Our first day in Hanoi we hit the ground running. The bus dropped us off near our hostel around midday and after checking in we headed out to discover the old quarter! Liam took over navigating duties for this busy city after I almost had a bit of a panic attack trying to get us around Saigon, and I’m so glad he did because we were both able to enjoy the city so much more. Train Street is a famous stop amongst those who travel to this city. In the alleys lining the train tracks are various cafes and shops tourists can wander around until a train comes by. Shop owners fold up tables and chairs while tourists line against the wall to feel the rush of the train whizz by. Pretty exciting stuff! So when we arrived and found railings and guards informing us that it was closed we were pretty bummed. We still managed to get one picture at this famed spot before moving on.
Without the cafes it could just be any old train street
At the core of the ancient quarter is St Micheal’s Cathedral. The exterior wasn’t anything too remarkable, most of it appeared to be unpainted concrete but the inside was lovely. High ceilings, beautiful stained glass, and candle lit pathways a perfect place for quiet contemplation in the heart of bustling Hanoi.
The stained glass was, and usually is, my favourite part of the church
On our way to the next stop we were pulled in by a store selling “cheese ice cream.” We had already tried egg coffee, so why not try this as well! It was delicious, really similar to panna cotta, with Oreos that we added because they always make everything better. Ice cream in hand we rocked up to Hoan Kiem lake, a place visited by tourists and locals alike. A perfect place to take a slow stroll around the lake and see people playing cards on the grass, or fishing along the water’s edge. Across a beautiful red bridge in the centre of the lake sits Dem Ngoc Som temple. It’s fairly small but provides an amazing view of the lake and city that surrounds you.
Always mismatching while backpacking
Liam and I have been watching Anthony Bourdain’s Parts Unknown this past year and one of the most memorable moments is when he eats dinner with Obama on plastic chairs in a busy restaurant in Hanoi. That restaurant was Bun Cha Huong Lien and it was a must visit during our time in the city. The restaurant has clearly benefited massively from the visit, the place was heaving when we arrived but we still were able to get seated straight away. Their most popular menu item is the “Obama Combo” where you get Bun Cha, a massive mixed meats wonton and a Hanoi beer. The same meal is shown in a picture of Bourdain and Obama on each floor. We can confirm that the meal is absolutely delicious. Grilled pork, a flavourful slightly sweet broth and all of the herbs, chili and garlic at your disposal to mix into the bowl. A delightful experience and still remarkably affordable which makes this great meal still accessible to locals and visitors.
This was so so tasty! Would’ve gone back a second time if we were staying in the city longer
The day just kept getting better as we headed to another must see during our trip to Hanoi, the Vietnamese Women’s Museum. It’s rated the number one thing to see on Lonely Planet and it’s easy to see why. Entry and an audio guide only costs £3 a person and provides access to see historical items while listening to stories of women who have shaped Vietnam into the nation it is today. Majorly influencing daily life, agriculture, textiles, and wartime efforts. You don’t have to have taken a women’s studies class to know that women are so often left out of historical narratives, so the fact that this well thought-out museum is the top ranking museum in the city is amazing!
It turns out there are actually two Train Streets, we visited the second expecting it to also be closed but we were thrilled to see the small alley cafes still bringing out coffees and beers. We ordered two beer Hanoi’s and before too long we were all shuffled to be pressed against the wall to see the train go by. The lady who ran the cafe we were at put our bottle caps on the tracks so once the train was gone we could go scavenge and find our flattened souvenir to remember this unique experience.
Hugging the wall as the train sped past
Our last day we spent wandering around the Botanical Gardens near the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum. This is a huge complex, and lines to visit the Mausoleum can be up to two hours long. We decided we didn’t want to spend our afternoon standing in a line so opted for a nice stroll around the pretty mediocre botanical gardens. Even though it was essentially just a park it was still nice to have a bit of time in a green space in the middle of the city.
Chua Tran Quoc pagoda was a twenty minute walk away and on the path there we saw “American memorial” pop up on Google maps. We were curious so we stopped to see what it was. Turns out it was a small but not insignificant memorial to the site where John McCain’s plane was shot down before he was taken as a prisoner of war. A nice commemoration for his service and reminder of his leadership where he displayed more civility in a 60 second clip defending Obama’s character during a political debate than Trump probably ever has. It would be nice to regain even a bit of that decency in politics across the aisle again.
My only wish is that there would have been an english translation
A few more minutes down the road and dashing across crazy traffic and we made it to the pagoda! It was originally built in the sixth century making it an incredibly special site to behold. After ten minutes we were shooed off of the premises, turns out we made it in just before it closed! It was a small but beautiful complex to explore, we definitely got lucky with our timing.
We spent the rest of our last day in Hanoi enjoying the cafe cultures, trying the original egg coffee and then stopping at a cafe nearby to have a few cold beer Hanoi’s as we watched people, scooters and cars bustle along the road in front of us. I really enjoyed our time in Hanoi. Old French style buildings, great museums and delightful food and cafes. We couldn’t have asked for more before we set off for the mountain town of Sapa!
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Watching the city scoot on by