Tanya Joslin discovers Hanoi should not be overlooked by couples planning a Vietnam holiday or honeymoon.
What surprised me the most about Hanoi is just how beautiful it is. A city of treelined boulevards, lakes and ancient architectural gems that remain modern-day reminders of Vietnam's fascinating history. Hanoi experienced the tragedies of many wars including the Chinese, the French, and of course the Vietnam (American) war – and all left their mark on lovely Hanoi.
Having said this, much of the city escaped bombing during the horrendous period of perhaps the most famous war, the Vietnam/American war, so its streets and buildings evoke the city's rich history.
Over a period of four days, we easily enjoyed some of Hanoi's best sites and, like many visitors to the city, the architecture from 100 years of French influence was a highlight for us. As you would expect, the French Quarter, situated to the south and east of Hoan Kiem Lake and where you will find the famous Opera House, is a great place to get a feel for the French architecture of Hanoi. The area around The Presidential Palace was one of our favourite to walk around, not least of all because of the beautiful tree-lined path leading to the building that is at the other end of the city's historical scale - the Ho Chi Minh Stilt House.
Constructed in the gardens of the Presidential Palace, this simple structure does not even have a kitchen and, when you consider the risk of bombings at the time, it seems unfathomable that Ho Chi Minh could sleep well here. In a true testament to his humble background and sincere agenda, 'Uncle Ho' refused to live in grand surrounds while so many of his countrymen suffered. Not far from here is Ho Chi Minh's Mausoleum, Uncle Ho's resting place in Ba Dinh Square. His preserved body lies in a glass case... Eerie but a must-see.
Not surprisingly, Hanoi offers a wealth of war history. The Hanoi Hilton - or Hoa Lo Prison - is just one example. It is incredibly haunting, but is a Hanoi do not miss. While it was the Americans who gave the sarcastic reference to a brand known more for its comfortable or luxury hotels, the prison today focuses on the Vietnamese revolutionaries who were sentenced and sometimes even executed here during the French reign. There are dummies that highlight how emaciated the prisoners were, and some even depict children; original tiny dungeon linked cells, and placards to tell the revolutionary story from the Vietnamese point of view.
Related article: Sights, Smells and Sounds of Hanoi
Old Quarter, where the streets date back to the 13th century, has a long history and is a great way to get an idea of the how Hanoians have traded with each other over hundreds, if not thousands, of years. There are 36 Old Streets, each named according to the goods or craft found there. Within these rambling, bustling streets, you will discover historical, cultural and architectural gems, along with loads of bargains. Stop at Beer Corner, pull up a small blue plastic chair and enjoy a cold beer and some fried cheese sticks while you watch the surrounding chaos!
Hanoi was more than enough to whet our appetite for Vietnam. While we did not get to experience the beautiful beaches, the hill tribes and hiking of Sapa, or even Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) on this trip, we know we have all of this ahead, waiting to be discovered. Couples can now indulge in luxury while travelling through Vietnam with a range of high-end properties scattered from top to bottom, so a Vietnam honeymoon could be the ultimate combination of discovery and luxury.
We stayed at the Somerset Grand Hanoi apartments, situated right next to the 'Hanoi Hilton' (the jail!). Although fabulously located and a great mid-range option, for couples enjoying a romantic getaway or Hanoi honeymoon, you can not go past the Sofitel Legend Metropole Hanoi. One of Asia's finest heritage hotels, the Sofitel Legend Metropole oozes old-world romance and is located just steps from Hanoi's French Quarter and the famous Opera House. Truly one of the world's great hotels, and an absolute must for any special occasion visit to Vietnam.
The simplicity of fresh ingredients and herbs makes Vietnamese cuisine a favourite for many and we loved eating our way around the country's capital. Restaurants were so affordable we would often order a range of dishes that we had never tried or heard of before. The interesting thing about Vietnam is that visitors usually eat and enjoy the same meals that locals do - the famous Pho is one of the most popular dishes for breakfast for Vietnamese! Consider booking a street food tour. Mark Lowerson and Van Cong Tu (author of blog Vietnamese God) have been pounding the streets of Hanoi for more than a decade and now offer visitors street food tours (SBS's Featured Foodie series covered them).
Top sites include (but are not limited to) The Old Quarter, The French Quarter, Vietnamese Museum of Ethnology, The Temple of Literature, Hoa Lo Prison. You can easily do all of these on a four day visit.
One of the best afternoons we had was with a not for profit group, Hanoi Kids. This volunteer group of university students are happy to show guests around Hanoi for free (you just cover their meals and entry charges). In return, they get to practise their english skills and take joy in showing visitors their city. They will tailor a day or afternoon to what you want to see from the Temple of Literature – a Confucian temple and said to be one of the first universities in the world – to the backstreets of the Old Quarter. It was one of our best afternoons; however be aware that there are scammers pretending to be this group so email them to discuss your visit and interests, and their availability.
Couples will love
Hanoi is a wonderful honeymoon or romantic destination, but it is also a fabulous launching pad to Halong Bay where you can cruise through of the most beautiful parts of the world. There are many Vietnams to discover - the hill tribes of Sapa, beaches of Nha Trang, Danang and elsewhere, cultural Hoi An, and the cosmopolitan energy of Ho Chi Minh City. Visit Helen Wong Tours for an example of the kinds of independent tours you can arrange.