I had given a great deal of thought about traveling with my young son to Hanoi, Vietnam. After all, it’s not exactly one of the spots that most people consider when planning a family vacation; however, I knew that getting off the beaten path and exploring some of the wonderful sights and cultural differences that Hanoi has to offer would not only be fun and exciting, but it would also be a wonderful opportunity to open my son’s eyes and give him a first-hand look at how people of an entirely different culture go about their day-to-day life.
Vietnam is an incredible country filled with the contrasts of a people and country scarred by years of war with China, France and the U.S., yet it is still able to present a positive and warm face and openly welcomes visitors from the west. You’ll definitely find a great deal of French influence, especially in the amazing loaves of French style bread available along almost any roadway as well as in the architecture and even coffee.
A trip to Hanoi will definitely delight the senses. From the constant noise of the buzzing traffic to the sights and sounds of street vendors selling their wares, flavorful food and the genuine sense of caring the Vietnamese people possess. After settling into our hotel, one of our first adventures was to head out into the street and get a taste of the street food that is known worldwide for being some of the very best.
A traditional bowl of Pho Ga, a chicken soup with noodles, herbs, chicken and jalapenos, was first on our list of must-try specialties. I have to say, calling this “chicken soup” does it an injustice. The complex flavors and exotic aroma are something one needs to experience in order to understand. Top that with the experience of squatting on small plastic stools on the side of the road as motorbikes and bicycles somehow twist and turn in the mass frenzy and you’ve got an experience that is uniquely Vietnam.
After a satisfying bowl of Pho, my next stop in our adventure was to explore the Old Quarter. While there are taxis roaming the streets, the easiest and most Vietnamese way to get from one place to another is by hiring a xo om. This is a driver with a motorbike who is willing to take you to your destination for a very small fee. Simply jump on and you’re in for the ride of your life.
Once making it safely to the Old Quarter, every turn brought us down another narrow road and winding alley way. There was the excitement of brightly colored flowers, toys, silk, jewelry, fruit and just about everything imaginable. The Old Quarter is where you can find everything from household essentials to custom made silk shirts and ao dai (the traditional dress worn by Vietnamese women). The Old Quarter is certainly a destination that every visitor to Hanoi should experience.
Hanoi is situated in the Red River Delta and is a fertile ground where it is common to see rice fields, water buffalo and Vietnamese out working in their traditional dress, including the non la, a conical hat common among workers and often one of the most popular tourist souvenirs.
While seeing the sights of Hanoi and experiencing the wonderful food is certainly something every visitor should embrace, the surrounding countryside is beautiful and is an essential part of understanding the Vietnamese culture.
Of course, a visit to Hanoi wouldn’t be complete without seeing the world-famous water puppets as well as Ho Hoan Kiem Lake, the Turtle Pagoda and Hanoi’s beautiful Opera House. Stroll the streets, take in the beautiful sights and enjoy the warmth and hospitality of people who are more than willing to help.
When we arrived in Hanoi, I didn’t know how I would be able to get by without knowing the language, but I found that even though most of the people spoke only a few words of English, if any at all, it was still possible to communicate by pointing and with gestures. If you can learn a couple of simple phrases, such as hello and thank you, this will go a long way in breaking any barriers. Additionally, if you’re traveling with kids, don’t be surprised if complete strangers approach your child, the Vietnamese love children. I was shocked at the number of people who would touch my son’s head or smile at him and say “lucky”. Yes, most westerners are viewed as privileged and lucky and there is a great deal of poverty throughout Vietnam, but this doesn’t seem to affect the ability of the Vietnamese to enjoy life.
Depending on the time of year you intend to travel, be sure to plan for the weather. I knew that arriving in June would mean hitting the hottest part of the summer; however, even though we were accustomed to long, hot summers, nothing prepared me for the heat and humidity of a summer’s day in Hanoi. It will be hot. There are stalls and little restaurants that will offer iced beverages, especially the wonderful Vietnamese iced coffee, made with a strong drip coffee and sweetened condensed milk, but refrain from using ice unless you know that it was made from filtered water.
Carry bottled water when you are out sightseeing and wash all produce before eating, especially if you purchase it from a street vendor. If you’re hot and thirsty, be sure to try a refreshing coconut water, a street vendor will simply cut off the top of the coconut and slip in a straw and you’re ready to go. Other refreshing drinks include the juice extracted from sugar cane, there will be vendors pushing little carts with a machine that will extract the juice from the cane. Other vendors will make a marvelous watermelon juice by juicing the whole fruit. Eat like the locals and enjoy the wonderful flavors that make Vietnam so memorable. There’s a lot to see in Hanoi, but some of the best sites will be found by simply sitting at a sidewalk café or strolling aimlessly through the city.
Bio: Natalya Pobedova is a travelling nomad and backpacker from beautiful Brno, Czech Republic. She is 27 and makes a living as a freelance web developer to support her traveling needs. She also runs a budget flight search website for backpackers as a hobby: http://www.travelsiders.com/. She dreams of visiting Brazil and speaks Portuguese fluently. She has visited 14 countries already and most of them are in Europe.