Hanoi is the capital and second largest city of Vietnam, after Ho Chi Minh City. Former capital of the Vietnamese Empire, the French Colony and North Vietnam during the Vietnam War respectively, the city resembles a huge architectural museum. Ancient temples, colonial mansions and communist monuments stand by the capital’s crowded streets, where motorbikes are more than anywhere else.
From fine dining to street stalls, Hanoi is the best place to try the famous Vietnamese cuisine no matter what your budget is. The city’s lively nightlife features both western pubs and local bars, where you can try the traditional ruou (Vietnamese spirit which is believed to have medicinal powers) in different variations; dare a sip of cobra ruou, with an actual cobra being preserved in the liquor bottle!
Walking is the best way to explore many of Hanoi’s districts, including the narrow lanes of the Old Quarter. Bicycle is also a popular mean of transport for both local and visitors. An efficient bus network runs around the city, but sometimes heavy traffic may stall you for a while. Taxis are widely available on the streets. Prefer big companies as taxi scams (mostly cranky meters) are common in the city. A local alternative for short distances is cyclos, two-person carriages pushed by a cyclist.
Hanoi’s Old Quarter
The Old Quarter of Hanoi is a scenic maze of narrow streets and lanes, featuring old low buildings and thousands of stores, stalls and markets. Apart from all kinds of shops, from grocery to souvenir stores, the area is filled with local restaurants, bars and travel agencies.
At the outskirts of the Old Quarter, you will find Temple of Literature, a Confucian temple which also served as Vietnam’s first university. Dating back to 11th century, the structure has gone under several restorations since then, each adding a new feature. Today the temple is a true architectural gem, carrying design elements from all periods.
One of Hanoi’s most popular landmarks, One Pillar Pagoda takes its name from the one single stone pillar that supports the wooden structure. The pagoda, which resembles the shape of a lotus flower, was built in 11th century and destroyed during the 50s by the French. The current structure is an accurate reconstruction.
Head to the north shore of Hoan Kiem Lake to cross the scarlet wooden bridge and reach Ngoc Son Temple, located on a tiny island within the lake. The temple is pretty small, but the surrounding area is one of the most scenic in the city of Hanoi.
Occupying a hybrid of colonial and Chinese architecture, the National Museum of Vietnamese History features fascinating collections which cover all periods of Vietnamese history, from 3rd century BC to the era of the communist party. Superb artifacts from the Khmer civilization and some sparkling imperial jewellery should not be missed. For a most complete experience of the Vietnamese culture, also visit Vietnam Museum of Ethnology, where you will be introduced to the country’s minority tribes through exhibitions on local crafts, utensils and even tribal house replicas.
A grand monument of socialist architecture, Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum houses the body of the famous Vietnamese communist leader. Visitors need to be modestly dressed and leave their belongings at the gate to order to enter the main building.
The mausoleum is closed for two months every autumn, when Ho Chi Minh’s body is send to Russia for preservation.
Next to the mausoleum stands the Presidential Palace, an exquisite example of colonial architecture. Built by the French, it is now used for official receptions of the Vietnamese state.
Travel by Train in Vietnam
Although more expensive than buses, trains are undoubtedly the most comfortable way to travel overland in Vietnam. There is one major train line in Vietnam, the 1,723 km (1,071 mi) trunk between Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City, on which the Reunification Express runs. Ho Chi Minh City to Hanoi is more than 30 hours, and overnight hops between major tourism destinations are usually possible, if not entirely convenient. It’s a good way to see the countryside and meet upper-middle class locals, but unless you are travelling in a sleeper car it is no more comfortable than buses.
Air conditioned soft or hard sleeper is recommended, and purchasing as early as possible is a good idea as popular berths and routes are often bought out by tour companies and travel agents well before the departure time (hence being told the train is sold out at a station ticket window or popular tour company office does not mean there are no tickets available–they’ve simply been bought by another reseller). Booking at the train station itself is generally the safest way, just prepare on a piece of paper the destination, date, time, no. of passengers and class. However, unsold tickets can often be bought last minute from people hanging around at the station–a train is rarely sold out for real, as the railway company will add cars when demand is high. Commissions on these tickets will drop away as the departure time draws nearer. Tickets can be returned before departure for a 10% fee. There is also an official Vietnamese Railways website, which has an English version and accepts payments by international bank cards.
Be cautious when using a travel agent to purchase your train tickets, since there is nothing printed on the ticket saying the class you are booked in. As of July 2019 tickets (now termed ‘boarding passes’) do indicate the class of ticket.
This results in a common scam with private travel agents where you will pay them to book a soft-sleeper ticket, they then book you a cheaper hard-sleeper ticket, and you don’t know you’ve been scammed until you board the train and your berths are in the lower class.
By then with the train on the verge of departing it is too late to go back to the scamming agent to demand compensation. With the new boarding passes this scam is less of an issue although buying your ticket directly from the train station remains the best option.
In addition, there are shorter routes from Hanoi leading northwest and northeast, with international crossings into China. One of the most popular of the shorter routes is the overnight train from Hanoi to Lao Cai (with a bus service from Lao Cai to the tourism destination of Sa Pa).
Always try to buy your tickets at least 3 days in advance, to avoid disappointment, especially during peak holiday season, during which you should try to book at least 2 weeks in advance.
If you are sensitive to cigarette smoke try to book a seat in the middle of the carriage as people smoke in the areas at the end of each carriage and the doors are often left open.
Historical Facts about Vietnam
Vietnam’s history is one of war, colonization and rebellion. Occupied by China no fewer than four times, the Vietnamese managed to fight off the invaders just as often. Even during the periods in history when Vietnam was independent, it was mostly a tributary state to China until the French colonization. Vietnam’s last emperors were the Nguyễn Dynasty, who ruled from their capital at Hue from 1802 to 1945, although France exploited the succession crisis after the fall of Tự Đức to de facto colonise Vietnam after 1884.
Both the Chinese occupation and French colonization have left a lasting impact on Vietnamese culture, with Confucianism forming the basis of Vietnamese social etiquette, and the French influencing Vietnamese cuisine.
After a brief Japanese occupation in World War II, the Communist Viet Minh under the leadership of Hồ Chí Minh continued the war of independence against the French. The last Emperor Bao Dai abdicated in 1945 with a proclamation of independence following soon after. The majority of French had left by 1945, but in 1946 they returned to continue the fight until their decisive defeat at Dien Bien Phu in 1954.
The Geneva Conference partitioned the country into two at the 17th parallel, with a communist-led North supported by the Soviet Union, and Ngô Đình Diệm establishing a capitalist regime and declaring himself President of the Republic of Vietnam in the South supported by the United States.
South Vietnam would be plagued by numerous domestic problems, including corruption, nepotism and electoral fraud. Diệm, who was a Roman Catholic, enacted laws that discriminated against the Buddhist majority in favor of the Catholic minority, which led to the Buddhist monk Thích Quảng Đức self-immolating in protest at a busy intersection in Saigon in 1963.
US economic and military aid to South Vietnam grew during the 1960s in an attempt to bolster the South Vietnamese government.
This escalated into the dispatch of 500,000 American troops in 1966 and what became known as the Vietnam War in the West (the Vietnamese refer to it as the American War). What was supposed to be a quick and decisive action soon degenerated into a quagmire, and U.S. armed forces withdrew following a cease-fire agreement in 1973.
Two years later, on April 30, 1975, a North Vietnamese tank drove into the South’s Presidential Palace in Saigon and the war ended. An estimated 3 million Vietnamese and over 55,000 Americans were killed. Vietnam’s war against the United States was one of many that they have fought, but it was the most brutal in its history.
Most of the nation’s population was born after 1975. American tourists will receive a particularly friendly welcome in Vietnam, as many young Vietnamese are admirers of American culture.
After unifying the country, the communist government proceeded to root out the remaining capitalist elements in the south. Many business owners were killed while others, known as the boat people, became refugees and attempted to escape to Western countries, resulting in the establishment of Vietnamese communities in the United States of America, Australia and Canada.
The ethnic Chinese, long resented by the ethnic Vietnamese for their perceived economic clout, were particularly hard-hit by the purges.
Following the collapse of the state-run economy, the government implemented market-oriented reforms and introduced capitalist elements in 1986 with a policy known as đổi mới. This policy has proved highly successful, as it spurred impressive economic growth and infrastructure development.
Discriminatory laws against the remaining ethnic Chinese were repealed, and many have used their business acumen to contribute greatly to the revitalization of the Vietnamese economy, also regaining some of their previous economic dominance in the process.
In recent times, some former refugees or their descendants, most of whom were raised and educated in the West, have also returned to Vietnam in order to take advantage of new economic opportunities.
Today, Vietnam is widely considered to be one of the rising stars of ASEAN with a young population and vibrant economy.
Stay safe and avoid Scams in Saigon
In general, Saigon is a safe city, with violent crimes such as armed robbery being relatively rare. The most common crimes faced by tourists are pickpocketing and snatch theft from motorbikes.
Scam artists operate on the streets of Ho Chi Minh City. A person will strike up a friendly conversation claiming they’ve either seen you at the airport or some other tourist place where they work.
Usually they’ll be with other family members who will join the conversation very naturally and once they find out where you’re from they’ll mention that another family member is moving to a city in your country.
You will be invited over for food at their house to help console a worried grandmother or to give advise to their family member. Once you arrive at the house however the family member is not there, or the grandmother has suddenly fallen ill and had to go to the hospital. You’ll be presented with various business opportunities, legal or not, or asked for financial support for the suddenly sick grandmother.
Hotel scams are very common, even in the mid-range price level ~USD20-70. The hotel will remind you that you should place your valuables in the room safe or the hotel safe. Lock up everything that is more or less valuable.
Don’t hold up expensive things near the street or leave them out on the table while you’re having a meal, especially in District 1, especially around the backpacker area. Petty theft is a big problem, and a lot of times it’s done by people on motorbikes. It’s easy to prevent by not giving thieves the opportunity.
Don’t buy sim card before the immigration at the airport, they will charge you $10 for a sim card. After immigration and baggage area, you can find sim card booth. They sell sim card for $6 only.
Don’t buy coconut more than ~USD2, real-price is ~USD0.5. If you are forced, call police: +84 8 3829 7643, +84 8 38299835.
A favourite trick is for the vendors to strike up a conversation with you, let you hold the carrying-stick, take a picture, and while you’re distracted open a coconut for you that you really didn’t ask for.
Also, the prostitutes on Bui Vien and Ton That Tung will try to rob you. Usually, they’ll approach men acting like they’re up to normal prostitute business, but they are to pickpocket.
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