Posted by: vlibrizzi | October 15, 2009

Southeast Asia Trip: Hanoi, Vietnam

After an almost 24 straight hours of either being on an airplane or in an airport (no fun!), C. and I finally arrived in Hanoi, Vietnam yesterday evening. It was not without a few issues, including a minor problem at the airport with our visas (In order to get our visas, we needed $50 US dollars in cash, but we had no American money and there were no ATMs in the customs section of the airport. Luckily, a very nice American woman was behind us in line waiting for her visa, and lent us the US dollars, which we promptly repaid once we got out of the airport) followed by a 2 hour traffic jam (according to our driver there was a huge accident on the highway).  But at long last, we arrived at our hotel in Hanoi.

To say the least, we were beat. But, not wanting to miss a minute of our short time here in Hanoi, we dropped our bags off at our hotel with probably the nicest and most helpful staff you could ever imagine (Hanoi Elegance Hotel on Ma May Street in the Old Quarter of town), and took a recommendation from the hotel staff for where to eat dinner.

They recommended a great Vietnamese restaurant only a few blocks away called Highway 4. As we entered the restaurant, we were asked to take off our shoes and enter a room filled with local diners sitting at low tables with places in the floor for your feet. The place reminded me a lot of some of the sushi restaurants I’ve been to in the States. But, they didn’t serve sushi. Instead, we had absolutely amazing Vietnamese food.

We started with an appetizer of catfish spring rolls with a spicy dipping sauce. Then, we shared beef and vegetables steamed and wrapped in a banana leaf, and some combination of pork, noodles, vegetables, and deliciousness. We washed it all down with some special Vietnamese port, and some good, ol’ American coca-colas 🙂

DSC_0400Then, this morning we woke up early (Hanoi is an early to bed, early to rise kind of city), had some breakfast at our hotel (fried eggs and bacon…yum!), and took a taxi to the Temple of Literature (photo of the entrance to the left). The huge complex was built almost 1,000 years ago as a Confucian university, and has been very well maintained as a tourist site.






 The most famous things in the temple are 82 large stone slabs atop stone turtles with the names of students who graduated from the university each year starting from 1442. You can see me rubbing one of the turtle’s heads for good luck. Each turtle and each stone is different…and so old.





The temple also contains beautiful laquered wood statues (like the one to the left) of Confucious and other famous followers of Confucianism in Vietnam. The rooms smell of incense and visiting them was a great way to get out of the rain for awhile.

We loved visiting the Temple of Literature (definitely something well worth visiting if you’re ever in Hanoi), but it poured while we were there, and we were very cold and wet, so we had to take a taxi back to our hotel to get some jackets and to try to warm up for a bit. Apparently, October is supposed to be one of the driest months in Vietnam—could have fooled us!


DSC_0444After resting at our hotel for a bit while planning out the rest of our day, we walked arounjd the streets of the Old Quarter. We took this photo to the left of some of the wires in front of a building. We couldn’t believe how many wires there were on one pole…isn’t that some kind of safety hazard?  C. thinks a lot of residents are stealing power.







After a while of walking, we were feeling adventurous and wanted to try out one of the hole-in-the-wall, one-dish restaurants that we have heard so much about. These places are a bit sketchy by American standards–they are literally a small storefront with a few long tables and benches, and serve only one dish that you can watch the cook make in the storefront, but the food is fabulous…and truly authentic. We haven’t yet tried out the really, really local “restaurants” which are simply a person sitting on a sidewalk with a wok and some type of hot plate serving delicious-looking dishes. I don’t know if we’re that brave yet.

So our first taste of authentic local fare was at Bun Bo Nam Bo on 67 Hang Dieu Street. The place serves only one dish, bun bo, and you order by putting up your fingers to indicate how many bowls you would like. We each had one steaming bowl of fresh rice noodles with spices  and chili sauce topped with strips of beef. You can see C. eating his Bun Bo in the photo to the left. It was so fabulous that we both devoured our portions, and almost got up to ask for more.


DSC_0459But instead of eating more, we got back into tourist mode and took taxi to Ho Chi Minh memorial area. We had wanted to go to the masoleum (photo to the left) to see Ho Chi Minh’s embalmed body, but apparently every October the body is taken out of the masoleum to be “maintained” so the masoleum was closed. We just took a photo of the outside of it from the outside (see photo to the left).




DSC_0464Nearby the masoleum, we visited the one pillar pagoda, a temple that was built in 1049 to resemble a lotus leaf- (but was recently renovated). See what you think in the photo to the left.








And, we also visited “Uncle Ho’s” (as the Vietnames affectionately call him) house on stilts. Ho Chi Minh didn’t want to live in the French-built presidential palace so, instead, he had built a modest home along a lake near the presidential palace so that he could live more like the locals. The house was so beautiful and the surroundings were so peaceful that it was easy to forget that we were in the middle of a bustling city.



DSC_0524Speaking of bustling city, Hanoi is definitely busy. There are few stoplights so in order to cross the street we had to weave between cars, bicycles, and motorcycles. It feels like a death-defying act, but it’s the way things are done here, so we went along with it and prayed to make it to the other side of the street each time we crossed.




DSC_0494To get in on the biking action, we took a cyclo ride to the Hoan Kien Lake, which apparently for residents is considered the heart of the city. Cyclos, bikes with carts on the front (see photo to the left), used to be the most popular type of taxi service around, but with the introductoion of the motorcycle, the cyclos have become less and less visible (according to the book I’m reading that I picked up at the INSEAD library called Hanoi Stories by Pam Scott, an Australian woman who lived here for eight years).

Our cyclo driver scammed us a little:  we didn’t specify the price before we got on the cyclo, so we ended up having to pay more that we had hoped. Then again, the difference between what we wanted to pay and what we actually paid was about $2 so we weren’t so worried.  He also dropped us off farther away from the lake than we had liked, but we arrived safely and had a nice ride along the way.  It’s impressive to see these bikers navigate the semi-chaotic streets.

DSC_0506Once we arrived at the lake, we walked around a bit and took photos of the Tortoise Pagoda (photo to the left).





DSC_0508While we were walking around the lake, we saw some locals practicing tai chi (photo to the left). There were also many locals sitting on the benches along the lake, walking around, or just enjoying the scenery. It’s such a peaceful place, so I could understand why people would walk around there to get away from the busy city.





DSC_0514At the other end of the lake we crossed over a red wooden bridge to an island in the middle of the lake to see another temple. The temple wasn’t as impressive as the Temple of Literature, but it was pretty cool to be in the middle of a lake in Hanoi. We stopped for a bit to watch some locals playing a game that seemed like checkers.

Then, we walked through the wide streets of the French Quarter, passing by Vietnamese people sipping coffee at streetside cafes (just like in France!).

We were starting to get a bit tired (jetlag setting in), so we walked back to the bustling Old Quarter of town near our hotel to do some window shopping (C. bought a Lacoste shirt for only 10 US dollars—what a steal!), and to grab some dinner.

DSC_0532We were planning to go to a restaurant that serves fabulous fried fish, but on our way there we stumbled across a restaurant that the NY Times 36 hours in Hanoi article that we read before coming here had recommended. What a great recommendation! The restaurant, like the one we at at for lunch, only served on dish, Bun Cha in this case, and the service was quick, and the place was clean (enough). We loved our Bun Cha (fried egg rolls, rice noodles, spicy chilis and garlic, and small pork patties that resembled mini-hamburgers sans buns), and loved sitting among the locals eating dinner.



DSC_0542Later in the evening, we walked to a street corner to have some Bia Hoi (or simply Vietnamese beer from a keg in the street). We sat on plastic little chairs, right on the edge of the street (if a car or a motorbike took one wrong turn, we’d be goners), but the ambiance was so nice—many Viethnamese people unwinding after work, and tourists like us, enjoying a drink at the end of the day.

Besides the great quality and taste, the best part of the food and drinks in Hanoi, of course, is the price. In total, we spent $4 on our amazing lunch, $5 for our great bun cha dinner, and 30 cents (yes, only 30 cents) for two beers at Bia Hoi. Which brings our grand total of food spending for the day to $9.30. Amazing! At this rate, we could stay here for months, never run out of money, and continue to eat some of the best food we’ve ever eaten.

But, alas, we’re off to Halong Bay tomorrow for an overnight boat ride along the bay. We’ll be back in Hanoi in two nights though—and we already know where we want to go for dinner 🙂



  1. Love the turtles and the cycles. Hope the boat trip is fun.

  2. Made me well up with lagrimas. So wonderful! I’d totally forgotten about the Temple of Literature. Awe inducing, the age of it, eh? And how mind-blowing was the beauty and simplicity of Ho Chi Minh’s house on the pond?

  3. Looks beautiful! Hope you guys are continuing to enjoy your trip!

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