For our second visit to Vietnam, we decided to spend 4 days in Hanoi, in Northern Vietnam. We arrived in Hanoi Vietnam around midnight, after being in transit for about 18-20 hours. As one of the major cities in Vietnam, we did not expect to be greeted by darkness as we made our way to our hotel; there were not a lot of lights illuminating the roads and streets. When you travel to different places, it’s the small things you see and experience that make you realize how different things are abroad.
We decided to stay at the Intercontinental Hanoi West Lake due to its location, to the end of West Lake for a more peaceful experience. The hotel was very reasonably priced, the rooms were nice and well equipped, the fitness facility and spa were nice, and it was a great place to walk and explore. We also decided to book a club room for an extra $20 per day as it included breakfast and happy hour snacks and drinks; it was worth it for us.
For our first excursion, we decided to walk to the local flower market. Despite it being 05:30 am, the air was already heavy with humidity and the streets crowded for the morning commute. A little jet-lagged and disoriented, we managed to cross 6 lanes of traffic while trying to avoid the cars, buses, bikes, trucks, and scooters that zoomed passed us. We looked at the various flowers and were amazed at all the different types especially the unique orchids.
By the time we made it to the hotel, the wedding buses had already started to arrive. It seems that the area near our hotel is popular for wedding photos; from morning until evening, there are always about 5-15 couples taking photos in western style white dresses by the canal.It was interesting to note that only a few of women were dressed in the traditional Vietnamese wedding aido with most of them favouring the big white western style wedding dresses.
Compared to Ho Chi Minh City, Hanoi is a little bit more relaxed, but you can still expect the chaotic streets, particular to Vietnam. The city is surrounded by West Lake; this water mass with trees and walking path is a gathering place and creates a peaceful atmosphere. Like HoChiMinh City, Hanoi teeters between communism and capitalism; communist messages blare from outdated loudspeakers on the streets as you walk by party posters, nestled between luxury shops selling designer purses, watches, and clothing. That being said, Hanoi does not feel as commercialized and developed as HCM due to limited real estate development. As we were there in November, the weather was very comfortable; low 20′s and mostly overcast.
We decided to take a cultural cooking class with Hidden Hanoi one afternoon. The class included tea with staff to learn about life in Hanoi and Vietnamese food culture. We really enjoyed how staff shared their life experiences with us and gave us a glimpse into a day of life in Hanoi.One of the staff said that Vietnamese life can be characterized by loving to eat, to dance, and to sing!
One of my passions is food systems and local economies. The guided market tour allowed us to about one of the most important economic systems in the city; the local food markets who supply families and business. Not all homes have electricity and running water in Hanoi, so a lot of food shopping is essentially market to plate for family meals cooked in the home. People usually go to the market 3-6 times daily to get the supplies they need for the daily meals. There are a few types of markets: large western style supermarkets that are expensive, licensed public markets that operate fixed stalls and are affordable, and frog markets that are illegal but very cheap. The frog markets are make-shift setups in alleys that move throughout the day for the vendors to avoid being fined. They are usually run by people who cannot afford to pay the licencing fees to have a market stall. According to our guide, the produce is local but often not the best quality, and interestingly enough they do sell frogs!
Hanoi’s City Centre is a mix of charming french colonial buildings, communist party buildings, the market where you can buy anything and everything, and luxury shops. You can definitely still see and experience the French influence due to the architecture.
We had lots of tasty food in Hanoi, but unfortunately, we did not get to eat at one of the restaurants on our list because we couldn’t find it! We can be a little stubborn when travelling, often preferring to navigate streets on foot with our Google maps instead of taking taxis. By this point though, my stomach was upset so I didn’t have much of an appetite. Much like the last time I was in Vietnam, I should have been more careful with the raw vegetables I chose to ate daily. The other thing we avoided was the local made beer you could buy anywhere on the street. While it sounded interesting, we were a little weary about getting sick.
We did not make our way to the North to visit Ha Long Bay . While we considered it, the idea of spending 2 days on a boat eating from buffets was not appealing to us, even if it would have allowed us to see the stunning beauty of Ha Long. That being said, many people have said good things about this excursion.
Overall, we enjoyed our time in Hanoi. The best thing about it was interacting with locals to find out about their daily lives, eating Vietnamese food, and meeting other tourists to hear about their travels.