiler alert: It definitely can. Their regular iced coffee is so exceptional that even non-coffee fanatics would be bowled over i.e. I finished every last drop of it. It was just that good.
What I had with my coconut coffee: scrumptious poached eggs on toast
The interior of The Hanoi Social Club
Cultural Heritage Spots
Hanoi is an old-school city filled with culture, and there is no better place to immerse yourself in the thick of it all than the Old Quarter. The Old Quarter is a large section of Hanoi that features many narrow streets graced by old French-colonial shophouses selling a variety of products from silverware, to food, to shoes.
Hang Dau Street (its main theme - shoes) at night
Each street within the Old Quarter specialises in selling a particular type of product, and they are named as such. For example, Hang Bac Street sells silver and its name translates to 'silver street', Hang Ma Street sells paper, and Hang Gai Street sells silk. This makes wandering around the Old Quarter exciting at every turn, because you never know what you will stumble upon.
Hang Dau Street in the daytime
Vietnam’s Rich History
If you’re passionate about history, the rich history of Vietnam is bound to intrigue you and keep you occupied for hours in Hanoi.
Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum
One of the tourist-y (but also, local favorite) hotspots in Hanoi is the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum, which houses the late Ho Chi Minh’s body. Situated in the middle of Hanoi, the tomb of Vietnam's venerated late leader is easily accessible. Visitors can pay their respects there, and later tour the surrounding area (Ba Dinh District) which is home to many museums, historical sites, and governmental complexes.
Flag Tower of Hanoi
Another place you should consider visiting is the Vietnam Military History Museum, situated in the vicinity of the Mausoleum. This museum exhibits the long military history of Vietnam and many interesting artefacts like airplanes, tanks, and cannons. It is also the home of Hanoi's Flag Tower which was built in 1812 and used as a military post. To a history buff like me, the afternoon I spent there was a fascinating experience because I got to soak in the atmosphere and see war relics up close.
Exhibits at the Vietnam Military History Museum
Scenic Views of Hanoi
Truc Bach Lake
Vietnam is known for its scenic views in Sapa, Halong Bay and the like, and Hanoi is no exception to that.
Hoan Kiem Lake
Hoan Kiem Lake (also known as Sword Lake) is unsurprisingly one of the most popular attractions of Hanoi. Located right in the city center, it boasts an amazing view of the water and the surrounding greenery. Many like to stand on the bridge (in the above photo) for a good photo opportunity as well! Around the lake, street performers entertain passers-by, and artists offer live portrait drawing services at a reasonable price. The scenic locale provides a temporary respite from the hustle and bustle of the city, letting you unwind for a few hours and enjoy the serenity of the park.
Hanoi indeed is a hidden gem of a city that is largely passed over for the more popular destinations like Bangkok or Bali. Home to rich history and culture that shows in its food, streets, and architecture, it is a great place to spend four to five days. For me, I'm already missing the old charm of Hanoi and the many afternoons I spent sipping interesting coffee! So don't be Hanoi-ying, choose to go to Hanoi for your next trip!
"Two roads diverged in a wood, and I— I took the one less traveled by, And that has made all the difference."