JOIN US IN AN INTERVIEW WITH GÂM NGUYÊN FROM HANOI, VIETNAM !
Gam Nguyen is a travel blogger and travel expert in IncredibleAsiaJourneys ,a travel company in Hanoi, Vietnam. It offers tailor-made experiences throughout Vietnam and the rest of Indochina. Ms. Gam has travelled to most of the places in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia in order to get a taste of the different ways of life across Indochina. Her hobbies are photography, travelling, music, hiking and cooking.
Hanoi is Vietnam’s capital and second largest city by population.
The city mostly lies on the right bank of the Red River but has a number of lakes and waterways which adds to its beauty. People often refer to Hanoi as the “City of Lakes”.
The city is popular among tourists for its centuries old French influenced architecture and rich culture. Tourists flock to Hanoi in all seasons.
Which is the best month to visit Hanoi?
Hanoi explodes into life mainly during spring and autumn, as these are the two seasons when conditions are perfect for exploration. Temperatures average around 25°C (77°F) in spring and are pretty much the same in autumn, but random spikes in heat on any given day can send tourists running for the air-conditioned cafés. Rainfall is minimal around these times and the sunshine shimmers off the surfaces of tree-lined lakes – it’s a special time to be in Hanoi for sure!
Tourists looking for a bit of an adventure might consider coming in the summer, when the rain and searing heat (30°C|86°F) make for some incredible scenes, even for the locals! I will never tire of driving my motorbike to work during a summer rainstorm, watching people navigating flooded roads while crouched under an umbrella held between their legs!
Winter is usually pretty grey and cold (for us anyway, which is about 18°C|65°F), but it doesn’t do much to affect people’s routines. In Hanoi, most of life is lived outside and family and friends still spend much of their time drinking tea or playing in the street together. This is especially true during Tet (Vietnamese New Year), when families return to their home villages and Hanoi becomes a complete ghost town.
Which is the most convenient and favoured transport of Hanoi?
Motorbikes, hands down. Public transport still has a ways to go in Hanoi but it’s slowly catching up; right now though, you’ll find the vast majority of Hanoians scooting around on motorbikes. They are by far the most convenient method for personal transportation and frankly, the most fun, as they are very nimble and really do allow you access to anywhere – even to the pavements when the roads are full!
Because of the rapidly increasing wealth of the average Vietnamese citizen, there are a rapidly increasing number of SUVs and obnoxiously large cars flooding the streets. The drivers still have a motorbike driver mentality though, so they will think nothing of driving across the road to buy a single pineapple from a fruit vendor while blocking 30 motorists in doing so. That’s the reason why traffic in Hanoi is becoming some of the worst in the world.
Fortunately from the airport, there are both bus and taxi services to the central Old Quarter district and other districts in Hanoi. The number 86 and the number 90 are a cheap and very easy way to get where you want to go, all for about 10,000 VND ($0.40 USD).
Which are the top 3 must visit places in Hanoi?
For me, Hanoi has 3 distinct periods of history that visitors could really visit in one day. I’m going to leave out the Old Quarter and Hoan Kiem Lake as 99% of tourists will be staying in that area anyway.
The Temple of Literature (Ancient Vietnam) – About 60 years after Hanoi became the capital of Vietnam in 1010, The Temple of Literature was built as the first university in the country. A very stringent entry exam meant that there were just a handful of students, who studied the philosophies of Confucius in a university that looked more like a garden with a temple. The buildings and ground of the Temple of Literature have been very well preserved and it’s a really beautiful place to learn about the culture and philosophies of ancient Vietnam.
Phan Dinh Phung Street and the Botanical Gardens (Colonial Vietnam) – France was in almost total control of Vietnam from the late 19th century to the mid-20th. Vietnam eventually forced the French out after the First Indochina War, but their legacy remains in Hanoi through beautiful architecture, streets and parks. A walk down the verdant boulevard of Phan Dinh Phung is great way to soak up much of the French influence, as is a stroll around the Botanical Gardens at the end of the street.
Hoa Lo Prison (Wartime Vietnam) – Not all of Hanoi’s history has left positive architecture and memories. The ones on display at Hoa Lo Prison are harrowing accounts of some of the atrocities caused by the French to Vietnamese prisoners, then by the Vietnamese to captured U.S soldiers during the Vietnam War. There is more than a hint of bias during the second part, but it is still an educational attraction and should really be visited.
What are the best day trips for nature, culture and history from Hanoi ?
Hanoi is in an excellent location at the heart of northern Vietnam and this entire half of the country is celebrated for its outstanding limestone mountains, terraced fields of golden rice and gorgeous rivers and lakes. All of this can be seen in Ninh Binh province, about 2 hours south of Hanoi, where places like Hoa Lu and Tam Coc provide astounding beauty in an architectural and natural setting.
Of course, there’s no way I could mention day trips without talking about Halong Bay – Vietnam’s number 1 tourist destination and the ultimate pride of Vietnamese everywhere. I doubt there are many people reading this who haven’t heard of Halong Bay; it’s an incredible seascape of limestone towers rising directly up from the sea. Visitors are constantly blown away by the cruising, caves, kayaking, beaches and fishing villages that make up a day trip from Hanoi to Halong Bay, regardless of how many times they may have seen it before on cheesy Vietnamese soap operas.
What is the most celebrated holiday of the year in Hanoi?
Tết (Vietnamese New Year) is a huge deal for the Vietnamese and preparations for it usually begin a good few months in advance (much like how your neighbour puts their Christmas decorations up in September). You’ll see locals whizzing around the city with gigantic kumquat trees precariously taped to the back of their motorbikes and the traffic that this causes is insane. Yet as soon as Tết officially starts around February, you’ll find very few people on the streets as most people return to their home villages.
There isn’t much to do in Hanoi for tourists arriving during Tết, but Trung Thu (mid-autumn festival) is a much more exciting time, when the streets are flooded with people enjoying dancing dragon performers, drumming and delicious moon cake.
What is the most loved local food, savory and sweet of Hanoi? Is it vegetarian friendly?
Eating is a very communal experience in Vietnam and we rarely have a meal alone; everything is shared! The most local of local food is cơm bình dân, which is rice and a collection of practically any Vietnamese meat and any Vietnamese vegetables you can think of. Of course, phở has made it very far in the realms of international cuisine but it still has a huge home here, coming in many forms such as noodles, rolls and adorable little pillows.
For sweet, you can’t go wrong with a bowl of chè, which is coconut milk, condensed milk, ice and an assortment of incredibly colourful jellies that could probably damage your vision if staring at them for too long. You might think that chè doesn’t sound too healthy, and you’d be absolutely right, but that isn’t going to stop any of the locals from eating it until their teeth disintegrate.
Hanoi is becoming more and more vegetarian and vegan-friendly, but really only for the benefit of tourists. You will have no problem finding vegetarian food in the Old Quarter or the expat district of Tay Ho, but it’s not too easy to find outside of these areas.
Where to head for shopping in Hanoi?
Like most other cities nowadays, Hanoi has its fair share of soulless shopping centres, but the real charm of the city is in its local markets. The best one for tourists is Chợ Đồng Xuân, located at the top of the Old Quarter and a mecca for people searching for souvenirs, clothes, electronics or food in a frantic setting.
A (slightly) more relaxed shopping experience can be enjoyed at the Hanoi Weekend Night Market, which, as the name suggests, happens at the weekend and at night. And in Hanoi. On Friday, Saturday and Sunday evenings, Hang Dao Street closes off to traffic and a market is set-up in a big straight line, right up the middle.
Which are the best streets of Hanoi worthy of taking a stroll on?
Well I mentioned Phan Dinh Phung already before so I’ll name some of the others. The most famous of these is ‘Walking Street’, which is the street that surrounds the lake in the centre of the Old Quarter. Dinh Tien Hoang is the name of the street in the weekday, but from 6pm on Friday until the end of the weekend, the street becomes a great area for families to run loose and performers to show off their talents, all around the beautiful Hoan Kiem Lake.
Another fantastic street is Thanh Nien Street, which is a thin, tree-lined bridge connecting central Hanoi to the northern reaches of the city. The road has amazing views of Tay Ho Lake on one side and Truc Bach Lake (where former U.S senator John McCain landed after his plane was shot out of the sky) on the other. It also features the most famous ice-cream shop in Hanoi, so don’t be surprised to see traffic piling up on the road on hot days as drivers stop in the middle to buy their ice-creams.
Where to head for best view of the city?
The Lotte Centre, Keangnam Tower and the Pan Pacific Hotel all offer beautiful panoramic views from their observation decks, but I would honestly say that the best views of Hanoi are from street-level. The capital is always buzzing with energy regardless of the time of year and the most attractive way to soak it all in is usually with a coffee, sitting on a cheap plastic stool beside a lake. It really doesn’t get much better than that.
Would you suggest any shows in Hanoi to drama, music or art lovers? Where can one spot street art in your city?
All drama, music and art needs can essentially be met in one show – Quintessence of Tonkin. This is a remarkable spectacle and a celebration of everything northern Vietnamese, complete with traditional music, lightshows, and dancing. The amazing thing about this show is that, despite the incredible sight of it all, most of the performers are farmers rather than professional dancers. They were gathered from around the Red River Delta, Hanoi’s agricultural neighbour, and brought to the capital to represent their proud farming culture in a huge field about 40 minutes from Hanoi. Me and my friends cried almost the entire way through it last time!
Would you recommend any local apps for food, transport or hidden gems in Hanoi?
There is an app called ‘Vietnammm’, which is excellent for selecting from a wide range of food and having it delivered straight to your door. This is also a great way to find vegetarian and vegan food from anywhere around the city. Another great app is the ‘Grab’ app, where you can order motorbikes and taxis to come directly to you and take you straight where you need to go. Grab bikes are very popular amongst the locals and they are definitely the best way to get around the city for foreigners – just make sure you have a map on your phone, as a few of the drivers have just moved to Hanoi and don’t particularly know where they’re going!
Do you want to give any suggestion/tip to tourists coming to Hanoi?
Usually for foreigners, the biggest appeal in Hanoi is the fact that it is so foreign compared to their homeland. Trying to let go of your western mindset, though this is sometimes very hard, is an amazing way to lose yourself in the culture of Vietnam and the beauty of Hanoi. Live like a local – eat food on the street, walk directly in the road and most importantly, try to talk to the people – who lots of our clients say are the nicest in the world! All of the smiles are genuine in Hanoi and I’m sure that when you get here, yours will be too!