I learned a while ago that doing a lot of research before traveling to a new place is probably the best method of traveling. When I researched about going to Hà Nội, Vietnam around Lunar New Year, I was advised by some friends who live there that it would be best to wait out the week of Lunar New Year. Otherwise, I would be walking around a city where most shops and attractions will be closed for the time. Still, I arrived almost a week after Lunar New Year and most things were open! At least, the things I wanted to experience!
The warm weather, the bustling streets, the people sitting outside eating and chatting—all of it—felt like a whole new place I have never seen before. Trying to cross a street was terrifying at first: if you are a local, you probably own a motorbike, and you might stop for a red light or a pedestrian. I soon realized that the only people walking on the sidewalks are tourists and locals are ones riding on the motorbikes. At first, I had a lot of trouble simply crossing the street but by the end of my trip, I felt quite proud of my ability to cross the street without being scared and not getting run over! So, on to the details of my trip and the reasons why I loved visiting Hà Nội:
A great example of a Hà Nội street: motorbikes, beautiful trees, and the occasional bird in a cage.
Despite many shops and places being closed, the whole city was sprawling with families and people celebrating their one big holiday week. A friend I met while studying abroad in Japan lives in Vietnam and told me that there are very few national holidays, and Lunar New Year is the longest national holiday of the year. I walked around Hoàn Kiếm, a lake in the middle of Hà Nội, where there were crowds and crowds of people.
I saw quite a few people by this ice cream shop and after a hot day of walking around, I decided to get a cone. I got a few looks while purchasing my ice cream, but I didn’t let that stop me! Here’s a picture of how crowded the street was:
People for days and days.
After I strolled away from the lake, I ran into the Hanoi Opera House. In a front of a roundabout with luxury shops and rickshaw drivers, and the lovely European styled Opera House.
Going to sleep in Hà Nội felt like sleeping in a busy NY neighborhood. There was a lot of noise and I could hear the neighbors from my hostel, which reminded me of my neighborhood so I felt quite at home.
The next day I visited the Old Quarter and other parts of Hà Nội…so I started with Hoàn Kiếm again!
Iconic bridge—Cầu Thê Húc—red and bold and lit up at night!
I met up with a friend and we got to trying different foods and exploring some of the most popular spots to visit in Hà Nội. On to the montage!
Egg coffee: an espresso with an eggy, thick foam.
Quan Thanh Temple—filled with local people praying during the Lunar New Year.
Ba Dinh Square: where Ho Chi Minh’s remains are. Ho Chi Minh led the liberation movement from French colonization in the 1950s and was president of Vietnam.
A scene from the Thang Long Water Puppet Theatre. There is a small orchestra and two singers who describe a story of the Vietnamese countryside and the puppet masters are behind the temple gate.
Dong Kinh Nghia Thuc Square — a lively and crowded roundabout with lots of markets, shops, and restaurants.
The Temple of Literature — with various altars and shrines and courtyards. Also very crowded.
The Old Quarter—lots of motorbikes, people eating, and narrow streets with electrical cables everywhere.
Another view of Hoàn Kiếm…with an empty building on an island in the middle of a lake!
While there are plenty of things to do in Hà Nội, I was also looking forward to visiting places outside of Hà Nội. My friend recommended visiting Hạ Long Bay and Ninh Bình since they offer different perspectives of Vietnam.
Hạ Long Bay is known for its karsts—limestone formations that have caves inside, filled with stalactites and stalagmites. You can book a boat service to take you around the karsts, and they are breathtaking. Luckily I went on a clear day and the whole time I was astounded by the sight. It was unlike anything I had ever seen.
These two karsts are called Chickens Kissing…which I can sort of see!
Inside of one of the karsts: the stalagmites and stalactites are created by the drainage of water from the caves. These specific caves in Ha Long Bay were discovered by local fishermen.
The view of the tourist boats parked along the coast of a karst. What beauty!
I could look at pictures of these all day.
Hạ Long Bay is up there for places I want to return to one day. I’m grateful my friend recommended going there, it was so worth the 4 hour journey round trip!
On the way back to my hostel I visited Hoàn Kiếm again at night. I was surprised by the fact that it was lit up at night. It was a spectacular view!
Even more lovely views of Hà Nội.
The next day I headed on another trip outside of Hà Nội to Ninh Bình, where Bái Đính Temple is located. The temple complex has several halls and famous statues. There are hallways with different Buddhist statues and it’s considered good luck to rub their knees and feet. You can rub the knees of each Buddhist statue as you walk through the hallyways towards the Bái Đính Pagoda. Here are a few pictures of the temple complex.
The entry gate of Bái Đính Temple. It’s currently closed because the complex is still under renovations.
One statue along the way to the Bái Đính Pagoda. You can see how the weathered the knees and feet are from where people have rubbed their hands on.
The view of Bái Đính Pagoda from afar. You can’t technically go inside it because it’s not fully constructed yet.
Inside the main hall of Bái Đính Temple. The entire room could put Château de Versailles to shame. There were signs prohibiting taking photographs but since everyone else was doing it, I decided to snap a pic.
Along with Bái Đính Temple, I visited Tràng An Landscape Complex, another place full of karsts—except these are on land and not in water like Hạ Long Bay. Our boat ride this time will be two hours long and one stop along the way was where Kong: Skull Island was filmed. We got to row under the karsts and really see what the caves looked like under them. Again, I got to see so many breathtaking views.
Just one look of caves under the karsts. I would have gotten more pictures in the caves but they were too dark to take a decent one.
On the way through the karst complex I saw this empty temple island. I had to snap a pic of this beauty.
It was great to see all these different parts of Vietnam. Ninh Binh is about an hour away from Hà Nội and I could already tell how different these two places were. While the places I went to were very touristy, I would be interested in returning again to see how locals outside of Hà Nội live.
So the end of my trip was filled with different Vietnamese foods. I tried chè, a yogurt dessert, which was highly recommended by my friend. I had the chè on the right of the picture below with mango and tapioca toppings and coconut milk. On the left is flan and coconut milk chè. The ice chips help dilute the sweetness and to cool down the dessert. It was delicious!
A sweet and cheap dessert.
Another place I really wanted to eat at is world famous. This one restaurant in Hà Nội where former President Obama and Anthony Bourdain went to eat bún chả is called Hương Liên. My friend told me that the best restaurants are the ones that concentrate on just one dish, and this restaurant follows that stipulation. When I got to this place, the whole first floor was full of people and I didn’t see the iconic case where the table that Obama and Bourdain sat in anywhere. So I went up to the second floor and found another crowded room, so I walked to the other side of the floor and then I found it! The table and plates that Obama sat in and ate at! The whole restaurant had large framed photographs of the famous night and even included some pictures on the menu! I ate a bún chả meal, which is grilled barbecue pork with rice vermicelli, leafy greens, and a can of coke. I also got a side of nem cua bể, which are scrumptious fried pork and crab rolls. The whole meal was so cheap and so good, and I got to be in a place where Obama visited!
The outside of the restaurant. Full of locals!
The menu! And a picture of Obama with the famed Obama combo.
The table and flatware that Obama and Bourdain used. A bouquet of flowers was placed at the top.
A filling meal, to say the least!
Look for table 55 if you want to see the room where they placed the case! And some portraits of Obama to boot!
After five days of exploring Hà Nội, I felt like I could get a good sense of the city and the things it had to offer. Obviously, I would have spent more time there than I had planned, but I was really satisfied with this first part of my trip across Southeast Asia. Now I know that I would love to go back to Hà Nội and possibly visit other cities in Vietnam, like Ho Chi Minh City. And as a solo traveler for most of the time, I felt quite safe walking around the city, although I was pretty self-aware while exploring the city. I hope to come back again and be able to enjoy Vietnam once more!