Hectic times in Hanoi


Hanoi’s old quarter is fun, but don’t stay there unless you are totally up for walking in the road at all times, dodging the buzzing scooters, ciclos and taxis, because the footways of most roads have been totally taken over as parking for those same scooters, as well as shop displays and impromptu cafés. On some streets there really is nowhere to walk but in the roadway – but then most local people, if they’re going more than a couple of hundred metres, don’t walk, they jump on their scooter.

On the other hand, since September 2016 the roads around Hoan Kiem Lake have been closed to traffic at weekends (from 7pm on Friday to midnight on Sunday), with large numbers of pedestrians eager to reclaim the space (there’s free wifi too). On the Saturday morning a group called MyHanoi encourages children (of all ages) to play traditional games (including skipping and tug-of-war as well as specifically Vietnamese ones), and on the Saturday night when we were there the London Symphony Orchestra played the first ever concert by a British orchestra in Vietnam, relayed on three big screens. Of course most Saturday nights are less significant, but there are buskers of all kinds, including Vietnamese theatre and comedy, and the beer stalls lay out ranks of low plastic stools right across ‘bia hoi corner’ (the junction of Luong Ngoc Quyen, Ta Hien and Dinh Liet).

Oddly, only the tourists drink bia hoi, a light beer that has to be drunk more or less the day it’s made as it isn’t pasteurised, while the locals choose pricier bottled beers. Perhaps that’s something to do with the skinny girls in uniform promoting Tiger and Tuborg beers. Bia hoi is a Czech-style pilsner (many Vietnamese worked in Czechoslovakia and East Germany when they were still communist – in fact an estimated 60,000 first- and second-generation Vietnamese still live in the Czech Republic, and Nguyen, the Vietnamese equivalent of Smith or Jones, is the ninth most common surname there). Until recently there was a midnight curfew in Hanoi, but in the bar district (and tourist hotels) this has been relaxed to 2am at weekends. The Vietnamese tend not to stay up late, and personally I don’t see why tourism should force them to change their habits.

Down in Ho Chi Minh City we didn’t notice the bia hoi sellers, but the Hoa Vien Bräuhaus (at 18 Nguyen Thi Minh Khai, District 1) is run by Ngo Hong Chuyen who lived in Czechoslovakia from 1983 to 1990 and developed such a love of Pilsner Urquell and other fine Bohemian lagers that he just had to open a microbrewery when he returned home. This lively welcoming brewpub now doubles as the Czech consulate!

The History Museum (8am-noon, 1.30-5pm, closed the first Monday of the month; D40,000) has some excellent displays (although I didn’t learn much beyond what’s in the Contexts section of the Rough Guide), including some lovely sandstone Champa sculptures dating from the 7th to the 13th centuries. It’s now absorbed the Museum of the Revolution, across the road, which is more tedious, although a section has been added on doi moi (the economic liberalisation which began in 1986 – China began the same process in 1978, but doi moi is always presented as a purely Vietnamese breakthrough). There’s also an interesting history display just off the reception lobby of the Metropole Hotel, the city’s classiest and most historic place to stay (now owned by Sofitel), which also puts on a daily tour for guests.

The beautiful Temple of Literature stays open slightly later than it used to (April-Sept 7.30am-6pm, Oct-March 8am-6pm (to 9pm on Saturdays), but now costs D30,000, not D5000 as in our 2009 Rough Guide. Regardless of cost this is the place for students graduating from school or university to be photographed, making for striking photo opportunities for tourists too.

Some practicalities

We had an excellent dinner at Koto, immediately east of the Temple of Literature at 59 Van Mieu, a training restaurant run by a children’s charity (KOTO stands for Know One, Teach One; knowoneteachone.com), which has a reasonable vegetarian choice (I loved the braised tofu and aubergine), and they also do roll-your-own wraps. They’ve also opened Koto Kuruhu at 39 Le Duan in Ho Chi Minh City. I was also happy to find a new salad bar (not actually officially open when we were there) called Delisa at 8A Lý Đạo Thành, serving lovely fresh ingredients in an attractive little space, although my portion wasn’t huge for the price.

However vegetarians should really head for Chau Long, on the east side of Truc Bach lake, where Aummee at no.26 is a classy vegetarian restaurant; it has a very detailed menu which gives the English and Vietnamese names for ingredients. Just south at no.44 are the Hanoi Cooking Centre, offering meals, classes and food tours (not specifically vegetarian), and The Bookworm, a book shop and exchange with plenty of English titles (9am-7pm daily).

The traffic in Hanoi seems chaotic but somehow it flows! And it will flow around pedestrians too, as long as you keep moving steadily; just be aware that scooters turn right on red lights and don’t yield priority. There are some dodgy pirate taxis here – stick to Hanoi Taxis Group (0438 535353) and MaiLinh (0438 333333).

Parting thoughts

I became very aware that, behind the free-market chaos, Vietnam is still a Communist state – firstly the incompetence of the Visa on Arrival system (see my first Vietnam post), but also the presence of LOTS of police and also all the whistle-blowers by the beach in Danang who prevent cyclists from stopping anywhere except the supervised scooter parks. And I mean just stopping to take in the view, not only parking – most annoying. The toilets on our Danang-Hanoi train has been replaced with high-tech new ones that were oversized so that one had to clamber over them to get in and close the door – typical of the nonsense produced by communist central planning, where obeying orders and fulfilling the quota overrides common sense and the public interest – I was very familiar with this in Eastern Europe. Finally, the BBC News websites (.co.uk and .com) were blocked in Vietnam – except, interestingly, airside at Hanoi airport where it came up without a hiccup – presumably they don’t want transit passengers to notice the censorship. Speaking of airports, our quarantine form was never looked at going in or out, and leaving from Hanoi the passport checks were very slow, as a database seemed to freeze. By and large, however, things seem to be going in the right direction. We were flying to Hong Kong, which seems to be going the other way politically, with the Mainland Chinese government trying to limit free speech and opposition.

In Hanoi in particular I felt there were too many tourists (and they all seemed about two inches taller than me, to make it worse), and of course there’s the usual ratio of ugly white guys with local girlfriends. Hanoi really should just be a transit town between the highlands, Halong Bay, and other parts of the country, but a lot of people seem to spend time there enjoying the cheap beer and cigarettes.

I’m very aware that we passed through Vietnam too quickly and didn’t get outside the main cities (apart from what we saw from the trains) – the real Vietnam is still waiting for me somewhere. I could see that Vietnamese culture is as strong as Chinese culture, and very distinct from it and other local cultures. Certainly it’s very different from Laos and Cambodia – in particular they follow a totally different form of Buddhism, so it’s not so important to avoid PDAs (public displays of affection) and displaying bare flesh. I expected to speak more French, but that now seems to have vanished.

Danang, Hoi An and Hué

Danang, Hoi An and Hue are conveniently close together in the centre of Vietnam, although Hué is just too far from the others for an easy day trip (despite new road tunnels). Danang (or Da Nang) is the country’s third largest city, with a population of about a million, but it is far less crowded and hectic than Ho Chi Minh City or Hanoi; it also has long sandy beaches, one reason why it’s becoming a tourist resort and is drawing considerable numbers of expats to live here. The new developments are on a peninsula across the Han river to the east of the city – during the Vietnam War, when Danang’s airport was the Americans’ main logistical base in the country, this was where the GIs lived, mainly in tents, as the area could only be reached be ferry and thus could easily be secured from attack. Now there’s a row of bridges in different funky styles (the Dragon Bridge, by the Cham Museum, lights up and spouts water from 9pm on Saturdays and Sundays), and a tunnel is to be built to speed tourists directly from the airport to the beach area. In fact new luxury resorts and hotels are sprouting all along the beach from Danang south to Hoi An, although I’m puzzled who the clients will be, as the major new market is the Chinese, who aren’t interested in beaches.

Our main discovery in Danang (apart from great food – see below) was the new Fine Arts Museum, opened in December 2016 at 78 Le Duan. It’s really quite impressive, its spacious new building housing over 400 works of art, with useful information panels. There’s a good range of paintings by artists from central Vietnam (including some in lacquer) as well as sculpture, ceramics, folk and applied art and ethnic costumes; there’s also a decent café. They haven’t yet put up a website, although they promised to do so soon, so I don’t know what the opening hours are, but it did seem to be free.

Around the back is the swastika-topped temple of the home-grown Cao Dai religion, which is distinctly odd – there’s a giant eyeball inside. The Cham Museum is well established and busy, and displays nothing but the stunning sculptures of the Champa civilisation, which was a precursor of the Khmer Empire that built the Angkor temples (see this post).


Hoi An, about 30km (or 45 minutes) south of Danang (yellow buses run hourly along Le Duan, just south of Danang station and through the centre; or take a taxi), is rightly famed for its blend of Vietnamese, Chinese, Japanese and European influences and architectural styles, and is well worth a day’s visit. It is in fact something of a tourist trap, and very crowded at peak times, but once you get away from the main shopping streets you should be fine. There are beaches, and luxury hotels, just to the east of town, and you’ll see lots of tourists wobbling along on bikes provided by the hotels.

The centre (a World Heritage Site since 1999) is traffic-free and there’s a fee of D120,000 to visit, which gives access to any five of the tourist sights on one day (previously you could visit one museum, one assembly hall, one merchant’s house etc, but now you can see five assembly halls and nothing else if you choose – though that would be silly, even given their riotous over-the-top decoration). If you’re just going shopping, you can probably decline to pay. Guide books have full details of the sights, of course – the assembly halls were community centres for Chinese settlers from various places of origin, and the Hai Nan Assembly Hall (10 Tran Phu) has fairly recently been added to the ticket scheme. Supposedly there’s free wifi in the pedestrian area too.

Hué was the imperial capital of the Nguyen Dynasty from 1802 to 1945, although the French took effective control in 1885. It remains a quiet and cultured place, largely unaffected by the economic boom that’s sweeping aside the historic buildings and the peace and quiet of Ho Chi Minh Ciry and Hanoi. We were not using the latest edition of the Rough Guide to Vietnam, so some of these updates may have a bit of a dated feel…

The Fine Arts Museum is now more accurately named the Museum of Royal Antiquities, although an annexe to the main palace (built in 1845 inside the Imperial City then moved here to become a university library) also houses a good informative display of Champa sculpture from the surrounding region. It’s covered by the same ticket as the Imperial City (D150,000) and is now open from 7am to 5pm daily. However, in December 2016, plans were released to make Le Loi Street, along the south bank of the Perfume River, the city’s main cultural axis, with up to six museums in the long term. There are already two there, the Ho Chi Minh Museum and the Le Ba Dang Art Centre, and two city buildings are to become sculpture and embroidery museums. Then the provincial government will move out and the building will become a new Museum of Fine Arts.

The Imperial City still feels a bit empty and windswept in places, but far more has been restored and re-opened than we expected – it was largely burnt down in 1947, and was again heavily damaged when the Viet Cong captured the city in 1968 and held it for 25 days, and it then took ten days of heavy fighting for the South Vietnamese government forces to recapture it. Since then the rebuilding process has been slow and painstaking.

Some practicalities

In Danang there’s now a tourist information centre at 108 Bach Dang (by the river at the east end of Hung Vuong; tel: 0236 3898196), which isn’t shown in our ancient edition of the Rough Guide; you can rent bikes here. There are some good restaurants in the An Thuong expat area east of the river (inland from the Holiday Beach Hotel), notably a Mexican joint (really!) called Taco Ngon and a more upmarket place called Lam Vien. We enjoyed meeting Shaun of Danang Food Tour, who will gladly take you on a crawl around cafés and restaurants that gives both physical and mental sustenance and is just a lot of fun too. In the city centre, Bach Dang, between the Dragon Bridge and the Han Bridge, is lively at night, with some attractive riverside cafés.

In Hoi An, we loved Bazar, at 36 Tran Phu
 St – it’s owned by a friend of a friend, a fascinating Italian archeologist who works across the region but especially on the Cham ruins of My Son, and his wife Thanh. The front of the restaurant is relatively recent, but the rear was probably built in the 17th century, while pottery shards found in the back garden have been dated to the 14th century, when Fujianese settlers first came from China. They serve fine traditional Hoi An food and a few European dishes too for those who need a change. There are lots of other good places to eat (it seems to be a local rule that all the waitresses have to wear pointy straw hats, for some reason) – one that’s been recommended is Morning Glory, which does great local food (including soups, noodles, steamed shrimp dumplings and desserts) as well as Vietnamese-style baguettes – like many Vietnamese restaurants, they also offer cookery classes.

Hué does feel as if it’s divided in two by the Huong River (aka the Perfume River), with just a few long bridges across it – the citadel and palace are to the north, and most hotels, cafés and restaurants are to the south. Some perfectly nice hotels are located down some very rough alleys, but don’t worry! This is a lively area, and there are lots of ciclos and taxis (although there seem to be lots of scooters without lights here too). You may need taxis more often than expected as things are quite far apart and map scales can be deceptive, but they only cost a few dollars.

The city is known for its excellent vegetarian food, due to the number of Buddhist temples and monks here, but apparently they avoid garlic and onion due to their warming effects. We had a great lunch at Lien Hoa, at a temple at 3 Le Quy Don, south of the stadium; dishes (costing D20,000-50,000 each) included bamboo flowers, jackfruit, mushrooms, aubergine and bitter melon, as well as soya, of course. Very filling, very affordable.

PS (July 2017) Quite a few of the tall hotel blocks near the beach in Danang have rooftop bars, and our friends there have been researching the best. The Top View Bar at the Vanda Hotel is one of their favourites, right at the foot of the Dragon Bridge with views over the city. They also love the deck at the Top Bar at A La Carte Hotel, which is great at sunset, and the Tourane Bar on the 26th floor of the Muang Thanh Grand Hotel, which has spectacular views of the Han River, Da Nang Bay and the ocean; because it’s a bit off the beaten track, the prices are less than half those of the other bars.

Hectic times in Ho Chi Minh City

We found Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) a hectic noisy place without a great deal to see or do. Yes, it has a high energy level, reminiscent of Bangkok and mostly felt through the swarms of scooters buzzing around which make every road crossing perilous, and it does have some nice colonial buildings, although the only one of real interest is the General Post Office (1891), with its roof supplied in prefab form by the Eiffel company.

I found it particularly interesting to find a Public Letter Writer working there! Duong Van Ngo was born in 1930 and started work at the Post Office at the age of eighteen, reputedly without ever taking a day off. He writes by hand using a fountain pen. Not sure how much writing he does these days as he seemed to be more of a tourist attraction, but am told he is up for a conversation about his experience if you have time!

Other colonial piles now house museums – we found the Ho Chi Minh City Museum, in the former palace of the governor of Cochinchina (1886), not very good and poorly presented (although the displays upstairs on ‘the American war’ are better), while the History Museum had a good collection of sculpture, including some of the oldest wooden Buddhas in Southeast Asia (from the 7th and 8th centuries). The Fine Arts Museum was definitely better than expected; it’s housed in the very grand mansion of a Chinese businessman (1934) and two adjacent buildings of much the same period (the main building still has its original little lift, the oldest on Southeast Asia and still in working order), and displays a varied and interesting range of work.

Lacquer painting

The paintings in lacquer on wood were particularly effective, and not something we’d seen in adjoining countries. Nor is there a lot of cheap revolutionary cliché, although military scenes are certainly well represented. The third building also displays Champa sculpture from the 7th century on, the precursor of the wonderful Khmer sculpture of the Angkor temples and very fine in its own right.

The city’s busiest, and best presented, museum is the War Remnants Museum, which does display plenty of weapons, from bullets up to tanks and a Chinook helicopter, but is more an indictment of the crimes of the imperialist invaders (start on the top floor with the French, then the rest of the museum is of course concerned with the Americans) and their South Vietnamese proxies. The photos of the effects of Agent Orange (a defoliant containing lethal amounts of dioxin) are particularly appalling, but there’s also balancing coverage of worldwide protests against the war and support for the Vietnamese. There’s also a gallery of striking photos by war correspondents, including the last photos taken by the great Robert Capa before he stepped on a landmine in 1954. Alongside the museum is a display on the island prisons of the South Vietnamese regime, which shows disturbing similarities with Phnom Penh’s Genocide Museum. The lunchtime closure is a bit annoying, although there’s still access to the café (with wifi and power sockets).

Some practicalities

The visa on arrival system works far less well than in Laos and Cambodia – having paid US$17 online and received pre-approval for my visa, I still had to wait an hour at Ho Chi Minh City airport, with scores of others milling around, and paid another US$25, to actually receive the precious stamp (full-page, of course) in my passport. Typically communist bureaucracy. It’s only available arriving by air, which does give some confidence that you probably won’t be turned back. You only need one photo, not two as stated online, and they’ll take one if you don’t have any.

When I changed money I instantly became a millionaire, due to the three excess zeroes on the currency. On the other hand there are no coins, as in Laos and Cambodia, and banknotes are now made of polymer.

A metro is under construction, and due to open in 2019, with luck; there’s also a decent bus network (not much used by tourists, it seems, although it does serve the railway station and the airport). Taxis are everywhere and can easily be flagged down; they use meters and you shouldn’t pay much more than 160,000 Dong (£6) to get from the airport to the centre (District 1) or 60,000 Dong to cross the centre. The most reliable companies are Mailinh (green) and Vinasun (white). I do believe that no driver elsewhere in the world knows the width of his vehicle as accurately as a Ho Chi Minh City taxi driver, weaving through the traffic with pinpoint accuracy. However most locals get around on scooters, and it’s astonishing how much space is given over to storing them, both public (on sidewalks etc) and private (in the front rooms of houses, for instance).

Trains can now be booked online at www.baolau.com – you’ll have to show the booking on your phone or other digital device at the information counter and a boarding pass will be printed out. Even the four-berth soft sleeper carriages are old and communist in feel (and Katy spotted a cockroach), although they have been upgraded with air-conditioning and electric sockets, and the track is still pretty rough; it’s a long two-night haul from HCMC to Hanoi, but the shorter runs from HCMC up to Danang (17 hours) or from Hué to Hanoi (13 hours) are worth considering for their views of Vietnamese life, both on the train and in the countryside outside.


We happened across two excellent places to eat. The Hoa Khai vegetarian restaurant at 124 Nguyen Cu Trinh was reassuringly busy, with lots of locals coming and going; there’s no fancy décor but the atmosphere is totally authentic. There’s lots of ‘pork’ and ‘chicken’ on the menu, but it’s all fake (made with synthetic protein); there are plenty of mushroom dishes too and it’s all tasty.

It’s well worth making the effort to find the Secret Garden at 158 Pasteur. Walk into the alley – on the left is a doorway to a dilapidated apartment building above which is a small restaurant sign. Go up the stairs and five grotty/smelly flights later (keep going – it’s worth it!) you’ll emerge onto a charming leafy roof terrace which would be particularly lovely at sunset. We ate a delicious traditional Vietnamese lunch alongside fellow locals and a handful of other tourists and benefitted from the cooling fans overhead.  The veggie options were good and the décor was lovely too!


We use AirB&B fairly frequently and I like to research quirky and cheap places to stay. We discovered a gem! Tucked away behind a small alley, but conveniently located, is a bookshop previously called Kafka. They have three rooms upstairs. Ours was ensuite and simple, clean and quiet with air con and a fan. We paid £10 each for the night. You can relax in  the common lounge and drink Vietnamese coffee whilst using their wifi. Tim prefers tea and they gave us access to the kitchen to make his own. The very helpful James looked after us and provided us with a rudimentary map. (Access help pictures below!)

The entrance from the street
Walk thru’ the alley/turn right at end!