Living in Asia you almost have too much choice of where to go on holiday. However, your options become somewhat limited when you only have 3 days to work with. Such was the case last week when a friend from London came to Hong Kong for 7 days to visit. Hong Kong, despite its highly social culture, doesn’t have enough to fill a week – it really doesn’t. So we decided a midweek trip to Vietnam was the best option, and the flights to Hanoi were cheaper than those to Ho Chi Minh – so Hanoi it was.
The Vietnamese capital is located in the North East region of the country and is only a two hour flight from Hong Kong. The evidence of French rule is everywhere. The country, along with what are now Cambodia and Laos, made up French Indochina. In fact the French ruled the South East Asian region from around 1887 (although missionaries had been on the ground since the 18th century) to 1941, when the allies handed Indochina to Japan.
The French influenced architecture in Hanoi sets the city apart from others in the region. It is the work of Auguste Henri Vildieu who was appointed Architectural Adjutant to Hanoi. Vildieu oversaw the design and construction of a number of buildings which still stand today, the most notable of which are the Presidential Palace and as if to flaunt his diverse capabilities, the prison. He appears to have been to Hanoi what Marcus Agrippa was to Rome.
But the European feeling isn’t reserved for the grandiose, it’s in the streets as well. The lampposts strike a Parisian air and the roads lined with trees. At night the shimmering lights in the old quarter bring the area to life. Go slightly further out of the city and the houses start to look a little bizarre – unaccountably tall and thin but each one unique and ornate. The architecture contrasts against the seemingly endless backdrop of fields between the city and the mountains.
Aside from anything else Hanoi is charming. The street sellers don’t approach you with the same tenacious fervour that they do elsewhere in the region, and despite the near constant stream of scooters and motorbikes, you quickly learn they will avoid you even- if they are rather noisy about it. Hoan Kiem lake which divides the Old Quarter from the French Quarter is strikingly beautiful and offers some tranquility despite its position in the heart of the city.
When it comes to accommodation there is a lot on offer. Most of the mid-range hotels in the Old Quarter come in at around £100 for two nights in a twin or double room. We stayed at the Essence Palace Hotel and the service and room was excellent for the price. The staff couldn’t do enough and went out of their way to chase late day-trip providers and taxis for us.
On our second day we organised a coach trip to Halong Bay which, despite being only 160 miles outside Hanoi, is a four hour drive, including a half hour stop.
It is worth noting that despite the country’s aim of being developed by 2020 there is no doubt that the infrastructure needs some work and it’s easy to see why it attracted US$23bn (£17.5bn) of foreign direct investment in 2015.
Despite the long journey and somewhat erratic tour guide (fun fact: Vietnam has four national animals: unicorn, phoenix, turtle and dragon – we didn’t have the energy to ask him to explain) the bay is certainly worth the drive.
Although you don’t get to see much of the bay in the four or so hours you’re there, what you do get is a sense of the scale. Thousands of Islands stretch out across the water before you. Even from our short stop, the Islands and the space they occupy feels calm and away from the rest of the world. When you’re used to the pace of Asia this is something to be appreciated. Rowing trips from the tour boats allow you to see the cut off areas of the bay, and after a short climb you can explore rock formations hidden within the caves
One tip though; water, unsurprisingly, becomes unfathomably expensive on the trip, so if you can, bring your own. If I went again I would try and stay for a night on the boat to see more of the bay and the sunset, but for a £30 day trip getting to experience one of the seven natural wonders of the world isn’t a bad deal.
Last and by no means least is the food. Vietnamese cuisine is exquisite, and cheap. My favourites have to be spring rolls, both fresh and fried, Bahn Xeo – an egg pancake stuffed with shrimp and pork, and papaya salad. Beef Pho is also delicious, as is sticky rice. I should probably mention at this point that we did err on the cautious side of the menu. Some diners next to us enjoyed what appeared to be tiny deep fried birds which were eaten in one go after they’d bitten off the beaks. This was washed down with a milk drink which appeared to have peas and pomegranate seeds in the mix.
An altogether more appealing item from the drinks menu is Bia Ha Noi – a refreshing local beer which costs just 70p, or 6,000 Vietnamese Dong (trust me the hilarity of paying in Dong never gets old). It is best enjoyed sat on a low plastic stool next to a low plastic table on the street in the Old Quarter. Until about 10pm the streets are brimming with people who spread themselves out of the bars and onto the roads. The atmosphere is one of a small festival with locals and tourists both simply taking in the evening.
You are brought back to reality when young children and old women alike offer you chewing gum for sale, then you remember how far the country still has to develop and how much more needs to be done. The average wage is £115 a month. It is a single party state taking steps out of government-controlled socialist economics.
But by setting a goal of development by 2020 and working to foster international investment Vietnam is on the road to being one of the economic success stories of the next decade and in Hanoi you can truly sense it.
It is the perfect escape from Hong Kong, I only wish I had had more time there.