After leaving Thailand we flew to Hanoi, Vietnam. Hanoi is Vietnam’s capital and is in the northern part of the country. It’s a good-sized city with around 8 million people.
Our first impressions of Hanoi were that the city is busy, polluted, and dirty. But this city also has a lot to offer.
In Vietnam, you take your life in your hands when you cross the street. Although there are marked crosswalks, neither vehicles nor pedestrians seem to notice them. Pedestrians cross the street through traffic all the time. Keep a steady pace and let the scooters go around you–but remember the cars and especially the buses can’t weave around you well, so wait for then.
Still, I get anxiety when I have to cross a busy street with three kids.
Our first night in Hanoi, we found a local street food vendor selling pho and settled down at the plastic chairs and table that felt more like a kids table than a table that adults can actually fit at.
The pho was alright, but tbh (abbreviation for “to be honest” for anyone not as hip as me) it was a disappointment compared to the pho we were used to in the states. Less flavorful broth; crummier noodles; no plate full of basil, cilantro, sprouts, limes, jalapenos; none of that good purple sauce or Sriracha. A few more bowls of pho at various locations confirmed our bias for the American version.
The bahn mi in Hanoi was a little disappointing compared to what we’ve had at the Vietnamese sandwich shops in Utah as well
But we did have some great street food as well–falafel, burgers, hot dogs, and a Hanoi specialty called bun cha.
We ate bun cha at a humble little restaurant made a city landmark by it’s best-known patron. Now, not every POTUS is down-to-earth enough to sit down on a short plastic stool behind a short plastic table to eat a $6 meal (beverage included). But in 2016, president Obama joined Anthony Bourdain for a meal of this local staple. Bun cha is rice noodles served with fatty pork, lettuce and mint leaves, and a bowl of sweet, fishy broth to dip it all in.
Although, the others didn’t love it, Jess did.
Here are a few other highlights from Hanoi.
We took a guided tour of a few sites in the city with a group called Hanoikids. Hanoikids is a student-run organization that pairs travelers with college aged students looking to practice their English and share their insights into culture, tradition, and sight seeing.
Our first stop was Hỏa Lò Prison– a prison used by the french colonists for political prisoners, and later by North Vietnam for prisoners of war during the Vietnam War.
During this later period it was known to American POW’s as the Hanoi Hilton. Former Senator, John McCain, was one of the POWs in the Hanoi Hilton after his plane was shot down during the Vietnam war.
The prison was demolished during the 1990s, although the gatehouse remains as a museum.
After Hoa Lo Prison, our Hanoikids tour guides took us to Hoàn Kiếm Lake or Lake of the returned sword -Our kids were more interested in seeing if there were any fish in the lake than listening to any of the history, but for anyone interested here is the story that locals will tell you about the lake:
The tale goes that Le Loi King came across a shining metal bar when he visited his friend. It turned out that his friend caught the bar while fishing. The King asked for the bar, brought it home and moulded it into a sword. All of a sudden, there was two words printed on the sword “Thuan Thien” (harmonious with heaven).
Le Loi then understood that the sword was a gift from heaven. He used it in war with a neighbouring country. At the beginning of 1428, when peace prevailed, on one of his trips to the Thuy Quan (now Hoan Kiem) Lake, a tortoise rose from the water shouting, “Please return the sword to the Dragon King”. Without hesitation, the King threw the sword to the lake. The tortoise took the sword and dove down the water. From then on, Thuy Quan became Hoan Kiem lake.
Here are a few more highlights from our stay in Hanoi.
Ashley and Nolan took a cooking class and learned how to make pho, spring rolls, and a whipped egg drink.
Bicycle taxi ride
The Museum of Ethnology-a museum that shows some of the traditional housing of some of Vietnam’s 54 ethnic minorities.
Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum-just as the Russian Communists put Lenin’s embalmed body on display as a human symbol of their revolution, the Vietnamese Communists display the preserved body of their first leader, Ho Chi Minh.
It’s just as an unusual experience to see his embalmed body, in a glass tank filled with fluid, glowing under artificial light as it is to see Lenin’s.
The guards at the mausaleum also observe the same formal, keep moving, keep quiet, no photos, procedure in Hanoi as they do in Moscow.
Water puppet show-a tradition that traces back to times when these shows were performed in flooded rice patties to entertain Vietnamese villagers.
The kids loved this show, performed by puppeteers hidden behind a curtain and standing in waist-deep water.
They didn’t understand any of the words to the songs that narrate the story, but they loved the fire breathing dragons and silly puppets.
I was glad when the break after an hour turned out to be the end of the show and not an intermission.
Parks where the locals hang- my favorite thing in Hanoi was relaxing in a park in the evening. You could watch kids skateboard, watch women do some sort of coordinated line-dance aerobic activity, our check out the incredible Vietnamese sport called da cau. It was so cool to watch.