The Delights of Early Morning Hanoi

Last night I double-checked the internet to make sure that my hotel had 24 hour reception.  It also had 24 hour security, which was comforting to note.

So when I crept downstairs at 4am (yes 4AM) for my Good Morning Hanoi tour, I was surprised to see the reception area blanketed in darkness.  The sound of the darkness was quickly broken by the sound of snoring and as my eyes adjusted to the dark, I could see the outline of the receptionist asleep across four chairs behind the reception desk and the security guard asleep on the front couch.  The door of course was locked, an umbrella shoved through the handles.  I guess you can’t argue that 24 hour security and reception aren’t available – you just have to wake them up first!  Welcome to Hanoi.

I wasn’t sure what to do, so I sat down on the bottom step of the stairwell and decided to wait it out.  It wasn’t long before my guide in his taxi rocked up out the front of the hotel, and with a loud rap on the door – security was in place.  The poor guy must have been frightened out of his sleep and I felt terrible, but in the world of tourism where guests would be arriving at all times of the day and night, I would hope he may be used to it.

My guide is a super friendly chap, especially given the hour of the morning and he is incredibly eager to show me his city early in the morning.  It rubs off and I can’t help but feel excited to see it.

Our first stop is a wholesale flower market on the outskirts of the old quarter.  Row after row of all sorts of beautiful flowers are for sale here, colours and scents galore.  There are people weaving in and out all over the place, but my guide says this is very quiet – a result of the present economy.

We take a seat at a stall on the side of the market and the guide is sad to hear we just missed the sticky rice lady.  Luck, however, is on our side, because she does another swing around and very soon we are blessed with two portions of sticky rice on huge banana leaves – one sticky rice with beans and the other with peanuts.  I say blessed, because this food is amazing!  Picking at the rice with our fingers, the rice goes down an absolute treat, and although I’m not a fan of beans, I can’t even taste them.  This is the way to start the day.

Next up is the fruit and vegetable market and this place is really humming.  There are all sorts of fruits and vegetables here – massive apples, abundances of limes and dragon-fruit, people unloading and reloading goods left right and centre, and things I’ve never seen before.  And I can smell mangoes (did I mention already that the mangoes in Hanoi are THE best?  Well, they are).  I feel a little in the way, as woman struggle with heavy loads in and out of the market alleyways.  It’s a real mind buzz for this time of the morning.

Separated from the fruits, are the herbs and vegetables.  The smell when you enter the section where the herbs are being sold is incredible – just like the food it will adorn, coriander and mint, beautiful fresh smells, line the inside of my nostrils.  I can only image buying bunches and bunches of these wonderful ingredients and making something great out of them, but we aren’t here to buy.

Outside the stalls, my guide buys some fresh bread and we stand on the bridge overlooking the markets, while I munch on my beautiful fresh roll, chatting about the market and stuff.


The view from up here gives a great overview of where I’ve just been and is a refuge from all the trolleys and soggy floors, and it’s buzz is just as electric, but the smells of wandering through the markets cannot be forgotten.  I am so glad I booked this tour, it’s things like this – seeing the heart of where the locals are and what they do – that makes travelling so much more valuable.


The sky starts to lighten and the humidity jumps into action as we approach the square near Hoan Kiem.  People are jogging, walking and exercising all over the place.  Little dance and aerobic classes are starting and apparently I am going to try some laughter yoga.  This is a surprise.  It’s even more of a surprise that I’m staying for the whole class.  I have no idea what is being said, but the group leader welcomes me and motions to me to join in, so I just copy whatever everyone else is doing.  It’s a strange class and I’m not sure how this would compare to a laughter yoga class in Australia, but being with the locals in their circle and sharing a part of their daily ritual feels damn good.  A few other foreigners join in towards the end of the class so I’m not alone.  This feels nice.

Our last stop for this morning’s tour is coming up, but my guide quickly shows me the best spot to photograph the red bridge over Hoan Kiem Lake…


The last stop is what every visitor to Hanoi should not leave without trying.  Pho Bo (beef pho).  It’s practically the national dish.  And although there are different types of pho, the beef one is the best. You’ll find pho all over the city and people will argue over which they feel is the best, but this one that we tried from Pho Ga Bun Thang (I think) it was simply amazing.  The broth was nice and salty (not too salty), the beef was really nice and tender and it was just, well, incredible.  And an incredible way to end what has been an amazing morning in Hanoi.  If you are going to Hanoi, do the tour.  Yes it’s a 4am start, but you’re on holidays, you can sleep later.  Have a real experience.

The tour is over and my guide calls a taxi to take me back to my hotel.  I’m going to rest now.  Because it is only 8am and I have the rest of the day to see what I want before I leave tomorrow.


After a cold shower and a rest, it was time to see the last of what I could fit into my last day.  I headed for the famous Metropole Hotel, but the area was cordoned off due to a fire drill.  So I just wandered the streets, silently sweating to death.

By chance, and attracted by the bright colours, I stumbled across the Hanoi Police Museum.  Newly opened, the museum is free, but a guide is called to show you through once you arrive.  They give you an overview of each room, but happily leave you enough time to read the exhibits on your own.  It’s cool having a personal guide in the room once you have read the notes because you can instantly turn around and ask questions!

The displays were really well set out and easy on the eye and the exhibits were very interesting spelling out the role of the police force in Hanoi since it’s inception.

It’s another one of those museums you wouldn’t necessarily see elsewhere and I’d recommend a stop by.  I continued walking the streets half heartedly wondering whether I should have stayed at the hotel a little later and avoided the sweltering humidity.  I wasn’t feeling very inspired to keep going and I had used up all my laughter this morning but then I saw a beacon in the distance.

It’s safe to say that I popped back by Fanny’s only because my pants were melting into my legs and I needed some air-conditioning urgently…and Fanny’s just appeared like a mirage in a dessert (ha, I mean desert).


An icecream sundae and a good half an hour in the air-conditioning sorted me right out and a plan of attack developed for the rest of the afternoon.

Starting with a visit to KOTO, a little walk away, for lunch.  KOTO (know one, teach one) is a social enterprise which trains underprivileged and disadvantaged kids to work in the hospitality industry.  It was founded by Vietnamese born Australian Jimmy Pham over ten years ago.  Every six months, KOTO recruits up to 30 young people from the streets, aged between 16-22 following recommendations from a large number of sources (ie. those dealing with poverty and trafficking).  They undergo a two year training program and at the end of it offers them the opportunity to work in some of the best restaurants and hotels.  But you can come to KOTO’s restaurant and see for yourself the result of the foundation’s efforts.


Everything else I planned to do this afternoon seemed to fall apart – graduations at the Temple of Literaure, the Citadel was closed (for the same reason I think) and the War Museum was closed too.  But it didn’t really matter because at the end of the day, the excitement and vibrancy and the feel, sights and smells of Hanoi are what you come for and that’s exactly what you get by just being here.

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And, yes, this is a train track through the middle of a residential area.  Remember, you’re in Hanoi now.



Would the real banh mi please stand up?

I read that there is a big difference between good banh mi.  Living in Melbourne, I’ve become addicted to banh mi since I stumbled across it in a Vietnamese run restaurant called Baget.  I even did the cooking class.  So I can’t wait to try banh mi here in Hanoi, where it’s supposed to be at its best.  And one of the best places is reputedly Banh Mi 25 which, luckily for me, is located in the next street over for me, so it’s Bahn Mi for breakfast today.

So what is it exactly?  I suppose it is the quintessential Vietnamese sandwich (though that sounds to be doing it an injustice).  It’s a marriage of French baking prowess and fresh Vietnamese flavours.  Although there are different types, like the stick banh mi I had last night, banh mi are most commonly filled with a pork pate, cilantro (coriander), chilies, pickles (usually pickled carrot) and cucumber and the result is a fresh tasting, crispy party in your mouth.

Banh Mi 25 is, like most good food haunts in Hanoi, located outside a small concrete shop, with the goods being served from a small stand.  It hasn’t been opened a year yet (although the owner’s family have made banh mi in the same spot for nearly 80 years), but it has a roaring trade and you’ll find it close to the top spot on Trip Advisor for dining in Hanoi (#2 as I write this).

For 25,000 dong (about AUD$1.57 at writing) you get a banh mi with the lot, a small banana and a glass of homemade tea.  It seems a ridiculously amazing bargain.  As you wait for your banh mi, you are ushered to sit on one of the small blue plastic chairs where you can watch the streets come alive.  My verdict?  YES.  Go to Banh Mi 25, go straight to Banh Mi 25 and do not pass any other vendors on the way!

Hanoi waking up is an amazing thing to watch.  Roaming street vendors lug their goods along on bamboo poles or trolleys and people call out from their shops to order what they want.  The scooters are only just starting to take to the streets, which means they are relatively quiet.  It’s a nice time of the day.

I’m going to check out a couple of the city’s museums today and pass by Hoan Kiem Lake on the way.  There are people exercising gently, talking with friends or sitting quietly pondering the day ahead.

There are quite a few museums in Hanoi, as in most cities, so how do you choose which to see?  Well, I try to go for something that not only tells me about the city, but something a little unique and the Vietnamese Women’s Museum hits the nail on the head.

Established in 1987 and run by the Vietnam Women’s Union, its displays cover everything from traditional costume to the antics of wartime heroines and from marriage and the home, to the tough life of a street vendor.  It pays homage to the cultural heritage of Vietnamese women and their daily struggles.

The women’s fashion section of the museum houses outfits from different periods of time and ethnic groups throughout Vietnam.  There are beautifully decorative bangles, headpieces and jewellery, as well as ear plugs.  You can see how tar and betel nut staining was done and you have the opportunity to try on a turban.  I’m not sure I did it right, but what do you think?


Women played an important role in Vietnam’s battle for independence.  Groups such as the Women’s Association for Liberation, the Women’s Association for Democracy, the Women’s Anti-Imperialistic Association and the Women Association for Safety demanded socio-economic and democratic rights and developed, created and protected Communist Party bases.  Many were young (very young) and many died for their cause actively taking part in guerilla warfare and acting as liaison agents.

Worship of the Mother Goddess is also an important part of Vietnamese life.  Those who follow the Mother Goddess believe she is the supreme deity who looks after all things.

“In Mother Goddess worship, women are the centre of the universe, looking after all the four regions; heaven, earth, water and mountains and forests.  Unlike other religious beliefs, worshippers find their expected desires and happiness right here in their current life.  By following the Mother Goddess, their spiritual needs are satisfied.”

There are beautiful costumes on display that which are used in different religious ceremonies, the fabrics and colours bold and delicate at the same time.

The life of a female street vendor in Hanoi is difficult.  These women, usually from the country, are forced into working in Hanoi to make money for their families to send their children to school, usually if the husband can’t work for some reason or they don’t have enough money.  The work is hard, the hours long and the pay ridiculous (maybe a few dollars a day).  It certainly made me think twice about buying something from one of them next time I saw one.

The museum is something I haven’t come across before and was definitely well worth the visit.

On my way to find my next museum, I passed by Fanny’s Ice Cream.  I double back as the name jogs a twinge of familiarity in my brain.  I’ve read about this place too and it’s supposed to be good.  I need to find out for myself (of course!) so in I go.  It’s much hotter today, so a bit of ice cream is certainly in order.

Fanny’s was created by Jean-Marc Bruno, a French icecream maker who fell in love with Vietnam, and the colours and flavours of Vietnamese fruits.  He decided to adapt French icecream making techniques to create the first all-natural Vietnamese icecreams and sorbets and the rest is history.

After much pondering on the menu, I decide on an icecream sundae made from lime sorbet, with choc mint icecream, blue curacao and whipped cream.  OMG summer in a glass, so refreshing and light.  Thank goodness I doubled back.


Icecream demolished in record time, my next stop is just a little further down the road.  Hoa Lo Prison, infamously known as the Hanoi Hilton, was built by the French in 1896.  It was built to house 450 inmates, but by the 1930’s, there were close to 2,000.

Although not much is left of the original building and grounds, there are a lot of displays that walk you through what happened and why, and the conditions that the prisoners lived in.

It was never a very successful jail, with hundreds escaping though the sewer systems over the years.

St Josephs Cathedral stands as a blackened ghost against Hanoi’s skyline.  You can imagine how impressive it must have one been, its design replicating that of Paris’ Notre Dame.  It was closed for two decades once the communists came to power and services only resumed in 1990.

Built in 1882 after the French captured Hanoi, it is the oldest Roman Catholic church in Hanoi.

I climb the stairs to the roof top of La Place restaurant (something I would not have known or been confident enough to do if it weren’t for my food tour the other night), where the view of St Josephs is less imposing and more beautiful, and from here I enjoy a meal of sweet mango chicken and a fresh Hanoi beer.

The afternoon gives way to evening and the streets of Hanoi seem their most hectic.  The streets are literally alive with honking, beeping, swerving scooterers sometimes with a helmetless solo rider, sometimes with an impossible family of four crammed on.  Coloured lights fill the streets.

Hoan Kiem Lake is lit up with strings of white lights and big golden twirly shapes.  Loud Nationalistic sounding music pumps from speakers hidden somewhere in the trees. The constant hum of motorcycles combined with the Chilean white wine I’m drinking makes head thump in time to the music.  I’m done for the day and I have an early start to explore one of the most beautiful places in Hanoi tomorrow.


Hanoi Slap

This morning I’m leaving Seoul on the 4.55am airport bus.  The streets are deserted – buses and taxis own this time of the morning.  At 7°C, it’s quite warm this morning – you may laugh, but it is a big different from the 2°C yesterday morning where I was surprised to find the seats on the train warmed up for the occasion.  It’s an hour and a half to the airport and I am eager to leave this cold weather behind for the warmer climate of Vietnam.

Arriving in Hanoi’s old quarter is like being slapped in the face with a chilli.  A really spicy one.  In fact, a bunch of really spicy chillies.You can’t explain to someone the fear of 20 scooters all coming at you from both directions and with no regard for crosswalks or traffic lights.  And don’t think about walking on the sidewalk because most times it’s impossible – the footpaths are for parking all those scooters, including the ones that ride up next to you and just stop in front of you oblivious, or perhaps unbothered, that they have just cut you off, let alone scared the living daylights out of you.  And where there aren’t scooters crowded up against one another, there are the contents of the shops that line the streets spilling out onto the pavement, including the tiny kiddy size plastic seats synonymous with Hanoi’s local eateries.  Of course I say this like it’s a bad thing, but it’s all these crazy elements that draw you into Hanoi and make you love it – warts and all.

My hotel is in Lan Ong Street about a ten minute walk from Hoan Kiem Lake and although I’ve been to Vietnam before, almost seven years ago now, this traffic has me a little nervous as I start out to reach the lake.  Once you’ve negotiated walking on the streets in the same block as where you have started out, weaving on and off the footpath, around scooters and fruit carrying vendors, dodging the enquiring cyclo drivers and generally keeping your wits about you whilst trying to take note of where you are, you need to get ready for crossing the road.  Generally, there are zebra crossings at each intersection, however I think these are just for decoration before the scooter riders barely seem to notice them, let alone stop.  At each corner, small groups of bewildered tourists stand staring, wondering how in the hell they are going to get across this mayhem.  The trick is to just start walking and don’t stop because if you do, you will have ruined the balance of nature.  Of course you need to keep your eyes peeled, in both directions, just to judge anything unforeseen, but whatever you do, just don’t stop.

I stop for a sigh of relief once all roads have been crossed and I am standing safely beside Hoan Kiem Lake.  It’s time for lunch, and I deserve a beer for that effort!


Hoan Kiem Lake (which translates as the Lake of the Restored Sword) is what many would call the jewel in the crown of Hanoi’s old quarter.  And of course there is a story behind this jade coloured beauty that belies it’s name.  It goes like this:

King Le Loi came across a shining metal bar when he visited his friend, which it turns out his friend caught in one of his attempts at fishing in Thuy Quan Lake.  The King asked for the bar, bought it home and moulded it into a sword.  All of a sudden, there was two words printed on the word ‘Thuan Thien” (harmonious with heaven).  The King understood then that the sword was a gift from heaven.  He used it for a battle in a war with a neighbouring country.  At the beginning of 1428, when peace prevailed, on one of his trips to Thuy Quan Lake, there was a tortoise rising above water and shouting “Please return the sword to the Dragon King”.  Without hesitation, the King threw the sword into the lake.  The tortoise took the sword and dove down into the water.  From then on, the lake became known as Hoan Kiem Lake.

Later that day I find my way to nearby Dong Xuan Market to meet my guide for a Hanoi by Night Walking Tour.  Dong Xuan is a hive of activity even if the market is winding down for the day, with traders packing up their stores and loading goods left, right and centre.  Dong Xuan is a relatively new market in Hanoi.  It was previously a vacant lot but locals gravitated here to trade because of its close proximity to the river, which made transportation of goods easy.  It’s main focus is bulk or wholesale trade and as a distribution point for many of Hanoi’s retailers.

Our guide leads us inside the market.  It’s chaos and I can’t help but feel that we are very much in the way of these people trying to pack up and move their goods.  Most of the shops are closed, their fronts barred by silent metal roller gates, but we do get to see some of the spices and food stuffs that are available here – sea worms, bamboo roots, star anise, mushrooms and other assorted dried up, shrivelly looking things.

Outside the market are a fruit, vegetable and meat vendors.  A moment of panic interrupts the ladies selling fruit and vegetables off their bicycles.  The police are coming.  Bikes scatter in all directions, but it’s a false alarm and everyone goes back to work.

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Our first snack for the night is a Banh Mi stick, filled with pork pate, carrot, coriander and chilli.  Thanks to the French, the Vietnamese do bread brilliantly.  It’s not the same big Banh Mi that I fell in love with from Ba’get in Melbourne, but the taste is familiar.


Our next meal is Banh Cuon which are steamed rice cakes filled with minced pork and mushrooms topped with coriander and accompanied by a dipping sauce.  Very good, though one member of our group did have a problem with the texture which is kind of silky.  The coriander and dipping sauce make the dish.

DSC08918Up next?  A BBQ.  Not filled with steak and sausages like Aussie BBQ back home, the Hanoi BBQ consists of a selection of all sorts of things on sticks – fish, chicken, buffalo, asparagus wrapped in bacon, fish cakes, tofu and vegies.  A heating grill is set up in the middle of your table (really only to keep your food warm once they have cooked it on the main grill), and you pull up a child sized plastic stool and wait for your meal to arrive.  A surprise addition to our meal is a bread roll which I watched being flattened on the grill before being brushed with honey and barbecued.  I tried the regular stuff, and the buffalo (didn’t like it), the honey bread (yummy), but not – never ever – the tofu.  I washed it all down with my first taste of Hanoi beer.  Yum.


Time for dessert right?  Yes.  We stop by a stall that is famous for its fruit with condensed milk and seaweed jelly, which arrives accompanied by crushed ice.  I’m not a fan of condensed milk but I decide to try it anyway because the fruit looks amazing.  The crushed ice is supposed to be added to lessen the flavour of the condensed milk, but I didn’t get very far.  I picked out the pieces of fruit – mango mostly – that seemed to be not as covered and ate those, but am ashamed to say I left the rest.  Though I was not alone.


For our last stop of the night, our guide leads us down a walled laneway where we come across a café hidden at the end.  Bathed in beautiful turquoise green lighting, strung with antiques and bird cages, the setting is magical.  We are told to head upstairs to take a seat.  Up lots of stairs in fact including a winding staircase.

And the view when you get to the top of all those stairs….magical.  A wonderful introduction to the city and one I never would have found on my own let alone had the courage to head down a pathway to find.