Hanoi, Vietnam

We’re going to switch the blog back to talking about some of our other travels on our round-the-world trip, but are hearts are still with Nepal. If you’d like to contribute to help the people of Nepal recover from the devastating earthquake, please visit our page collecting some worthy causes.

After our trip to the caves of Phong Nha in Vietnam, we headed to the capital and center of the northern part of the country, Hanoi. Here we met up with Wayne and Peggy (Della’s parents) once again, and spent three days exploring the sights. Hanoi has an extensive history: founded in 1010, served as the imperial capital until it shifted to Hue in 1802, the capital of North Vietnam, and now the capital of the unified Vietnam.

We had heard mixed reports about the city, with many people saying that the people were unfriendlier than those in Saigon, and that the narrow streets were unsafe to navigate with crazy motorbikes flying around. Also, we wondered how Americans would be received in northern Vietnam, where for so long we had been the enemy. So, we were a little anxious to visit and see how the city would strike us.

Getting There

We ended up using airline points to book a cheap flight from the Phong Nha area directly to Hanoi. The flight was a first for us in that it was on a propeller plane. This made us a little nervous, but it all went smoothly. The flight was so quick that we only got served water!

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The Hanoi airport is pretty far out of town, so once we landed we still had a bit of a journey to get into town. There isn’t an easy way to do this, so we booked a private transfer through our hotel.

After we left the baggage claim area, we were a little perturbed that no one was waiting for us with our name on a sign as we had been promised. We stood around for a minute and finally a guy showed up fumbling the sign. He was also messing with his phone and eventually motioned to us to sit while he made some calls. We were pretty confused. Our inquiries were not really answered as he didn’t speak English very well.

Eventually he led us outside and out to the parking area… where we got on a medium-sized bus! We were now very confused since we thought we would be riding in a car. Our “handler” left and went back towards the terminal, leaving us with the bus driver who also didn’t speak much English. The bus then exited the parking area… and went to the international terminal. More confusion. We waited in the pickup area for 10 minutes or so, but no one ever got on. Security eventually motioned to him to leave. He made some phone calls, then exited and drove out to the city.

 

Confused on our private bus from the Hanoi airport

Confused on our private bus from the Hanoi airport

The drive in took almost an hour. We were nervous, but the bus did indeed drop us off right in front of our hotel.

Where We Stayed

We stayed in the Golden Time Hostel 2 (there are three locations in Hanoi), which was more like a hotel despite its name. Probably the best part about the Golden Time was the friendly staff that work at the front desk. Tony and Ahn, a married couple, always greeted us by name and with a smile. There was always coffee, tea and bananas set out all the time as well, which was refreshing after a long day of sightseeing. The included breakfast had a good selection as well. The rooms were nice and spacious, so we slept well. The location was close to the main tourist attractions but not right in the center of the hubbub.The only downside in our opinion was that the bathroom was a bit strange, because the shower drain was in a tub, and the shower curtain didn’t really surround the tub, so it was easy to get water all over the floor where it wouldn’t drain.

Posing with Ahn, the friendly proprietor at Golden Time Hostel 2

Posing with Ahn, the friendly proprietor at Golden Time Hostel 2

What We Did

Sightseeing in Hanoi was refreshing just because we finally had relief from the heat! It was a little overcast with occasional light rain, but after weeks of sweltering temperatures we didn’t mind too much.

Hoan Kiem Lake and Ngoc Son Temple – This lake in the center of town is pleasant to walk around and a hub of many of the city’s activities. Our hotel was just a block away so we walked by almost every day. There is a legend associated with the lake which states that the Emperor Le Thai To returned a magical sword to a giant turtle that lives in the lake, giving it its name (the English translation is “Lake of the Returned Sword”). A red bridge goes out to the temple on an island in the lake, which contains a stuffed carcass of one of the turtles that still live in the lake. In the mornings you can find local residents doing all sorts of aerobic activities.

Old Quarter – We spent a day just wandering through the maze of narrow streets in the Old Quarter. This is the historic commercial area of the city, and is still buzzing with all sorts of commerce. Interestingly, many of the streets are named after the type of item that was traditionally sold on the street, and in many cases is still sold there today. We especially enjoyed Bamboo Ladder Street and Votive Paper Street. There was also a historic merchant’s home that we visited to get a sense of how the buildings used to look.

Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum and Museum – We had read in advance that the mausoleum housing the preserved body of the national hero Ho Chi Minh (the leader of Vietnamese Communist revolution and first President after independence – their version of George Washington) had limited visiting hours, so we made sure to head over on a morning that it was open. It was more than a quick walk away, and we thought we would save money and hassle by just taking a local bus that Google Maps said would drop us off right in front. But, as we followed the progress of the bus, it took one turn that took it away from the mausoleum, then kept going in that direction. After we passed a giant intersection, we figured we had to get off before we got even further away. We then walked a little bit to get back through the giant intersection and back towards the complex. We hailed a cab, nervous that we would get scammed, but it turned out to be a quick and cheap ride. We never quite figured out why we were on the wrong bus.  We saw the same bus (with the same bus number) later that day near the mausoleum…

There were something like eight roads converging at this circle

There were something like eight roads converging at this circle

The guidebook had warned that the mausoleum was popular, so we weren’t surprised to see a large line going into it. We headed around the side of the complex to find the entry point to the amusement park-style line corrals, and kept going… and going… The line had spilled out of a security checkpoint and across the street. We figured that it would take hours to get through the line, and the mausoleum closed in two hours anyway, so we decided that we would not be able to visit after all.

Instead, we went to the Ho Chi Minh Museum which is in the same complex. It told the story of Ho Chi Minh from childhood through the revolution, but also had some random modern art interpretations of the ideas underlying the Communist revolution, so the overall experience was a little confusing, but quite interesting.

Also in the same complex is the One Pillar Pagoda, which as its name implies, is a temple on top of one pillar, built in 1049 by Emperor Ly Thai Tong. After a brief visit there, we walked to the mausoleum, which was closed for the day. We did get to see a changing of the guards, which was interesting to contrast with the one in Athens. We walked past the current Presidential Palace and tried to make our way to Ho Chi Minh’s Stilt House, but ended up lost in a neighborhood and had to give up.

Imperial Citadel – The complex served as the center of the Vietnamese Empire’s military when the capital was in Hue. Much of it has been lost to the ages (and destroyed by the French), and there are still many archaeological excavations uncovering the site. Some bunkers were also built here during the modern war as command centers for the Northern Vietnam army, and were preserved as they were then. We weren’t expecting to spend much time here, but there turned out to be quite a few things to see so we spent almost a whole afternoon. We also enjoyed the extensive bonsai collection as well as high school graduates posing for pictures in traditional outfits.

Temple of Literature – There were also plenty of graduates posing for pictures in the scenic pavilions and courtyards that make up this temple. Fitting, because it was established in 1070 to honor scholars, and dedicated to Confucius, the famous Chinese philosopher. It also served as a university, and you can still see stelae that list those who received doctoral degrees.

Hoa Lo Prison Museum – The small sliver that remains of an old prison built by the French has now been turned into a museum describing its former use. The majority of the exhibits were dedicated to its use by the French to hold and execute Vietnamese political prisoners. There were two small rooms describing its role as a jail for American prisoners of war during the Vietnam war (when they gave it the nickname the “Hanoi Hilton”). The most famous resident was probably John McCain.

Vietnamese Women’s Museum – This modern museum describes the role of women in the culture and history of Vietnam. Special attention was paid to women during the Vietnam War, where they were involved both on the home front as well as on the front lines. The cultural aspects felt a lot like many of the other ethnographic museums we had visited, in that it described the various traditions and clothing (involving women) of the many ethnic groups that make up Vietnam.

Water Puppet Show – We took in one of the performances of this unique art form that started in the rice paddies of North Vietnam. This puppet show uses water as the stage for many small vignettes using different puppets, accompanied by a small traditional orchestra. We were fascinated the whole time by the spectacle.

54 Traditions Gallery – Wayne and Peggy know one of the founders of this neat collection of artifacts from the different cultures found in Vietnam (the name comes from the fact that there are 54 different cultures!). Their friend Mark gave us a nice tour of their collection, where we feel like we barely scratched the surface of all of the interesting stories associated with the items. Wayne and Peggy purchased a nice artifact that was once part of an altar in a temple.

Street Hair Cut – Wayne needed a trim, so he went just down the street from the hotel to a barber set up on the street. He got a nice cut for a very good price, and a good story to tell!

Zumba Class – See the separate post.

Where We Ate

Hanoi is known as one of the best places to get some Vietnamese street food, and we didn’t delay testing this out. We had our first lunch at a little place right outside the hotel. Most places just set up little plastic tables and chairs – think what you would use at a kid’s tea party. We crouched down into these chairs and ordered their main dish, bun cha, which is sweetly-marinated grilled pork served with a broth over vermicelli noodles. We also had Hanoi-style spring rolls, meaning they are fried (we decided we preferred the fresh ones to fried).

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Hanoi also has plenty of small sit-down restaurants in the area of the Old Quarter, and we visited a few. The first night we went to Minh Thuy’s in the main backpacker area. Eric and Peggy got the specialty called  xoi xeo, which was a yellow sticky rice.

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On the night of the water puppet show, we needed a place to eat quickly, so Tony at the hotel recommended New Day, which turned out to be a great call. We were worried that there was no seating, but they found a place to squeeze us in. For food, we were able to select a bunch of premade dishes from cafeteria-style trays and get them brought to our table promptly. It was all very tasty, so much so that we went back on our last night in town (but that time ordered from a menu).

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The night after the Zumba class, we wanted something simple and close, so we headed to a small place just around the corner from the hotel called Bahn Xeo Zon. As the name suggests, their specialty is bahn xeo, the Vietnamese savory pancake. Their version was probably the best one we had in Vietnam. Eric got a crab-flavored noodle soup called bun rieu cua.

Bun rieu cua in the foreground, Della enjoying a banh xeo in the background

Bun rieu cua in the foreground, Della enjoying a banh xeo in the background

We also splurged one evening and got some gelato from a fancy place on the same block as the hotel. It was a little overpriced but the service and presentation were excellent.

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Final Thoughts

Hanoi greatly exceeded our expectations! We found the city’s ancient and recent history enlightening to explore, and the food was all very good and cheap. We didn’t find that people treated us poorly; the service was at the same high level that received throughout Vietnam. The weather was a little gloomy, but never kept us from doing what we wanted. Even with our jam-packed three days, there are plenty of things we feel like we missed out on. Hopefully we can figure out how to fit Hanoi back into future travels.

Zumba Round the World: Hanoi

It had been ages since we had been to a real Zumba class! We visited one in Dallas when we were home for the holidays, but not since then. We’d had a chance to experience a few other aerobics classes in Phnom Penh, Sukhothai, and Bangkok, but we were itching for another real Zumba class experience.

When we arrived in Hanoi and searched the Zumba website, we knew we might be in luck. However, the class we actually went to was found just as we were walking around the city. There was a gym called XFitness only a few blocks from our hotel and it had a sign for Zumba in the window!

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We found out that we could buy a day pass for 110,000 dong (around $5.00), which is quite expensive for Vietnam standards but not too bad for a Zumba class by US standards. The gym was fancy with luxurious locker rooms and even a sauna, so we decided to come for a 6:20 class on the following day.

We were quite exhausted after a long day on our feet sightseeing in Hanoi so were feeling a little lazy about getting to the class. But, like most things, we knew we would be glad once we were there, so we pushed ourselves out the door, through the rainy weather, up the elevator to the 7th floor for XFitness, and into the class.

The class was excellent! It was very high energy and included a lot of reggaeton and popular music. There were actually two instructors. We never really could figure out who was the main instructor and who was learning… or maybe this class just normally has 2! They were both young women with great moves and a lot of energy.

We both had to work hard to keep up with the class, but Eric was pleased that he was not the only guy there! We think we were a bit of a novelty in the class, which is strange because Hanoi seemed to be a very cosmopolitan city. But most people seemed quite surprised to see us there and weren’t sure what to make of it.

We thanked one of the instructors afterwards, but she didn’t seem to speak too much English. Another woman told us that it was a new job for that instructor, so we congratulated her on a job well done and headed out to clean up in the locker rooms. (We didn’t make use of the sauna though!)

Overall, we had a great time and were quite excited to finally get into another Zumba class!

Using Points to Fly Cheaply Around Asia

In the past we’ve tried to use our frequent flyer points for as many flights as possible, but within Asia we have actually struggled to find ways to fly for free. The points we have just didn’t help for flying to the places that we would have liked to go. But recently we’ve been able to figure a few out!

Phong Nha to Hanoi for $6.58

This one was a last-minute decision. To get from the caves of Phong Nha to Hanoi in northern Vietnam was not as easy as we had originally anticipated. We thought that there would be multiple transport options, but as it turned out, the only bus from the village was a night bus, and the train (from the closest city of Dong Hoi) would take 11 hours and either involve an overnight stretch or take an entire day. All sounded like grueling options.

We were really struggling to choose the best of these limited options, and then we thought outside of the box. Using the wikipedia page for Hanoi’s airport (a top tip for figuring out what you can do), we saw that there was a direct flight on Vietnam Airlines from Dong Hoi to Hanoi. We ran an award flight search on Air France, and saw that we could use their Flying Blue miles to fly on this flight (since Air France and Vietnam Airlines are partners) – for $3.29 in fees plus 10,000 Flying Blue miles per person.

Even with a private transfer to Dong Hoi airport, this worked out as cheaper than the train (which we had been leaning towards) and got us there significantly earlier. To get the Air France Flying Blue miles, we were able to transfer our existing points from American Express Membership Rewards that we had gotten as a signup bonus for a couple of different American Express cards.

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On a propeller plane!

 

Hanoi to Hong Kong for $64

With Vietnam Airlines being a Sky Team alliance partner with Air France, our flights within and from Vietnam were prime targets to use the Flying Blue miles on. We were also able to snag a ticket to Hong Kong on a Vietnam Airlines flight using the Flying Blue miles as well. We got the necessary 10,000 Flying Blue miles each by transferring some more of our American Express Membership Rewards points. The fees were $31.90 per person.

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Hong Kong to Kathmandu for $79

Hong Kong’s airport is the hub for two major airlines that are a part of the oneworld alliance, so we figured that using points for one of those alliance partners would work well for our flights to or from there. We were able to use this to our advantage to get a flight from Hong Kong to Kathmandu in Nepal.

We found a reward flight on the Hong Kong-based airline Dragonair that we were able to book using our British Airways Avios points. We were able to get the required number of Avios by combining some Avios we had left over from signing up for the British Airways credit card with even more of our American Express Membership Rewards points that we could transfer in. The final cost was 10,000 Avios and $39.47 in fees per person.

Airline Alliances and Transfer Partners

These three examples just go to show how flexible you have to be when booking an award flight. Knowing which airlines partner with other airlines through alliances is huge – we greatly benefited from Vietnam Airlines being in an alliance with Air France and Dragonair with British Airways. Here’s a good infographic explaining the different alliances.

Having points in a program that can be transferred to multiple partners is also a great benefit. We didn’t have to earn Air France miles or British Airways Avios directly; instead, we could just use our American Express points for both. For more information on transferable points, check out this resource.

We have a few more award flights lined up that we are excited to share with you soon!