First established as a city in 1010, only half a century after Vietnam’s independence from a millennium of Imperial Chinese rule.
There are two ways to get from Luang Prabang, Laos, to Hanoi. I chose to take a sleeper bus instead of flying, as it was far cheaper in comparison, although the bus takes just over 24 hours. I’ve been on overnight buses before, although they’re more comfortable in South America.
The seats of our bus are set in a ‘sleeper’ position and that’s how the stay, the roof isn’t high enough for them to sit up straight. With the seats only providing a total of 1.5 metres of room my legs had to be extended into the padded aisle. I was luckier than those on the upper level.
About eight hours into the journey the tooting began. The chain-smoking drivers used the horn perhaps 30 times a minute for the entire rest of the journey. This meant the young children onboard could not sleep, and tired young children tend to cry. A lot. In the end it was a rather noisy ride, but they do call this the ‘bus from hell’, so I wasn’t expecting anything less. Even so, when we arrived in Hanoi after 26 hours I had a cracking headache.
Arriving late in the evening my initial impressions of Hanoi were not pleasant. The thin dirty streets clogged with motorbikes going every which way, seemingly without order, and all tooting their horns with obscene regularity. The headache didn’t help either.
Initial daylight impressions weren’t much better, the thin dirty streets were still crazy with tooting motorcycles, but markets had been erected and people were crowded everywhere. To add to that, the city was draped in a heavy layer of smog. But first impressions are just that, first impressions, and they often change if you get to know a place.
Buying a Bike
Instead of catching tourist buses/trains through Vietnam, I decided to buy a motorbike and ride the 1,750km south to Ho Chi Minh City. This is becoming a more popular way of seeing the country. With the help of my hostel manager, I was picked up and taken across the city to a 2nd hand motorcycle sales yard with many dozens of used bikes available.
An hour later, I’d tried 5 different bikes and had selected a favourite. I tossed down 6 million Dong (US$280) and rode away.
For the next couple of days, I put the scooter to good use as I toured the city.
Hanoi Opera House
Modelled after Palais Garnier, the older of Paris’s two opera houses, the building was built in the early 1900s.
Trán Quóc Pagoda
The oldest pagoda in Hanoi at approximately 1,400 years old. It sits on a small islet on West Lake and is connected to the mainland by a causeway.
Cua Bac Catholic Church
Built in the 1930s in Art Deco style, Cua Bac is one of three major churches in the city and is famous for having been attended by President George W. Bush during an official visit.
St. Joseph’s Cathedral
The oldest church in Hanoi, it was one of the first buildings built by the french colonial government.
Built to house the French Governor-General, it was built in a french design with Italian Renaissance elements. The palace is guarded outside the gates and I was lucky to get a distant photo as attempts to get closer caused the guards to angrily blow whistles at me.
Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum
Inspired by Lenin’s Mausoleum in Moscow, the Mausoleum is the home of the embalmed body of Ho Chi Minh, Chairman of the Communist Party between 1951 and 1969. Armed guards protect the site and public viewings occur most mornings, although very strict rules must be abided by during the visit.
Ho Chi Minh Museum
Near the Mausoleum, the museum steps visitors thoroughly through Ho Chi Minh’s life and Vietnam’s revolutionary struggles. Unfortunately, most of the exhibits are in Vietnamese and French.
One Pillar Pagoda
Standing between Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum and Ho Chi Minh Museum, the pagoda is one of the most iconic temples in Vietnam. It was ordered to be built nearly 1,000 years ago after a childless emperor had dreamed of the buddha sitting on a lotus leaf and handing him a son. Unfortunately the area around the pagoda is being redone, so closer viewing was not possible.
Historical Military Museum
No visit to Hanoi would be complete without a visit to the war museum. The exhibits step through the conflicts during the past century, including the Indochina war, with France, and then on into the American War (the war we know as the Vietnam War). Many old relics are staged around the museum, from tanks to bombers.
Hanoi Citadel and Flag Tower
The Imperial Citadel was the former home of Vietnamese royalty between the years 1010AD and 1810AD. Most of the buildings were destroyed during the French colonisation. Some of the buildings that remained intact were the Flag Tower…
…and the citadel’s Ladies Quarters.
The hustle and bustle of Hanoi did grow on me over 4 days, although the constant beeping is enough to drive anyone insane in a week.
Next I begin a three-week quest to ride the length of Vietnam, from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City on a scooter.
The Lone Trail Wanderer