We enjoyed a nice couple days in Hanoi prior to our departure for Bai Tu Long Bay. Our hotel was located in the Old Quarter, a lovely walkable area with lots to see and eat – and that we did!
Searching for more banh mi
We took our final domestic flight of the trip, transporting us from Da Nang to Hanoi, arriving in late afternoon. As usual, we immediately went out in search of food and decided to try another banh mi.
We ended up at a street vendor called Banh My Pate, which was the best reviewed place that did not appear to be catering to westerners. It was not as good as the banh mi we last had in Hoi An, but it hit the spot and was definitely still better than anything we could get at home.
Drinks on Beer Street
Beer Street is literally what it sounds like, a small street in the Old Quarter lined by pubs. It spans only 200 metres but is one of the busiest streets in Hanoi, although we were there earlier in the evening so missed the peak crowds. We stopped by Hill Station for some decent craft beers.
Of note, Hanoi is generally a bit quieter than usual, on account of the coronavirus outbreak. We were told by our hotel receptionist that several festival activities and the night market have been cancelled, in order to discourage excessive mass gatherings. We have seen a few more mask wearers on the streets here, but that is probably typical of Hanoi regardless of viral outbreaks due to the pollution and heavy smog that they have here. Otherwise, life goes on as usual.
Touring Hanoi highlights
Giving our stomachs a break, we started our second day in Hanoi on a city tour with Urban Adventures. Mr. Chuckles and I were the only people signed up, so essentially got a private tour with our guide, Mike.
Mike started the tour by taking us to the Temple of Literature. Originally built in 1070 by King Ly Thai Thong in honour of Confucius, a school was added to the grounds six years later and it became the Imperial Academy, Vietnam’s first national university. It initially provided education to the royal family and the children of aristocracy, but was later opened up to the general public. It eventually closed in the 19th century when King Gia Long moved the country’s administrative capital from Hanoi to Hue. Today, students often visit the temple seeking blessings for success in their studies and examinations.
Next, we took a break at a nearby traditional tea shop to sample green tea.
Then we hopped back into our car, heading to Hoa Lo Prison Museum. This prison complex was used by French Colonists for political prisoners until 1954 and later by North Vietnam for American POWs. Notable ex-prisoners who were kept at Hoa Lo included Pete Peterson, who later became the first US Ambassador to unified Vietnam in 1995, and the late US Senator John McCain.
It was chilling to see conditions of the prison and learn about the horrifying torture tactics they employed, particularly during the French Colonial era. At that time, prisoners were shackled and kept in small communal cells, a breeding ground for unsanitary conditions that led to malnutrition and illness which killed many of them before they even succumbed to the torture methods or execution (this prison housed one of two guillotines brought to Vietnam by the French). Later on, when the Viet Công took over, the facility was sarcastically nicknamed the “Hanoi Hilton” by American pilots captured there. North Vietnam was a signatory of the Geneva Convention, which called for decent and humane treatment of prisoners. The museum exhibit portrays this, although some argue that it is a one-sided representation of history. Many returning American prisoners in fact reported continued widespread abuse at the time of their incarceration.
We finished our tour on a lighter note, moving on toward Hoan Kiem Lake. Here we visited Ngoc Son Temple, otherwise known as Temple of the Jade Mountain. It sits on an island at the northern end of the lake, connected via a scarlet bridge known as Cuc The Huc. The temple represents an amalgam of Buddhist and Taoist philosophies, dedicated to General Tran Hung Dao (who defeated the Mongols in the 13th century), La To (patron saint of physicians) and the scholar Van Xuong.
Finally, time for food! We had lunch at Pho Thin, a tiny pho (beef noodle soup) restaurant literally set up within an alleyway.
An attempt to see Train Street
We had some free time in the afternoon so decided to do a little exploring on our own. If you look up photos of Hanoi on Instagram and the like, you may have seen shots of the famous Train Street. It is a railway track running through the narrow streets of the Old Quarter, quite a sight to see when the train is coming through and residents and cafe owners have to duck inside to avoid getting clipped by the train speeding by within inches of them.
Evidently, it is a very popular photo spot but is yet another local experience that has been ruined by the Instagram crowd. Apparently there were too many people being crazy and unsafe for the sake of social media posterity, so the track has basically been blocked off to visitors. When we stopped by, there were guards sitting there to prevent entry. There may have been some way to get in if we agreed to sit down at one of the pubs or cafes lining the tracks, but we decided to take a pass, returning to the hotel for my complimentary massage at the spa – a much more worthwhile use of my time, I think.
Another street food tour
In the evening we attended our fourth and final food tour with Urban Adventures. We again had a nice and friendly group, this time including four other travellers from Australia and Germany.
Our guide, Hoa, took us around Old Quarter to try a whole bunch of street food. We started with ginger tea at a small coffee shop, accompanied by sticky rice donuts. We continued with banh mi (those French baguettes we are addicted to); banh cuon (ground pork and wood ear mushroom rolled in rice noodle); a glass of local beer Bia Hoi; pho kho (dry rice noodles with chicken and green papaya); and black sticky rice and yogurt dessert.
Our final stop was a particular highlight. Egg coffee is a Hanoi specialty, invented in 1946 by a local named Mr. Giang, who was trying to create a richer, creamier coffee in the time of food rations when fresh milk was scarce. It contains egg yolks beaten into condensed milk and added on top of black coffee, with an end product that is more akin to an evening dessert than a morning wake up drink. We tried it at Cafe Dinh, one of the three original egg coffee purveyors in Hanoi, located in the private home of Mr. Giang’s daughter.
Onward to Bai Tu Long Bay
We are now leaving Hanoi as we embark on our overnight boat cruise to the Halong Bay area. We are actually going to the lesser known Bai Tu Long Bay as an alternative to the usual tourist path and I am looking forward to a peaceful and fun couple days. More about that when we get back!