“Night life or chill?”
That was the question we asked ourselves when we had to choose between Ho Chi Minh and Hanoi when Cebu Pacific held a seat sale over a year ago. To take on the night in a bustling, electric city or leisurely walk about like the lolas we truly are—there really was no contest. Hanoi won by a mile and a cane shake at a bunch of young’uns.
Most seats on sale are on flights that depart and arrive at ungodly hours. That’s what we get for being cheapskates. They’re the kind of seats that require planning weeks prior to the trip, arranging airport transfers, and eschewing the #YOLO attitude a young traveler like myself would oftentimes adopt in the face of adventure.
We arrived at Hanoi at 2:00am. Our hotel, Tu Linh Palace 2, had arranged a $15 airport transfer for us and let us hang out in their “relaxing room” (the staff room) until we could check-in…at 10:30am. Eight and a half hours later. It was going to be a long night.
The relaxing room wasn’t much. A couple of hard couches and a mysterious pile of luggage in the corner. We watched the first few episodes of Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt (whose opening theme would haunt us for the rest of the trip) until the hotel and the city started to come alive around 6:00am. We decided we would catch the sunrise from Hoan Kiem Lake, which was thankfully a few streets away from our hotel.
Hoan Kiem Lake, meaning Lake of the Returned Sword, is right in the center of Hanoi. It serves as a focal point for the city’s public life.
Our research told us March is the perfect time to visit Hanoi because the season was transitioning from winter to spring. We packed for warmer weather, but when we got to the city, we were looking at temperatures of 20 degrees and lower.
“I packed shorts.”
“Uh. Me, too.”
Despite the chill and fog, Hanoi’s older locals gathered around Hoan Kiem Lake in small groups to exercise and chat on benches. We gotta give it up to the Vietnamese grandmas who stretched and moved their bodies in ways we’ve never seen or imagined before. You go, grandmas. You do you.
The little building up there is Turtle Tower, near the southern end of the lake. Hoan Kiem is home to a few large softshell turtles, but we didn’t see any of them. The turtle is an important mythical symbol of Vietnamese independence and longevity, a symbol we would constantly see in souvenirs, art, temples, and shows throughout our trip.
North of the lake is Ngoc Son Temple, a temple dedicated to Confucius and Taoist philosophers. To get to the temple, visitors cross the Welcoming Morning Sunlight Bridge, a red bridge that reminded me of the taiko bashi leading to Sumiyoshi Shrine in Osaka. Unfortunately we didn’t get a chance to go around the small temple.
Walking around the lake made us hangry. We roamed the streets of Hanoi’s Old Quarter in search of grub. Pictures of soup outside this small eatery drew us in. At that point, I was hankering for Tagaytay carinderia bulalo, man.
Whenever I travel to other countries, I usually go to McDonald’s to eat my first meal. I would order their localized options to see how cultural differences affect consumer offerings. In the three days I was in Hanoi, I didn’t see a single McDonald’s branch or kiosk anywhere. There were a lot of Burger King branches and the occasional Popeye’s, which fizzled out in the Philippines a few years ago, but the golden arches were nowhere in sight. This article says McDonald’s can be found in Ho Chi Minh, but expansion remains a challenge due to the lack of locally sourced ingredients and differences in quality control. I was hoping for a McPho, a McBanh Mi, or a McCa Phe Trung.
What I would learn is that Vietnamese food would be so good across the board and so cheap. 1 US dollar is around 22,000 Vietnamese dong. As a personal rule, I convert 1 US dollar into 50 Philippine pesos.
Each big bowl of soup, dumplings, and noodles we had was a little under P80. Not bad considering how delicious, fresh, healthy, and filling this breakfast was. Vietnamese food is A+.
We headed back to the hotel after walking around some more, arranged a hotel pick-up with The Sinh Tourist for our Ha Long Bay tour, and just decided to wait outside until we could check-in. We could’ve had coffee, but watching the city go about its morning was very interesting.
All sorts of things were for sale, bouncing on the backs and bikes of the locals. Baguettes, sweet breads, sweet potatoes, flowers, pineapples, bananas, vegetables, coal, plates, cups, conical hats. A mobile market with hundreds of moving parts. Cyclos ferried tourists at a slow, leisurely pace. Tour buses big and small squeezed through the narrow roads, honking generously at anyone and everyone. Motorcycles claimed the sidewalks as parking lots. Backpackers lugged their heavy bags on their way to their next adventure. Men walked around with a banh mi in one hand, a beer in the other. In that brief time, I felt the pulse of the city—chaotic yet steady, fast and sure.
At exactly 10:30am, River, the hotel desk manager at the time, told us our room was ready. We booked a Superior Triple through Agoda, with three single beds, a bathroom, a window (if this is important to you), and daily breakfast. For two and a half nights, we paid a little less than P4,000. The room was a little dated, the hairdryer weak, the door creaked like a jackhammer, the bathtub strangely elevated, and there was a strange smell in one corner of the room, but the Tu Linh Palace Hotel 2 staff were very accommodating, courteous, and always ready to lend a hand. Great location, too. But it was okay.
It was nighttime when we woke up from our nap. We were amazed at how much the city transformed. The street lights did so much to brighten our area and make it look festive and lively. With the fog that whitewashed the city gone, Hanoi’s Old Quarter had a chance to shine and show its true colors.
Vendors selling souvenirs in carts parked themselves in the middle of our street. Restaurants set up extra tables and chairs on the sidewalk. Street performers did their thing, filling the street with music and setting the mood of the evening. Traffic enforcers placed road blocks on opposite sides of the road to keep cars and motorbikes away, transforming the area into one big, bustling street fair.
We had dinner at a restaurant called New Day, a stone’s throw away from the hotel. Lily, another Tu Linh hotel desk manager, recommended this place when she gave us a map of Hanoi. We ordered hot and sour soup, deep-fried spring rolls, lemongrass and chili chicken, shrimp and pineapple rice, and a couple of fresh spring rolls. All delicious. We couldn’t stop raving about the chicken.
Dessert was “fried” ice cream rolls as we walked through the weekend night market that stretched from Hang Dao Street all the way to Dong Xuan Market, that big souvenirs place. Fried ice cream gets its name from the way it’s made. The cream is spread over a very cold surface. Imagine a teppanyaki grill, but cold and used for dessert. Once the cream hardens enough, it’s scraped into rolls.
I didn’t buy anything save for the ice cream from Hanoi’s weekend night market because most of the things there I can find in Greenhills or Divisoria back home. However, I do regret not pausing to check out cute nightlights. (I am 25 years old, and yes, I still use a nightlight. It brings me great joy.) If you’re looking for cheap clothes, accessories, toys, tools, and knockoffs, the night market’s a great place to shop.
We ended the day back where we started at Hoan Kiem Lake to marvel at it in a different light. Where the old folk once exercised, couples now sat. Some dressed to the nines, others keeping it casual. Rose vendors walked around the lake, quietly talking to lads, trying to convince them to buy a flower for their lady. We sat down on a bench for a while and thought about the good things in life.
Until a rat scurried from one grass patch to the next a few feet away. He did that a few more times, running back and forth between grass beds.
Okay, time to go home.
More on our trip soon! And a travel video!