The time had come to visit my most anticipated country, Vietnam! We flew into the capital Hanoi late one evening and on our trip into the Old Quarter, we were instantly struck by its chaotic culture. With a population of 6.5 million, the streets were brimming with people and car horns and shouts filled the air.
As a treat we’d decided to pay a bit extra to stay in a hotel. Not quite hotel standard you’d imagine at home, but much nicer than anywhere we’d stayed so far. To my amazement the pictures had shown that the bathroom had an actual shower cubicle. Heaven! Personally I don’t get the appeal of wet rooms in the slightest.
We arrived at the hotel and went to check in, until one of group couldn’t find their passport. Emptying bags in the middle of reception it was clear that the passport had indeed ‘gone wandering’. We hadn’t left our bags for a moment, leaving the only explanation that it had fallen out when we paid the taxi driver. With the hundreds, possibly even thousands of taxis in Hanoi we wrote it off as lost forever.
That was until a knock on the door and a very helpful receptionist appeared. She’d managed to track down the taxi we were in from our terrible description. Ten minutes later, the passport was back with its rightful owner. And no, before you ask, this wasn’t me.
After a hectic few days, a lie in was well and truly on the cards, but Hanoi had other things in mind. At 7:30am precisely, a woman’s voice bellowed from just outside our window. Upon inspection it was coming from a speaker mounted on the lamppost just feet away from the balcony. As it was in Vietnamese we didn’t have a clue what was going on, but decided that it would probably stop soon and tried to go back to sleep… Half an hour later, we gave up and submitted to the human alarm clock.
According to the receptionist we quizzed later that day, these public service announcements take place everyday and include a mix of news updates, history about Vietnam and music. Personally I’d rather wake up to the Jonathan Creek theme song – thanks iPhone.
Since we were up and about at an extremely reasonable time, we headed over to the former Hoa Lo Prison, nicknamed the ‘Hanoi Hilton’ by US POWs during the American War.
The first half of the museum relates to the prison’s use up to the mid-1950s, focusing on the Vietnamese struggle for independence from France. A gruesome centrepiece is the French guillotine, sandwiched between photographs of beheaded Vietnamese revolutionaries. Not for the faint hearted.
In stark contrast, the next rooms are a display of American pilots who were held at Hoa Lo during the American War. Playing basketball. Decorating christmas trees. Playing the guitar… Umm bit of a change here then?! According to the museums accounts, the Americans nicknamed the prison Hanoi Hilton because it was as good as staying in a hotel…
Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to propaganda central.
We spent the next hour walking around completely baffled by the whole thing, but all in all it was worth a visit, even if it was to read the banteng propaganda.
Please note: Very little of the information is in English, so a basic understanding of either Vietnamese or French would be greatly beneficial. Maybe if we’d had that, we would have understood a bit more.
In a bid to lighten the mood and get back on track we turned to trusty Trip Advisor, where one of the top things to do in the city was the Hanoi Street Food tour. Keen to immerse ourselves further into the culinary delights of Vietnam, we paid $20 for a three-hour tour where we would be introduced to a handful of the country’s delicacies. Our guide Lotus was a friendly, buzzy 21 year old. She guided us through the streams of traffic (whilst shouting ‘shut your eyes’), to hidden restaurants and food stalls amongst the winding city streets.
That night we tried, to name a few, Vietnamese doughnuts, rice and shrimp pancakes, a variety of noodle soups, rice jelly and condensed coconut milk, coconut and sesame pancake rolls and finally, hot chocolate with raw egg. Delicious!
Three hours later as we sat drinking our ‘chick beers’ aka Beer Hoi, I can safely say I was glad to be wearing trousers with an elasticated waist band!
I would recommend this tour to anyone visiting Hanoi. It’s a great way to get used to the local food, traffic and also a chance to ask your guide lots of questions about Vietnam and their life there. www.hanoistreetfoodtour.com
We waddled back to the hotel for an early(ish) night, after all, our highly anticipated trip to Halong Bay was fast approaching…
We stayed at Old Town Hotel Hanoi
Smack bang in the Old Quarter, it’s a great place if you fancy paying a little bit extra for some home comforts. A range of breakfasts are included including a very scrummy American pancake breakfast, the staff are great and go out of their way to help you at every turn.