Before sunrise, we arrived by sleeper train to Hanoi. We had a full day exploring Hoan Kiem Lake, the Vietnamese History Museum, the excellent Vietnamese Women’s Museum and reuniting in the evening with our good friends Amandine and Laurent as they began their own travel through Vietnam from north to south.
We woke up to music as the train was a few minutes from entering Hanoi train station. They played a loud song about Hanoi (the only word I understood in the song). All four of us packed up and exited the train. We realized but only too late that we forgot to take a “room discovery” video of our cabin. Oh well, we will have other opportunities in the coming days as we take more sleeper trains to Sapa and back.
Before leaving the train station, we took care of buying the round trip train tickets to Lao Cai (connection point to Sapa). We also bought one way tickets there for our friends from AmandeLolo (aka yoloamlo) that we will be meeting with later today. That’s right, reunion in Hanoi after we parted ways over a month ago when we left Bangkok for Myanmar and they went south to Thailand’s islands. We were beyond excited to be traveling in North Vietnam with them for a few days as our travel plans intersected again.
We decided to walk around twenty minutes from the train station to our hotel in Hanoi’s old quarter. It was still before dawn and the streets were empty and quiet of people and cars. The weather was cool and pleasant.
When we arrived the Holiday Gold Hotel looked closed. Fortunately there were employees sleeping on the floor inside the lobby. One of them woke up as Maurice knocked on the front door. With that we were able to drop off our rolling luggage and repack our valuables into a day pack. We started our exploration of Hanoi shortly before 6am. People of Hanoi were just waking up and traffic was still very sparse. We walked to Hoan Kiem Lake (meaning “Lake of the Restored Sword”) to find a cafe where we could have breakfast. We were both starving since other than some snacks we did not eat lunch or dinner yesterday (yolomimo style)!
By 6:40am, we were sitting at the terrace of the Cafe Long Van at the Northwest corner of the lake. The temperature was still more pleasant here than in Hue or Saigon where we came from. We finished breakfast with a pineapple caramel cake and left the cafe at 7:45am. The traffic was getting more dense now that it was closer to rush hour.
The lake is a central part of life for residents of Hanoi’s old quarter. In the morning we passed by many elderly folks practicing tai chi, using the outdoor gym equipment or just walking and socializing with their friends.
We walked along the lake and crossed the bright red The Huc bridge to take pictures.
The bridge leads to a small island with Ngoc Son Temple on it but we were not too interested, we have seen our fair share of beautiful temples throughout Southeast Asia.
We kept walking along the lake all the way to the southeast corner.
Another island in Hoan Kiem Lake is Turtle Tower, fitting in with the legend of a giant turtle that stole an ancient sword and dragged it down to the bottom of the lake.
Maurice, of course, can hardly pass a low slung tree without climbing it.
Then we arrived at the Hanoi Opera House. This area is home to several museums and top rated tourist attractions.
We decided to check out the Museum of Vietnamese History. The museum is composed of two buildings. The first floor of the first building had prehistoric and ancient artifacts through the 14th century. As in Vientiane the capital of Laos we were not too interested with this part so we went through it quickly. The second floor had history from 15th century through the 19th century.
Here I’m pointing towards Cham empire era elephant statues.
Maurice imitating Avalokitesvara.
While walking around in the museum we got tired quickly and had to take a few sitting breaks. Other than one group of young students, there were very few people in the museum. We left the first building and went to the adjacent garden that belongs to the museum grounds.
Meanwhile, I can hardly pass by an elephant statue without posing with it.
We crossed the street and went to the second building. That one focuses on modern and contemporary history of Vietnam and how the people resisted against French colonization.
Like in Saigon, we saw yet another guillotine used by the French against Vietnamese rebels.
This part of the museum also includes exhibits related to the creation and rise of the Vietnamese Communist Party in the 1930s as well as the Japanese invasion during World War II in the 1940s. Here too we sat on a bench for a while to rest our tired feet and legs. It was 11am by then and we had already been awake and walking around for over 6 hours! On the ground floor the focus was on the Vietnam War and the relations between North and South Vietnam, until the post war reunification. We got kicked out of the museum at noon since it was closing for lunch again reminding us of the National Museum in Vientiane. We were done with it anyway but it’s funny that government museums always close for lunch time in Southeast Asia.
We walked back in the direction of the lake looking for a place to have lunch.
We walked on a street with many art galleries and souvenir shops. We settled for Cai Mam that had very good rankings on TripAdvisor and a decent selection of vegetarian options. We got there at 12:30pm and were the only customers there. Food was very good. Maurice had a mango curry and I got rice noodles with vegetables. We left at 1:30pm.
Back to our hotel, only one block away from the restaurant, we checked in to room 302, and took our obligatory walkthrough video. The room is pretty basic but more spacious than expected. What else can you ask for $17 a night? We both took well deserved showers after our long train ride and walking around Hanoi since 6am. We rested for a little bit too.
Then we left for the Vietnamese Women’s Museum.
The open space inside is strung with a diorama of painted Vietnamese conical hats that sway in the fans’ breeze.
We got two audio tours in addition to the entrance tickets so we could get more info on the stories behind individual exhibits. The museum is divided in three permanent exhibitions: women in family, women in (Vietnam’s) history and women’s fashion. We went in the order and started with the marriage section of the first exhibition. It was very informative, we learned about wedding in many different ethnicities present in Vietnam. Then we went through the childbirth section more quickly. After checking on time we realized we only had 30 minutes left to finish the museum as it closed at 5pm, clearly not enough given our pace.
Tucked in a nook next to the stairs, there was a special exhibition on the lives of Hanoi’s female street vendors. There was a short documentary playing featuring the women at work and brief interviews with them. Most of them come from rural areas far from Hanoi. Some have husbands who have died, others have husbands who are disabled and cannot work and others who have husbands who are unemployed or who cannot support the family from farming alone. They leave their children to come to Hanoi to live with a dozen other women in a tiny apartment that rents for pennies a night. Then they work from 4:30am through the evening, going back to the apartment to sleep only when they have sold enough of the day’s produce or flowers. They go back to see their children about once a month or so hauling back about $30 USD to support the whole family. The video was heartbreaking.
We ended up just seeing a small subset of the women in history section, the one focusing on the role of women during the 1930-1945 period. It highlighted female war heroes and martyrs. Their stories were fascinating and we both really wished we had more time to explore this museum rather than the staid history museum we went to in the morning.
The young revolutionary on the right, Vo Thi Sau, collaborated with guerrillas and fought against the French from age 15 on. She was captured and executed by the French at age 19. She is considered one of Vietnam’s youngest and most famous martyrs.
We ran through the third exposition just to take a handful of pictures of the colorful dresses worn by women of various ethnicities and tribes.
The ground floor had a temporary exhibit of cartoon contest winners. The contest asked people to submit pictures of what struggles women have to face in modern society. I liked these two submissions a lot.
We left the museum frustrated to not have been able to see all the exhibits. We walked next to the lake again. Maurice spotted an elderly lady who looked to be in distress.
Then we sat down to get bubble tea at Chatime. We stayed there for a while, waiting for our friends from yoloamlo to join us as they had just landed an hour earlier from Vientiane. Since they were stuck in traffic we changed plans and met with them at the hotel. Notice how the hotel receptionist is trying not to laugh at our antics.
Happily reunited, the four of us walked to Banh Mi 25, a well reviewed street food cart specialized in banh mis.
The place was very packed. The sandwiches were pretty good but a little dry. Definitely not as memorable as the ones we got at My Banh Mi in Saigon! They were super cheap though at around $1 per banh mi! We went for a second round just before they closed. It was actually a cart outside of their personal home.
After that we walked to the lake (again!) and took many pictures. It was quite beautiful at night and there were a lot of people, locals, expats and tourists, even though it was a Monday. We saw more elderly folks exercising to music alongside the lake.
We did a full loop around the lake before heading back to our hotel. There we stayed in the lobby for a bit to talk logistics for the next few days. We went back to our respective rooms. Maurice and I then packed our bags so we would be ready to go early in the morning tomorrow for our overnight boat tour in Halong Bay. We ended up sleeping around midnight, a very full day indeed.