We (Sunia and I) landed in Hanoi during the early evening on Saturday. Coming off the plane, we went to the customs/immigration area. It was not marked clearly which line we were supposed to get into, so we used our context clues and followed the crowd that had paperwork similar to ours. That was a good call on our part. We handed over our visa application and passports, then waited for our names to be called…about 15 minutes later. Then we were off to meet our driver who would take us to our hotel, Hanoi City Palace, in the Old Quarter. We could immediately tell that the Old Quarter was the place to be due to the overwhelming amount of scooters dashing every which way through the narrow streets. I was starting to wonder how we would ever be able to cross the road!
Upon arriving at our hotel, we learned that our room had some electrical problems and that we would be transferred for the night to their sister hotel, just a block away. I’m not going to lie, my first thought was, “How the hell am I going to cross the road to get there?” But we went with it. The doorman carried our bags and we followed him, avoiding the scooters the best we could by following his every footstep. We got situated at the Lotus Boutique hotel, which was quiet and seemed nice. But we were hungry, so being the adventurous women we are, we ventured back into the bustling streets in the attempt to find some food. As we were leaving, we asked about getting SIM cards (while living in China, certain sites are blocked and then you have to turn on you VPN which doesn’t always work or slows your phone down and so I always try to get a SIM card in whichever country I’m in to take advantage of their internet/data). Usually, I would just go to a 7-11, but I had not seen any on our way in, so the doorman for this hotel (the doormen are really friendly) walked us back to a main street and helped us purchase our SIM cards. He was super helpful as we didn’t speak the language and neither did the person selling the cards. Finally, armed with super fast data, we went on our hunt for food. But we were both tired and decided to just hit a sandwich stand near our hotel. Besides, the tour we were scheduled to go on the next day would take us all over the city and provide a good lunch. We called it a night early so we would be in top form for our all day tour.
We woke up and headed down to breakfast early the next morning, our first official day in Vietnam. While eating, our tour guide, Huong from Bravo Indochina Tours, met us and laughed. Apparently our tour included breakfast (which was fine with me since I had just settled for toast). She was also concerned over what I was wearing: a tank top and shorts. I guess we would be going to a few places that required you to cover your knees and such. So, I quickly went upstairs and changed shirts and grabbed a pair of pants I could pull on over my shorts. We jumped in our private vehicle for the day and drove to a restaurant that served pho. So, for our second breakfast, we dined on chicken pho. Now, I wasn’t initially excited or looking forward to all the pho I knew I would have to eat. I had eaten it once before months earlier at a Vietnamese place in Shenzhen and it made pho my foe let’s say. But this was amazing! The broth was light and flavorful; the noodles and chicken were filling and just perfect for a morning breakfast, especially with a squeeze of lime. When Huong went to pay, one of the guys working there came up and sat next to me on the little bench/stool. He whipped out his phone and said he wanted a picture with me. I thought maybe of Sunia and I, but no. He meant us—him and me. So, I smiled and let him have a picture.
Our guide returned and we followed her a few shops down to a place that served egg coffee. Yes, as in a real egg. Café Giang is known for having the best egg coffee in town. Now, I don’t like coffee but I was willing to try it. We climbed up the narrow stairs to an open area with tables and stools (when I say stool, I mean low, to the ground sort of stools). The coffee was served in a mug, which was in a shallow bowl/cup filled with hot water. This allows the beverage to stay warm. I took a sip and wow! Amazing it. The egg cream was frothy and smooth. I drank it all, until I started to taste the coffee part that had been hiding underneath the egg goodiness. I saw on their menu that they also offered egg with chocolate—I was definitely going to come back to try that! Sadly (sad only because of having to stop drinking the egg cream), it was time for us to head out again and see more of the city.
The first official stop on our tour was the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum, built to honor the late beloved leader of Vietnam. I was instructed to put my pants on before getting out of the vehicle. We went through metal detectors upon entering the gated area and guards patrolled the entrance. As we were joining the line to enter, tons of school kids were there for a field trip. The majority of them said hi. The line took about 20 to 30 minutes, but Huong stayed with us and shared some information about Vietnam and Ho Chi Minh with us. For example, he never had kids of his own, but he loved children so he would have a day once a year that kids could come and fish in the huge pond at the palace. As the line inched closer to the actual mausoleum, the crowd waiting got quieter. Once we entered the building, the temperature dropped considerably due to the marble it was built out of. Inside the dim room, Ho Chi Minh’s body rested in, the line kept moving, all remaining respectfully quiet the entire time. Also within the complex was the palace (where Ho Chi Minh never really stayed), a traditional stilted home (where he did stay), a huge pond of fish, trees, and a pagoda. We saw it all and then returned to the vehicle (where I quickly took the pants off) where we went to a place that had helped people affected from Agent Orange. The victims create these beautiful pieces of art with silk thread. They usually cannot talk and will have some physical deformities. Throughout the week, we came across a few places similar to this, but this particular place was special. It wasn’t trying to exploit the workers like a few of the other places. Plus, the prices were much lower than the “tourist traps”.
Next we drove just outside the Old Quarter to the Ethnic Tribes Museum of Vietnam. There is something like 84 (or around that number…I shamelessly admit that I don’t listen all that well at times) different ethnic minority tribes of this country. Huong was quite knowledgeable and informative, pointing out certain things in the museum. We saw artifacts and models from the majority of the tribes represented at the museum. One thing I did take note of was the Love Market that was mentioned—it is something to keep in mind if I remain single.
Lunch followed the museum. We started off with a shot of rice wine before being served the set menu. The food was delectable and included: fried spring rolls (a must in Vietnam), papaya salad, pork with chili, grilled chicken in a banana leaf, fresh stir fry vegetables, fried rice, and fruit kabobs. It was all fantastic, but my favorite was the pork and spring rolls.
But the tour didn’t end there! We drove to the Temple of Literature next. I wish I could tell you all about the history of this particular place, but I can’t. I do know it is beautiful and you can feel its history as you walk through the paths. I did notice a lot of statues of cranes standing on the backs of turtles (turtles are considered sacred in Vietnam). This statue represents the relationship of the sky and earth.
One of my favorite parts of the tour was getting to see a water puppet show. As you may know by now, I am a bit of a Samantha Brown fan. When she was in Vietnam, she also went to the water puppet show and I loved how different it was than the traditional idea of a puppet show. So, now I was in the same theatre. The show was beautiful! You forget they are puppets and look at them as separate entities. The puppet masters bring them to life, with the traditional music playing a supporting role. I would’ve liked to have ended the tour on this high note.
But we didn’t. Instead, we went on a cyclo ride around the Old Quarter. Sunia was in a separate cyclo and I was in my own—not by choice. I found it to be slow, and made me stick out even more than I already did. While watching everyone pass us, one man did walk by and sang to me, “Sexy lady, oooo, sexy lady.” I was not amused. But after the cyclo, I threw the pants back on for a walk over to the Jade Temple. Crossing over a red bridge, we can to the Temple. It was beautiful! Surrounding the Jade Temple lake was the Old Quarter, lit up. The temple was intricate. Inside is a huge stuffed turtle. There is a legend with the turtle and the king’s sword from hundreds of years ago. The king had his sword but the turtle took it.
After a full day, our tour was over and we were taken back to Hanoi City Palace (to try again; our luggage was transferred for us during the day). Huong was an awesome tour guide. She knew so much about the history and people of Vietnam. I totally recommend this tour (minus the cyclo) if you are going to Hanoi. I feel like it offered a good primer to the city.