As the mercury flirted with 100 degrees Fahrenheit and the humidity approached 100 percent during our July visit to Hanoi, we strolled past the long, snaking line of domestic tourists waiting to view Ho Chi Minh’s embalmed body in his tomb. Instead, we bypassed his former palace and explored the stilt house where he used to live. Just as the heat was about to knock us down for the count, we found a place selling coconut popsicles, served by a man behind a napkin dispenser that proclaimed, “Work is glory. Happiness to everybody.”
While Ho Chi Minh City — still referred to by many as Saigon — is the commercial hub of Vietnam, the capital, Hanoi, is much better at seducing visitors. When I first visited in the late 1990s, bicycles still outnumbered motorbikes; even with today’s increased traffic, it’s built on a more human scale and is much better suited to strolling.
I returned to Hanoi with my wife and daughter, the 11-year-old seeing the chaos of Asia for the first time. For her, the arrival may have been the highlight: We departed Hue on the overnight train, taking three of the four bunks in one compartment on the first-class Livitrans car. My daughter was giddy with excitement to be sleeping on a bunk bed on a moving train. The teenage Vietnamese girl who was the fourth passenger in the compartment didn’t seem so thrilled. She spent all her waking hours talking and texting on her cellphone, perhaps complaining about being stuck with three foreigners.
When we arrived, we headed straight to the oldest part of town. The main draw of Hanoi is the Old Quarter with its colorful shops, winding streets and food stalls set up on sidewalks. It extends north from Hoàn Kiềm Lake, surrounded by an attractive shady park with walkways and featuring several pagodas in the water. Dining in this area is cheap and satisfying, with spring rolls, pho bo soup and grilled seafood seldom costing more than a few dollars a meal. Sit on a tiny stool, point and enjoy. Add another buck for a beer — or even less for bia hoi, a “fresh beer” draft.
Most of the shopping opportunities are in the Old Quarter as well, so we popped into shops selling propaganda posters, hill tribe handicrafts, silk clothing and ironic T-shirts. The three-story Dong Xuan Market has more to appeal to locals, and the hectic Night Market running north from Hoàn Kiềm Lake is primarily a dumping ground for cheap Chinese goods.
There’s one must-do activity in this city for families, and that’s the Thang Long Water Puppetry Theatre. Getting tickets was the first errand on our list since shows often sell out days in advance. The small air-conditioned theater offers good views of the action from every seat, and the skits are almost magical. Based on traditional performances carried out in villages, the show presents a variety of stories and harvest rituals acted out by puppets that move around in the water of a simulated pond, the puppeteers manipulating them from behind a building façade partition. People, farm animals and dragons are delightfully animated, and the live band playing traditional instruments enlivens the show even more.
When departing, we got to see a variety of puppets on display in the hallways, with one on the apparatus used to control them. Made by hand and with animated features you can see from afar, they range from babies in mothers’ arms to big oxen and horses.
Water puppets are also highlighted in the excellent Vietnam Museum of Ethnology, where shows take place less frequently. This indoor-outdoor museum serves to highlight the 54 ethnic groups in the country with intriguing indoor displays of costumes, home interiors, handicrafts, farm implements and even a Muong funeral scene. Video monitors show local dances and festivals using the same types of costumes mounted in cases. One of the most striking displays is a bicycle loaded down with 200 fishing traps and baskets, a recreation of a real set-up a local fisherman put together each day for heading to and from his favorite spot.
The second half of the museum is outside, with homes and buildings built to scale using the same materials common in their natural settings. Their water puppet theater joins a Tây house with slatted bamboo floors; simply sweep and the dirt goes through the cracks to the ground. A Bahnar communal house has a sloping thatch roof that rises nearly 60 feet.
“Yay!” exclaimed our daughter when we told her yes, she had to climb up the notched logs to get inside and look around. She wasn’t sure what to think of the Giarai tomb house, however, with its statues of copulating couples, pregnant women and men with erect penises surrounding the building — symbolizing fertility and birth.
Some Americans still worry about the legacy of the war, the one we call “The War in Vietnam” and Vietnamese call “The American War.” In reality, though, most of the population is too young to remember any of that. As with my daughter, it’s some vague event they study in the history books.
With Cold War motivations also ancient history, it’s hard to look at Hanoi now and see what all the fuss was about. Sure, there’s a propaganda poster here and there, still a Lenin Park, and coffee shops use a proxy server so customers can access Facebook on WiFi; but otherwise, pure, unadulterated capitalism is on display on every block. Empty storefronts are rare, goods spill onto the sidewalks, and vendors take up whatever space is left. We found the best technique for crossing the street was a slow shuffle, allowing the sea of motorbikes to flow around us as if we were turtles in the current.
There must be as many motorbikes as cellphones in Hanoi, with hundreds parked outside some office buildings. You see them used as seats, tables, even places to take a nap. Kem Tràng Tiền, the city’s most popular ice cream shop with locals, feels more like a motorbike parking garage than an eating establishment. Customers pull into a big ground-floor space near the Opera House and find a spot to squeeze in their ride, standing next to it while eating their cone.
Escaping the buzz of engines is not easy at any time of day or night, but there are peaceful spots around the city to at least get away from the traffic. We explored the five courtyards of the Temple of Literature, established in the 11th century as the country’s first university. With incense burning by Confucian altars inside and rectangular ponds with lily pads outside, it’s a calm respite from the madness on the streets.
We found another tucked-away temple by accident after renting a swan-shaped paddleboat on West Lake. After skirting the shore for a while, we came upon a pagoda rising high above the trees. Venturing inside the gates, we found Trấn Quốc Pagoda, built in the sixth century in another location and later transported to this small island on the edge of the lake. Inside its walls, it was easy to forget we were in a city of millions — millions of people, millions of motorbikes. It was close to lunchtime, though, so time for another number: tasting another one of the hundreds of dishes native to Vietnam.
Info to Go
Hanoi International Airport (HAN) is 28 miles from the city center; it takes about an hour to reach central city hotels. Taxi scams and hassles abound, so reserve a transfer from your hotel in advance or arrange a pre-paid car service inside the terminal ($35–70). Driving in Hanoi is not recommended; use local taxis for $2–5 a ride.
Hotel de L’Opéra Part of Accor’s M Gallery collection, this chic and modern counterpart to the Metropole is across from the beautiful Opera House, visible from the pool deck. 29 Tràng Tiê’n St., Hoàn Kiê’m District $$
Hotel Sofitel Legend Metropole The capital’s prestige address, a longtime favorite with business travelers and vacationers, dates back to 1901, with exquisite cuisine and comforts as plush as they come. 15 Ngo Quyen St., Hoàn Kiê’m District $$$
InterContinental Hanoi Westlake For a more sedate area and guestrooms with a view, this 359-room business hotel is the best choice, on a large lake west of the city center. 1A Nghi Tam, Tây Hó District $$
Le Beaulieu Restaurant Good enough for Graham Greene and multiple heads of state, this fine French restaurant has award-winning cuisine and the city’s best wine list. Hotel Sofitel Legend Metropole, 15 Ngo Quyen St., Hoàn Kiê’m District $$$
Highway4 With five Hanoi locations, Highway4 serves fresh, surprising takes on Vietnamese dishes from the northern mountains plus flights of local Son Tinh rice liquors. Original location: 5 Hàng Tre, Hoàn Kiê’m District $$
Quán A˘ n Ngon This unique, popular sit-down restaurant serves Vietnamese street food, and you can see how it’s all prepared in the open kitchens. 18 Phan Boi Chau, Hoàn Kiê’m District $
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