Our next stop in Vietnam was in the capital of Hanoi, which is located in the north of the country. After a two hour flight and short taxi journey we arrived into the busy Old Quarter, which is where our hotel was located. This historic area is the city’s main commercial hub, as well as being very popular with tourists.
Despite Hanoi being slightly smaller than Ho Chi Minh City, it certainly didn’t feel any quieter. As we stepped out of our hotel to explore, we were immediately surrounded by an overwhelming mix of scooters, cars, hawkers and pedestrians.
The Old Quarter has a long history of commerce, with each street named after the products that were originally made and sold there. We came across several streets that remain unchanged to this day, with all of the stores still selling the same type of goods.
Our walk took us to the huge indoor Dong Xuan covered market, which is the largest and busiest in the city. While we didn’t find much of interest in the market itself, the surrounding lanes were full of life, with rows of vendors selling an incredibly colourful array of fresh produce.
Unfortunately we didn’t manage to see as much of the Old Quarter on our first day as we hoped, with the stifling heat proving too much for us. After enjoying our air-conditioned hotel room for several hours, we made our way back into the slightly cooler evening.
Our night started with a visit to Hanoi Train Street, a narrow residential street that is just wide enough to be home to an operational railway track rather than a road. The street has become an unlikely tourist attraction, and offers the unique opportunity to enjoy a drink at one of the cafes along the track, while waiting for a train to come.
We had only just received our drinks when the cafe owner suddenly began shouting to ask everyone to stand up and move back for the 7.10pm train. The tables and chairs were packed away just in time for a huge train to noisily rumble past. It was an exhilarating experience as we pushed ourselves back against the wall while the carriages passed just a few feet away from us. Ten minutes later we had just settled back down to our drinks, when the next train approached and we had to do it all over again!
The following morning we were out early, and determined to see more of the city before it got too hot. We started with a walk around Hoan Kiem Lake, which is clearly a very popular spot for locals doing their morning exercise. As well as the usual runners and cyclists, there was several interesting aerobics and tai chi classes in progress.
From here we took a taxi to the Ho Chi Minh mausoleum, the resting place of the Vietnamese Revolutionary leader. Unfortunately this visit was rather short-lived, with neither of us dressed appropriately to enter into the important site, and we were quickly kicked out of the queue.
Instead we decided to visit the nearby Hoa Loa Prison Memorial. Although originally used for political prisoners of the French colonialists, it also housed US prisoners of war during the Vietnam War, where it was ironically known as the ‘Hanoi Hilton’.
Much of the huge prison complex has long since been demolished, and the museum is housed within the small section that remains. This includes one of the original prison blocks, which provides a disturbing account of the brutal treatment of Vietnamese revolutionaries. Prisoners were shackled in overcrowded cells, and were often beaten by guards.
Although most of the focus is on Vietnamese prisoners, there is a small section on the US servicemen that were held in Hoa La, the most notable of whom was former presidential candidate John McCain. While the exhibit shows the US prisoners of war being treated humanely and enjoying privileges such as playing sport, this one-sided view is completely at odds with the detailed accounts of some former prisoners.
After making our way though the interesting exhibits, we came to a large outdoor area which houses an impressive memorial to all those who died during the Vietnamese fight for independence.
After leaving the prison, we made our way to St Josephs’s Cathedral which is another Hanoi landmark. The gothic style cathedral is surrounded by a small square, and is one of the most impressive buildings in the city’s Old Quarter.
We continued through the narrow streets of the Old Quarter, browsing through the many shops and market stalls as we walked. There was lots of bargains to be had, with a shirt for me and handbag for Rachael costing us just 180,000 VND (£6).
By this point we were ready for a break from the city’s busy streets, and we decided to spend the rest of the afternoon at Trill Rooftop Cafe. The cafe is located on the 26th floor of the Hei Tower, and provides brilliant views across the city. We stayed at the cafe until sunset, making the most of the cold drinks and very impressive swimming pool.
After returning to the Old Quarter, we decided to sample some Bia Hoi, the draft beer that is especially popular on the streets of Hanoi. The unpasteurised and preservative-free beer is brewed and drank on the same day, with the short shelf-life making it especially cheap. Although not the nicest beer I’ve ever had, with each glass costing as little as 5,000 VND (£0.16), there was no complaints from me!