Travel Report: Cool Spots Around Hanoi.
Cool Spots Around Hanoi.
Thanks to everyone who’s taken the time to read my eight feature length articles from the Vietnamese capital. Now, wrapping the series up, here’s the best of the rest with some Cool Spots Around Hanoi.
If you’ve only got time for one of Hanoi’s three lakes, it simply has to be Hoan Kiem Lake, already reviewed on these pages. However, for those with a more leisurely schedule, I also recommend a stroll around the much larger Ho Tay Lake (West Lake).
With an impressive 17 kilometre shoreline, Ho Tay Lake is massive, with walking trails that could keep you busy for several hours. It was incredibly foggy on the day of my visit. Hence it wasn’t great for photography, and I could only just pick out the skyline across the water. Nevertheless, I enjoyed the somewhat ghostly vibe as I set off on a long afternoon walk.
During my wanderings, I passed the swanky Hanoi Club, a giant boutique hotel where the rooms have balconies overlooking the lake. In fact, with cable TV, an outdoor pool, sauna, hot tub, massage centre, bars and restaurants, you could easily camp out here for several days without even heading into the city. Certainly ideal if you’re looking to recharge your batteries.
Cool Spots Around Hanoi.
Although it would be a shame not to even take the 7 minute walk to Tran Quoc Pagoda, Hanoi’s oldest Buddhist temple. Built in the 6th century, its 11 floor tower, sculpted in the style of a lotus flower, has become an icon of Hanoi.
You’ll find the tower set tastefully in a small but beautiful garden complex. Look out for the stunning Bodhi tree with heart shaped leaves, a 1959 gift from former Indian president Rajendra Prasad. The pagoda opens every day between the hours of 7:30–11:30 and 13:30-18:30. Entrance is free.
Many locals come to Ho Tay Lake just for some ice cream at the famous Quan Kem Ho Tay. Indeed they say this is one of the city’s best kept secrets when it comes to ice cream. Right enough, I didn’t see any other foreigners and less than a dozen locals.
Delightfully unpretentious, just place your order through the bars of an open window and devour your ice cream on the stone benches outside. I had a coconut ice cream and loved it so much I grabbed a scoop of Mocha for the road.
Eventually, Ho Tay Lake bleeds into the smaller Truc Bach Lake. This sister water, which lies on Ho Tay’s Eastern shore, sprang up in the 17th century as a result of a constructed dike. Its original purpose was to allow the raising of fish. These days it is home to numerous fancy bars and restaurants, in addition to a boat branch of The Highlands Coffee chain.
Truc Bach Lake.
But Truc Bach’s most interesting sight is its stone monument marking a dramatic moment of The Vietnam War. It stands on the spot where Vietnamese soldiers dragged Captain John McCain out of the lake after he was shot down on October the 26th 1967.
Known as The American War Memorial, it stands on Than Nien Road and reads as follows:
“On 26 October 1967, in Truc Bach Lake, the Vietnamese people in Hanoi caught John Sidney McCain. He was the captain of a group who flew planes in the sky to attack Hanoi. The number of the plane was A4. The plane fell on Yen Phu power plant. This was one of 10 planes that fell on the same day”.
Pulling him out of the water, the soldiers viciously beat McCain before transporting him to Hoa Lo Prison. Having already visited the jail, I was delighted to track down this fascinating companion site.
Speaking of Hanoi’s war history sites, I’d (just about) recommend an hour at the Vietnamese Military History Museum. Established in 1956, it stands as a sizeable collection of war antiques and military vehicles. But be warned, not everything is labelled or indeed presented in any kind of meaningful context. And where there is information, the English is often nonsensical.
Rather, see it as having a rummage through someone’s dusty old basement. A place where everything has been thrown together absentmindedly and you never know what you might find. Out in the central courtyard, for example, it was cool to see a T-34 Tank and the wreckage of a Boeing B-52G gunned down during The Vietnam War in December 1972.
Cool Spots Around Hanoi.
Actually, I was far more impressed with the excellent Vietnamese Women’s Museum. Located on Ly Thuong Kiet Street and run by The Women’s Union of Vietnam, the centre showcases the many roles of women in Vietnamese society and culture.
Opened in 1995, the museum houses three permanent exhibitions. First, I found myself exploring the Women in Family display, a look at women’s roles in education, marriage, childbirth and motherhood.
Next came a look at Women in History, with a focus on the efforts of women during Vietnam’s various periods of war. Some of the stories are heartbreaking, particularly the profiles of women who left their families to fight. And never made it back home.
Last but not least, the Women in Fashion exhibit provides a detailed overview of how beauty and expressions of femininity have developed over the years. And yes, there’s plenty of clothing and jewellery on display, including pieces belonging to over 54 ethnic groups.
I particularly liked the little Wall of Fame theatre, a tribute to over a hundred Vietnamese ladies. The video sheds light on each of their stories, detailing both ordinary lives and extraordinary achievements. Really interesting, though I thought they might have installed a larger TV screen. The museum opens its doors every day, with tickets priced at 30.000 VND ($1.30).
Vietnamese Women’s Museum.
I loved some of the propaganda posters in the Vietnamese Women’s Museum. Thus one afternoon I decided to seek out one of the many propaganda poster stores peppered around Hanoi.
Pham Manh Gallery is a small store owned by Hanoi born Tuyet and her daughter Kim Chi. According to Kim Chi, who speaks a little English, her family has been selling rice paper prints here since 2001. “Please…” she insisted, “… take your time. You can look through everything if you want, no pressure for buying”.
I was left absolutely spellbound by the prints. Whatever one thinks of the messages contained within the artwork, and indeed the uncompromising slogans, they are undeniably vibrant images that capture the attention.
Most of the propaganda posters date from The Vietnam War (1955-1975), though a handful go as far back as the 1940s when President Ho Chi Minh and his loyal military strategist Vo Nguyen Giap fostered the art form.
Flicking through the seemingly endless array of prints, I came across a depiction of beleaguered American planes plummeting from the sky. An old wrinkled woman crying tears of joy at the end of the war. Of U.S. President Richard Nixon, a snarling grinch-like monster clutching a knife dripping with blood.
Cool Spots Around Hanoi.
Finally, I settled on a selection of three and entered into a short but hotly contested round of negotiations with the persistent but fair Kim Chi. Then she carefully wrapped them up and installed them in a long cardboard tube. And that’s where they remain today, in a box in the loft of my friend’s laundry business in northern Scotland.
I hope the store is still going. Their online presence is slim, so it’s difficult to know whether they’ve survived the challenges of the pandemic. I remember asking Kim Chi if she had plans for a website, but she shook her head with a smile. “No… no… we want people to come to Hanoi” she said. “See the sights, meet the people, then buy the poster. It’s the good way”.
In between all the sights, I spent plenty of time hanging out at cafes and restaurants. Eating… drinking… reading… surfing the net… eating and drinking some more. One of my favourite breakfast spots was La Place Cafe, a French style bistro that offers European and Asian dishes.
La Place Cafe occupies one of the most charming spots in Hanoi. Especially if you make your way up to the first floor balcony, where the long wooden bar offers fine views across St. Joseph’s Cathedral. On that first visit I recall the dulcet tones of Edith Piath floating over the sound system as the waiter arrived to take my order. Yup, this’ll do, I thought.
La Place Cafe.
Furthermore, the coffee and breakfasts I ordered never disappointed. Their lattes are hot and creamy, while the mixed fruit bowl of natural yoghurt and muesli provided a much needed break from my usual routine of morning grease.
After breakfast, I made my way across the square for a look at St. Joseph’s itself. Completed in December 1886, this was one of the French colonial government’s first major constructs. With its granite slabs, Gothic style and twin towers, there’s certainly more than a touch of Notre Dame about the place.
Another treasured Hanoi breakfast institution is The Note Coffee. This was my cafe of choice when it came to indulging in Hanoi’s famous egg coffee (ca phe trung). Not convinced by the sound of egg coffee? Well… like me you might be pleasantly surprised.
It is made by mixing sweetened condensed milk with beaten egg yolk, resulting in a deliciously creamy fluff. It has a meringue-like quality, so if you’re a fan of sweet coffee this might just be a revelation!
At The Note Coffee they have perfected the recipe. What’s more, their lovely waiters and waitresses are some of the friendliest people I have ever met in over twenty years of global travel. On arrival I received a welcome fit for a king, while my coffee came with a unique, handwritten post-it note. Always believe that something wonderful is about to happen, it read.
Cool Spots Around Hanoi.
You can find such notes all over the cafe. They inhabit the walls, the ceiling and the doors. Heck, they’re even plastered all over the tables and chairs. Have a read and you’ll discover love letters, poems and admissions of guilt. Song lyrics, movie quotes, questions, local travel tips and even the odd phone number. Yes, some might find it all a bit kitschy. But these guys managed to charm even a grisly old cynic like me, so they must be doing something right.
Regarding dinner spots, one of my favourite Hanoi restaurants is Nha Hang Ngon. Located on Tran Hung Dao in a gorgeous old French villa, this is a great spot for traditional Vietnamese and French dishes. Moreover, the decor will draw you in the moment you enter under the traditional slate roof archway.
Spacious, airy and with dark wooden furniture offering contrast to the light yellow walls, Nha Hang Ngon is a visual delight. Its main hall is huge, ideal for large groups and business meetings. Moreover, they have several side rooms, first floor balcony tables and leafy corners from which to hide away from the main crowd.
I’m all about hiding as a diner. Hence I sought out a wonderfully positioned lone table, protected from the nearest group by a dense collection of plants and trees. Also useful for stealing cheeky photographs.
Nha Hang Ngon Restaurant.
Luckily, an eagle-eyed waiter soon found me and I proceeded to order a bunch of dishes with wild abandon. The food was great! I had crispy shrimp (straight from Ho Tay Lake) served with sweet potato pancakes. Then came an outstanding filet mignon with fried egg, French fries, salad and sliced baguette. Oh, and a Hanoi beer of course to wash it all down. The final bill came to 232000 VND ($10.15).
One of my favourite city sights was (the already published) Hanoi Train Street. Fascinated by what I’d learned about Hanoi’s North-South Railway, I decided to make a brief visit to one of its first rail hubs, Long Bien Railway Station.
Unveiled in 1902, it is something of a miracle that this crumbly old station still stands. I mean, when you think of the turbulent periods of history it has survived. Unsurprisingly, the weight of that history seemed to have taken its toll as I approached one afternoon.
There wasn’t much happening when I poked my head inside the station. Just one passenger in the waiting room, with its large Buddhist shrine and turquoise plastic chairs. While researching for this article I read that the government renovated the entire station in 2019. It is barely recognisable from the interior I visited. Comparing the versions, I’m admittedly grateful that I got to see the station as it was.
Cool Spots Around Hanoi.
From the station I took a stroll down the single platform, which soon melts into Long Bien Bridge. Spanning The Red River, it is just under 1700 metres long and also opened in 1902. Its original name was the Paul Doumer Bridge, in honour of French President and Governor-General of French Indochina Paul Doumer.
Unlike the station, the bridge suffered considerable damage during The Vietnam War and was all but destroyed. The Vietnamese government rebuilt it in the late 1970s and the bridge we see today retains only half of its original shape.
It feels only right to finish this article with the city’s main train station. Also opened in 1902, Hanoi Railway Station is where I came to begin my cross-country adventure. From the ticket checkers to the security guards and the conductors, everybody was so friendly I couldn’t help but grin from ear to ear.
Hanoi Railway Station.
After all, I’d just had a wonderful five nights in Hanoi. And there were just over three weeks of my Vietnam adventure still to come. Entering my compartment and climbing up to the top bunk, I stretched, smiled and closed my eyes. From time to time, during the darkest most claustrophobic days of the pandemic, I think back to that moment and remember how much I took it for granted.
For more on Vietnam’s amazing capital, have a look at my other pieces from around Hanoi.
Like these? Then why not have a leaf through my articles from across Vietnam.
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