Travel solo, they said. It will be fun, they said.
And what a life changing experience it indeed was! And the best part was having chosen Vietnam as my first solo travel destination.
Contrary to stereotypical descriptions of all things Asian – be it colour, food or warmth; being a South-East Asian woman travelling in Asia made this a much more inward journey.
Sunset at Halong Bay
Pride | History | Survivalist | Hustling -
That is how I would characterize Hanoi. I discovered Hanoi through the eyes of young women and men who truly took pride in their country, its history and legacy, had a never-say-die spirit and adapted to a fast-changing world while keeping their elders close. I spoke to several strangers on the trip and came back nourished with perspective and faith. Even when you fly into Vietnam, the aircraft instructions are in Vietnamese and they also play a local song describing the riches and glories of Vietnam including places like Ninh Binh etc.
While the places to see in Hanoi are ample, it is really the everyday that welcomes you. The streets, the food on the streets, the shopping on the streets and the merry on the streets. You feel at home even as a traveler because these are sights you are used to. This is not to nullify the struggle or the lack of resources but to deglamorize how the world looks at Asia. Vietnam is most popularly known through Hollywood films set on its war with America, and yet I did not find it ‘exotic’ but in fact has much to offer beyond the war. It is one of the five communist countries in the world now, though they have adopted capitalist principles.
I had planned a 6 day trip in January 2020 to bring in my birthday in Hanoi (North Vietnam) and dedicated each day to different parts of Hanoi. I was ably assisted by Dung, a young enterprising Vietnamese who doubled up as my local advisor alongwith manning the front desk of the hostel I lived in. I researched on the places I would like to visit and over several emails, Dung helped me understand the geography better, suggested places aligned to my interests and maximized my time discovering Hanoi.
Day 1 was for discovering Hanoi city on foot. I walked endlessly (read 20.8 kms!) through its lanes and bylanes. On my first day I lost my way and stood in the middle of a bustling street in a foreign country and wept. I am horrible with directions and geography and this was my worst nightmare come true. And yet I made it back. My whole trip on foot was ably led and guided by all security guards in Hanoi, many of whom did not speak English. Without mocking my mispronunciation of most city street names, they did their very best to guide me closer to my destination.
Names of streets in Hanoi are marked for what they are most famous for. Hang Gai is for silk and embroidery, Hang Ma for gift wrappings, Hang Bac for jewelry and money exchanges, Hang Be for bamboo, Hang Dao for textiles, Hang Mam for seafood, Hang Thiec for steel and oil lamps while Hang Duong is the candy street. Can go is the flower street and Dong Xuan is the market. Of course navigating streets in Hanoi is a thrill in itself. Just like in Mumbai, you use your hand here to stop traffic and your swift legs to cross streets. In some cases, you walk while the traffic whizzes around you and it does make a lot of tourists extremely nervous.
Since it was closest to my hostel, I started my sojourn with the Public Art Project. Hanoi has several Public Art Projects and I walked along Nghe Thuat (Vietnam-Korea public art project) to discover the collaborative work of artists depicting calligraphers, everyday life, Lunar New Year and 3D like installations.
The streets come alive with the art and I chanced upon several Utility Boxes Street Art on my walk to the Imperial Citadel that added to the artsy vibe of the streets. Imperial Citadel of Thang Long is a UNESCO World Heritage Site now and was built in 11th century by the Le Dynasty. An archaeological excavation at the North Gate in 1998 discovered remnants of a Le Dynasty wall built with stone and large bricks. The upper floors near the North Gate hold altars dedicated to two Viceroys who led the resistance against the French. The Citadel is known to be a seat of political power for 13 centuries and is a fascinating vestige of Vietnam’s history housing many artefacts and striking archaeological elements.
The Vietnamese Military History Museum is close by and presents the Army history of Vietnam. Considered as one of their national museums, it houses photos, maps, exhibits and models of the wars. It presents history of the nation, its wars against the French, America and displays heavy ammunition like airplanes, tanks, bombs and weapons used in the war. It also houses the Flag Tower which was built in 1812 and has been used through history as a lookout point for soldiers. It has a column with 3 storeys, a tower and a canon. It is so built that even on the hottest day, the tower remains cool and on the most rainy day, water does not flood the tower. The Vietnamese flag has flown on the tower since the 1950s. It is an important and imposing part of the Thang Long Imperial legacy.
The historical walk is amplified by Thong Nhat Park (Lenin Park) which stands close to the Museum. It has a large stone statue of the Bolshevik Russian revolutionary gifted by USSR to Vietnam in 1980 to commemorate the 110th anniversary of Lenin. It faces the museum and now sees several young skateboarders practicing in the park under his watchful eyes.
I then walked in search of the famous Train Street (Old Quarter – Ngo 224 Le Duan) and while I did not see the train go by (and it wasn’t disappointing considering I come from Mumbai!) it was exciting to see the graffiti on the wall along the Train Street. I then walked myself to the French Quarter witnessing the Hanoi Opera House, the Archbishop House, the office of the newspaper Hanoimoi, Trang Tien Plaza, and the entire French street lit with festive vibe (of Christmas gone by and Lunar New Year to come). I ended by walking in to St Joseph Cathedral in its majestic splendor gleaming with Christmas lights and large almost human size crib. The sheer magnanimity of the structure is humbling and the festive vibe was truly enchanting. My first day ended by soaking in the night vibe with a final stroll at Hoan Kiem Lake with soothing music for company.
The Hoan Kiem Lake is the highlight of the city which holds Ngoc Son Pagoda at its centre. The name means Lake of the Returned Sword and is based on the legend that a turtle at the lake handed over a magical sword to Emperor Le Loi who used it to drive away the Chinese from Vietnam and the sword was returned to the Lake. The Lake now is akin to the townsquare with tourists and locals gathering in the evenings for strolls and quiet. Each evening I generally would walk around the Lake just to soak in the city and its vibe.
Day 2 was for Ninh Binh. 100 kms to the southeast of Hanoi, Ninh Binh is most famous for Trang An and Mua Caves. Trang An Landscape Complex is an UNESCO World Heritage Site celebrated for its outstanding cultural and natural value with lush green forests, limestone mountains, pristine rivers, endless beauty and the Dinh-Le King temples.
Trang An Complex is best navigated through a boat tour through 9-10 caves filled with beauty and mystery. The local rowers (mostly women) expertly navigate some extremely low natural formations in the caves and some sing songs as they pass the interiors of the caves. The boat ride is best experienced in silence to truly experience the allure and magnificence. Part of my tour also included cycling in the town with my young enthusiastic guide showing me her village, its scenic treasures and joys. I cooked up quite an appetite with the cycling and savored several local delicacies for lunch. With a heavy stomach, I then trekked up Mua Caves (500 steps) to the altar of the Goddess of Mercy.
Trang An Caves
It is truly mesmerizing to watch peach blossoms adorning the pathways. For a solo traveler, it was truly heartwarming that strangers kept encouraging me not to give up as the trek felt tough. The way up also has Dong Hoang Ho (Tiger Cave). You can watch the Ngo Dong River on your way up and the views from the top are exceptional.
Day 3 was for Hanoi City Tour. I began with Ho Chi Minh Complex which houses the HCMC mausoleum built in 1975. Lovingly referred to as Uncle Ho, Ho Chi Minh spent his whole life fighting for independence of Vietnam. The mausoleum preserves his body to ensure everyone can see him since South Vietnam couldn’t come for the funeral. With strict dress code of clothing not above the knee and arms covered, it ensures compliance and decorum. It is also stunning how in absolute silence the body is revered. It is an ethereal experience as soldiers in white stand guard near his body and locals pay their respects sometimes standing in awe or in tears.
Next was the One Pillar Pagoda built by the King Ly Thai Tong as thanksgiving for the birth of a son. Built from wood between 1028 and 1054, it is shaped like a lotus blooming out of water. It is set against a beautiful garden and holds the Buddhist deity Quan Am, known as Goddess of Mercy. The pagoda was rebuilt in 1955. The bo tree behind the pagoda is considered as an offshoot of the tree under which Buddha was enlightened. It is considered to bring luck if you move around the tree nine times.
My Arts sojourn took me to Ha Thai which is famous for lacquer paintings. Lacquer is traditional handmade Vietnamese Art. Each lacquer undergoes several stages and is a difficult and time-consuming process. Lacquer is the natural secretion from the lacquer tree as white sap. It is used in layers to coat objects (generally furniture) and ensure longevity and smooth texture. This sap when exposed to air, hardens and becomes resistant to heat and moisture. Stored and processed, the sap is mixed with colour and applied in layers to create art. There are three types: eggshells, pearl and colour. The skill and craftmanship displayed by the artists is mind blowing. The resultant exquisite pieces of art usually feature the country’s culture, women, landscapes, daily life, etc.
Hanoi is also very well known for Ceramics. 13 kms south east to Hanoi is Bat Trang Ceramics Village famously known for its ceramics and poetry. Housing local artisans whose families were involved in poetry and ceramics for the King, today the village combines traditional and modern techniques to create beautiful porcelain artworks. Each design is distinctive and holds local symbols and meanings. The pottery workshops have a section where you can see the artists at work, and it is mesmerizing to watch them create magic on porcelain. The workshop itself is a celebration of colour and art with ceramics in various sizes and shapes including animal figures, Vietnamese life, utility items, fountains, and wind chimes, among others. This celebration of handicrafts and Vietnamese heritage is heartening.
From Arts, I moved to Literature. Created by Emperor Ly Thanh Tong in 1070 as a temple to worship Confucius, the Temple of Literature is one of the most important monuments in Hanoi. Covering 54,000 square meters, it contains 5 courtyards in different styles with distinct gates signifying unique values of Virtue, Talent, Literature, Success and the Great Teacher. The temple is filled with Confucianism symbols that celebrate the Leader of Learning and his teachings. The picture is deemed to teach students to be in symbiotic balance and help each other through water and air just as the turtle and crane do for each other. It uses the symbolism of fish swimming against strong waves to indicate students’ relentless pursuit of knowledge and learning. The second courtyard holds the constellation shaped like the character for Literature in Chinese and is famously featured on the 100,000 Vietnamese dong note. The turtle is a common symbol as it represents longevity and wisdom.
Temple of Literature
Tran Quoc Pagoda is the oldest pagoda in Hanoi built in 545 and is now in the list of National Historic Sites. Located next to West Lake, it has special significance for Indian visitors because in 1959 then President Rajendra Prasad visited Vietnam and brought a seeding of the Bodhi Tree (under which Shakyamuni Buddha attained nirvana) and planted it in the Pagoda. The local folklore says if you circle this sacred tree 9 times, luck will always favour you. With distinct architecture of ancient temples in Hanoi, the pagoda has 3 main houses and houses several important Buddhist symbols including the 8-spoked wheel, lotuses, female Buddhas called Mothers and the most famous statue of Buddha achieving Nirvana. Bao Thap Luc Do Dai Sen (The Precious Stupa) is a 11-storey red tower that holds a Buddha in each window and is jeweled by a nine-storey gemstone lotus.
The tour ended with the famous Thang Long Water Puppet Theatre. It is a musical performance with live singing, traditional music and puppetry about folk legends, everyday Vietnamese life and agricultural tales performed over water. The puppets are manned by puppeteers from behind a screen and the show contains short tales filled with music and dance. It is mesmerizing and quite regaling to watch the local art and culture in this innovative presentation. Located quite close to the Lake, the show often also depicts the story of why the Lake is called Lake of the Returned Sword. I ended the day with another evening walk and saw the Hanoi Stock Exchange, the Vietnam National Museum of History and a walk around the Lake.
Day 4 was for Huong Pagoda (Perfume Pagoda), a large complex of pagodas, temples, and shrines on Huong Son Mountain around 70 kms from Hanoi. While it houses around 18 pagodas in total, I saw two – Thien Tru and Dong Huong. This trip involved another long scenic boat ride through Limestone Mountains even though it wasn’t filled with silence because my rower kept animatedly chatting with another rower over large distances.
First stop was Thien tru pagoda (Heaven’s Kitchen). Built in 1467 by King Le Thanh Tong, the pagoda is filled with aura. Its entrance and large door is mystical. Built with a steep courtyard, the pagoda has 5 entrances and its architecture is striking with dragon features on roofs, golden lions statues in the courtyard, ornate temple interiors and ancient stupas.
Next was Huong Tich Temple in Perfume Pagoda which was either accessible by cable car or climbing up 1000 steps. I chose the cable car and it was an exciting ride up to the limestone cliffs wherein lies the famed temple. With 120 stairs descent, you walk into what looks like a dragon opening its mouth.
There are several stalagmites and stalactites inside and it is spellbinding to watch. Locals believe these bring luck and one particular formation is wished upon to pray for a birth of a daughter. They place offerings and pray devoutly. I ended the day with the famous egg coffee and looking forward to my birthday.
Day 5 was for Halong Bay. I had reserved this special trip to bring in my birthday in a special way. 170 kms away from Hanoi, Halong Bay is the most suggested destination in Hanoi. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, it contains 1600 largely uninhabited limestone islands and wide range of biodiversity.
It is an unmatched natural phenomena with extraordinary natural splendor and aesthetic significance. The day began with a little tour on the way as we passed Long Bien bridge which means Bridge of the Long Dragon. The first steel bridge built by the French, it runs over the Red river connecting two districts of Hanoi.
My guide told me that the name Ha Long is related to dragon and means Bay of the Descending Dragon. It is believed that a dragon came from heaven to protect the people and sprayed fire and emeralds which led to the limestone formations. There are around 360 caves in the Bay and most were discovered by fishermen and monkeys. The islands and mountains are in various shapes shaped by many years of natural exposure and surrounded by green and turquoise waters. The distinct pillars, curves and caves retain their natural charm even as the Bay is crowded with tourists.
We were transferred into a cruise in the middle of the sea and from then on, it was a magical ride into the waters discovering the magnificence of nature. The sun was out but it was a cool day and I moved around the entire cruise taking in the sights. We were served tea and I devoured some pages of The Dead Beat, a book I found in the mini library on board.
We then set out to explore the magical sea caves. You can either take a kayak or a bamboo boat to explore the magical sea cave and hidden lagoons. It is a quiet ride into the stalagmite caves emerging on the other side to unbelievable rock formations from within the green waters. I was told there are floating villages around the bay that survive by catching fish and assist in tourism.
We then got back for lunch on the cruise with yummy Vietnamese delicacies and I was taught to cut and eat lobsters by a very friendly Australian couple. I also had a surreal feeling as the entire cruise of 40 people sang the birthday song for me as they discovered I was travelling alone and it was my birthday.
The cruise then moved to Lan Ha Bay which is not a popular tourist spot and hence is calmer and quieter. I sat atop the deck and had tea while looking at the blue sky, emerald mountains in the green sea! It was a fantastic birthday. Later in the evening we had a cooking demo on the cruise and we also learnt how to make Vietnamese spring rolls from scratch.
It was fun to do and most of us were laughing and consumed our first attempts even though they looked nothing like spring rolls! I saw the sun set and moon rise on my birthday from the cruise and was extremely thankful for the day and its adventures.
I got back to the hostel and immediately rushed out to the Night Market to witness it and buy souvenirs. Vietnam is known for embroidery, lacquer, ceramics, coconut shell art, silk, coffee and hence it is best to buy these from the Night Market. You can buy paintings that are embroidered, tablecloths, coasters, magnets and cups etc that are replete with Vietnamese symbols like dragonfly, peach blossoms, women working, among others.
My final day in Hanoi was originally to rest and pack, but I could not stop myself from stepping out and visiting some important places that I couldn’t cover earlier. One of them was Bao tang Phu nu Vietnam (Vietnamese Women’s Museum). I had first noticed it during one of my walks in the city because of its stained glass exterior listing the details of the museum but it was closed. I noted the opening hours and came back to 4 floors of celebration of Vietnamese women. Informative and well curated, this museum focuses on the contribution of women to Vietnam in military, revolution, work, family, as street vendors, agriculture and fashion.
While the first floor is dedicated to marriage and second floor discusses the role of women in the family and as goddess; the third floor speaks of women in history, their role in political battles, heroic mothers who lost family, women in revolution, roles played by women in care, food restocking etc. during wars and the fourth floor highlights women in fashion – their contribution to embroidery, batik, motif art, the traditional dress and notions of lacquered teeth as beauty. The fifth floor has a permanent exhibition while the museum also houses exhibitions on current women’s issues.
Run by The Women’s Union of Vietnam since 1987, the museum uses a combination of artefacts, photos, war posters, videos, installations and experiential spaces (like the rice hulling mill) to highlight the role of women. The first sight as you enter the museum is a gold statue of a woman holding her baby and while it emphasizes women’s role as mothers, to me, the way she holds her baby seemed like a telling comment on how Vietnamese women juggle motherhood with their other roles. It is a must visit.
Hoa Lo Prison Memorial is a hauntingly striking place to visit. Hoa Lo means village of portable stoves and it was the place where one used to get kettles, teapots and stoves. The prison was constructed by the French colonialists in 1896 who called it Maison Centrale (the name is retained at the entrance) and originally covered 12,908 sq mts making it the largest and fortified prisons at that time. The construction of the prison meant destruction of the village and its craftsmanship. It was later used to detain American pilots during the American War, giving it the nickname – Hanoi Hilton.
Today the memorial has several exhibits including whips, shackles, tiny solitary confinement cells and details the sufferings in prison using life size models and dim lit cells. The execution cell in particular is extremely cold and runs a chill to the spine. The old small tunnel through which several prisoners escaped is also on display. The American War is explained in detail through photos, videos and exhibits. An entire section is also devoted to anti-war efforts and voices across the world to stop the war against Vietnam and it is truly a learning experience.
Hoa Lo prison
I ended my last day in Hanoi back at the Lake rejoicing on my solo travel experience and absorbing the vibe. But what will always remain with me was what happened at the Lake that evening. A 22-year-old student walked up to me while I was eating an ice cream by the Lake. He was nervous and asked if he could speak with me. Since I thought he would be wanting to sell me something, I was doubtful (and my social skills with new people is poor). He was hesitant too but when he started speaking, I realized he was a civil engineering student in Hanoi and wanted to speak to me to improve his English. He told me he does this regularly near the Lake as he sees lot of tourists and he wants to get better in English speaking. The next 15 minutes were truly the most magical for me. I, a teacher in my core, spoke patiently with him, halting my words so he could comprehend and respond. The sheer joy of seeing him converse in English as well as his anguish and struggle to find the words in an alien language even as his thought was clear in his head in his native tongue!
I walked back to my hostel and back to my life having learnt a great deal about Vietnam, its resilient, enterprising and brave young people and memories for a lifetime.
Food to try :
Pho (noodle soup)
Bun cha (pork & noodles)
Goi won (spring rolls)
Ga Quay (roasted chicken)
Cha ca (sautéed fish)
Ca Chien (fried fish)
Rau Cai Xao (sauteed veggies)
Kohai Lang Hap (sweet potatoes)
Banana Flower Salad
Trang Tien ice cream
Vua Tao Pho (Bubble Tea)
Xin Chao – Hello
Cảm ơn bạn – Thank you
Happy Room – Toilet
Vinfast – Vietnamese Car Brand
People choose colour for their vehicles as per year born – based on signs and elements
Largest exporter of cashew nuts
Third largest exporter of rice in the world
Second biggest exporter of coffee after Brazil
Ranked 16th in the world for biological diversity
54 ethnic groups in Vietnam
Tourist friendly country even as most don’t speak English
The war with America is called American War here and not Vietnam War as is known in the rest of the world
Currency within Vietnam is Vietnamese Dong (VND). Some places also accept US Dollars.
Exchange rate ranges between 23150 to 23085 for one USD. Advisable not to return from your trips with VND as conversion rates are lower.
Things to carry – global adapter, power bank, fork/spoon (if you cannot eat with chopsticks like me), walking shoes.
India has visa on arrival for Vietnam but you have to fill the form for evisa. Check http://immigration.gov.vn for details. The visa fees is to be paid at Vietnam airport (42$ in total)
You can access airport free wifi for around one hour in Vietnam.
Monuments have a dress code so make sure to avoid sleeveless, short skirts and shorts as covering of hands and legs is considered important.
Most tourist destinations have entry fees ranging between 30,000-50,000 VND.
Do try Bun cha and Pho and try to eat it from the street vendors
Intemix and Circle K are their supermarkets
You can ride a cyclo for short distances or also hire motorcycle cabs through Grab app for easy movement within the city.
Propaganda posters can be bought in stores.
You can buy Ao Dai (national attire) and the Non La (conical bamboo hat).
If you are a history freak, then this is the place for you to visit either solo or with family or friends!