Hello everyone! As many of you will know, I arrived back to the UK last week after a rather tense, albeit enjoyable few weeks in Vietnam. Its taken me a while to get round to writing a blog post as Ive been pretty sick since touching down in London but finally, here it is! Vietnam has been on my bucket list since forever and Im so happy I finally got the chance to go, I just wish it could have been under slightly better circumstances.
I spent the majority of my time in Hanoi, the capital city of Vietnam but managed to sneak in a quick trip to Mai Châu, a rural district of Hòa Bình Province in the Northwest region of the country. There are a lot of interesting things to do in Hanoi but it is very much a busy city kinda place which can get a bit overbearing after some time so I would definitely advice taking a group trip or guided tour to some of the more rural parts of the country.
One thing I definitely want to forewarn you of is the air pollution in Hanoi, I have honestly never experienced anything like it in my life. If you’re thinking of going soon, I would really advise that you bring a light scarf or invest in a face mask to protect yourself from the rather thick and heavy air pollution.
Despite its status as a developing country, Vietnam has some really great and very modern architecture intertwined with historical and traditional buildings, particular in Hanoi. Hoàn Kiếm Lake (translated as “Lake of the Returned Sword”) is one of the focal points of the city and a great place to wonder around at night when the air is much cooler and families gather round to drink tea and catch up. It also serves as a sort of mental map of the city, so if you ever get lost, just ask to be directed to the lake! Văn Miếu – Quốc Tử Giám was built in 1970 and is home to the imperial academy, Vietnam`s first national university. It is beautifully decorated and you will often find local people at the entrance, placing gifts and decorations or just offering up worship. Interestingly, the temple is also featured on the back of the 100,000 Vietnamese đồng banknote. St Josephs Cathedral is another one of those inadvertent focal points of the city, or at least it is another key place that myself and other tourists would refer to when we were lost! Built in the late 19th century by the French colonial government, it has a very disticntive Neo-Gothic style, which I couldn’t help but feel looked a little out of place in the middle of Hanoi! However, I later found out that the church now serves as the cathedral to the nearly 4 million Catholics within the country. The womens museum, located on Ly Thuong Kiet Street, near to Hoan Kiem Lake is a must-see! This modern museum showcases the roles of the vietnamese women throughout the ages and within society and culture. Honestly? I had no idea just how hard working these women were until I visited this museum.
As with most Southeast Asian countries, you’ll find a million spas dotted all over the place, offering everything from facials and massages to nail treatments and all for a much cheaper price than most western countries. In Hanoi, turn any street corner and you’ll see at least 2 spas with competing prices. However, be aware that they my not always be what you would expect from your local nail salon in terms of professionalism and organisation- I decided to get gel nails painted a few days into my trip to Hanoi and was very disappointed by the shabby layout of the salon. With uncomfortable seating, clumpy nail varnish and poor customer service (the nail technician stopped to have a chat with her mother about 5 times whilst painting my nails), I was a little bit let down. If you’re looking to have the best and relaxing pampering experience, its best to browse through trip advisor recommendations. One thing I would definitely recommend trying is the `blind massage`, an unforgettable experience. I chose to visit one of OMAMORI chains of massage studios which is run by Blind-Link, a not-for-profit social enterprise that provides employment, support, and training opportunities for the Vietnamese visually impaired community. It was such a crazy and wonderful experience to be given a massage by a blind therapist who seemed to `feel` the areas of my body which had been given me some pain and discomfort. Its also a great way to give something back to the blind community in vietnam.
Food & drink
No surprise here but there are a billion and one places to eat in Vietnam, especially in Hanoi! You’ll find everything from high-class restaurants serving top-notch food at an equally top-dollar price, to food stalls selling local Vietnamese food for anything from a dollar upwards! The only problem with the local street food is that 1) I can never bloody remember the names of the places as they all seem to have similar names and 2) It can be a bit of a game of pot-luck when it comes to finding decent food that won’t leave you nursing a poorly tummy for days after! Some of the staple foods I ate were banh mi (Vietnamese sandwiches) and pho (noodle soup) as well as fried rice with various vietnamese `curries`. A Lao is another meal that I would recommend anyone to try, its almost like a soup or stew which, at the majority of restaurants, you will be asked to cook yourself. You will be given a big pot which is placed over a small gas cooker and a plate of meats and vegetables on the side. Throw it all into the pot and let it soak up the liquid soup which will already be boiling away at the bottom of the pot. Let it simmer for around 10 minutes and dig in! (Just make sure its definitely cooked first though, eh?!) One thing you will definitely not fail to notice in Vietnam is the sheer amount of coffee shops dotted about on every street corner. A word of warning- vietnamese coffee is not for the faint hearted! I am a huge coffee lover myself but the coffee in Hanoi left me feeling like I had just inhaled a cement mixer full of sugar and on a few occasions, I was left with nervous shakes and twitches for hours. Play it safe and stick to weaker coffee with fresh milk unless you’re tough enough! One of my favourite spots for drinks was the Note cafe at Lương Văn Can. This cozy little cafe makes for the perfect little hideaway, particularly on a rainy day. Though it is located on a rather noisy stretch of high street in the old quarter, it is surprisingly quiet and tranquil inside. The staff are unbelievably friendly and every drink you order will come with a little hand-written note with a positive message or quote. The walls are also covered in notes from previous customers, so it makes for a great place to gather some inspiration if you’re feeling a little run-down.
Like most tourists, I just couldn’t come to Vietnam without indulging in some retail therapy, especially when you can pick up some amazing clothes, shoes and electrical items for a fraction of what you would pay in Europe. The old quarter of Hanoi is jam-packed full of shops and market stalls selling everything from electrical toothbrushes to Dolce and Gabbana jackets! Check out the `Made in Vietnam` clothing stores for High street clothing from the likes of Asos, Zara and Topshop all at discounted prices. However, trying to find the right size can become a bit of a guessing game so its always best to try before you buy!
The night market, which takes place every weekend in Hanoi, is a bright and lively event where you will find hundreds of market stalls selling literally everything and anything. But be prepared to haggle for a cheaper price and always check the quality of the goods before you agree to pay. If you look like a tourist, the chances are you will get treated like a tourist, if you know what I mean..