May 1, 2023-May 3, 2023
Day 5: Ha Long Bay to Hanoi, Vietnam
May 1, 2023
After arriving back in Hanoi, we dropped off our bags and went for a walk around the city. Prior to leaving for Ha Long Bay, we had heard about local holiday celebrations and figured we’d check it out. Vietnam has three major holidays all back-to-back which they celebrate in a long weekend. Labor Day is on May 1st, Hung King’s Festival May 2nd, and Reunification Day the 3rd. They celebrate starting on the 30th of April and party until the 4th of May.
The closer we got to Hoan Kiem Lake the more festive the atmosphere grew. The streets were blocked off to most traffic, making way for patrons to flood the entirety of the roads. Red and yellow Vietnamese flags closely accompanied by hammer and sickle flags waved between the buildings and over the streets. People dressed as cartoon characters and posed for pictures, colorful balloons floated around, street vendors adorned every corner, children threw light-up boomerang balls high into the air, and fun plastic child-size cars were for rent for kids to drive around in style. It felt akin to a theme park in atmosphere, like we were back at Disney World in Florida.
It had been a long day having made the return from Ha Long Bay that same morning. After getting some dinner and enjoying the festivities we turned in for the night.
Day 6: Hanoi, Vietnam
May 2, 2023
Today we were met with a bit of a change in plans. Originally, we had signed up to do a free city walking tour. But after getting breakfast we made a stop in a convenience store where a rogue fan was on the attack! What actually happened was a fan was turned on without the front cover and nothing to shield the blades. I didn’t notice the fan and reached back without looking catching my thumb and pointer in the crossfires. Oops. The injury banged me up pretty good plus we were both feeling a little queasy from breakfast. After trying to start the walking tour, but feeling to fatigued, we decided to bow out and do it the following day instead.
We went back to the hostel for a few hours to rest and plan out our next excursions to Sapa and Hà Giang, Vietnam.
Later, feeling much better, we went out for some dinner and site seeing. First, we stopped by the St. Josef Cathedral, a giant structure made in the French style. The building looks as though it’s been recently painted with grey splotches to look very old, rather than actually being very old, which I found to be an odd choice. Since Vietnam was once French occupied, you’ll find these little smatterings of French inspired architecture throughout the city. It’s quite pretty and gives a very old-world European vibe to the otherwise Asian cityscape. Even so, this cathedral sticks out like a sore thumb! Popping up out of nowhere in the middle of the market streets.
Next, we traveled to Train Street. This famous street has train tracks running directly through the center of it. Store fronts and restaurants point out to face the tracks. It used to be a hot spot for night life and gatherings, but after one too many train-related accidents the local authorities have closed the street to pedestrians. Businesses still reside on Train Street, but to access you must make an appointment and meet the owners outside the gateway to be personally escorted on to the street.
Day 7: Hanoi, Vietnam
May 3, 2023
Okay, let’s try this walking tour again shall we!
First stop: Ngoc Son Temple.
We spent most of our time at this temple situated in the middle of the lake in the center of the Old Quarter in Hanoi.
Before you enter the temple gates, you’ll notice a multitude of things. First, the Chinese words for “Luck” and “Prosperity.” Next, four animals guarding over the temple: a phoenix representing rebirth, a dragon for power of the king, a hornless unicorn (but not a horse…) representing enlightenment, and a turtle for longevity.
After passing through the gates, but before crossing the bridge to the main temple, you’ll see a tiger and a dragon. These two animals represent the Yin and Yang popular amongst Chinese culture. The Yin is represented by the tiger, which is considered a feminine and womanly creature for being of the earth, quiet, yet fearsome. The dragon represents the yang, as a strong masculine creature of the sky.
The earth, sky, air, water, and metal are important elements in Chinese and Vietnamese culture and are often referenced in holy places like the Ngoc Son Temple. The dragons are also important as they are considered the most powerful to reside in the air. There is a story that dragons were once fish in the river. Once they overcame the waterfall they would fly out of the river, into the sky, turning into a dragon.
Once across the bridge there are two main buildings. The first is the temple built sometime between the 13th and 15th century. The temple lays on the river where it is said China defeated the Mongolians three times. Inside the temple officers and generals are immortalized in golden statues and praised as national heroes alongside the Vietnamese gods.
Alongside the Chinese soldiers, are the god of medicine, and the god of literature and education are found. The latter god is given the highest honor at Ngoc Son Temple as it is important to the Vietnamese people that their children receive a quality education and excel in academics. Temples are typically devoted to gods or high figures, while a Pagoda is devoted to Buddha.
You’ll find the adorning’s of the inside of the temple bathed in reds and golds. These colors are meant to represent luck and prosperity, respectably. The colors in unison create a holy atmosphere.
Also found at the temple are bountiful offerings in the form of drinks, food, and money. Offerings are brought by respectful visitors. They will offer their goods, ask for them to be blessed, pray, and then consume the food and drinks themselves or bring back the offering to share with their families.
Incenses are used as a sort of timer for prayer. Three sticks will be burnt as the visitor slowly prays for enlightenment, the removal of negative things in their life, and the little wishes they desire, until the sticks have burnt all the way out.
Any money offered goes into the upkeep of the temple and is not reclaimed by the temple-goer. Money was once burned as an offering. Today, they use the money to buy paper which is instead burned symbolically. Probably for the best.
Visiting temples is something that resides in the culture not necessarily just the religion of Vietnamese people. Some Christians still go to temples the same way someone in the U.S. may celebrate a technically religious holiday like Easter or Christmas.
The second building is dedicated to two embalmed male turtles. These huge soft-shell turtles were some of the very last of their rare species. They once lived in the waters surrounding the temple. They were considered holy to the temple but are also important for scientific reasons. Because so little was known about them, they and their members are on display for scientists to observe and study.
Second stop: Beer Street.
This time we visited we knew we were on Beer Street rather than just happening upon it. It’s completely different during the day. All the businesses wait to open their doors until later at night meaning it’s hard to tell this street apart from any other during daylight hours.
If you’re one for nightlife Beer Street is Hanoi’s epicenter. It is known for its “Happy Water,” a stronger version of rice wine that looks identical to water until you shake it revealing small bubbles of carbonation. It is also where you can find bottles of alcohol donning full sized scorpions, cobras, and geckos.
Want to perform a proper “Cheers” is Vietnam? We were shown how! It’s much longer than a standard Sláinte. Vietnam’s cheers goes like this:
Môt hai ba, dzô!
Hai ba, dzô!
Hai ba, uðng!
It translates to:
One two three, cheers!
Two three, cheers!
Two three, drink!
After completing the entire saying you can take your drink!
This is when we found out about the fascinating “Open Secret” of Beer Street night life that we talk about in our first Vietnam post. Learn more here!
The French invaded Vietnam in 1858 leaving much of their architecture in the French style. Beer Street is no exception to this. Though back when Vietnam was French inhabited it was not so much a street for drinking and partying, but one used for the silk trade during 13th century silk production.
Third stop: the Old City Gates deep within the Old Quarter.
This gate is the last standing of many that once guarded the citadel before the French invasion. All gates were destroyed save for this one because of the extreme objection of Hanoi’s people.
The gate is made up of four archways each grander than the last. They are all meant for specific entrances. The first and largest is for royalty to pass through, the second largest is for generals and other higher ups, the third for ordinary citizens, and the fourth for livestock and animals.
Fourth stop: the many markets of Hanoi’s Old Quarter.
We were now very close to our hostel and the wet market we had accidentally walked through the week prior. This time we were given a bit more insight into the markets.
First, just as shocking as the first visit, was the wet market. Endless stands of meat that was so fresh some of it was still moving (literally!). The lack of refrigeration and bloody displays are supposed to show buyers the quality of the newly slaughtered meats. Talk about farm to table!
Next, we were led into the largest wholesale markets in Hanoi. This huge warehouse building was almost like a shopping mall, but every inch of space crammed full of merchandise. Clothes, shoes, souvenirs, toys, designer brands. If you need it, they’ll have it! The wholesale market was burnt to the ground in a 1990 fire. Luckily, it has been recently rebuilt and thrives to this day.
Once out of the wholesale market was dry foods and spice markets. The products here were just as numerous as the wet market, albeit much less shocking to see. The secret to Vietnamese cuisine is a lot of mysterious flavors. At the spice market some of the mystery is solved with its countless oddities.
Fifth and final stop: the Long Bien Bridge, otherwise known as the “Eiffel Tower Bridge.”
This bridge was constructed during the French invasion by Gustave Eiffel, the same engineer who constructed the Eiffel Tower in Paris, France. Its train connects Hanoi to nearby provinces of the country.
Vietnam is similar to the United States in that they drive on the right side of the road and pass to the left. However, the French are the opposite in their roadways. Since the bridge was designed during the French occupation its roads was made in a similar French style. Because of the specific balance of the bridge, to this day it is the only road in Vietnam where the left and right are switched.
During the Vietnamese War, American bombings on the city of Hanoi have destroyed the bridge. It has subsequently been re-built in its original French fashion.
Phew. If you’re tired reading all that imagine how we felt walking it! We ended our tour at a local coffee place and tried some salt coffee, the trendy pick of the Vietnamese locals. It tastes very similar to a salted caramel flavored drink you may find at Starbucks in the U.S., so it got my seal of approval!
After all that we called it a day. We got some food and went back to the hostel to prepare for our journey the next day to Sapa, Vietnam.
If you missed our last article highlighting our first week in Hanoi and Ha Long Bay, Vietnam check it out now!