Hanoi was our last city together and the farthest north Emilie and I would be heading. We had heard that Hanoi would be a lot busier and dirtier than Ho Chi Minh City, so we were preparing for the worst. But I don’t think it was all that bad! We were also told that Hanoi, since it was in the north, would be a lot cooler. Unfortunately, that was also not true and we suffered through more sweltering days.
Vibe of the city
Hanoi kind of had a cool city vibe. Emilie actually said that it was one of her favourite spots; she liked that it was less touristy and more real. I loved that there were such distinct streets and neighbourhoods. For example, our hotel was located on Toys Street where every other shop was a toy store. To get there we had to drive through Clothes Street. And to get to one of our favourite restaurants we walked down Shoe Street and Home Improvement Avenue. Basically, every few blocks had a different niche.
But people weren’t wrong about the streets being busy. Most of the shops exploded onto the sidewalk or opened restaurants onto the sidewalk so we spent most of our time walking on the road and trying to avoid cars and motorbikes.
Our favourite foods
We made a few awesome foods finds during our time in Hanoi, mainly thanks to Emilie’s awesome app, Happy Cow, that locates veg-friendly restaurants with good reviews. On our first night, we went to this fried wrap/pancake restaurant where you get to assemble the wraps yourself. We actually ended up going back there for our last dinner in Hanoi too. Another great find was a bun cha restaurant with delicious bun noodles. It was the spot where local food tours visited, so I think we made the right choice.
Right around the corner from our hotel was a bun stand that sold delicious chocolate buns. Our hotel breakfast was sort of lacking so this was a nice supplement. And then there was the great smoothie place that we stumbled upon. One night after dinner, Emilie and I were saying how much we would love to get some fresh smoothies. So we started walking, down Kitschy Home Decor Lane, and happened to find a tiny little smoothie shop on the corner with tons of cool combinations. So yum!
Hoa Lo Prison
Emilie and I aren’t huge museum people. We actually hadn’t done too many educational or historical activities throughout the trip. But we decided to pay a visit to Hoa Lo Prison while we were in Hanoi. The prison was originally built by the French to house Vietnamese prisoners and then by the Vietnamese to house American POWs. It’s the prison where John McCain was held. It was really interesting to walk through the actual prison and see the rooms and all of the old artifacts. But what was more interesting was the spin put on the museum. The treatment of the Vietnamese prisoners was depicted as very bleak and cruel while the treatment of the American prisoners was shown as pretty cheery. For example, there was an entire exhibit about the different torture devices used on Vietnamese prisoners. Meanwhile, the room talking about American prisoners showed them decorating a Christmas tree and playing basketball. Emilie and I both admitted that we don’t know enough about Vietnam’s history but the visit to the prison definitely wanted to make us learn more.
There’s this lake near the Old Quarter of Hanoi that is really pretty. On our first day in the city, Emilie and I decided to just walk around it. Our first stop was this red bridge that goes across the water to a temple. Except, they wanted to charge us to go across and the temple seemed pretty mediocre. So we just stood on one side and admired it. The gate was also quite pretty, there was a pagoda we could look at and the cutest group of little daycare kids walked by. They were all in a row and had to hold onto the shirt of the kid in front of them. Too cute!
The Mausoleum & One Pillar Pagoda
On our last day in Hanoi, Emilie and I walked over to some of Hanoi’s most famous sites. It was a bit of a long walk, in lots of heat and, to be honest, the monuments at the end were a bit of a letdown. The mausoleum is where Ho Chi Minh is buried. And according to a Google search, CNN ranked it the 6th ugliest building in the world. I didn’t think it was all that ugly but it was a bit of a letdown. We couldn’t even get close to it, or else guards would blow a whistle and make sure you got back to standing behind the line.
Next was the One Pillar Pagoda, which Ho Chi Minh had demanded be built after he had a dream about it. But it was also a pretty big let down. It was tiny! Like the size of a treehouse on one very thick pillar. I guess I’m glad we saw them, since they are some of Hanoi’s more famous monuments, but I definitely don’t think we would’ve missed anything if we hadn’t gone.
Ever since we first arrived in Ho Chi Minh City, Emilie and I have walked past tons of spas and the promise of $6 manicures. So on our last day in Hanoi, we decided to splurge and spend the afternoon at a really nice spa near where we were having lunch. We ended up paying for the more expensive pedicure, a whopping $15, for an hour worth of bliss. We were very tempted to add on a massage or something after we were done so we could stay in the heavenly spa a bit longer.
Hanoi was also the last city Emilie and I were hitting together. We did two days in Hanoi, two days in Halong Bay, and another day in Hanoi. So after our afternoon at the spa, we had dinner back at our pancake/wrap restaurant and then the next morning, we were saying our goodbyes over pancakes. It was so wonderful to have a full two weeks of exploring Vietnam with Emilie. She was the perfect travel companion and our travel styles (air con breaks, cheap eats and in bed by 9) meshed perfectly. And if it wasn’t for her, I probably would’ve spent all day lying in the hotel with the air conditioning blasting and eating at the closest restaurant. I hadn’t travelled with a friend for a while so this was a really nice opportunity to do so and spend more time with Emilie in a new country.
Next up: Cruising Halong Bay!