June 29, 2006

Hanoi (1 of 3) : Hanoi Heaven

Thap Rua (Tortoise Tower), in the middle of Hoan Kiem Lake

What started out as an idea casually tossed in the aromatic air of Ziggurat (one of my favorite restaurants in Manila) during one of our many GNOs, became a reality last weekend when my 4 girlfriends and I checked into the Thien Thai hotel in Hanoi, Vietnam.

We had been wanting to take a trip together somewhere in Asia, and preferably somewhere none of us had been to yet. This was tough considering we all love to travel and have all separately been to many places in Asia and we were limiting ourselves to this continent for budget reasons. In the end we decided on Hanoi in June.

At that time all I knew about Hanoi was that it was the capital of Vietnam located in the northern part of the country and the only mental images I had were from online travelogues I frequent which were of the breathtaking limestone cliffs and jade green waters of Ha Long Bay.

I expected Hanoi to be a small provincial town with nothing much to do or see and figured it would be a lazy weekend with some sightseeing and a lot of R and R. Boy, was I in for a surprise!

I made my own 10-page travel guide listing all the places we should see, restaurants to try - a good mix of fine dining, mid-range and hole-in-the-walls-, shopping bargains, and other general tips. I compiled them from various testimonies of fellow travellers, most of which I got from the trusty Virtual Tourist. Satisfied, I printed it out, tucked it into my handcarry and off we went on our adventure.

Basically our itinerary went something like this:

Day 1: Checked into Thien Thai hotel at 8:30 pm, Dinner in Pho24, Walked around Hoan Kiem Lake

Day 2: Vietnamese coffee at Old Hanoi; Booked our Ha Long Bay Tour and van for the day at one of the many Sinh Cafes; shopping; Lunch in Little Hanoi; visited the Temple of Literature; recharged in Highlands Coffee by Ho Tay Lake; did the round of temples and pagodas: Tran Quoc Pagoda; One Pillar Pagoda; Ngoc Son Temple; St. Joseph's Cathedral; more shopping; back to the hotel for a quick shower, then off to celebrate our friends birthday with a dinner in Wild Rice; and then finally a nightcap in La Salsa.

Day 3: Visited Uncle Ho at the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum; rented motorbikes and honked our way around the bohemian roads of the Old Quarter (this was a blast!); Lunch in Cha Ca La Vong (where I had my favorite meal of the trip, well one of); shopping again; coffee and ice cream at the Tamarind Cafe; Dong Xuan Market; dinner in Green Tangerine (probably the most charming French restaurant I've ever been to).

Day 4: Ha Long Bay baby!; then dinner in Cafe des Arts back in Hanoi

Day 5: Checked out and boarded the plane back to Manila via Hongkong.

Feeling like a millionaire: the currency in Vietnam is the Vietnamese Dong (VND) and the exchange rate is 16,000 VND to $US 1.00. I changed $200 at the airport and the man behind the window handed me over 3 Million Dong, bundles and bundles of what looked like monopoly money clipped together by the hundreds of thousands. US currency is accepted anywhere and everywhere in Hanoi though, so there's no need to change money.

Hot and Humid in Hanoi: Both CNN's weather center and the Weather Channel forecasted 5 days of thunderstorms so we packed jackets and closed shoes aside from flip-flops, jeans and shorts which I was determined to wear, the creature of comfort that I am. Imagine our surprise and delight (despite the fact I was cursing the humidity and feeling like a walking soaked sponge with streams -not drops- of sweat oozing out of my every pore) when what greeted us was bright sunshine.

Although the heat and humidity were unbearable for the most part, we wouldn't have been able to do as much as we did had it been raining. Should you decide to go to Vietnam, I urge you though to plan it during the cooler months (maybe around Nov-Mar).

The sights: A visit to Hanoi is a step back in time. It is steeped in history with pockets of rich culture visible in the temples that dot the city, the galleries and cafes that line the streets of the Old Quarter and the museums and monuments amidst a landscape of serene lakes and pagodas.
French colonial architecture provides the backdrop for locals peddling fruit and flowers either on foot or on bicycle; with yuppies and old folk alike cruising the town on their motorbikes. Crossing the street can be quite a challenge as the motorists don't seem to bother stopping for pedestrians, it reminds me of that old Atari game Frogger.

Top row from L to R:
spring rolls, one pillar pagoda, courtyard in the temple of literature

Middle row from L to R:
silk dresses, statue guarding a temple in the old quarter, opera house

Bottom row from L to R:
bridge on Hoan Kiem Lake, vietnamese masks, entrance to the temple of literature

You will likely spend most of your time in the labyrinthine streets of the Old Quarter. Walking through this area is a feast for the senses with it's cacophony of street sounds (not a little of which is from incessant honking of horns), the smell of incense wafting from the temples, the colorful facades of trendy cafes and chic boutiques nestled behind old banyan trees, and a general feeling of quiet pride and contentment from the locals.

Shop like a millionaire:
Well, a millionaire in Vietnamese Dong at least. Hanoi is a shopping haven, even being touted as handbag central. Colorful beaded or embroidered handbags can be found everywhere. There are also dress shops where you can have anything displayed tailor made to your size and liking, which they will gladly deliver to your hotel the next morning ( it is a good idea to do this early in your trip to allow ample time for adjustments).

Probably the most sought after shopping items though are silk, lacquerware and dainty
embroidered linen. They are all beautifully handcrafted. Go ahead, indulge! Everything is wonderfully cheap so you won't get that guilty feeling, besides it's healthy retail therapy!

Even if you aren't a shopper, you will be seduced by the countless chic boutiques in Hanoi, not unlike those in Paris. The favorite was the sought-after and uber-funky Ipa-Nima (59G Hai Ba Trung/14 Phan Boi Chau)
whose main claim to fame are the handbags designed by Christina Yu.

The Locals: The Hanoians have got to be the most peaceful, kind and polite bunch of people I have ever met! I'm not sure if I was expecting otherwise, but their gentle characters struck me the moment I set foot on their soil. Though their limited or non-existent knowledge of the Engligh language can prove to be difficult, their smiles and genuine willingness to help more than make up for it.

Even the taxi drivers were very entertaining. There was the one taxi driver who seeing that we were looking around for a bar to have some drinks and probably wanting to put us in a party mode , popped Dragostea Din Tea by O-zone into his CD player and when we started to sing and dance to it, he turned it up full blast, grinning at our kookiness.

Then there was Mr. Rotten McTeeth who would mumble incoherent phrases to us and then just spontaneously erupt into fits of laughter. At first we found this amusing, laughing along with him, until he transformed into Count Touchy Von Feely rubbing my arm as he laughed until my friend in the backseat told him to stop, which he did at least.

I love how their names translate into names like Moon (the lady who took my measurements at the dress shop) , Flower Lily (we met at least 2 Flower Lilys) and River (our guide in Ha Long Bay).

But my favorite was Too (I'm guessing it's spelled this way), the girl at the Sinh Cafe where we rented our motorbikes. She was just adorable! When we tried to explain to her that we needed to load gas into our bikes and she couldn't understand what we were saying, she turned and ran screaming into her shop shouting "Choy Oy!!" (Oh my god!), then quickly came back out after she calmed down a bit. After another round of charades, she eventually got it.

Night Life and the lack of it: There isn't much to be said about night life in laid-back Hanoi. The few bars that are open cater mostly to expats and the few locals found in cafes and bars are there to watch World Cup football. The streets though are filled with young people on motorbikes who seem to endlessly drive around the city until very late at night. Where do they go? Do they just drive in circles? Seeing the motorists that have accumulated at a stop light and then watching them rev up after the light turns green can be quite overwhelming. It's like the attack of the Vespas!

Getting Around: One of the smartest things we did in Hanoi was to hire a van with a driver to take us around from any of the travel agencies scattered around the Old Quarter. We booked ours at the Sinh Cafe where we booked our Halong Bay tour. It was a 16-seater van which we had all to ourselves, came with a full tank of gas and a friendly driver, all for $40 for the entire day, or $8 each because there were 5 of us.

(You can find more info and photos about this trip in my Hanoi pages at Virtual Tourist).

Up Next: Gastronomic Adventure in Hanoi


vina said...

wooooooow! Vietnam is in our list for places yet to visit!!!! good thing you confirmed that it (at least, Hanoi) is shopping heaven/haven, coz we have been hearing that. a lot.

oooooh, i hope we push through!

christine said...

Hi Vina,

It sure is a shopping haven! I wasn't actually prepared for that. Thankfully I went with my suitcase only half full (I always leave allowance for shopping hehe). And everything is so unbelievably cheap! You'll go nuts. It's way better than shopping Singapore. Well the difference is, it's not mall shopping. In Hanoi, it's all boutiques, and most items are one-off pieces. You can also make "pagawa" and they normally take about 8 hours to make your dress, usually overnight.

I hope you push through as well! Let me know k. :)

Anonymous said...

Hi Christine! Sounds like a super holiday..one of my next places to visit hopefully!

christine said...

Hi Katia!! What a nice surprise! You really should go, maybe during your next trip to Manila. Miss you bunches!

katia said...

me too sweets...lookin forward to seeing you soon! in DF....only 3.5 months away....ahhhhhhhhh!

christine said...

Yikes! That's right! Hope the preparations aren't stressing you out too much. Please let me know if you need me to do anything or get anything for you from here ok?

I gotta book my tickets! Will email you. :)