If you are traveling to Hanoi, Viatnam any time soon then you must put these places on your bucket list. Your shure to have a fantastic time if you do!
Hoa Lo Prison Relic
Hoa Lo prison has been called many names; Maison Central by the French, Hanoi Hilton by the Americans, but for the Vietnamese, it is known as ‘Hell Hole.’ Although the name comes from the furnace builders that once lined the street, the name aptly describes the conditions the prisoners interned here face.
Built by imperial France in 1896, it was called Masion Central and housed Vietnamese political prisoners who defied the French imperialist. The French wanted to make sure that the prison was very secure. Not trusting the locals, they imported every brick directly from France, building an almost inescapable fortress.
Although there was only one escape from the prison, the French failed at silencing the voices of its prisoners, calling for Vietnamese independence. Prisoners faced diseases, starvation, torture, and execution in overcrowded wards. Despite the horrors of prison, life’s rebellion persisted. The prisoners continued writing against the French regime. They wrote on paper and pencils made by the prisoners, often using invisible ink to further in case they were caught. They would then hide all their papers in the latrine on a platform at one end of the hall. I could go on about the crimes the French committed against these prisoners and witnessed by their children who were with them, but it is not for the week stomached.
In contrast to the treatment of the Vietnamese by the french, the Americans’ experience at Hoa Lo Prison was the complete opposite giving it the nickname ‘Hanoi Hilton.’ American POWs could communicate with families, celebrate holidays, and the guards even helped smuggle contraband (cigarettes) for the American soldiers. They did all of this despite the destruction the US had brought upon Vietnam.
Hoa Lo Prison is a must-stop while in Vietnam. I highly recommend the audio guide, which provides detailed information about the prison and first-hand accounts of life on the inside.
Thang Long Water Puppet Theater
This is one hour of sheer delight that you won’t regret. Water puppets have been part of Vietnamese culture for hundreds of years, but when this theater was established, it was a rebirth of the art. Over the hour, you listen to traditional Vietnamese music reflecting the folk tales the puppets tell on stage. Although you don’t need the audio guide to understand the performance, it gives you insight into these characters and their stories which can be seen all over Vietnam.
Vietnam Museum of Ethnology
Did you know there are 85 different ethnicities in Vietnam? Me neither! At the Vietnam Museum of Ethnology, you will learn about the various ethnicities and tribes that call Vietnam home.
While wandering around, you learn the history behind traditional Vietnamese clothing, instruments, and crafts. You will also learn about traditional farming and fishing techniques, some of which have been modernized to be more sustainable. One of my favorite parts was learning about the diffrent cerimonies, including; marriage, funeral rights, ancestor worship, and everyday rituals still being practiced in Vietnam.
I honestly wish I had done this at the beginning of my trip rather than on my last day. There are many traditions like full moon lantern festivals, the shrines in every home, and burning paper money in front of the house that you will experience while in Vietnam. It wasn’t until my visit that I understood their history and purpose. I recommend this museum, especially if you spend a week or more north of Hanoi, Vietnam’s most ethnically diverse area.
Hanoi’s Old Quarter Night Market and Weekend Market
Only a few blocks from each other, these markets are full of souvenirs, toys, clothing, and traditional Vietnamese goods, all for low prices. Some vendors are mixed in, but most of the food in the market area is open all day long, lining either side of the street. The markets, beer street, and surrounding shops make this area a great spot to spend your evening shopping or watching people.
If the smell of cigarette smoke, beer, duck, seafood, pho, and the sound of several different types of music coming from every direction isn’t enough to overwhelm you, then the sheer number of people will. The best way to describe Hanoi Beer street is sheer joyous chaos.
I was able to enjoy people-watching twice while I was in Hanoi. The first time I did solo and stopped at a place to have some roasted duck, where I made the rookie mistake of not negotiating the price of my food ahead of time. It wasn’t the tastiest meal, but people-watching sitting under an umbrella at a plastic table and stools in the rain was a lovely way to pass my first night in Hanoi.
The Second time (really the following evening), I went to beer street I went with a friend I had made at The Note Coffee earlier in the day. After walking around in the chaos, we found a spot that wasn’t packed with street performers playing music out front. We spent a few hours whacking as people walked by. Girls in their short skirts done up for a night out, men in suits or flip flops, and families out with their kids. There were even several women, most likely ladies of the night, escorting men in expensive-looking suits to bars only to leave moments later alone. They would return again in 30min to an hour with another mail on their arm. People-watching on vacation is fun for me. Pasing the time by making up stories about the people passing by and trying to spot the tourists in the mix is highly entertaining. You can also learn a lot about a country by watching how people interact. It is easy to miss the higher archy in family dynamics or how locals treat the impoverished if you don’t stop and take a moment to watch. You can learn a lot selling someone buying something from a street seller peddling crispy rice cakes.
Whether you’re a drinker or not, this area is a great way to spend a relaxing evening enjoying the atmosphere of nightlife in Hanoi.
Dong Xuan Market
From clothing to fabric shoes and souvenirs, this three-story market is vast and fun to walk around to see what’s hidden down each walkway. This market is at the end of the greater market area that starts after the Night Market on P. Lang street on the northwest side of Hang Duong Street (which turns into P. Dong Xuan).
St. Joseph’s Cathedral or the Roman Catholic Archdioceses
Built on top of the remains of a historic Buddhist temple, the church is a symbol of French Colonialism. Although the Cathedral is one of the first Catholic Churches in Hanoi, it becoming a spot to capture photos with friends. Looking at the outside, it is easy to miss the duality of this church. It is both a symbol of French colonialism and a symbol of resistance. During the reign of the Veit Minh, Catholics and other Christians were persecuted and banned from practicing their religion. Years later, the church would regain its freedom and be established as the Archdiocese of Hanoi.
The church is not worth the walk to unless you take a walking tour because the Cathedral is not open to the public except during mass. I took a tour with my hostel using Hanoi Free Walking Tours.
I honestly wish I had more time here to have a coffee or cold beer and sit and people-watch. The train goes by twice a day on the weekdays but several more times on the weekend but don’t expect it to be on time. even so make sure you get there eairly to claim a spot at a cafe so you can watch the train go buy. Now I believe there are two parts or two different train streets and the one I went to I have heard is a lot more touristy. The image I had in my head of everyday life happening on the tracks was far from reality. Cafes, souvenir shops, and bars line the street, all with comfortable seating, and the only things that need to be moved out of the way for the oncoming train are the people. Nevertheless, it’s still a fun experience!
Why I skipped Ho Chi Minh’s Mausoleum
I have really mixed feelings about not going inside the Mausoleum. I feel this is a Vietnam bucket list item; however, as much as I love visiting graveyards, the idea of seeing someone well-preserved who passed in recent history is a little unsettling. Plus, the government denied Ho Chi Minh’s burial wishes, making his final resting place a symbol of Vietnam. I understand, but I’m a firm believer in having animosity over one’s body, so I took a walk by the Mausoleum and the surrounding government buildings instead. I’m not disappointed in my decision because that gave my friend and I (who I met in Vietnam) more time to explore Hao Lo Prison Relic.
All The Places
Hanoi Free Walking Tours – I signed up for a private tour through my hostel. This company is ran by University students who volunteer their time to practice English. – https://www.hanoifreewalkingtours.com
Ta Hien Beer Street- Tạ Hiện, P. Lương Ngọc Quyến, Hàng Buồm, Hoàn Kiếm, Hà Nội 100000, Vietnam
Train Street – 98 chắn 5a, P. Trần Phú, Cửa Đông, Hoàn Kiếm, Hà Nội, Vietnam
Hoa Lo Prison Relic – 25,000 VND + 100,000 VND for Hearing Guide– 1 P. Hoả Lò, Trần Hưng Đạo, Hoàn Kiếm, Hà Nội, Vietnam
Thang Long Water Puppet Theater – 150,000 VND + 100,000 VND for audio guide – 57B P. Đinh Tiên Hoàng, Hàng Bạc, Hoàn Kiếm, Hà Nội, Vietnam
Vietnam Museum of Ethnology – 20,000 VND – Đ. Nguyễn Văn Huyên, Quan Hoa, Cầu Giấy, Hà Nội 100000, Vietnam
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