Red River Delta, cradle of Viet Nam’s culture and host to the nation’s current and erstwhile capitals, weaves magic. Sheer magic. Abhijeet Deshpande writes this concluding part of the series from Viet Nam.
Hà Nội’s allure can hold you back for weeks together, as it had us. While there’s lots to do in this busy city itself, it is also a base to explore northern Viet Nam. You may want to read stories from the hills of Sa Pa and from the junk boats of Ha Long Bay. However, if you are constrained with time, consider a minimalist, say a weekend, tour of this formidable capital of a formidable nation. Consider walking the Hoàn Kiếm District of Hà Nội and visiting the nearby Tràng An Landscape – a World Heritage Site. Consider the essentials.
Hoàn Kiếm Lake, Hà Nội
Viet Nam has handed over a defeat to the technologically advanced American army. They have also conclusively defeated the French – their once colonial power. While these Indochina wars form its contemporary history, fewer outside the country know that in the 13th century Viet Nam had also defeated the mighty Mongols! Trần Hưng Đạo is that supreme commander who, after briefly losing Hà Nội to the Mongols not only recaptured it but, dealt a body blow so severe, that it scared the living daylights out of the invincible Khans. The Mongols, just as centuries later the Allied powers, picked up their lesson – never bring a fight to Viet Nam’s jungles. If you do, you die.
Trần Hưng Đạo is accorded the status of a God in Viet Nam, with many temples dedicated to him. When in Hà Nội, The Temple of Jade Mountain or Ngoc Son Temple at the Hoàn Kiếm Lake is your go-to place to pay your tributes. At the northern end, use the red wooden bridge (known as Thê Húc) to get here. While the lake itself has its own legend about a giant golden Turtle God, the landmark tower in the midst commemorating it remains inaccessible. Hoàn Kiếm Lake is central to Ha Noi’s public life. In the mornings, it attracts joggers and groups of Tai Chi practitioners. Come dusk, when the periphery is well-lit and dons a festive look with food kiosks and vendors lined up, the city’s young are known to hangout here. The picturesque lake lends its name to the surrounding commercial district of Hà Nội’s downtown.
Old Quarter, Hà Nội
Howsoever cliché it may read, this is a must-walk area of Hà Nội. The Old Quarter lays bare all things Viet Nam – it’s culture, street food and drinks, and social life. This living legacy is also referred to as 36 Old Streets. Dating back more than a millennium, the Old Quarter resembles a classic guild of artisans, traders and retailers. Most of the narrow lanes sport a niche, a sort of theme. One street specializes in selling silver, another in sweets and confectioneries, and so on. For instance, there was this ‘paper street’ with many shops selling lamps and other paper crafts.
Hà Nội’s Old Quarter is a window to lifestyle practices too. Smoking thuốc lào or Lao Tobacco is one such practice in Viet Nam. You are likely to observe people holding a peculiar water-filled long bamboo pipes to their lips with smoke billowing from its ends. Local legends have it that thuốc lào helps in digestion and it is usually inhaled after meals with a beverage of your choice – beer, black coffee, or green tea. It is said that this relatively inexpensive thuốc lào is about ten times stronger than a normal cigarette and a single puff can cause dizziness. So, even if you are a habitual smoker, beware.
Water Puppets, Hà Nội
Immerse into the Red River Delta rural lifestyle of an era gone by. If you have watched the 2004 award-winning Vietnamese drama titled ‘The Buffalo Boy’, you’d recall the disruptive role of rains that flood this region. Life would come to a virtual standstill during the wet season. Though the movie doesn’t talk about it, one of the favorite past times for people, when rice paddies went under water, was to engage in puppetry. This millennium-old community tradition of making wooden puppets and story-telling is kept alive at the Thăng Long Water Puppet Theatre near the northern end of the Hoàn Kiếm Lake (Thăng Long is the former name of Hà Nội.). After a full day of walking the Old Quarter, it is a good idea to rest your feet here and watch the splendid artistry and enjoy the stories narrated with floating puppets in a waist-deep pool set up as stage. Water puppetry depicts the land’s culture, its national heroes, as well as history.
Đinh Tiên Hoàng Temple, Tràng An
Viet Nam ended an almost 1000-years old Chinese domination in the 10th century and began consolidation of various factions. Today, a temple stands dedicated to its first emperor Đinh Tiên Hoàng in this ancient capital of Hoa Lư – a good place to start your Day 2. One of the popular folklores about the emperor revolves around his early adolescence hobby of enacting battle scenes while riding a buffalo. For this peculiarity, he is endearingly referred to as ‘The Buffalo Boy’. Chances are that you will come across colorfully dressed buffalo riders (see header image), offering photo-ops.
Tam Cốc, Tràng An
Within the Tràng An Scenic Landscape Complex, a World Heritage Site, Tam Cốc is yet another marvel. Fondly referred to as ‘The Inland Ha Long Bay’, it is characterized by the winding Ngô Đồng River that cuts through lush-green rice paddies flanked by limestone karsts and surface-level caves.
There are times when slow travel gets slower. Rowing on the Ngô Đồng River is one such instance. The way women lazily kick the paddles to give you a tour of the area, time seems to slow down: slow rowing, chatting with fellow travelers crossing you in the other direction, negotiating with boat-vendors trying to sell you drinks or souvenirs, enjoying a gentle breeze on a clear day, clicking pictures, making memories.
An essentials-only trip must include a walking tour of Hà Nội’s popular weekend night market in the Old Quarter. The market starts at 7 pm and goes on till midnight. Tips? First and foremost, check prices before buying anything, including food. We ended up paying almost four times the usual price for a corn-on-the-cob. Once the vendor has processed an order (say, roasted your food), you cannot do much. Secondly, bargain! Enough said. However, souvenirs shopping need not wait until the last minute. Vendors wearing the characteristic nón lá hat and a smile will make it easy for you. How about this tee?
Hoàn Kiếm Traffic
Hoàn Kiếm district is a busy part of the capital. Perhaps one of the most intense. The in-your-face traffic may offer a shock value to those not accustomed to narrow lanes, mixed modes of transport such as cars, rickshaws and scooters following intuitive rules, dodging everyone else including pedestrians. The lanes often have vehicles parked, making them even narrower. Hence, when walking or crossing these streets, be prepared to negotiate with riders and / or simply make way as needed. If you are unsure of navigating such lanes by yourself, you may book walking tours. Though we explored the area at our own pace, if you are there for relatively a shorter time (say, a weekend), a guided tour may be good. If you left home in a hurry, you hostel’s travel desk should be able to help you arrange one. Scenes such as this resting rickshaw rider are rare.
Food and Drinks
In Hoàn Kiếm District, food is never far – whether you emerge hungry from the water puppet theater with a sense of accomplishment for your first day, or simply want to binge. The street vendors would entice you with Bia (beer) and the many legendary Vietnamese delicacies. Take a seat, enjoy! Eat like a local – take to the low height stools. Tips? What about dog meat you ask? Well, it is available in specialty restaurants if you want to try. But if you come from a culture that frowns upon eating dogs, simply choose to ignore such outlets or menu-dishes that have the words Thịt chó (chó = dog, thịt = meat). Same goes for other popularly available meats such as beef (bò), pork (heo), or chicken (gà). More tips? Reserve your sermons. Respect local food habits. Still more tips? In general, go for popular joints and try fresh fruits from vendors such as this one.
Here are somethings we are delighted to recommend – Phở (noodle soup), Bánh mì (sandwiches), and Mì Xào, a savory crispy fried wheat noodle dish. All of these come with a choice of meat or seafood. Besides, every major city of Viet Nam sports a beer named after it. So, don’t forget to sip on Bia Ha Noi!
The Old Quarter has many hostels offering dormitories and private rooms with a basic breakfast of eggs, bread, and coffee or tea. Prices may start from USD 9-10 per person per night. To do this weekend-itinerary, we recommend you rent a bed in the midst of action. Chances are, you’ll love it!
Getting In, Out, and Around
Hà Nội is the capital of Viet Nam. So, you may fly in and out of the city. We flew into Hà Nội and then booked tickets on the southbound Reunification Train. Many we met had flown into Ho Chi Minh City and then boarded the northbound to get here. The Hà Nội railway station is peculiar with some cabs dropping you on the platform in front of the train’s cabin. We preferred to walk 20-30 minutes from our Old Quarter hostel.
For a weekend in Hà Nội, it is best to book a tour service (from your hostel) to visit the World Heritage Site of Tràng An Scenic Landscape Complex, about two hours ride from Old Quarter.
Have you been to Hà Nội? How was your experience? We would love to hear from you (please scroll below to leave a comment).
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