Hanoi was my first stop on my Southeast Asia tour. It is Vietnam’s current capital and could be best described as a bustling but traditional in nature city. It is also filled with MORE motorbikes than one could EVER imagine.
Now trust me, I do not say this lightly…the amount of motorbikes here truly is insane in comparison to the surrounding population! I have been to many cities in Latin America and around the world where this is the main form of transportation (they are even family vehicles, sometimes piling 3-6 people on them), but trust me, there is no way to prepare yourself for the absurd amount of bikes making their own paths and driving lanes in this smaller but lively city. You easily COULD and SHOULD add Hanoi to your itinerary for a couple of days and hit up some of the key points of interest while not feeling like you gypped yourself out of their local culture.Hanoi was the perfect introduction to Vietnam and Vietnamese culture and cuisine!
Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum and Presidential Palace-
This is where I started off my day of exploring. As you enter, the grounds are well landscaped and you can see yellow buildings in the background across the water. You will come to the mausoleum first, where guards will make sure all cell phones and cameras are put away and that you are dressed properly. In order to enter the mausoleum, one must have on bottoms that go past their knees and their shoulders must be covered (you will find this across most of Asia in regards to temples and mausoleums). It is important to note that you WILL be turned away if you are not dressed appropriately.
You can take photos of the property, but not inside the actual mausoleum itself. During your wait in line, you might see the changing of the guards since in Vietnam they change once every hour (it is actually kind of neat if you can time it right and you can’t miss them as they are dressed in head to toe bleach white uniforms. The walk through to view Ho Chi Minh’s peacefully resting body, takes under 10 minutes. You literally enter the building, go down a flight of stairs, walk around the squared off viewing space (single file), and come around a corner to another set of stairs to exit. That’s it! It is definitely worth seeing while you are already there, but it does leave you wondering what else lies in this massive size building.
The impressive part of this visit is getting to walk the grounds of the political house (for Americans, this is equivalent to the White House). It is simply stunning and has so many simple yet detailed touches around the property. In Vietnam, all government buildings are painted a vibrant yellow. which symbolizes prosperity, royalty and superiority, so the coloring of the Presidential Palace can be seen from about any point on the palace grounds.
Interestingly enough, when Ho Chi Minh was leader, he refused to live in the big house as he was a fairly simple man. As with all of us, he did have one luxury he couldn’t say no to. His love of French cars, (which a few can be seen on site. Other than his love of cars, he chose to live simply. While he still lived on the grounds, he chose to live in a small and humble house or in an apartment in the city. Both homes having a bare and minimal setup of a bed, a desk, and a dining room table set for 1 but with more dishware and room at the table available in case he was ever entertaining guests. He never wanted to be seen as flashy or above the rest of society and part of me truly admires that the way he chose to live as much like his people as he could.
Now don't assume that the big house went to waste as it was used mainly for many other government officials and visiting politician's. It became the perfect place to have political and business visitors stay and everyone loved the yellow house surrounded by partially white barked trees and coy ponds that was meant to induce peace, reflection and prosperity.
As a visitor, you cannot go in the bigger house but by following the coy pond around, you can walk by Ho Chi Minh’s previously resided quarters, his meeting space and see his French cars and you can take as many photos as you would like on your private or self-guided tour. Give yourself ample time to spend on site here and if you get a bit hungry, there are shops and little restaurants on your way from these grounds to the One Pillar Pagoda.
**Travel Tip: There are restrooms right when you are exiting the grounds near all the food places and shops but if you walk down a little bit further, you run into another restroom that's less busy and a bit cleaner (just don't forget your own toilet paper!).
The One Pillar Pagoda-
This is not the original build, as the first one was destroyed in the war but this is still a must stop when in the city. The refurbished one pillar pagoda has a stronger base. The design is supposed to emulate lotus flower floating on water.
It does gets a bit crowded in this area but it is worth a short climb up the steep stairs to see the still existing worship space. Please pay attention and respect those who are going up there to pay their respects and worship for their beliefs. There is nothing worse than a disrespectful tourist. The walk from the mausoleum grounds to the pagoda is short but is laded in plenty of food vendors, souvenirs and much more. Keep your belongings next to you in this hustle and bustle. and remember, there are 2 sets of restrooms on this walk!
The Temple of Literature-
You must taxi or take another form of public transportation to get here from the other locations and you could also add in a stop at the war museum on your way. There is also a war museum in South Vietnam if your time does not permit a stop. Being that I am a writer, the Temple of Literature was one of the top things I wanted to see in Northern Vietnam. This was their first functioning university so the historical value and impact on education is inspiring. The temple is beautiful from start to finish!
As you make your way back to the main building, you pass by lotus ponds that were built with the purpose to clear ones mind from the troubles of the world so that your mind would be clear and open to receiving knowledge and daily teachings. Just like many monuments and locations in Hanoi, the grounds are perfectly landscaped and are a stunning sight (I hear it is gorgeous once the weather warms up and the lotus ponds are in full bloom!). On your walk back to the main building, you will pass through areas of worship where you will see a plethora of well placed red and gold color infusions, and an abundance of turtle and crane statues. The Vietnamese view turtles as the keepers of wisdom and when you see an image of a crane perched atop of a turtle's shell, it is supposed to represent the student learning from the teacher.
As you make your way inside the main house, you will notice that the doorways have unusually high steps. This is so that visitors and worshipers will bow their heads in respect as they enter the temple. Once inside the worship areas truly are beautiful and fascinating. Many leave food, money and beverages to represent happiness in the afterlife. Also as you tour the 2 story building, you will see samples of old textbooks, exam papers; as well as vintage uniforms for professors and teachers. On your walk out of the building, the old drum for the call to class or prayer is to the left (also near the restrooms).
Overall the grounds are very nice and this is an interesting highlight to add in on your tour of Hanoi. I was only slightly disappointed that there were not more books to see. I expected to see scribes, notebooks and so much more from the Temple of Literature and so I was just a bit let down by that fact but that wouldn't stop me from going back when warmer temperatures have the grounds in bloom.
Single Cycle Bike Rides-
This is a must do while in Hanoi! I mean, who doesn’t dream of being on the front of a cart while someone rides the bike on the back and pushes you around the city??! It was so much fun to hop on these and ride individually through the streets of Hanoi. I loved how much of the culture I got to be immersed in with one ride through the city! You miss so many things when traveling via bus or car and this took us right into the heart of what makes Hanoi work as a city.
From the rows of restaurants and getting to watch everyone eat family style from the many stove tops and grills that line the streets, to seeing people and restaurants sharing dishes and washing them in buckets on the streets, to the store market areas where each store specializes in one specific thing (closest thing to a “super store” in Hanoi is a 7/11). Absolutely amazing!
My mind didn’t even really wander to the fact that we were weaving in and out of streets lined with motorbikes, buses, cars, and all forms of transportation. Upon looking back, it wasn't necessarily the safest thing but I do not regret a minute of it! I still recommend taking a walk through the streets (remember to keep personal belongings close or in the front of you), but this is a fantastic way to get a good overview of what really and truly makes up Hanoi and it's a great way to fall a bit in love with the culture.
Overall, Hanoi is an amazing city that never would have originally made it on my list but I am truly thankful that I got to experience it. There is something about starting my trip off immersed in traditional and hardworking Vietnamese and Asian culture that really put things into perspective and helped me with many understandings along the rest of my trip. If this city isn’t on your list to visit when in the area, then take a day or two and add it because it is well worth it. Also…for all you foodies…the traditional Pho DID NOT disappoint! Also about 4 hours from Hanoi is a magical limestone filled waterway called Ha Long Bay. You really cannot pass up the opportunity to visit the natural gem and should make time for at least one night out to sea.
Full of Hanoi Charm