Keeping sane includes pondering future travel possibilities. Here’s why Hanoi in Vietnam should be one of the top contenders on that list. It’s an authentic, all-encompassing and sensory travel experience.
Vietnam boasts promises of all-round incredible cheapness and best-value with a weak currency (the Vietnamese Dong) and also proves easily accessible to most nationalities with a visa-on-arrival option.
Hanoi, the capital city, however, stands out as a must-visit in the country, packing in dazzling sights and sounds that envelop even the most conservative of travellers. Besides the usual Asian city offers of bargain markets, deliciously different food and temple sites — which all exist here and are thoroughly exciting –there’s much, much more to this historic city.
The Old Quarter
Based in the northeast of the city, it is here you will find winding streets lined with both popular Western branded outlets alongside authentic Vietnamese craft stores, souvenir stalls, roadside cafes offering tantalizing coffee and sandwiches (Banh Mi), charming alleyways that invite you to their dark depths, markets offering the strangest and freshest fruits, and the entrances to a number of boutique hotels. Motorbikes whir past at dizzying speed, questionable electric cables drape over the sides of the colonial style buildings, and the Vietnamese shopkeepers chatter enthusiastically as dazzled backpackers weave their way through. There’s nowhere better to feel a resurgence of energy and rebirth a sense of awe after lockdown.
The French Quarter
In direct contradiction to the essence of the Old Quarter, there lies the French Quarter. With luxurious hotels, glitzy cafes, galleries, embassies and designer stores and architecture truly reminiscent of French colonisation, strolls in this area make you feel like quite a Parisian. It’s also in this area that the famous Hanoi Opera House and St. Joseph’s Cathedral (echoing sentiments of the world-famous Notre Dame) make their home.
Instagrammers blew up the beloved Train Street so much over recent years during the boom of travel-grams, that the Hanoi authorities ordered the cafes and stores situated in this landmark street to close late last year. Too much traveller-traffic meant that tourists often disobeyed laws and flooded the tracks even when oncoming trains were approaching. But there still exists opportunities to explore the infamous train tracks situated smack-bang in the middle of a normal residential street that also, until recently, housed cafes and restaurants. Nothing quite compares to the flood of excitement as a train whizzes by only inches from you, as you stroll alongside compact houses and shuttered cafes.
Hoàn Kiếm Lake
In the middle of crazy hustle and bustle, lies the sanctuary of a fresh-water pool of water, complete with a temple, an island pagoda, a delicately crafted bridge, and forested walk-ways. Just opposite the lake lie dozens of hawkers and stores aimed at tourists, incredible restaurants — some with rooftop views of the lake, and the entire area at night blooms into madness with pounding music and busy bars. But, at day, the lake itself provides an escape from the city chaos, and offers an opportunity to reflect and absorb some incredible calm.
Vietnam-travels are often synonymous with the clear, emerald green waters, brilliant limestone pillars and awe-inducing forests and beaches on the islands of the picturesque Halong Bay. While Halong Bay isn’t situated in Hanoi, it’s an easy day-trip away, and dozens of travel agencies offer packages for ease of arrangement. It is quite the norm for hotels to co-operate with travel agencies too and also offer an option of a Halong Bay excursion. A memorable cruise along the calm of the waters drifts you off into faraway thoughts as surreal landscapes absorb your tiny boat and ships sail off in the distance. Many tours stop off an idyllic islands, offer kayaks and canoeing into the depths of glittering caves, or allow you to jump straight off your sailboat into the water.
In many ways, Hanoi offers a plethora of different landmarks, immersive experiences and daily life there will whisk you away, allowing you to feel as if you’re in an alternate universe.
Just the kind of escape needed after months of a global shutdown.
[Also published in thesouthafrican.com]