hanoi, at a glance

Veggie sellers in the morning. They sell fresh veggies and herbs I can only dream of in Singapore.

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La Place, a cafe by St Joseph's Cathedral. I came here on my previous visit to Hanoi as well. It has a charming, low-key decor, incredible Vietnamese coffee and fried spring rolls (in more generous portions than street stalls) and it's a great place to chill.

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The staircase at La Place.

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The mythical beauty of Ha Long Bay. It's a four-hour bus ride away, and not to be missed. It's my second visit there but I think it's not something anyone complains about seeing again.

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My lovely hotel. Could have been your standard well-appointed hotel but the service was so personable and gracious that it became a highlight.

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If there is a street, there is food.

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When I was a child, a balloon was a treat, a gravity-defying miracle. To see so many at once thrilled me to no end.

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I bought one. For a day, I had a pet, dancing around me, flying into people's faces whenever the wind took a turn.

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I lost it when the string broke. It took me by surprise, how wrenching that felt.

Lotus tea soothed it some.

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The Temple of Emperor Le Dai Hanh at Hoa Lu. The architecture of the temples in Hoa Lu is elegant, delicate and somehow homely at the same time. It was built for worship, not to impress, but it was still beautifully built.

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For exquisitely prepared and presented Vietnamese classics, Restaurant 96 in the old quarter does a wonderful job. Pricier than eating off street stalls but you are assured of good quality, without the hassle of haggling, and the comfort of a tasteful, elegant setting, and warm hospitality. I was extra grateful that it was open during Tet.

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Bun cha at Restaurant 96. Essentially, noodles with grilled pork and eaten with a warmed dipping broth. Like soba perhaps?

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Fresh spring rolls at Restaurant 96. Simple enough to make at home. It's actually perfect hot weather food. Which made it a bit silly for me to eat in 12 degree weather.

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Another boat ride, at Tam Coc in Ninh Binh. True, I was hassled for a tip, and to buy souvenirs. But spend enough time as a tourist in Vietnam and you learn to let these things roll off like water off a duck's back.

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Best pho of the trip. This was the purest chicken broth I had the whole trip.

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The One-Pillar Pagoda in Hanoi, inspired by a lotus in bloom. I had never noticed how prevalent the lotus is as a symbol in Vietnam, until now.

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Ice-cream at Fanny. Looks cheesy, and I know, who goes to Hanoi to eat ice-cream, you ask. But I can think of worse things than trying out their 20-flavour platter after a nice walk by Hoan Kiem lake. Plus, the ice-cream is truly top-notch. Try the ginger flavour.

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The famed Metropole Hotel, now owned by Sofitel. I remain of the opinion that raffles hotel in singapore has it beat in colonial charm.

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Flowers for the New Year.

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Choosing our lunch.

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Calligraphers outside the Temple of Literature.

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Fireworks at the Lunar New Year countdown at Hoan Kiem lake. We were surrounded by the most polite crowd ever. No jostling, yelling, or general rowdiness.

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A few things:

(i) Haggling hassles
I have friends who loathe travelling in Southeast Asia because a lot of energy is spent haggling - you need to do extensive research to determine what's a reasonable price for anything so that you don't get ripped off. Buying a bowl of noodles on the street in Hanoi is guaranteed to cost you more than it does for a local. It doesn't bother me much, but for some people, it can feel galling. Prices are usually cheap by first-world standards but decide for yourself what you're willing to pay in "tourist prices" and feel free to walk away when you feel a line has been crossed and you're being taken for a ride. For instance, I was quite annoyed at being quoted S$4 for a bowl of noodles, twice as much as stalls elsewhere.

Stick to restaurants with menus if you don't want to constantly query and haggle over prices, but that takes the fun out of travelling in Vietnam, where the street food rivals Thailand in quality. It also makes for terrific people-watching, and a friendly local at the next table might strike up conversation.

Also, whenever you're doing something that involves a guide, such as my boat ride in Tam Coc, be prepared to be hassled to buy souvenirs you don't want, and also for a tip (in my case, the boatman). The same happened to me when I took a guided walk in Sapa, where women appeared out of nowhere to walk with you and hold your hand and then ask for tips. I was prepared to tip my boatman anyway and had money already packed in envelopes, so it irked me to be asked for tips and even told how much to tip. I shrug it off as an inescapable part of being a tourist in Vietnam but it's important to be prepared for this beforehand so that it doesn't spoil the trip for you.

Taxis are another sticky point about travelling in Hanoi. Only certain taxi companies can be trusted not to have a dodgy meter that run up terrifying bills. A good hotel will provide you with the names and the usual guidebooks (LP, Rough Guides) will list the names as well. Sometimes taxis refuse to start their meters, so getting an idea of average cost from your hotel for certain routes will help you get the best price.

Hanoi is one place I resort to tour agencies for organising certain trips, such as my day trip to Hoa Lu-Tam Coc, or to Sapa on a previous trip. It's a maddening process trying to buy your own bus or train ticket from the stations themselves, so often I end buying them through agencies. This means that my trip to Hoa Lu was a little more scripted than I liked and I didn't get to pick and choose which temples I wanted to see, and I had to eat indifferently-prepared food provided by the agency's partner restaurants. But it is convenient and makes for easy budgeting.

(ii) Travelling during Tet (the Lunar New Year)
Travelling during Tet in Vietnam presents special challenges. Most street stalls and shops are closed, as are several places of attraction (including many of the interesting museums). Taxis are also scarce, so you're limited to places you can reach by foot. Tours to places like Ha Long Bay, the Perfume Pagoda and Tam Coc fill up fast, and some agencies also raise prices during this period (but it's not hard to find ones that don't). Lunar New Year usually brings with it some rain, so be prepared for wet and foggy weather, which I find adds to the charm, if you have the right shoes.

The dearth of food options is especially sad considering how good Vietnamese food is. Our hotel helpfully provided a list of restaurants and attractions with their opening hours but we also phoned and emailed ahead of the trip to check which places are open to plan our trip.

Basically, travelling during Tet requires more advance planning and booking compared to a typical trip where you can be more spontaneous and leave things to chance and mood. Otherwise, it has its own pleasures: visiting the temples on the first day of the new year and see locals dressed to the nines to pray, fireworks at the lake counting down to the new year, swapping stories about festive customs, the flower markets full of locals trucking home tigerlilies, peach blossoms, and kumquat trees - on their scooters.

Also, Hanoi's streets are unusual serene during Tet, with everything shut for the holidays. This may dismay those looking for the old quarter's signature bustle, but it also makes for pleasant walking.

Comments

Linzy said…
Oh my goodness! That picture of the bay took my breath away! Absolutely stunning. Yet another thing to add to my list of places to visit before I die.

Little Acorns
http://acresoflittleacorns.blogspot.com
Fleurette said…
I just have to live vicariously through you. Lovely post! I've never been to Vietnam before and my parents haven't been there since they fled the country in '75.. Bangkok is the closest to my culture that I've been to! And that pho looks so terribly delicious!!
miss sophie said…
gosh, what a gorgeous set of photos. i loved Hanoi so much more than Saigon when i went with the bf and friends a few years ago. that pho ga looks amazing. my favorite pho place was Pho 2000 which hilariously had a large framed photo of Bill Clinton on the wall with a bowl of pho.

the Hotel Metropole was something else. it's like the set of a film, really...i'd like to check out the Raffles hotel in Singapore for comparison! ;-)
The bay is beautiful, mysterious, unusual and surreal. The fireworks look amazing.
angie said…
Great photo shoot collage.Locals are the best way to get to know a place!Many thanks.
Joy said…
thanks for the photos and the very useful travel tips! you're the best.
Thank you for sharing your travels! I don't get to travel very often so to see your photos lets me live vicariously through your travels. :p It looks like a beautiful place, I bet the food is out of this world! I also have to say I really adore your blog!

spiritofadream.blogspot.com
Jenny said…
Lovely, lovely photos and commentary. You're right - the view of Ha Long Bay will never get old.
Aïssa said…
Thanks for the wonderful pics and road notes! Such a pleasure to get out of the grey and cold morning though your blog even for just a few minutes!
indigo16 said…
Thank you so much for the award; I am not sure what some of your followers thought after following your link though!

I would love to visit Vietnam and it is tips like this that will help me if I ever make it that Far East again. The photographs are wonderful.
editor said…
What an amazing trip.
Your tips are good.
lin said…
Linzy: The bay is amazing and it's actually incredibly hard to photograph in a way that does it justice. It's my second visit and I still only have maybe three photos I actually liked.

Fleurette: I'm sure it will be worth a visit with your parents if possible, they must have so much to share and so much to catch up on? I have some friends who parents fled Vietnam to Australia in the 70s as well and I can't imagine what they (the parents) have seen.

All the cities in Southeast Asia change so fast that I feel like I have to make repeat visits to keep up!

miss sophie: I actually love Saigon (HCMC) a lot. It's a brasher and more business-like but there was a lot of see in terms of history and I think I prefer the food in the South. And I really like Pho 2000, it was my first ever meal in Vietnam because it was just around the corner from my hotel in Saigon.

Pret a Porter P: "Avatar" was probably inspired by such landscapes.

angie: Thanks, glad you enjoyed it. I agree locals are the best way to get to know a place, and especially in places with language barriers!

Joy: Aww, thanks!

Stephanie & Silvya: Thanks! And I can't recommend Hanoi and Vietnam as a destination enough.

Jenny, Aissa: Thank you! I only show the good photos, not the failed ones.

indigo16: I forgot the part about informing the people I awarded, glad you spotted it!

And anyone who wonders why I passed you the award, well, their loss if they miss the point.

editor: Thanks! And I couldn't think of a better way to have spent my New Year than in Hanoi.
lapin de lune said…
These images seem to capture the essence of the place so wonderfully - especially the image of the boat ride...and i love the new year flowers!
interesting! although I have no expert, but I want have to know more and more, on your blog just interesting and useful information. Keep it up!

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