With one month left of our three-month Vietnam visa, we had plans to spend a total of three weeks in the Vietnamese capital, broken up into two stays. We are really glad we did as we have thoroughly enjoyed our time in the north and feel we saw a more authentic Vietnam than we did in the south.
Our first stay in Hà Nội was for a week, we then spent time further north in the hills of Sa Pả and on Cát Bà Island, before returning for another two weeks. Both times we stayed in a two bedroom, one bathroom apartment we booked via Airbnb in a fantastic location on the edge of the Old Quarter. Click here for our accommodation review.
Besides catching up with family, some Kiwi expats and two other travelling families, we had plenty of highlights from our time in Hà Nội.
To get our bearings we took some time to wander around the Old Quarter, there are some iconic things to see and it is a very pleasant area but it is incredibly touristy, so we didn’t see the need to spend too much further time in this area of the city.But we did try more of the famous Hà Nội egg coffees. Nguyen Van Giảng was the man who first created this delicious drink back in 1946, at the time he worked at the Sofitel Legend Metropole Hotel here in Hà Nội. During the French War there was a serious shortage of milk, Giảng decided to improvise by using egg yolk instead of milk, and everyone loved his unique concoction. He then decided to leave the hotel industry and open up his own shop, Giảng Café. It has moved a couple of times since and is currently run by his son, Nguyen Tri Hoa, situated at 39 Nguyễn Hữu Huân but they are using virtually the same recipe as in the early days. Here we tried the iced version and they were amazing, great on a warm Vietnamese day, and just 30,000 VND/$1.33 NZD each.Giảng’s daughter also decided to get into the mix and opened her own coffee shop, Café Đinh, currently situation in an interesting location on level 2, 13 Đinh Tiên Hoàng. We nearly missed it as you enter through a luggage store, head towards the back and then make your way up some narrow, concrete stairs. We’ve been a couple of times and you have to be quick to get a table as it’s been very busy on both occasions. Delicious egg coffees though and only 20,000 VND/$1.33 NZD each; definitely the best hot egg coffees we have had, and the cheapest!!
Hỏa Lò Prison Museum
The former prison, built by the French in the late 1880’s, was first used to hold Vietnamese political prisoners and then later used by the Vietnamese to hold American POWs during the Vietnam/American War. It was during this time that is was sarcastically nicknamed the “Hà Nội Hilton”. Over the early years there were many extensions to increase capacity but most of the prison was demolished in the late 1990’s with just a small section remaining, including the front gates, that is now the museum.
The name “Hỏa Lò” commonly translates as “fiery furnace” or even “Hell’s hole”, which seems appropriate but also means “stove” and the name originated from the street name, phố Hỏa Lò where it is located, due to the concentration of stores selling wood and coal-fire stoves along the street. The French called the prison “Maison Centrale”, which is literally, “Central House”, a traditional euphemism to denote prisons in France.This was an interesting look at the conditions of both sets of prisoners, obviously from the Vietnamese point of view, but it gave the boys some more to think about around these historic events. Braxton was very interested, asked lots of questions and gave his own ideas of what might of happened within the darkly painted walls. There is lots of information in English (as well as Vietnamese & French) so this meant Lincoln could read his own way around the exhibits.
Imperial Citadel of Thăng Long
After heading out early one morning to try to visit the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum (it’s only open from 7.30am-10.30/11am and closed completely on Mondays and Fridays) we came across the incredibly long line…. We weren’t keen to wait in the rising morning temperature so we decided to head to the nearby Imperial Citadel of Thăng Long.
From 1894 to 1897, the French colonial destroyed most of the construction in the Citadel, however the Flag Tower is one of the rare architecture works which still remain today. Many artefacts and items dating back to between the 6th and 20th centuries were excavated in 2004, including foundations of old palaces, ancient roads, ponds and wells. Work still continues and it is interesting to walk around the area for a few hours.Of course the boys really enjoyed exploring the secret underground bunkers used during the Vietnam War and creating their own stories and reenactments.With our first week complete, we headed further north via a 6 hour bus trip directly to Sa Pả, we spent four nights up there before returning to Ha Noi for just one night. On this occasion we spent the night at Gecko Hotel, right in the heart of the Old Quarter (here is our review), and then we were off again the following morning. This time we had a 3 hour journey via bus, then boat and then another bus to the small township on Cát Bà Island. After six nights we headed back to the capital, ready to explore more of what Hà Nội had to offer.
Vietnam Military History Museum
Just a short 550m walk from our apartment was the Vietnam Military History Museum, we had been meaning to visit since our first time in Hà Nội and finally made it one afternoon. You have to time your visit strategically as the museum is open from 8.00am-11.30am, closed for lunch and then reopens from 1.00-4.30pm and is closed completely on Mondays and Fridays. We have found that these opening hours/days happen a lot throughout Vietnam.
The museum opened in 1956 and is the site of the amazing Hà Nội Flag Tower; unlike many other structures around Hà Nội, it was not destroyed during the French invasion of the late 1890’s. The tower took 7 years to be built and was finished in 1812 as an observation post to the Imperial Citadel; it is therefore included in the UNSECO World Heritage Site. Composed of three tiers and the main tower, it stands at a height of 33.4m (41m with the flag) and since 1986 there has always been a national flag flying on top of this formidable symbol of the city.The museum itself is a really good size, spread over a few rooms and levels, as well as numerous outdoor exhibits, and covers the long and lively military history of Vietnam. As it happens a bit at these type of attractions, the wording and descriptions are very emotive and biased towards the Vietnamese during any wars they have been involved in over the years. Words like ‘annihilate’, ‘obliterate’, ‘crush’ and ‘wipe out’ the enemy are heavily used along with numerous statistics about how many foreigners were ‘wiped out’, although we never saw anything mentioning how many Vietnamese lost their lives in these battles. A lot of this goes over the boys heads but does give them plenty to think about when seeing some of the remnants of conflict.
On this particular day I suggested giving Logan a break from being ‘behind the lens’ and let the boys take the responsibility of capturing images of things they found of interest. Lincoln had his iPod and some clip-on lenses, while Braxton used the iPhone. It was great to see them think more about what they were taking photos of, using a selection of angles and different view points of the same object.
Later when we were back at our apartment they were given the task of selecting their favourite shots, editing them if they wished and collating 10 images each. We posted them all on our Facebook page and asked followers to vote for their favourite from each of the boys and it was amazing to see the engagement and incredible feedback the boys got from others, a nice change rather than just hearing what Mum and Dad had to say. Here are a few extras they have created since their first collections –