Heading to Hanoi – our last stop in our south to north Vietnamese adventure – we were approaching the 2 month point in our travels. (Well, really more than that counting our drive cross-country but that’s different). We were both feeling weary, in need of some low-key days to recuperate, so we ended up deciding to hang out in the city for the final week of our visa. This was a really good decision because we were even more tired than we realized and we’ve spent the week here fighting off a cold, exploring in between resting and dodging the heat.
We grabbed a very comfy – but still cheap by Western standards – room in Hanoi’s Old Quarter for a couple nights to offset the discomfort of our Cát Bà housing. This let us explore the narrow windy streets easily, visiting the extensive weekend night market and drinking cheap, sort-of cold bia hoi with the locals. We enjoyed simply walking around and looking at the people and shops, with unique and colorful sights everywhere. The Old Quarter is stuffed with cute narrow buildings (at one point taxes were based on the width of street-front property so skinny long “tube” houses became the norm), each colorful and adorned with equally colorful locals and their pets.
We love to try new foods when traveling and one of our favorite discoveries yet has been cà phê trứng: strong Vietnamese coffee with a foamy sweetened egg topping. It’s addictively delicious and there was at least one day in our stay where we went back for more in the afternoon. This is one of those rare examples where we found the popular opinion on who makes the best to actually be true: Giảng Cafe in the Old Quarter was better than anything else we tried and the cheapest too at $1 a coffee.
After our 2 night stay in a comfy guesthouse we ventured outside of the touristy area to stay in an airbnb. This was great – we got a roomy and comfortable apartment with a laundry machine in the building (wahoo, hand-washed is only so good!) within walking distance of several sights and a great little produce market. This gave us not only the opportunity to rest comfortably, as we sorely needed, but also make some delicious breakfasts such as fresh duck eggs on hot baguettes and my own attempt at Vietnamese coffee with sweetened condensed milk (which tastes like melted coffee ice cream yum).
Talking about Hanoi, or really anywhere in Vietnam, would be incomplete without including street food. It’s so hard to walk around here and not ask for every tasty thing you see every couple of steps. It’s not all Vietnamese, either – we had some excellent Chinese noodles and a solid doner kebab in our ventures. It’s the Vietnamese that’s the most exciting of course, be it soup, fried something, or grilled meat. Our favorite – and perhaps the best street food we’ve had yet on our trip – was the bún chả we found in an alley near our apartment. Bún chả is a brothy vermicelli noodle dish with grilled pork (bacon and meatballs) and the stuff we found was out of this world, not only by our opinion but as evidenced by how busy the little nest of plastic stools was and how quickly the pile of pork diminished over lunch hour. Yes, of course we went back the next day.
Another noteworthy street dining experience occurred when we were sitting in a wide alley on tiny plastic chairs, surrounded by dozens of customers similarly situated up and down the street. Suddenly everything went into chaotic motion with staff and locals running around grabbing tables and dishes, barely refraining from shouting. It took us a couple adrenaline-boosted moments of confusion to realize that they were clearing the street in response to an imminent police sweep! There must be specific areas that have restrictions on tables in the roadway because we saw plenty elsewhere in plain sight of the authorities.
Among our ventures was a walk up around Trúc Bạch Lake (where Senator McCain splashed down under a parachute in ‘67) to a “cat cafe” at Elaine’s behest. This facility involves paying a fee so that one can sit in a room smelling of cats and wait to see if any of them can be bothered to wander over to you and cuddle. I apparently do not have a knack for this because while Elaine attracted some rather cute and adorable companions the only ones that eventually chose to hang out with me were the desperate, tatty individuals with no other option. Ah well, everyone deserves a good scratch behind the ears.
We took an evening out at a trendy restaurant in the north of Hanoi where you sit on the floor at squat little tables and dine on a range of unique foods. The place was recommended by a popular food blogger in Hanoi and did not disappoint – the food was great and the atmosphere was fun as we were the only Westerners surrounded by a rowdy work group on one side and a large family on the other. Another evening was spent quite differently, hanging out in our apartment enjoying a nice bottle of French wine – the first we’ve had in our travels, sought out from a little nearby store – and a pretty solid delivery pizza which somehow made it straight to our apartment door in no time despite my uncertainty with our address and the fact that there is a big lock on the front gate. Thanks, Hanoi!
As far as official sightseeing in Hanoi, we did some but not all. The Temple of Literature was more or less next door to our apartment and so was inexcusable to not visit. We checked out an old restored tube house in the Old Quarter, spent a couple hours in the Vietnamese Women’s Museum, and walked around Hoan Kiem Lake. We didn’t make it to Ho Chi Minh’s mausoleum or surrounding palace area because by the time we were ready to do so on Friday we realized it was closed that day. Overall, though, we were more entertained simply walking around, and our recovery (plus the heat!) inhibited more vigorous touristing.
Having spent time in both Saigon and Hanoi we can offer an inexpert comparison. Saigon is definitely the more modern, which cuts both ways: it’s cleaner and slicker than Hanoi and the cranking economy is palpable, fueling a healthy growth balanced by manicured gardens and well-lit tree-lined boulevards. Inevitably, however, this means it has lost some of the colorful character that permeates nearly every building and street corner in Hanoi. This aspect is most concentrated in the Old Quarter, for which Saigon has no match, but really is all over Hanoi (excepting intermittent areas of Soviet style red-and-concrete). Both cities have a wealth of amazing food and it would take us far more time than we’ve had to officially call a winner on that front. As for beer, Saigon has some impressively good craft brews but Hanoi has the edge on cheap lager between bia hoi stalls, Bia Ha Noi, and Trúc Bạch (all better, in my opinion, than Bia Saigon). Both are similar in terms of walkability (rather appalling, keep your head on a swivel) but Saigon cabs were more consistently cheap. Both have good coffee though Hanoi has the unique cà phê trứng. Hanoi was hotter and grayer.
So do we have a favorite? Probably Hanoi, by a whisker or two of Uncle Ho’s beard.
I write Saigon because nobody in southern Vietnam calls it Ho Chi Minh City. On this topic, the cultural transition between north and south was both more distinct and abrupt than I expected. As soon as we crossed over the old border north of Hue we noticed this shift in naming of the old southern capital. We also no longer heard praise for the US or stories of how such-and-such a relative worked with the American forces during the war, both common sentiments in the south. We’ve never felt unwelcome in Vietnam – far from it – but the change was noticeable. After thinking about it a little this 40 year old divide probably lingers due to (at least) a couple factors: lifestyle and geography. Families generally are rooted and tight knit, and Vietnam is quite narrow at the center and broad at the north/south extents, so there isn’t much movement and mixing.
Regardless of north vs south, city or countryside, coastline or mountains, we are sad to be leaving Vietnam! For us it has been a perfect match of culture, scenery, and food. We’ve gotten quite used to being here over the past month so it’s going to be rather jarring to dive into a new country, especially since we’re leaving mainland Southeast Asia where we’ve spent our whole trip thus far. Tạm biệt và cảm ơn, Vietnam – goodbye and thanks! We hope to return soon.