Vietnam By Train: Ahoy Hanoi!
All week long our roving correspondent Claire Duffett will be sending back her travel reports from Vietnam. Any questions or suggestions? Let us know and we'll have Claire answer them for you.
The seasoned—and spoiled—traveler often complains of desensitization. After viewing a few world wonders, everything becomes banal. So when an amazing place comes along, particularly one without a ton of hype, it restores a traveler’s basic belief that there are places in the world worth seeking out and crossing great distances to experience.
For me, that place is Hanoi. When I traveled the length of the country last month, I started in the capital, and it exceeded all expectations. Sure, its inhabitants say the city was even better 10 years ago, but it's still great and I don't risk sanctions by my home country now for visiting it.
Perhaps you’ve heard the city is quaint, with vendors lining narrow streets, selling bowls of steaming pho and two-cent glasses of ice-cold local beer. I promise—it’s more charming than the image in your mind right now. And even if people have mentioned that the country, while economically liberalized, remains staunchly communist, you can’t conceptualize the ubiquity of political propaganda—with posters, flags, and Ho Chi Minh’s face virtually everywhere.
Even if someone told you Hanoi’s dotted with lakes surrounded by parks with giant, looming trees and well-kept promenades, you can’t imagine how green the city truly is. In Asia, the “pave paradise, put up a parking lot” ethos is often an unironic way of life. Historic buildings are demolished and replaced with high rises; lakes filled and parks razed to make way for new developments. In Vietnam, a country that spent most of the last century at war, it’s amazing that its centuries-old architecture—and trees—somehow managed to survive.
Our only warning is that once in Hanoi, you might be met with a strong and sudden urge to never leave. However, if you stick around for only a few days, here are a few Best Ofs in town.
Ho Chi Minh’s Mausoleum: Arrive early. Visitors can view the preserved corpse of communist Vietnam’s founder from 8 to 10 a.m. every day of the week except Monday. Locals take the ritual seriously, and dress in formal attire, so spruce up bit before heading there, as they won’t let you in without sleeves or long pants anyway. After viewing the body, which resembles a Madam Tussaud’s wax replica, head to the adjacent Ho Chi Minh Museum, which is open all day, and contains loads of interesting war-era documents and artifacts, as well, as odd modern art instillations exalting the communist struggle. However, if you find a particular political ideology offensive, this isn’t the place for you. Nor is Vietnam, for that matter.
Seasons of Hanoi: Located in a beautiful, white colonial-era French villa, this restaurant sort of reminded us of the type of place our grandparents take us when they’re in town—in a good way. It is a place for Hanoi’s high-society to dine, with an impressive wine list, delicious teas, and surprisingly reasonable fixed-price lunches. I stopped in for teas and desserts one afternoon, and enjoyed the crème caramel, but not as much as I enjoyed the stately atmosphere after days of eating on sidewalk stools.
Lenin Park: Anchored by a giant statue of the father of Soviet Russia, communist Vietnam’s benefactor and great friend, Lenin Park is the largest and lushest park inside Hanoi. It costs 5,000 dong to enter, or about 30 cents, and once inside you’ll see groups of women in track suits practicing aerobics in unison, kids playing soccer, and lovers cuddling on benches and looking out over Bay Mau Lake. You’ll also see stylish old men in fedoras and berets sitting on the sidewalks playing Tien Len, a traditional Vietnamese card game. If you’re lucky, you might even spot a mid-day cockfight or two.
Vietnam Travel Guide [Jaunted]