37 Hours in Hanoi

Street Kitchen Hanoi Vietnam

When the New York Times gives you 36 hours in a city, we at Somewhere Or Bust say, stay a bit longer. Here’s 37 Hours in Hanoi.

In my previous post, I was a bit hard on the city, so I’ll try to give Hanoi some credit. Having said that, Hanoi is chaos and you won’t really want to spend much more time than 37 hours, but the insanity alone is an attraction worth braving. The trick to surviving Hanoi is to not allow the swarmers, solicitors, scammers, touts, taxis, or tourist companies to ruin your stay. Here’s a guide so you can get the most out of your visit. Just try not to let the time slip away hiding out in your hotel room.

Friday, 6:00 pm–Acquainting Yourself With Hanoi

Every time the underdog succeeds in battle, he has a game plan. First admit to yourself that you are the underdog and Hanoi is preparing to rip you a new one. If you don’t accept this most basic fact, she will eat you alive like a feasting seven-headed naga. That’s why your first stop should be one of the ubiquitous street kitchens. You will be able to study the city in action and learn how to dodge her attack.

After the storefronts close and enough motorbikes clear off the sidewalk, the street kitchens set up shop. The dining area consists of a scattering of low-to-the-ground blue plastic tables and chairs that were designed for nursery school classrooms. The woman in charge sits behind her makeshift counter. She’ll usually have bubbling pots inches off the floor and a display case, featuring colanders brimming with organ meats and baked pieces of chicken. For $3.50, Marissa and I drank two beers and ate two bowls of pho soup, though it was not very good. The noodles were like overcooked Italian spaghetti and not Vietnamese rice noodles. Instead of identifiable strips of beef, there were spongy bits of pork bobbing like matzo balls in my broth. The waiter, wanting to help me identify these UFOs (F for floating), typed something into his phone’s translator and showed me his screen.

“You eat this,” he said. The phone’s screen read pork ribs living.

Delicious, I thought. Even though my street kitchen experience was a bit dodgy, you’ll be able to pick out a good one just by peering down into the dishes of those served before you. It’s best to select one from a block swarming with street kitchens.

What did I learn by watching the city from the street kitchen? you ask.

Answer: Breast-feeding from the back of a motorbike looks like an unsafe activity. However, that particular mother has given new meaning to the term street kitchen.

Traffic in Hanoi

Friday, 8:00 pm–Walking To The Lake

On your way to the lake, which is a mass respite for the citizens of Hanoi, you can stroll the less peaceful weekend street market. It sells nothing worthwhile, but it saves you from having to cross the crazy streets. (Yes, I realize you’ve just arrived, but that’s how soon you will need a break from the streets.) However, this advice offers a catch-22: to travel from the market to the lake requires you to cross one of the city’s most insane intersections.

Friday, 8:20 pm–Crossing That Intersection

Follow locals, use people as shields, wait for the approaching traffic to be mostly motorbikes (they maneuver better than cars and will hurt less if they collide with your body). Whatever you do, don’t stop!!! (Note: I rarely use exclamation points, so the simple fact that I’ve used three here should scare the crap out of you.)

Friday, 8:30 pm–The Hoan Kiem Lake

I’d imagine reaching the lake brings about the same emotion a climber would experience after pinning their flag to the top of Everest. After making it across one of the city’s greatest death traps, walk the thirty-minute, serene loop, stopping off to watch groups of women do Zumba, teens rollerblade, and couples ballroom dance. An ornamental pavilion sits in the middle of the lake, as does a temple, where young lovers gaze out across the water from its bridge.

Saturday, 7:30 am–Hey Ho

Visit the Ho Chi Minh Complex. First, start at the mausoleum. Get there early because the crowds on weekends are insane as every local wants to pay their respects to the revered leader, while every Westerner just wants to see an embalmed dead guy. If you happen to arrive and there’s a line, be prepared for pushing from locals, employees, and tourists. (Tuesday, Wednesday, or Thursday are better options to visit. The Mausoleum is closed on Monday and Friday, and during the months of October and November when Ho gets a touch up.) While you’re in the area, follow the tourist train to Ho’s house to view the fanciful austerity of his life. The Ho Chi Minh Museum is not really worth a visit, as it’s mostly boring, propaganda downstairs, while upstairs features a bizarre exhibit featuring Vietnamese, French, and Soviet images, artifacts, and documents. It’s worth a trip, however, if you value good irony, as the top floor is an artistic attempt to portray the ideals of censorious communism. The museum does exhibit some worthwhile finds like part of a destroyed US aircraft that had been turned into a pocketknife/comb for Ho. Other things like Ho’s rubber balls are on display beside a placard that reads “…used by him for exercise.”

Saturday, 9:30 am–Market Browsing

A block west of the train station, tucked within a city block, you’ll find a market full of fishmongers and butchers. You’ll receive unwelcome looks and stumble over numerous cats cruising through the small warehouse of stalls. It’s actually enjoyable to be treated like an uninvited and ignored stranger, since by this point you’ll be tired of all the pestering from scammers and touts.

Hanoi Markets

Saturday, 11:00 am–Those Are Some Fine Arts

The best thing about the Fine Arts Museum is that the works on display features a taste of what many tourists visit the other museums for–to read the descriptions of Americans. “Hanoi Youth Setting Off to Fight Against the American Aggressor,” read one plaque. A lugubrious mother consoles her children in a painting called “They Conducted the A-Bomb Test Again.” There are paintings of Vietnamese guerrillas damming up streams, a shirtless soldier with a grenade strapped to his belt, ambushes, chaotic battle scenes, children playing soldier. Every painting is dark and the touches of gold on most of the canvases create such a sharp contrast. Not only is the art worth an hour, the gallery rooms are empty, a reprieve from the Ho Chi Minh madness. Plus, there are plenty of Ho portraits if you miss him after the mausoleum.

Fine Arts Museum Hanoi

Fine Arts Museum Hanoi

Saturday, 1:00 pm–Lunch

Take long lunches. My favorite spot was a corner restaurant, where Bat Dan and Duong Thanh meet. I don’t recall the name. It’s predominantly a male hangout where young, pretty waitresses shout over the cacophony of motorbikes and their incessant honking. The restaurant also had the nursery-school blue seats and tables, but this hole-in-the-wall was not some pack-it-up street kitchen. I ordered succulent pork flank and washed it down with forty cent beers. Inside, two bamboo ladders leaned against a loft. From the loft, drying clothes and backpacks hung.

“What’s up there?” I asked the waitress.

It was where the staff lived.

Hanoi Vietnam Food

If you don’t want the staff living among the foods you’re about to ingest, try the more upscale Quan An Ngon at 18 Phan Boi Street. It looks like a beer garden in the middle of the city. One of the most interesting dishes here is the Hanoi pancake, a flaky, yellow pancake with a little pork and shrimp inside. Fold it up, shove it in dried rice paper with some basil, and then dunk it into the accompanying plum sauce.

Saturday, 2:30 pm–Hanoi Hilton

In the 1800s the yellow-walled Hao Lo Prison had been built by the French to contain North Vietnamese revolutionaries. Over the years it was transformed to hold law breakers and more infamously (or famously, depending on your side) to detain 72 American pilots. The museum contains prisoner uniforms, rice bowls, and canteens. It also gives a glimpse into prison life. Displayed are devices used for torture and you can enter dark chambers that were reserved for solitary confinement. Sewage entrances that had been used by prisoners to escape are set up in a courtyard and John McCain’s flight suit is in the American prisoner room. To me, the most interesting artifact was the “begging flag”–a banner with eleven languages printed beneath an American flag, asking for “food, shelter, and protection” and informing others that the US “government will reward you” if you assist.

Saturday, 5:00 pm–Grab a Rooftop Drink

It’s great watching the lake scene from up high. There are quite a few rooftop terraces that serve coffee and drinks at the northern end of the lake. Take your pick. Mine was the City Cafe on the top floor.

Saturday, 7:00 pm–Delicious Dining

There is not much to do in Hanoi after dark, so make dinners your social scene.

My favorite spot in Hanoi was Pho 10 at #10 Ly Quoc Su Street. The restaurant only serves, as you can guess from their name, pho. Aside from the glassed-in workstation where broth is poured over tender noodles and raw beef, the only things inside the establishment are 38 chairs, a few tables, and two refrigerators–one with sodas and beers, the other with hunks of meat. The staff is snazzy in their knock-off orange Lacoste shirts. The soup, which goes for about $1.50 to $2.50 is the best I’ve had in all of Vietnam. (I averaged about 1.75 bowls of soup/day, so I know.)

The Best Pho in Hanoi

My friend introduced me to Cha Ca La Vong at 14 Cha Ca street. At first, I thought he had pulled a fast one, since there were no tables inside and a family was congregated around the entrance, lounging about in the evening heat. But dining is up a steep staircase. The turquoise-walled restaurant, which had shrines to some boxed-in deity who was displayed beside a liquor cabinet filled with bottles and knick-knacks, has communal dining. A waitress came over to us and placed an English written laminated sign on our table the way certain beggars hand you cards describing their hardships.

Only one dish in our restaurant, the card read. Grilled fish. It was priced at 170,000 Vietnamese dong per person, which is on the expensive side in Vietnam (about $8.00). The fish comes out in a frying pan atop a single burner. In the oily pan, we added bowls of chives and dill. After that cooked a bit, we mixed the fish and greens with a plate of vermicelli, topping it with peanuts, fish sauce, chilies, and basil. The portion of fish is quite small, but tasty and you can fill up on extra orders of noodles and greens.

Sunday, 6:00 am–Return to the Lake

The scene at the lake is quite different in the early mornings. It’s even more packed with early morning walkers, elders practicing Tai Chi, and badminton players swinging rackets across the street. It makes Hanoi seem attractive and you might even consider staying longer. But this is one of her many tricks. Leave for Halong Bay or Sapa immediately. Aside from a few museums, you’ve seen the best of Hanoi. There is no reason to stay any longer. (I did fail to mention a few sites that I had visited and people may think I am remiss to exclude them from my list–The Temple of Literature, for example–but I found them to be so touristy and overrun with pestering salespeople that I don’t even think that they’re worth a visit.)

Hanoi Touts

Where I Stayed in Hanoi:

The Calypso Grand Hotel, which is twenty to thirty minutes walking distance from all of Hanoi’s sites, had hosted me for one night. It’s a boutique hotel with clean red and white rooms and in-room computers. The hallways are decorated with black and white photographs of old Hanoi. It’s best feature is breakfast, dishing up fifteen tasty options, everything from pho to burgers. The staff is courteous and helpful. For $80, you can stay in a junior suite with a small balcony, but if all you need is a comfortable bed, hot shower, and computer, opt for the $35 superior room. Though it’s a bit tight and only has an internal window, you won’t find a better deal with as good a breakfast. From May to October, booking three nights gets you a fourth for free. (But I just had my staff do the numbers and they say that’s more than 37 hours in Hanoi.)

Posted on by Noah Lederman in 37 Hours, Asia, Somewhere

4 Responses to 37 Hours in Hanoi

  1. paula lederman

    got a good laugh from the breast feeding part. loved the pictures

  2. Simo

    I was in Hanoi last year I loved it… the scooters are crazy, I saw 2 guys taking a 3m high mirror on the back of one heading out into peak hour traffic… Thanks for the memory jolt…

    • Somewhere Or Bust

      Thanks for reading. I think at the very least, Hanoi made Bangkok seem like a tame and mild city.

      • Simo

        I came from a week in Bangkok…. Hanoi was bliss after that

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