To reach Hanoi, we took the 14 hour overnight train from Danang. We could have flown for an hour and a half, but we thought it would be a fun (!?!) experience for the kids to sleep on the train.
Because there were four of us we had our own little cabin with a couple of bunk beds. The scenery was quite beautiful up the coast. This was the area where the American troops first landed in the Vietnam war, and you got a real feel for how horrendous it must have been. Thick jungle and steep hills with either blistering heat or endless rain, what a brutal war for both sides.
Around 6pm a man came around with the dinner cart and we had some chicken and rice and instant noodles, and we had some fruit and biscuits with us. Not gourmet cuisine but ok for one night.
Using the toilet was a bit of a challenge as it always is on a rocking vehicle with swishing water in the toilet bowl! It certainly wasn’t as bad as the squat over the tracks variety we had on Egyptian trains, but we were careful not to drink too much as you wouldn’t want to be going in there too often. We were extremely grateful that Jack didn’t choose that day to need to go number twos… sorry if that’s too much information 😉
Around 7.30pm we packed it in for the night and turned the lights out. The beds were rock hard and me and Mike felt like we were waking up every two seconds with the stop/start motion and blasting horn every time we pulled into a station. We thought we had locked the cabin door but randomly had some guy open the door about 2am thinking it was his cabin! The kids however slept like logs and didn’t wake up once. So it was all good for one night and a fun experience.
We arrived at Hanoi at 5am and got a taxi to our hotel. The weather was decidedly grey and chilly and we probably felt it more because we’ve spent 6 weeks in the tropics. Welcome to the northern hemisphere winter.
Here’s what we got up to in our few days in Hanoi:
Exploring the Old Quarter
Hanoi is a full-on assault on the senses, blasting horns, amazing and sometimes not so amazing smells, the constant hum of a million motorcycles and people everywhere. We stayed right in the heart of the old quarter, so spent a lot of time wandering the crazy streets.
In some places the Old Quarter felt like it hasn’t changed in hundreds of years, lots of tall skinny houses and hotels, spaghetti like power lines and people going about their day and literally living their lives on the streets. It was quite fascinating to see.
Like many old markets, the streets were organised by what goods they were selling, with all the competing shops lined up next to one another. So we saw the sock and underwear street, the bamboo pole street, the plastic container street, the LED lighting street, the toy street (walked right into that one didn’t we) the sellotape street and on and on it went.
Hoan Kiem Lake
We had a nice walk around Hoan Kiem Lake which is in the centre of the Old Quarter and means the Lake of the Returned Sword. It also has the has the Temple of the Jade Mountain and the Turtle Tower in the middle of it.
There’s not a lot of green space in Hanoi, so we saw people exercising, playing badminton and ladies practicing their line dancing 😉 There were also some nice gardens alongside the lake.
St Joseph’s Cathedral
Smack bang in the middle of the Buddhist shrines and temples everywhere in Hanoi is the towering St Joseph’s cathedral. It’s a legacy from French colonial times and had some nice stained glass windows inside.
Sophie was straight away into the whole Mary, Joseph, Jesus story again (see our blog posts from 2 years ago in Europe where she became quite obsessed by it all), so I can imagine how I’ll be retelling those stories over and over again when we get to France ha ha.
Water puppet show
Water puppetry is a traditional Vietnamese form of entertainment, where stories are told by puppeteers and singers, but in water. We went to see a show which told folk tales from Vietnam and Hanoi and it was fun to watch. It was all in Vietnamese but we still got the hist of what was going on and they give you a pamphlet in English describing the stories.
The kids enjoyed it, particularly the dragons which came up from out of the water with a firework in their mouths.
Vietnam military history museum
We thought Jack might like to see the planes, so we went to the Vietnam military history museum. It’s a collection of planes, tanks and artillery left over from the Vietnam war. There was also some interesting exhibits on the French colonial war and the Vietnam war (American sabotage war as they term it), pretty heavy on the propaganda.
We also had a good discussion and had some hard questions from the kids about war and why do wars happen etc. When you’re trying to explain it to a 3 and 5 year old, you see the absolute stupidity of it all that’s for sure.
Seeing all the machines of war lined up just sitting there slowly rusting away was scary, spooky and a bit fascinating all at the same time.
The Temple of Literature
Dating back to 1070 the Temple of Literature housed the first University in Vietnam and is also a temple dedicated to Confucius.
The buildings and gardens are beautiful and we had a lovely time wandering around looking at it all.
There were also a whole lot of university graduates having photos there which was cool to see.
and some of them wanted to take pictures with our kids too 🙂
Once again the Vietnamese food in Hanoi was outstanding. We particularly enjoyed trying bun cha (pork with noodles and salad) pho (noodle, meat and herb soup) and eating Bahn Mi for lunch (baguette filled with barbecued pork and salad. The kids sometimes had it with that Laughing Cow cheese spread which is randomly available everywhere). As mentioned previously I’ll write a post on Vietnamese food with some of the recipes I’ve picked up along the way.
So that was our time in Hanoi. We enjoyed it however, it was also quite tricky doing it with the kids and is the first place we’ve struggled a bit with getting around with them. It is zero pedestrian friendly – the footpaths are used as either motorcycle parking spaces or for people to sit on while they eat from the endless street vendors. So you’re forced to walk on the roads which are narrow and have a definite pecking order – cars rule, then motorcycles, then push bikes and lastly poor old pedestrians. We had to have all our wits about us to not end up with squished or burned kids from all the boiling hot cooking pots everywhere.
Crossing the road was an absolute nightmare – there are pedestrian crossings but they are ignored, as are traffic lights. So you basically have to take your chances, be brave and step out onto the street and the hundreds of motorcycles magically part around you. Sometimes. Cars do not give a shit so you need to make sure you stop for them. And whatever you do don’t step backwards. Argh!
We tried to follow the locals and sometimes they would help us cross the road, but other times it was really hard and the drivers didn’t seem to care that we had two little people that we were trying to get over the road with.
But aside from that, we enjoyed our visit to this crazy place! We were very ready to move on however to our next destination – a 3 day cruise in Halong Bay.