— Hanoi, Vietnam
This February, the Lunar New Year holiday that is predominantly celebrated in China, Japan and Vietnam gave me the perfect excuse to leave town and spend a full week in the bustling city of Vietnam, Hanoi – somewhere I’ve always wanted to explore in the Southeast! The city is known for its centuries-old architecture and rich blend of Sino-Vietnamese, French & Russian influences. Located on the banks of the Red River, not only is Hanoi known for its cultural heritage with ancient temples & pagodas, but it also has a vibrant nightlife and an amazing cuisine. Not to mention – it’s easily the cheapest travel destination in the world. To step away from the chaos of the city, a short drive will take you into the tranquility of the countryside where you’ll find traditional villages alongside lush parks, and of course, day trips to the iconic Halong Bay & more can be booked in advance.
Instead of providing a full recap of my time spent there, I thought i’d categorize my experiences into dining, cultural activities, scenic tours & general city-life, with some of my favourite captures along the way!
Dining in Hanoi
For me, the local cuisine of a new place is undoubtedly the most important factor while i’m there. Since I can only eat halal meat, I was quite concerned about whether i’d be able to find many suitable dining options, considering that there’s pork in every other Asian dish and not all locals spoke English well enough to understand my dietary needs. Thankfully, most places had seafood and vegetarian alternatives, and with the help of google translate, I was even able to get myself a meat-free Phở – a Vietnamese soup consisting of broth, rice noodles, herbs and meat, either beef or chicken. I fell in love with this after trying it for the first time on my first night (pictured below, for 20,000 đồng / HK$8 / US$1) and ended up having it for dinner everyday!
Vietnam is known for its coffee, one which follows a traditional recipe that uses sweetened condensed milk instead of regular fresh milk. An iced Vietnamese coffee or coconut-milk Vietnamese coffee is a must-have when visiting, because you won’t find it anywhere else. For every 3 restaurants, there would be at least 10 coffee-shops, because drinking coffee at any & every time of day is a part of Vietnam’s local culture – you’ll find a cute cafe at every corner you turn. Pictured below was my favourite – Chang’s Caphe with the most aesthetically-pleasing interiors I have ever come across.
You can’t run out of things to do in Hanoi, simply because there are so many temples and pagodas to admire, surrounded by lakes & rivers that you can unwind at. Ngoc Son Temple and Tran Quoc Pagoda are the two most popular and well-known ones that I really enjoyed spending at, because of its beautiful structures in striking color palettes, gold ornamental detailing, Chinese calligraphy, and just the level of peacefulness and serenity that wafted through the air.
Ngoc Son Temple
Tran Quoc Pagoda
Bat Trang Ceramic Village
I’ve always wanted to mould my own ceramics and learn the art of pottery, so when I found out that Hanoi has an entire village dedicated to this craft and offers workshops too, I jumped at the opportunity. Bat Trang Ceramic Village was a half an hour motorbike ride from the city and although the area was relatively quiet with most shops closed due to the Lunar New Year celebrations, I was able to find an old lady that had workshops going on. It costed 100,000 đồng (HK$34 / US$4) to make two simple-shaped ceramics, so I made a bowl and a little plate as a souvenir to take back home with me.
Water Puppet Show
I’m so glad I was able to visit the Water Puppet theatre and get lucky with a show that I found so amusing, entertaining and beautiful. Paired with traditional Vietnamese singers and instruments, the water puppet show is an incredibly well-synchronized display with a story-telling element that takes you through 15 different scenarios. It offers the perfect glimpse into the lives of Vietnam’s residents and is just so fun to watch (at one point, there were even mini fireworks in the water)! The puppets themselves were also so artistically designed and well-crafted. I’d give the whole experience a 10/10.
Scenic Day Trips
The iconic Halong Bay. Need I say more? The tourist attraction was a must-visit, and I wanted to make sure I had the best experience possible without missing any important sights, so I booked a group tour which appeared to be the most affordable with the greatest value. Our tour included:
- Pick-up & drop-off from our accommodation in the city
- A 3-hour journey in a comfortable mini-van
- Friendly, English-speaking guide
- Full-day boat cruise from 11AM to 5PM around the bay
- Buffet lunch
- Visit to the magnificent Sung Sot Grotto Cave
- 30-min kayaking in the Loun Water Cave
- Titop Island; Hike + Beach
Definitely an excellent package and overall a fun-filled day!
Another gem in Vietnam, Ninh Binh is a small town in the Red River Delta consisting of diverse landscapes and cultural treasures. It is home to Hoa Lu – Vietnam’s ancient capital from the 10th century with traditional temples and pagodas, as well as Trang An. This is where hundreds of tourists get on little boats rowed mainly by local women, taking you on an hour long ride through the brown waters of the river, caves and limestone formations – which is why it’s considered the ‘Halong Bay on Land’. I chose to visit with a tour group once again, where I was lucky to meet & enjoy with travelers from all over the world. Our tour also included cycling around the local villages and rice fields for a solid 40 minutes or so, where the views around us were picturesque, to say the least. Definitely one of my favourite parts of this holiday and recommend anyone visiting to take a day-trip into Ninh Binh!
Apart from trying not to get run over by a motorbike at any given moment, drinking tons of iced coffee and just exploring the streets + lakeside parks, there is one other thing you should do while in the city. Head to Train Street – a 30 min walk into a local neighbourhood that is literally situated on a train track. You’ll find people living their ordinary day-to-day lives while a massive train passes outside their doors thrice everyday! What’s more, they even know how to turn it into a business opportunity by setting up chairs and selling snacks and drinks to visitors (pictured below, the small cafe I enjoyed an iced coffee at while waiting for the train). At 3:30PM, the passenger train going towards Ho Chi Minh City bustled through the narrow street with a gush of wind as I tried to hold my breath and not stumble any closer.
Your chaos made the blood rush to my head, Hanoi, but thank you for an un-pho-gettable time! Happy Lunar New Year & hope everyone had a fantastic start to the Year of the Pig x