The Heart of the North: Hanoi Travel Guide

A midnight flight to Hanoi is the last thing that I would even imagine doing. I hate staying up late and I won’t enjoy anything with my eyes half-closed. But I later on found out that I was wrong. Flying at wee hours is the most relaxed that I have ever been. You’re in like this rendezvous with a place at pitch dark so you can’t judge it by its looks, so you’ll just have to base it on what you feel at that moment. And that moment felt blissful — a feeling I have not felt in a long time.

A chauffeur drops us off at Little Hanoi Hotel and a young man opens up the lobby’s lights to welcome us. He scratches his squinting eyes to give it some life. A warm smile soon appears upon his innocent face which makes us feel a little bit comfortable. After alighting off the elevator, he shows us our hotel room. Much to my surprise, it is decked off with opulence, such elegance. The walls have panels, on the ceiling hangs a chandelier and to top it all off a bath tub is available in the bathroom. We are off to a good start but my weary body is heeding to retire so we sleep the night away like we are just at home.

Waking up early, can be both a pain and a pleasure. Yes, its a bummer to get up when you can enjoy more hours just lying down but rising up before the sun has fully owned the morning skies is the most wonderful thing to do. You can see people at their best conditions, the wind is not as harsh compared in the afternoon and the light has this certain magical effect to your photographs. Moreover, you’ll have more time to roam around, even if you get lost.

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It is exactly 6 AM. The wind is blowing so cold. I put on my scarf over my leather jacket to ease the bone-chilling weather. We ride the elevator and press the button leading to the cafeteria. Little Hanoi Hotel has free breakfast for their tourists which is very beneficial to us travelers.

We get to meet other people from various parts of the globe. If I remember it correctly, one family is from Australia and the other is from Canada. All of us are first-timers in Vietnam. So far, everything is in place. The food, the weather and I don’t feel anxious in meeting new people. It can be hard. I am used to being alone and independent. Opening up can be a dilemma, sometimes.

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After our sumptuous meal, we swing the doors open, ready to uncover new adventures. I can see the glimmer in the eyes of my friend. The kind of glow which can only be gotten from spiritual awakenings. I, too, am inspired with what we are currently seeing.

We deliberately decided to get lost in the interconnected, web-like narrow streets of Hanoi. Every alley is filled with stores of all kinds with faces that look so welcoming.

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St. Joseph’s Cathedral

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A rickshaw driver, park beside us, asking us if we want a ride. With 20,000 Dong, he drives us to Hoan Kiem Lake. We arrived there after 5 minutes or so. He left us with a remarkable smile, wishing us to have a great time in Hanoi. That felt so vindicating. A local actually wishes us well. I am slowly falling head over heels with Vietnamese people’s attitudes — kind, hospitable and those smiles can melt even the hardest of hearts.

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Hoan Kiem Lake

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I walk towards the lake. It has a little tower in the middle, swamped in the low-lying water. The only turtle that has lived in this lake was reportedly found floating last 2016, lifeless. It’s too unfortunate that I visited a little later. I could have seen the legendary turtle in person.

The lake has so much more to offer.  We found a man with mad calligraphy skills. He sells his calligraphy with words requested by tourists. Outside, is an altar with people holding incenses. They stand there for a few minutes to pray wishes to the Gods.

Then we walk some more where we found local artists sketching portraits and vendors walking along the bank selling food.

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Sunday is generally a slow day. Hanoi is no exception. I feel like I have been here over a few hours but when I looked at my watch, it has only been an hour and a half. The vibe is so laid-back, like there’s not a thing in the world such as “rush hour” and “traffic”.

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Cà Phê Trứng (Egg Coffee)

On my phone are a few food stops that I need to visit. We decided to follow Erwan Heusaff’s food guide to Hanoi. We ask random people about the whereabouts of Giang Cafe which sells the world-renowned egg coffee, or in Viet, cà phê trứng.

Giang Cafe sits beside a busy road — perfect for spending some down time this afternoon. With tiny stools and tables, you can really experience how the locals do it here.

The coffee has this thick whisked egg yolk sublimed on the cup’s bottom while the dark coffee rests on top of it. We mix it til it turns into a frothy, golden brown drink.

After having that very refreshing drink, we made our way back to the lake. We stumble upon this local pho – our first for this whole trip. The store is painted stark-white with cooking implements all laid out in front. For the second time, we order separately. So far, Vietnamese food has been a delight. Every food is so rich and flavorful, I don’t even mind if I gain a few pounds here.

The bowls arrive with a can of soda. It is almost overflowing with thin-sliced meats and spring onions carefully mixed into it. Up to this day, writing this article, can make me imagine and remember how it tasted. I feel like its minty flavor still lingers deep down my memory.

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Chicken Pho (Phở Gà)

We walked out of the lake and just enjoyed our early afternoon going in and out of unfamiliar streets, passing by some great architectures with little knowledge of what their names are. Hanoi is a perfect mixture of the old and new. Though, it is more influenced by an older era, it oozes with a certain je ne sais quoi.

In one of the streets, I find a small bookstore painted in red. I scour the books trying to find a book I know. Then in one of the middle rows, I see a familiar-looking cover. “The Little Prince” translated in Vietnamese is a gold mine in this shelf of anonymity.

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A few more blocks leads us to Hanoi Opera House, another French-influenced infrastructure .

It is so frightening to cross roads in Vietnam. There are literally cars and motorbikes from every direction you can ever imagine. But once you get to cross one successfully, it kind of feels like an achievement has been unlocked.

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Hanoi Opera House
Hanoi is refreshing to the eyes. All buildings are generally vintage. They have something preserved through time that has blended well into the modernity.
National Museum of Vietnamese History
National Museum of Vietnamese History

We take a taxi cab to make it on time to Maison Centrale, or Hoa Lo Prison — a very hollow and daunting museum covering the dark history of Vietnam. You can watch videos of what the Vietnamese went through the Vietnam War. It is very damning, even to an individual like me who did not even witness it in person. Some of the tourists have actual tears in their eyes. It has this very somber ambiance that will make you feel a certain eeriness.

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At sundown, we took another taxi ride to the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum. I roll the windows down to catch the fleeting sunlight on to my lens. While the driver maneuvers in front of Ba Dinh Square, I get to witness how the lights slowly flicker as the skies darken. It is one of those priceless moments, that even my camera could not capture. There is a lightness in the air that makes it feel almost magical.

We get off the taxi and walk near the enormous structure. As you get closer to it, the more breathtaking it becomes. I catch myself staring at it every now and then, seemingly in disbelief of what I am currently looking at.

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ho chi minh mausoleum
Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum

I turn around and take pictures of people just to get a feel of what it feels like living in this quintessential Asian city. Remembering this moment, even just in my head, with pictures in my hands would suffice. It’s hard getting too attached in a city you just have met in a day but feels like you have known for a long time. That is Hanoi to me. A classical city with such vivaciousness, such life. What’s more surprising is its people. I have never met people that are so gentle — so trusting even with strangers like us. They give generous smiles and charming uncertainties. People of Hanoi made me fall even harder.

I am now afraid that the next cities I will visit will not ever top this experience. But it is too soon to say. The night is young and we have nine more days left. I can’t contain my excitement on what lies ahead for us. I guess I just have to trust the Gods that everything will be amazing from here on.