Hanoi’s 5 best kept secrets

Two years ago, Lonely Planet labeled “egg coffee” in Old Quarter as “The best kept secret of Old Quarter”. Since then, hundreds of people have had the chance to navigate along a very small typical lane of Hanoi old town, immerse themselves within the ancient architecture and refreshing view of Hoan Kiem lake as sipping smooth “eggy” texture of that cafe.
 Despite many Tripadvisor users raving about how “touristy” it has become, to me it is just positive. Those kinds of secrets being revealed help balance out various experiences and travel styles of people coming here, blending themselves more deeply to local community, creating a better picture of Hanoi in the hearts of people who just come here once or twice in their lives.
 This post is dedicated to that spirit from personal viewpoint and information gathered from Vietnamese travel communities.

Long Bien Bridge

Long Bien (the side of dragon), the rusty steel bridge built in 1899 has been a history connector to Hanoians. February 2014, when the Ministry of Transportation proposed the plan of destroying Long Bien to build a new one, people almost went crazy. To us, Long Bien is much more than a kind of commuting.

It is where hundreds of young couple solidify their love with cute small locks, where young volunteer groups gathering, playing guitar, eating grilled corns together, singing like no one is listening. Long Bien is probably the best place in the city to hunt sunrise and sunset, a favourite place of photographers.

You can get to Long Bien just by 10 minute walking from Old Quarter. Being there at any time of the day is nice, yet the feeling of watching Red river at night does give you a serene state of flow.

B-52 lake

Ngoc Ha village, 1972. A striking moment of anti-American war (known internationally as “Vietnam War”). After 12 days of consistent defending, 34 B-52 planes were shot down, marking a victorious moment of the “Dien Bien Phu on air” campaign.

One of the planes fell down into a small lake of Ngoc Ha, a peaceful village. A part of the remnant is brought to showcase in Military History Museum on Dien Bien Phu street, the body is still kept there. Very close to Ho Chi Minh mausoleum, you may ask your driver or tour guide to stop there after paying a visit to Uncle Ho.

An obvious scar of war blends harmoniously with the peaceful rhythm of a small village, making me speechless the first time I had a chance to go there.

Catching “sun fish” from Sunset bar of Intercontinental, West Lake

Many people would probably argue that this is not a secret at all, let alone a local experience. Well, “live in culture, stay in comfort” will be contemporary slogan of travelers. After hours venturing in small lanes of Hanoi, treat yourself with a drink, contemplating while the sun goes down. Sun set bar is seperated from Intercontinental hotel, which makes it a truly spacious location to relax. Spoil yourself and your camera at the same time. A potential competitor might be Summit Lounge of Sofitel Plaza, where the views opens to Thanh Nien, the most romantic street in the city.

Cruising West Lake

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Combining “Vietnam” and “Cruising”, people would think of the classic Ha Long bay, not West Lake Ha Noi. Yet that somewhat ridiculous idea turned out to be a pleasant experience. Out of 28 lakes in Ha Noi, West Lake is the biggest one with a peremeter of 14 km. People come here to fish, to swim, to kayak and to enjoy windy, fresh summer nights. Until now Potomac Cruise seems to be the best choice with their good service and regular promotion programs.

Dining out while cruising West lake is definitely not a bad idea if you are short of time in a business trip.

Eating “Bun dau” in Phat Loc lane, Old Quarter

People coming to Vietnam and Hanoi rarely know about anything else other than “Pho”. To them, “Pho” of Vietnam is like Sushi of Japan or Kimchi of Korea, a “signature dish”. I don’t deny that. However, to us, Bun Dau may express even better characteristics of Vietnamese Cuisine.

“Bun” means “rice vermicelli” and “dau” means “tofu”. Made of cheap and available ingredients, “Bun Dau” was originally made for poor workers who can’t afford more costly dishes. Over time it has become a favourite choice of most of Hanoians. Luke Nguyen, a Vietnamese-Australian chef once commented

Vietnam cuisine is all about balance

“Bun Dau” reflects that very obviously: the smooth texture of rice vermicelli, the crispiness of just fried tofu slices, the freshness from various kinds of herbs, the exotic taste of “shrimp taste”, altogether creating a hard-to-forget street dining experience. You can eat Bun dau just at any street, yet the vendor in no 55 of “Phat Loc” lane, Old Quarter sets itself apart thanks to delicate selection of ingredients and hustling, vibrant atmosphere you would expect in a truly local favorite dining area.

Explore Hanoi as an independent traveler

Hanoi is a strange city. It gives you mixed feelings: frustration with chaotic traffic, bewilderment with street arrangement, but at the same time, sweet sensation when autumn comes, a rich chill-out around West Lake, and that hustle-bustle vibrant scene around beer corner at night.

Every Hanoian gets super nostalgic when they go out. Complaints out of comparison with other modern cities, yes they do. But the emotion attachment still remains and it’s so hard to explain.

Maybe of its well-kept secrets? 😉

First time visitors coming to Hanoi, don’t be limited by what Lonely Planet offers. And don’t be too arrogant thinking you would feel it all just randomly bumping around either. When I first came to Bangkok, Thailand, I spent my time just lost and confused in Pratunam, and even though that fact helped me meet random nice people. Some homework doesn’t hurt, does it? 😉

1st day – GET TO KNOW THE CITY

Come to classic history destination. Check if you can book Hanoi Kids, a group of excellent students with strong English command and great enthusiasm who are more than happy to be Hanoi ambassadors. If not, just ask Couchsurfing travel mate for travel companions & some will be more than happy to accompany & share conversations with you. Expect they will come to you for English practice, but it may turn out to be memorable interactions.

Suggestions for classic destinations that give you a good look into different sides of the city.

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Political: Ba Dinh complex (with HCM mausoleum, presidental palace and government conference house)

Educational: Temple of literature (1st university of Vietnam)

War history: Hoa Lo Prison & B52 lake (clear marks of Vietnam war from our perspective – biased, which will balance out your also-biased point of view)

Culture: Museum of Ethnology

I really can’t recommend Museum of Ethnology highly enough. Visual, informative & interesting with a modern approach. You can easily spend a whole morning or a whole afternoon there. A great way to access the colorful culture landscape of 54 human groups in Vietnam.

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Check out what other travelers roam about the place.

For 1st night, check out beer corner in Old Quarter. A vibrant hub of locals, expats and foreigners come and have interesting conversations here.

If you don’t like people watching, there’s always some rooftop to go. I recommend Avalon for their good view.

2nd day – FEEL HANOI

After covering the most famous places in your way, get deeper to the contemporary & art/ cultural side of the city. I recommend:

Ma May old house — Old Quarter

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An ancient house kept intact & graceful which portrays Old Quarter through different layers of history, hence it is also named “The heritage house”

Old Quarter culture-exchange center — Dao Duy Tu

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An interesting exhibition of Old Quarter. Invested by a French university. 2 floors with images of unique corners in the area. Numerous books and projects of well-respected Vietnamese scholars are also translated and published here.

Chill & discover West Lake.

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Coming to Hanoi in Autumn without checking west lake is a big miss. You can rent a bicycle from your hotel & ride around this lake (20 km) and just stop to have a beer and chill anywhere along the way

Hanoi unique coffee culture

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Hanoi with all its hidden cafes. If you truly value your solitude time, choose for yourself a nice hidden corner with matched ambiance. Hanoi Hideaway has excellently collected and revealed those for us, with inviting pictures and succinct comments classified either by space or drink quality criteria.

Vibrant contemporary art scene

Hanoi is obviously not known for being dynamic, yet numerous youngsters here are cool-izing the city with their creative projects. Check out Hanoi Grapevine, Nha San Collective and Hanoi Creative City, you may realize some art flows from somewhere we have no idea about.

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Of course, always take it easy & chill. Don’t try to jam everything in if you don’t feel like it. Maybe all it takes is a drink all night long beside west lake, and with that you have Hanoi of your own.
Happy traveling 🙂

Hanoi Positive Mass

Originated from The critical mass in San Francisco, Hanoi Positive Mass took up the spirit very well.

Information about the journey was posted In Facebook for quite a while and the hub, mostly young peopl

e all gathered at the holy point — The Hanoi Cathedral.

“Hi Quang!”

“Hi”

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“I saw you ridin

g on the lake a few days ago. What’s your name?”

“Hello, I am Simon. We are organizing a journey from Hanoi to Paris to raise awareness about climate change”

The mass kept talking, all conversations warmed up the atmosphere and soon enough from unknown faces we pushed our different bikes as long-term peers. Cycling itself sparks a strangely positive energy which attracts us all together, like a magnet. We rode along French Quarter heading to Ho Chi Minh complex, passing by the green boulevard named Hoang Dieu where Hanoi ancient citadel is located.

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Listen everybody, we must ride in two lines only!”

One confident girl in her sporty outfit exclaimed.

People just smiled and the chaotic mass soon lined up in two. I noticed one man riding beside me whose a bike attracts all attention. He is riding calmly and confidently, in the middle of Hanoi on a busy Friday night, with his cute little daughter on the front, and the bike itself, wow:

It just looks like Easy rider.

(By any chance if you read this <yes, you-the-cool-man>, don’t hide your beauty in secret, show it to the world ;)>

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Yep, you imagine how cool Jack is with his iconic motorbike, then this man is very likely one level up cooler on his non-motor one.

Do you assemble the bike yourself?”

Yes I do

And you carry your little baby with you, wow

The mass was wowed for a moment and kept going. Chit-chatting while steering along small lanes of Old Quarter, we attracted some curios look from locals. I would say it is a mix-look: a mash-up of curiosity and excitement. Who knows out of the crowd which one is gonna join us next month?

We stopped for a bit at the junction where the two famous dragons of the pottery street is located. In case you haven’t known about that, then pottery street in Hanoi is the longest mosaic in the world and two-dragon is the center of that.

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I have been told that different from Chinese dragons — big and powerful, Vietnamese dragons used to be depicted as very small. One mischievous biker used to joke and call them as “two little worms” ^^. Well, being small means being more flexible and easy to adapt, and it has been shown very clearly along Vietnamese history.

We wrapped the ride up by a loop around Hoan kiem lake before getting back to the Cathedral. Friday is definitely not a bad choice to draw attention as Hoan Kiem then was packed with youngsters from all around the city celebrating TGIF.

Sweat and smiles, contacts gained and exchanged, the cycling network in Ha Noi just keeps getting bigger.

P/S: After getting peer pressure, the cool man did have to reveal his bike 🙂

 

The brown little front seat is used for his little daughter

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Confess of messed-up bikers

Like a polar bear just waking up from a long winter sleep, Couchsurfing Bicycle was still dizzy.
That was exactly my impression when we gathered in front of the Opera House in a hot Hanoi summer afternoon as the first member showed up.

“Hi, I am Manh”

He smiled and looked around, waiting.

“Oh where is everyone else? ”

Everyone? Me, you and ..3 more I guess? 😉 Nah this is gonna be funny. People expect that a bunch of 20 bikers or so will gather here and we are gonna parade along the way: strong and impressive. The effect of Couchsurfing brand name is interesting: On one hand, it sets a high expectation bar and attract people to come, on the other hand it may lead to disappointment when that bar is not reached. “Hmm let’s see”, I told myself.

10 minutes later, two cute-looking girls showed up. When Toan the little boy came with his full set – yellow helmet, yellow new mountain bike, sun protection shirt, nice shoes, we did feel weird. What about our tools guys? But that doesn’t matter. Biking amateurs we are, yet we still confidently pushed the pedals and moved on. The ride took us 3,5 hours to finish with lots of troubles, random exciting stops and a bunch of stories to tell.

Red River greenery set

Hanoi is a hustle city: buildings after buildings, 9 millions people gathered in constant trading and business. A bit overwhelming sometimes. Red river brings to the capital the extra smooth touch it needs. A classic, rusty yet charming bridge crossing over , seemingly endless delta full of green fields, a strong flow of water bringing a huge amount of alluvial to help make the delta more fertile, Hanoi looking from this side of Red River is such a different soul. Definitely “the city inside river” as the name itself suggests.

 

10628338_782924401787566_2938849058766269962_nI still recall last winter when me and some friends took William and Bryan, two tour guides from US to Bat Trang

pottery village. The extremely cold weather urged us to stop to get some warmth from t

he grilling corn stove and our photographer captured this right moment. Bryan looked like a real philosopher contemplating in the just-right landscape: gentle breeze, misty air, a line of banana fields stretching to the horizon. Time seemed to stop. (Yes, biking in summer will not give you the same feeling 😉 yet Red river would never stop to fill us with nostalgic emotions.

“Did you check the map?”6

No I didn’t, just ride and see.
Manh was a bit surprised. But I am sure he would agree later that spontaneousness would be definitely fun. A biking session not long ago with no plan led us to an amazingly beautiful farm along the the dyke route.

This time, we saw a pagoda and decided to stop. Buddhism is deeply grained around this area, which explains why there are that many pagodas and temples here (around 1,792 pagodas in Hanoi based on the statistic of Vietnam Buddhism Association). Vietnamese are not so religious but we consider pagodas as places to de-stress and seek mental balance. This particular one is designed in a very charming way and similar to what a farmer would set up his house.

Yes, a brick lane with two lines of areca trees on the side and a garden full of pomelo. That reminds of my hometown

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in central Vietnam. Areca trees are straight and strong, hence people compare them with honest and sincere people. Areca trees not only give us shade in summer but its fru

its are also used as an integral part of every wedding offering from the groom side.

 

In weddings, areca fruits are cut into half, surrounded by many betel leaves. The leaves are cut to imitate phoenix wings. When chewed together, a red liquid symbolizing for husband-wife connection is released. “Trầu têm cánh phượng” or “Phoenix wing betel leaves” is an essential part of our culture. It will not dissolve or eaten up by modernization for sure, something you might want to know on the way to discover Vietnam culture.

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Photos everyone, stop !

As we predicted before, the members are NOT professional bikers and we don’t bike in those kinds of sessions for that purpose . No competition please. We will not lose much weight, get six packs or become avid health obsessed after this but above all, biking is a great social activity. Sweating together via sport connects us in a strange way, may it be some technical troubles along the way or an impulsive stop just to take selfies and laugh like crazy. An easy-going ride with something to reflect long after.

Couchsurfing Bicycle community can be found in:

FacebookCouchsurfing Hanoi Bicycle Club: https://www.facebook.com/groups/cshn.bicycleclub/

Trip summary

Total length: 30km

Level: easy (or supereasy? 😉 )

THE BUNKER TOUR IN SOFITEL METROPOLE HANOI

or the branding story

1 mTQgCguHOdWDAiqo0o0AqAThis pictures paints a monk, a young one. Not really yet, since he still got hair. But look at his eyes. Why is he so sad? Probably he has suffered something really bad, really horrible. The look that only very experienced people have..

That’s what the old, charismatic tour guide— the famous history ambassador of Hanoi Legend Sofitel Metropole told us. I want to believe it so bad.

Until later did I search deeper and saw this:

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Rusty Compass, a famous, so-called trustworthy travel guide site boldly claimed this is a “painting of a Hmong boy

Frustrated, I turn to question most of what he shares. As a tour guide, I am used to the mere fact that we make up things a lot of time. When I was taking tourist to Surprising cave in Ha Long bay, most of what we present there is just bullshit. I know, my co-workers know, probaly our customers are also well aware. But hell yeah, that doesn’t matter. After all, as a listener, to me

“A young monk with sad eyes and an agonizing past” sounds better than a H’mong boy

As a story teller, you want to give customer a specific feeling, a unique experience. If making up some small details help to help to construct that concept then why not?

Out of many 5-star hotels in Hanoi, Sofitel Metropole charges the higest price, and yet most people staying there feel so good and consider that as an unforgettable experience.

WHY?

Does this have something to do with?

Great room?

Big pool?

Convinient location?

Good bar?

Great food?

Sure :), as a 5-star hotel it must have all of the above, but hey

The best beds are in L’ Opera

The biggest pool belongs to Thang Loi

Every 5-star hotel is situated just right in the center

The best bar goes to Sunset bar of Intercontinential

The greatest food must be created by chefs in Sofitel Plaza

Plus: no rooftop.

What help construct the strong impression in general is not the facilities which are tangible. On the contrary, it’s the intangible which sets it apart from the others

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Regarding story telling, Sofitel is excellent. It gets all of the facilities mentioned PLUS the history, and just this intangible feature creates the legend brand. Having had no chance to spend any night there yet lucky enough to follow and observe the bunker tour guided by the famous ambassador, it struck me hard why this is complimentary — which means free — to the guests. After all, nothing is free, right?

No receptionist can hold you more than 10 minutes, so the 1-hour tour becomes the perfect chance to sets its value proposition.

It’s not about Vietnam war. It’s about the VIP guests.

The tour was divided into 5 parts. The longest part is spent to talk about how many VIP guests have stayed there. There proudly hanging on the walls:

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Here we have some notable faces:

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If you are a star and your budget is huge, you choose the best option. As simple as that. Why not? With Sofitel Metropole and its long history, the list of guests becomes an “asset” of the hotel. It is selling the status and style, very similar to the way Trek bikes used to use Lance Amstrong (yes, not anymore) and Nike used Tiger Woods.

The more famous they are, the more space in the hotel is spared for them. Hence there is no surprise when the biggest frames feature Bill Clinton, Angelina & Brad Pitt, Jane Fonda. They may not necessary the best, yet they are the most well-known. The guide mentioned Mark Zuckerberg as well (as he is just quite recent, there is no pic of him yet, but the high chance is that he will gets to be posted on the wall soon if FB keeps expanding like it is at the moment).

There is even a separate luxurious “Charlie Chapline Suite” for super VIP guests where “ a collection of Chaplin portraits hang from the wall and a series of Chaplin’s movies are provided to surround you with the memories of this well-known artist” as being said in the website.

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If you are like me, who is very ignorant of history and have no idea who the beautiful ladies in the black-white pictures are, no worries. They are famous and important, period. Dig deeper if you are interested.

Small details matter, yes

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Me and my friend were sipping the “welcome back” drinks after the tour while he exclaimed

Hey this is not a real straw !

Oh yes, that’s a lemon grass trunk being used as a straw. Suddenly I remember the WC with traditional music being played and laughed. Yep, it’s small details that matter.

In the end If you are serious about small details then the big ones will definitely be covered, isn’t it?

Written on 18/6/2015

Medium blog version: https://medium.com/@Mayvietnam/bunker-tour-in-sofitel-metropole-hanoi-8b6609be21f0