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Whatever else you do in Hanoi, book a tour with Hanoi Kids (). These are students who will spend half a day showing you around their city free of charge, simply for the chance to speak English with you. They tell you about Hanoi; you tell them about Britain. It is a fun way to get under the skin of Vietnamese life and they will tailor-make your visit to whatever interests you.
In three hours, Duc and Quyenn showed us how to stride fearlessly across Hanoi’s notorious, motorcycle-jammed streets, we toured the infamous “Hanoi Hilton” prison, we peered at the pale, mummified body of Ho Chi Minh in his glass sarcophagus in the Mausoleum, we wandered through the Old Quarter and we were even coaxed into trying a cup of “weasel” coffee. What a fantastic introduction to Hanoi.
An absolute must is to contact Hanoi Kids – their service is free and they ask for no payment whatsoever. A nice gesture is to bring them a souvenir from your home country as a small thank you. The allocated student will pick you up from your hotel, spend as much time as you want with them (in our case from 9am to 6pm) and then take you wherever you want to go either on foot or by taxi. You pay for entrance fees, lunch, coffee, taxi rides etc, as you would normally. If you want to see the real Hanoi, I cannot recommend more highly.
Bleak but powerful
For an experience which is creepy, sad and educational, it’s worth visiting Hoa Lo Prison, also known as “Hell’s Hole” and, by US prisoners during the Vietnam War, the “Hanoi Hilton”.
The prison was built by the colonial French in the late 19th century and was used to house political prisoners, who agitated for independence. With a capacity of 600, it housed more than 2,000 by 1954 and conditions were appalling – prisoners were starved, beaten and tortured. A mobile guillotine still on show attests to how they were dispatched. Life-size models of shackled prisoners and displays in Vietnamese and English tell the story.
The section on how well US prisoners were treated is largely propaganda; US Senator John McCain was incarcerated there from 1967 to 1973 and it’s worth reading his book Faith of My Fathers. His flight uniform is still on display. A bleak, but fascinating two hours’ worth.
On three wheels
A cyclo (three-wheeled bicycle) tour through the streets of Hanoi’s Old Quarter is the ideal introduction to the sights, sounds and smells of this fascinating city.
To experience the beauty of Vietnam take a tour to Halong Bay, approximately a three-hour drive from Hanoi and now a Unesco World Heritage Site. Have a delicious seafood lunch on board while cruising by junk among the impressive limestone karsts.
Finish the day back in Hanoi with a meal at one of the restaurants by Hoan Kiem Lake, and maybe a visit to Thang Long Water Puppet Theatre for some traditional entertainment.
Make a beeline for the French Quarter where the grand boulevards offer a welcome escape from the busy Old Quarter. It’s a good idea to hire a bike to explore the area and we checked out what is now officially referred to as the Municipal Theatre (it’s better known as the Opera House and is based on the Paris Opéra) – you can only see the lavish interior if you book for one of the opera or ballet performances.
Also worth visiting is the History Museum – it offers fascinating insights into the country, with exhibits from the early times up until the 20th century. I also enjoyed the Museum of the Vietnamese Revolution, which is in an old colonial building and houses the “Vietnamese people’s patriotic and revolutionary struggle”. The shopping around here is good too. Make for Trang Tien where you will find galleries, boutiques and bookshops. Not far from here, Hoa Lo Prison offers a reminder of a brutal past.
I would certainly recommend a visit to the area around the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum in the Old Quarter. Here you can wander round the Temple of Literature, the botanical gardens, the One Pillar Pagoda, the Military History Museum (heavy on propaganda but very good none the less) and the Vietnam Fine Arts Museum. If you are feeling peckish then try Maison Vanille (49 Phan Chu Trinh), a Parisian-style bakery with superb bread and pastries; it also serves salads and light meals.
We stayed in the excellent, if expensive, Hotel Nikko (hotelnikkohanoi.com.vn), which is the French Quarter and Japanese-run. The food was outstanding with a choice of the Brasserie, the Tao-Li Chinese restaurant and the Benkay Japanese restaurant; we loved the outdoor pool as well.
Fancying something more traditional, we also had lunch at the Sofitel Legend Metropole (accorhotels.com/asia), which opened in 1901 and has hosted the likes of Graham Greene and Charlie Chaplin.
Don’t miss out on eating in one of Hanoi’s food stalls – choose the local specialities such as pho noodle soup or bun cha, pork with rice noodles. And for something different go and watch the water puppets.
The puppets depict scenes from rural life or historic events, and the one we went to on a couple of occasions was the Kim Dong Theatre (57 Dinh Tien Hoang) – there are several performances every day. And if you can get up early (4am), go to the flower market on the junction of Nghi Tam Avenue and Yen Phu.
Gary Long, London
What to avoid
Avoid going out late to eat because you will find it hard to find anywhere open. Local places often stop serving around 8pm, with their busiest periods being between 6pm and 7pm.
It’s best to keep an open mind with Vietnamese cuisine as well. You will find that dog, rat, porcupine and snake all crop up on the menu, with dog being a particular speciality in the north of the country. The eating of animals is seen as an important part of Vietnamese culture.
If you take a motorbike taxi, be warned this is not for the faint-hearted – and you won’t get given a helmet either. Should you hire your own motorbike, then riding in the city can be quite dicey but they are useful for exploring elsewhere.
Don’t pay over the odds
Always establish whether the price you are being quoted is in dong or dollars (they use both). If it’s in dong and you pay in dollars, always check the exchange rate to avoid being ripped off.