Hanoi is, perhaps, the most beautiful city we’ve visited to date. Its stunning architecture belies its turbulent past: utilitarian, Soviet-era buildings stand in stark contrast to the elegance of French-inspired structures just down the street. The incessant beeping of mopeds underscores a rhythm of traffic that at first seems chaotic, then almost hypnotic. Aromas—pleasant and exotic—waft through the streets, commingling with the sights and sounds into a barrage on the senses that is both unapologetic and endearing.
Blending seamlessly into the quaint city scape of Hanoi by utilizing existing space, the Hanoi Elegance Emerald Hotel is one of many boutique hotels located in the Old Quarter. Just a block from Hoan Kiem Lake, we chose this hotel because its central location allowed us to explore much of Hanoi on foot. Once we summoned the courage to actually cross the street of never-ending traffic, we found Hanoi to be an easily walkable city.
Our trekking led us to several museums, including the Vietnam Military History Museum, the Ho Chi Minh Museum, and Hoa Lo Prison (aka, the Hanoi Hilton; originally built by the French as a detention center for insurgents during their colonial period). We attempted to visit the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum, but discovered it was temporarily closed due to Ho Chi Minh’s annual restoration in Russia.
Most of the museums are representative of the Communist influence on Vietnamese society. The history we saw portrayed was very different from the history I had learned in school; America isn’t always portrayed in a positive light, but it also isn’t the primary focus. What we know as the Vietnam War, the Vietnamese view as only a small part of a larger struggle against a host of foreign invaders and occupying forces throughout their history, including the Chinese, the French, and the Japanese. Perspective is everything and seeing the world from different points of view is one reason we travel; Vietnam was no exception.
Whereas Hanoi has an older, established feel, Ho Chi Minh City is a bustling, modern metropolis with a noticeably younger population. The city formerly known as Saigon sprawls for miles along the winding banks of the Saigon River and is under a constant state of construction. Skyscrapers rise above the city while excavation for a subway system has begun below.
One of our money-saving strategies while traveling is staying at hotels that have breakfast included in their rate. By filling up in the morning, we only need to buy one large meal in the evening and can snack in the afternoon as we explore the city. The Liberty Central Saigon Riverside Hotel’s breakfast buffet was one of the largest and most diverse we had seen. In addition to traditional, Western-style breakfast foods, the buffet featured pho and congee with a diverse selection of toppings, a variety of savory dishes, rice cakes steamed in banana leaves (featuring a different filling each day—my favorite was pork sausage and a quail egg), and an impressive collection of tropical fruits (we fell in love with the passion fruit). As we spent most of our time in Ho Chi Minh City walking, the buffet was the perfect way to begin each day.
On our first day we made our way to Ben Thanh Market where we met Chef Kang of Hoa Tuc restaurant who gave us a walking tour of the market and helped us pick out ingredients we would use later in his cooking class. Back at the restaurant, we got the opportunity to make spring rolls (including a peanut dipping sauce), a seared steak salad, and squid stir-fry. Hoa Tuc is housed in a former opium-processing plant, which still contains images of poppies in its latticework.
Due to some fatigue-induced sickness, we unfortunately had to cancel a street food tour we had booked in Hanoi. Determined not to miss out on the world-famous street food of Vietnam, we booked another tour immediately upon our arrival in Ho Chi Minh City.
The first stop was the most memorable. A small sandwich shop with a line out the door provided the best banh mi we have had the pleasure to eat. Stuffed with roast pork, cold cuts, and pickled vegetables, the sandwich was served on freshly baked bread—a hallmark of a good banh mi. Because of the humidity prevalent in the region, bread goes south quickly; a reputable banh mi shop will have quick turnover and fresh bread. In addition to the architecture, the French colonial influence is still evident in the country’s appreciation for a good crusty baguette.
We then enjoyed some amazingly tasty charcoal-grilled chicken whose flavor was enhanced further by a mixture of herbed salt and kumquat juice we dipped the meat in before eating. On the next stop we received a huge bowl of beef pho, accompanied by plenty of bean sprouts, herbs, and lime with which to top the soup. This more interactive style of pho is similar to what we have become accustomed to in the states. The northern style of pho we had in Hanoi, by contrast, was more sparse and served simply with a lime wedge and some sliced chilies.
The next experience was truly unique: Vietnamese street pizza. The vendor, after spreading sauce onto a dried rice wrapper—the same type used for spring rolls–cooked the pizza over an open charcoal grill, adding meat, vegetables, and in one case, an egg. We tried two different varieties (a chili pepper-based sauce on one and butter on another) and, while it proved to be a bit messy to eat and resembled a quesadilla more than a pizza, they were both delicious.
The tour concluded with a stop at a dessert stand owned by three generations of women. Our sample included an avocado/coconut milk ice cream, which was indeed refreshing, but after a night of doing nothing but eating, I found it a bit too rich.
Although a bit museum-ed out after Hanoi, we did manage to visit one more in Ho Chi Minh City. The War Remnants Museum offered a fairly critical view of American involvement in the war, with exhibits focusing on the effects of both Agent Orange and unexploded ordnance left behind in rice fields and rural villages. It also included a well-curated collection of Vietnam War-era photojournalism featuring photographers from across the globe.
On our last full day in Vietnam, we embarked on a day tour of the Mekong Delta. Traveling a little over an hour outside of Ho Chi Minh City, we boarded a small wooden boat and were transported down river where we were able to see a more rural side of Vietnam. The tour included a stop at a family owned coconut factory, where coconuts were harvested into a number of both edible and non-edible products, and a brick factory where the rich, alluvial mud of the delta is fired into bricks and sold throughout the region.
Our first trip to Southeast Asia proved to be a lot less intimidating than I thought it might be. While there was definitely some culture shock, our overall time in Vietnam was an incredible experience. Hanoi, especially, was charming in a way I had never imagined. We look forward to returning and visiting some of the areas we missed on this visit.