Mar 1, 2024

Communism, capitalism blend easily in the Vietnamese capital of Hanoi


Making a delivery in Hanoi's Old Quarter

Anyone planning a trip to Vietnam faces a dilemma when it comes to bookending a visit to both Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) in the South and Hanoi in the North.

At war with each other in the mid- 1970s, the Communist North and American-influenced South reunited into one country since 1976. They are as different climate-wise as they are culturally.

While the South enjoys 95 degree beach weather this time of year, it's winter in the North, with  temps often no higher than mid-50s.

Coming off a trip to Cambodia where the weather matches that of South Vietnam, it would have made more sense from a packing standpoint to spend a few days at the end of our trip in Ho Chi Minh City.

But I’ve always favored less sophisticated Hanoi with its peaceful lakes and lively Old Quarter known for its warren of 36 streets, each belonging to a different trade guild in the 15th century. The 21st century version has vendors selling funeral supplies and frying fish on the street corners; cafes dispensing egg coffee; travel agencies selling tours; and motor bikes whizzing by, piled high with everything from palm trees to mattresses. 

Planning ahead for a 40-degree temperature drop, we packed light jackets, fleece vests and a few long-sleeve shirts in the bottom of our carry-ons, Bundled up, we set out exploring to see how the city has changed since we were here 17 years ago.

Motor scooters still rule, but there are more cars now and only a few bicycles. A few streets have lights and crosswalks, but for the most part pedestrians have to look for breaks in on-coming traffic, then rely on scooters and cars to steer around them. The No. 1 rule: Once you start to cross, do not hesitate, stop or turn back.

Lyna near the Pomelo tree in Hanoi's White Horse Temple

Reminding us of this on our first day out was delightful, Lyna, 20, a student guide for Hanoi Free Walking Tours. Her technique for crossing into on-coming traffic was simply to stick out her hand as if she were a crossing guard. 

There are organizations that run free walking tours in cities worldwide, but the tours are usually with a group.  Hanoi Free Walking Tours operates a little differently in that you get a personal guide who shows up at your hotel at an appointed time for a three-hour walk. Tipping is expected, of course, but the amount is up to you. What I like most about these tours is the opportunity to connect one-on-one with a local. 

As we walked through one of the temples decorated for the Lunar New Year, Lyna pointed out the pomelo trees bearing yellow fruit that resemble giant grapefruits. Pomelos are believed to bring families good luck. She showed us a photo of the stairs in her parents' home stacked floor to ceiling with pomelos, all of which have to be eaten before she returned to the city after the holiday.

Confucianism, Taoism and Buddhism mix with other beliefs in Vietnamese culture. People call on the good graces of gods and spirits at Chinese-style temples built before Vietnam became independent of China in the 11th century. Offerings on the alters  include specially prepared foods, fruit,  tins of cookies, even cans of beer.

A shrine in our hotel lobby decorated with Lunar New Year offerings

Communism and capitalism blend easily. A post-Vietnam War baby boom and a fast-paced, free-market economy have combined to make Hanoi one of Asia’s best values.

Family enjoying a sidewalk dinner

Vietnamese like to dine on the sidewalk while sitting on little plastic stools. A meal for two there might cost a dollar or two compared to around $12-$15 at a small restaurant, or around $30 at a high-end rooftop hotel dining room. Hotels, priced at anywhere between $60 and $100 for nice rooms, come with buffet breakfasts, and in the case of the San Grand Hotel where we stayed, a complimentary afternoon tea on the top floor overlooking Hoan Kiem Lake, a fresh water lake in the middle of the city.

Breakfast buffet at the San Grand Hotel 

Hoan Kiem Lake and the Red (Huc) Bridge connecting to the Jade Mountain Temple. 

Taking the chill off of winter days are coffee shops on every corner. Some are small, with a few plastic stools out front; others are more elaborate. Several chains, such as All Day, rival Starbucks with cozy interiors and an array of hot and cold coffee drinks and smoothies. Our favorite was Hanoi Coffee Culture where we tried our first egg coffee.

Culture Cafe

Egg coffee

Egg coffee is a mixture of whipped egg yoke, sweetened condensed milk and strong coffee - like crème brûlée in a cup. It was invented by the French in the 1940s when milk was scarce. We became addicted and had one every day.

Most visitors to Hanoi leave the city at some point for a cruise in Ha Long Bay, a UNESCO World Heritage site in the Gulf of Tonkin. We skipped this the last time we where due to lack of time. Going to Ha Long Bay this time was one of our main reasons for returning. 

The bay is known for its limestone pillars, islands and a network of caves, some occupied by fishermen and their families until the 1990s. But overtourism has had its effects. Complaints about crowds and loud partying spoiling the serenity of the experience prompted us to look into overnight trips offered by Indochina Junk. It was the first company licensed to travel further away into Bai Tu Long Bay, an area with similar scenery but fewer boats.

The Dragon Legend

It’s important to pick a Ha Long Bay cruise carefully to avoid feeling ripped off or disappointed. Indochina Junk delivered as promised. Dinner our first night on the top deck was in total silence and darkness with only four other boats anchored around us. Our boat was the 25-cabin Dragon Legend with spacious rooms, indoor and outdoor dining areas and a small pool. 

Cruising Bai Tu Long Bay

The $235 per person price was a little steeper than some other options, but it included transportation to and from Hanoi (three hours); all meals; a cave tour; kayaking; and a visit to a floating fishing village by rowboat. 

Exploring in a rowboat 

Especially cool was an hour‘s ride around the island and under the rocks in a rowboat rowed by a villager from a floating fishing village. After lunch the first day, the ship‘s tender pulled into shore near the entrance of Thien Canh Cave, one of a network of caves and grottoes created when wind, waves and rain eroded the rocks. 

Inside Thien Canh Cave 

Reaching the inside of the cave required a climb up a steep set of stairs carved into a hillside, something that would probably be off-limits in the U.S. due to safety hazards. Once inside, we were treated to a stunning display of stalactites and stalagmites. 

Making Banh Xeo onboard

Indochina Junk didn't fill our onboard time with hokey activities as some of companies apparently do. Much appreciated was a short cooking class on how to make Banh Xeo, a sizzling crepe stuffed with veggies or shrimp and served with piles of fresh herbs. 

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