Experiencing Lunar New Year in Hanoi
For Vietnamese people, Lunar New Year is equivalent to every holiday we celebrate in the western world; only they roll all their celebrations into one-week (or sometimes up to a month) worth of festivities. When we initially embarked on our travel in Vietnam, we thought it would be similar to Christmas or New Years at home; where the cities are quiet for a day or two before everyone starts to return. We definitely weren’t prepared for the weeklong build up before Lunar New Year and the weeks worth of recovery afterwards. Armed with this information (which we were lucky enough to get from Hong and An on our EasyRider tour), we decided to head to Hanoi much earlier than we initially anticipated, unfortunately skipping Phong Nha cave on the way.
We arrived in Hanoi on the 7th of February, the eve of Lunar New Year. Having travelled from Hue on the infamous ‘night bus from hell’ we quickly found a hotel and attempted to recover before venturing out. Wandering through the local markets in the Old Quarter, the stress was almost palpable… Until midday when it seemed 90% of the population had miraculously disappeared. In later discussions we realised this is not far from the truth; four of the seven million people who live in Hanoi leave town to visit their family. Those who remain in town hide out with their families, which made Hanoi a quiet ghost town with only a select number of restaurants, shops and tourist agencies open. After hearing all about the hustle and bustle in Hanoi, the eerily quiet city was surprising. It wasn’t until then that we completely understood the importance of Lunar New Year.
After wandering deserted streets for the afternoon, we retired to our hotel to wait for the midnight fireworks display. For the second time in a day we were caught by surprise, this time for the opposite reason. I think every person who was still in Hanoi had come out to watch the fireworks. It was amazing to see everyone so in awe of the fireworks display, which continued for at least 15minutes.
While we were initially surprised by how quiet the city was, it wasn’t long before the people (and their scooters) returned from their break and the bustling, noisy Hanoi was back with vengeance. It was nice to see the contrast and gain a bit more understanding about the importance of Lunar New Year.
We spent a whopping 12 days in Hanoi, which was far too long. We broke our time up with trips to Ha Long Bay and Sapa, as well as a day trip to Tam Coc, but we still spent our fair share of time trying the different coffee shops in the area. Our only saving grace was we had plenty of planning to do for our travels in Europe and could spend a portion of each day ‘working’.
After the lengthy bus ride from Hue, we arrived in Hanoi at 6.30am and opted to walk the few kilometres into the city centre. After sitting at the Hoan Kiem lakeside people watching until a reasonable hour, we located the nearest hostel (with the help of Maps.me) and were lucky enough to find ourselves a room at Golden Times Hostel 2. While it was out of our budget we were ecstatic we were able to check in so early, and on top of that, we were invited to enjoy the complimentary breakfast that morning too. Bonus!
We opted to move to the more cost effective Friends Hotel (formerly Aurora Hotel) on our return from Ha Long Bay, which again had a complimentary breakfast. A great, budget friendly option with extremely kind and helpful staff. For our last stint in Hanoi we stayed in the Hotel du Centre Ville. The staff here were incredible, remembering our breakfast order (the incredible combination of sticky rice and omelette) and dropping us at the airport at the end of our stay. A great place to stay to finish our trip in Vietnam.
Our eating habits didn’t change in Hanoi; we continued to peruse the streets for the best street food that was both tantalising to the taste buds and easy on the wallet. We succeeded without much effort, with eateries literally sprawling onto the streets. During our extended stay we had several favourites, the bun bo nam bo at Mr Tom’s in the Old Quarter was a particular favourite. I think we kept the restaurant in business over Lunar New Year! We also found an incredible stall set up not far from Golden Times Hostel 2 that served a generous portion of delicious fried rice with chicken and ‘special sauce’. The sauce was pretty special and we returned multiple times to enjoy the meal.
While we continued to enjoy Pho in Hanoi, we were a bit disappointed to find it didn’t come with the usual fresh herbs and lettuce. After a bit of research I discovered it is traditional for Pho in Hanoi to come unadorned as the people prefer it plain, usually just with spring onions. I am continually amazed by the way the same dish changes so significantly in each region. While different, it was still delicious and continued to be a staple meal for us.
Coffee is a ritual-like experience in Vietnam and we truly embraced the ritual in Hanoi. A particular speciality is an ‘egg coffee’ which we enjoyed at coffee zone. After our egg experience on the XO tour in Ho Chi Minh City, I was a bit apprehensive about trying this particular egg option, knowing how quickly things can become extreme in Vietnam. After several foodie blogs recommend it, with complimentary reports that it tastes similar to a tiramisu we decided it was worth a try. To say I was pleasantly surprised is an understatement. The coffee was out of this world, absolutely delicious. I think they must use egg whites only, whipping them with sugar and forming a raw meringue before adding a shot of espresso. Unbelievable!
With all our extra time, we became regulars at the Cong Caphe in the Old Quarter. After initially discovering the café in Ho Chi Minh City we were ecstatic to find it was a franchise that exists in Hanoi as well. We were there so often the girls working liked to try and guess our order! Shamefully they were usually spot on. The coconut coffee and coconut cocoa were both incredible and exceptionally complimented our planning sessions.
Lastly, a post on Hanoi wouldn’t be complete without mentioning the ‘Bia Hoi’ or fresh beer. This was another thing we heard about countless times from various travellers. Highly raved about, many of the street venders sell Bia Hoi for 5,000D (about 30cents) straight from a keg. After such consistent reviews, our expectations were pretty high. Unfortunately the Bia Hoi was pretty disappointing. It was watered down, extremely gaseous and had an unpleasant, lingering after taste. Not worth all the hype in our opinion. For an extra 10,000D, the Bia Hanoi was significantly better and much more enjoyable.
ACTIVITIES & ATTRACTIONS
Considering our extended period of time in Hanoi, it may seem we didn’t achieve ‘much’ in terms of activities and attractions. To tell the truth, aside from what we mentioned, there wasn’t too much else that interested us. We have been to a few museums, many, many temples and were quite content wandering the streets and taking in all that is Hanoi. Each day we would spend endless hours exploring the city, finding new, small alleyways and were mesmerised by the people we met and the things we saw.
Warmly referred to as ‘Ha Long Bay on land’, Tam Coc is just that. Located two hours south of Hanoi in the Ninh Binh province, Tam Coc consists of limestone karsts that soar over rice fields. The Ngo Dong River winds its way through the sheer cliff faces. Ever resourceful, the Vietnamese locals have lined the rivers edge with rice fields; the bright green of the rice looks beautiful and makes the scenery even more picturesque. Initially, we had plans to stay in Ninh Binh and visit Tam Coc ourselves, however, we were concerned we would struggle being in a smaller town over Lunar New Year (which I now think is a reasonable concern and I’m glad we went straight to Hanoi), instead opting for the day tour.
We had a fantastic day, our guide was gracious and well mannered as he lead us through the day with great expertise. Our first stop was at Hoa Lu, where two temples remain as a reminder of the ancient capital of Dai Co Viet, ancient Vietnam. Initially, the capital was built here as it is almost completely surrounded by intimidating limestone cliffs that provide natural protection to the capital. At over 1000 years old, it was amazing to walk through the temples so rich with history and culture.
After Hoa Lu, we enjoyed a beautiful buffet lunch at a restaurant close to the Ngo Dong River. The guide informed us goat is the specialty dish for the area, which was delicious. After severely overeating, a leisurely row along the river was definitely on the cards. We waddled down to the rivers edge and jumped aboard the nearest rowboat. Apparently, we have been doing it wrong for years. These ladies have things under control, rowing with their legs and reclining back, playing on their phones and enjoying the scenery.
Unfortunately, we visited Tam Coc in the wrong season, which meant there was no rice growing. Instead, we were greeted by a vast, open river that rushed to meet the limestone cliffs. We went through three water caves, and I later realised the translation of Tam Coc literally means three caves. Whilst not the same as the postcards, Tam Coc had beauty and grace that I hadn’t experienced in other parts of Southeast Asia. I can only imagine how magical it would be in rice season.
The only downside of the trip was the forced tipping at the completion of our boat trip. We had read about this from other travellers, but we weren’t expecting it to be so ferocious. At the end of the river, there are ladies in boats selling various treats and snacks. Each boat stops at these floating stores and the pressure to purchase something is laid on thick. Not only do they try and force us to buy things, they encourage us to buy for the captain. This is where the real trick is. They only try to sell oreos and iced tea, both of which are packaged (as opposed to the fresh fruist and coffee options). More than once, we saw the captain’s hand back the goods once the tourists had turned around. A cheeky scam if ever I’ve seen one. When we returned to the dock, our lady stopped about 20m away from shore and demanded a tip. While we had discussed this prior to the trip, Jimmy succumbed to the pressure and gave her 20,000D. While it’s not much, it was already a costly trip and more than we were willing to give. We would have been happy if that was the end, but she then had the audacity to demand more! A very interesting part of tourism, that’s for sure!
After we completed our boat ride along the river, we had the opportunity to spend some time exploring the surrounding area on bikes. We took off, heading out of the Tam Coc township towards the surrounding farmland. After a short while we veered off the road, onto a dirt track that took us closer to the limestone mountains and through the rice fields. It was a beautiful day and we welcomed the chance check out the Tam Coc region.
Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum
The Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum is the vast complex that houses the embalmed body of the famed leader Ho Chi Minh. Whilst it is well reported Ho Chi Minh wanted a quiet cremation, he instead lies inside a heavily guarded glass case in an impressive granite building. Originally opened in 1975, the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum is one of the most heavily visited attractions in Hanoi. It is said to hold importance to many locals, ensuring the legacy of their ‘Uncle Ho’ lives on.
For me, I found the whole experience quite unusual. We were herded through security which rivals that of an international flight, before we had to deposit all bags and cameras in cloakrooms. As we approached the Mausoleum, the presence of guards increased significantly and with each one we passed we were given more direction. Hats off, sunglasses off, no talking, and hands out of pockets, just to name a few. As we entered the building, there was a very eerie feel, which may have had to do with the cooler temperature inside, the lack of any chatter and the steady rate we were moving at. When we entered the chamber where Ho Chi Minh’s embalmed body lies I was surprised and extremely intimidated by the four guards with bayonets at each corner of the glass case, with more armed guards along the walkways. Certainly a very unique and interesting experience.
We continued to explore the grounds (after collecting the camera), enjoying the one pillar pagoda and the expansive, beautiful grounds that extend around the Mausoleum. An incredible memorial for a man that is famous for leading North Vietnam to independence and reunification, both so significant to modern Vietnamese history.
Hoa Lo Prison
We spent a morning exploring the Hoa Lo Prison, which was ‘fondly’ called the Hanoi Hilton by American pilots held there as prisoners of war. Initially built by the French to detain Vietnamese revolutionaries in the 1880’s, the prison was the place of nightmares. While given the couth name ‘Maison Centrale’ (central house) by the French, the Vietnamese named it the more appropriate ‘Hoa Lo’, which translates to ‘hell hole’.
Majority of the prison was demolished in the 1990’s; however, a small portion remains and is now a well-established museum. As we walked through the old prison cells, there is a clear story told. The Vietnamese revolutionaries of the late 1800’s and early 1900’s were heroes who endured extreme torture from the French, but persevered and continued their crusade. The story demonstrates a clear contrast between the Vietnamese revolutionaries and the American prisoners of war. It is depicted that the Americans were held in excellent conditions, allowed many freedoms while confined within the walls. We were sceptical; wandering the remaining prison grounds left me feeling uneasy and uncomfortable. It gave me the feeling all kinds of inhumane things had happened throughout the period the building had operated as a prison. After reading an article that details some of the experiences of the American prisoners, understanding of the Vietnam War continues to be confused and conflicted.
While well designed, I feel the Hoa Lo Prison is a well-established propaganda tool, used to reiterate the lengths the Vietnamese revolutionaries went in their attempts to gain independence and unification of Vietnam, while also portraying the participation of the North Vietnamese in the war positively. I enjoyed the exhibition, it was yet another piece to the puzzle of the Vietnam War.
Hoan Kiem Lake
The Hoan Kiem Lake lies in central Hanoi and is a hive throughout all hours of the day and night. The lake holds significance to the Vietnamese people. Legends tell the tale of a close friend of Le Loi King, who came across a metal bar while fishing. The King asked for the bar and moulded it into a sword when suddenly, the words ‘Thuan Thien’ (harmonious with heaven) appeared, the King knew the sword was a gift from heaven. After a successful battle and prevailing peace in 1428, the King returned to Thuy Quan Lake. A tortoise rose t the surface of the water and the King tossed his sword into the lake, shouting ‘please return the sword to the dragon king’. The tortoise caught the sword, diving deep into the lake. From that day, the lake was called Hoan Kiem. Today, it is said many tortoise continue to live in Hoan Kiem Lake and as one of the most sacred animals in Vietnam, this ensures the lake maintains it’s importance.
Each of the places we stayed were extremely close to the lake. This made us privy to the various activities that happened at the lakes edge each day. From makeshift gyms to salsa classes to ‘gangnam style’, it all happened at the lake. With Lunar New Year, we were truly amazed by the number of photo shoots happening. It seems young couples celebrating either their marriage or an engagement would pose for photos amongst the hundreds of people wandering the lakes edge. Young families seemed intent on getting happy snaps of their young children with the flowers at the lakes edge. It was all fascinating to watch!
Water Puppet Theatre
Listed one every list of top things to do in Hanoi, we ventured to the Water Puppet Theatre to see what all the hype was about. I’ll admit, before we went I had no idea what to expect. All I knew was the show is a traditional Vietnamese art form and tells stories about the life of those living in rural Vietnam.
We really enjoyed the show. It started with a traditional song accompanied by a variety of Vietnamese instruments that produce an extremely unique sound. The music continued throughout the show, complimenting the story beautifully. The show itself was highly entertaining. Incorporating many aspects of Vietnamese traditions and legends as well as scenes from everyday life, the puppeteers managed a well choreographed performance, all whilst working in waist deep water and maintaining invisibility.
I was amazed by the number of people taking photos and videos constantly. We were sitting quite close to the front, which I am quite glad about as it limited the number of screens we were distracted by. At one point, a camera appeared in my line of sight as someone leaned forward and over me to get a better shot. Modern society is definitely changing rapidly!
The Old Quarter in Hanoi was the place we called home while we were in Hanoi. The area is incredible, littered with narrow alleyways and restaurants that burst onto the roadside. Once everyone returned after Lunar New Year, the streets of the Old Quarter came alive. While it is the place most tourists hang out, it is also a place frequented by many locals. The combination is quite interesting, with some extremely touristy places sitting right next to more traditional markets and food stalls.
Dong Xuan Markets
While we have visited our fair share of markets in Southeast Asia, we decided to explore Dong Xuan Markets on the hunt for new running shoes. While we didn’t quite find what we were after, the fresh produce available was incredible. Instead of being inside the market, all fresh produce was on the streets edge, enabling the locals to pull up on their motorbikes and collect their goods without even turning the bike off. While it sounds appealing (imagine if we could drive through the supermarket), it was a logistical nightmare and the traffic was horrendous. Although, this was quite consistent throughout Hanoi and it seems the people have merely adapted.
PEOPLE & CULTURE
Before travelling to the north of Vietnam we had been warned the people of the north are quite rude. I had read several blogs that mentioned the same thing. After a couple of weeks exploring the north, I think we have been here long enough to draw our own conclusions. Throughout our travel we have found the Vietnamese people to be welcoming, friendly and as helpful as they can be. We have frequently ventured out of the main tourist areas and while we are often subject to extreme staring, we have never experienced any of the rudeness we were expecting.
It is also amazing to watch the traffic here. After many travellers had warned us Hanoi was busier that Ho Chi Minh City, I was expecting utter chaos. Perhaps I am used to it now, but I have found the traffic in Hanoi is pretty easy to navigate. Instead of people stopping at the lights, the people on scooters often carry on straight through often without looking. Everyone weaves to dodge them without concern. What this means is people use their horns a lot; more than a lot. Some people are on them constantly just to let other motorists know of their whereabouts. Somehow, it all works and we have only seen a few minor accidents in our time here.
After four months of travelling Southeast Asia, we have had our fair share of laundry done. Each time our clothes returned I’ve been a bit apprehensive, half expecting something to be missing. Ironically, it was our last load that came back missing a couple of socks!
WHAT WE LEARNT
For the weeks leading up to Lunar New Year we began to understand the cultural significance. Throughout our travels, the main period of time we were concerned about was Christmas and New Years. Perhaps slightly naïve, Lunar New Year proved to be much more of an obstacle. In a nation that works so hard, Lunar New Year is the one opportunity people take to have a well-earned break. Importance is placed on firstly visiting family, then inviting friends around. It is also the time people spring clean, repaint their houses, buy new clothes and other new bits and pieces. ‘Lucky money’ is given from the parents and elders to the children, to ensure they have better luck in the year following than the year previous. One man informed us many people save all year to have enough money to spend over the New Year.
For us, it was incredible to watch the hustle and bustle in Hanoi, quickly followed by a quiet ghost town. More than half of the 7million people left Hanoi to visit their families. Most who remained were almost in hiding, relishing in the opportunity to spend time with their family. With 80% of the shops and attractions shut we jumped at the opportunity to visit both Tam Coc and Ha Long Bay. When we returned from Ha Long Bay on the 12th of February, it was evident Hanoi had re-awakened. Thousands of people on scooters had re-emerged and rushed around the city as per usual.
I have never really considered another holiday shutting a country down in a similar way many western countries shut down for Christmas. It was fascinating to see the way such a big city like Hanoi remained closed for at least a week, with some places remaining closed for two weeks.
The budget theme has been pretty consistent throughout Southeast Asia; basically we have blown it nearly every step of the way. When I was planning our travel, I completely underestimated how much all the various activities would cost us. I also planned a backpacker’s budget but we have really travelled as flashpacker’s, although this hasn’t really affected our budget too heavily. It was also unfortunate for us that the value of the Australian Dollar decreased, making our travel a lot more expensive.
We have relished in the opportunity to plan the next part of our journey and are really looking forward to travelling Europe. I’m particularly excited that we (hopefully) won’t stand out as tourists as obviously as we do in Southeast Asia. The blonde hair and my height has definitely earned more than a few stares (and photos!). So, from Hanoi we are flying into Zagreb, Croatia. At this stage, we plan to weave our way through the southern European countries first before snaking through the more northern countries (hopefully it will be a bit warmer by then). With only three months on a Schengen Visa to travel to so many exciting places, we will have to be more savvy with the way we travel. I can’t wait!