You are part of the Hanoi traffic, yet detached from it.
This experience can only be had sitting atop the double-decker bus that has just been introduced to the capital city’s streets.
So I sat and watched the traffic below move in a mixture of order and chaos as the summer breeze blew through my hair in comforting fashion. I wondered if seeing familiar places as part of the double-decker tour would make them different.
At exactly 9:04, the bus stopped at St. Joseph Cathedral at 44 Nha Chung, Hoan Kiem District. Its front yard was already filled with many people taking pictures and sipping their morning coffee from the shops that surround the imposing church.
It was hot, so I decided to start off my day with a glass of iced lime tea, which is almost a cathedral attraction. Every Hanoian knows that they can get this drink near the cathedral, which is a lovely old structure with a rich history. It is an architectural treat for the eyes that offers instant quiet as you step into it.
“It’s a totally different vibe when you step into this area of The Big Church," said Hung, a Hanoian who was taking pictures, just like me, except that his camera was much bigger.
This majestic building in lovely surroundings with quaint cafes and shops where Hanoians gather with their friends for endless conversations – this is a scene you can never tire of.
The lime tea, good till the last drop, will cost you less than a dollar.
The Museum of Vietnamese Women succeeds in showing the important role women have played in keeping Vietnam moving through some tough times. The design, the exhibition and the setup are professionally and tastefully done. The museum also focuses on the family with a spotlight of women’s work
I enjoyed the enlightening mini-documentaries. One cannot but be moved by the sight of women picking up AK rifles and going to fight in the Vietnam War. You come face to face with an aspect of history that is not often looked at.
There's a large segment on ethnicity and fashion in the museum too. You can easily spend hours in this museum, because there's so much to learn and see. The $1.50 entrance fee is a bargain.
The elegant entrance gate is misleading. A whole different story awaits you inside the Hoa Lo Prison. Only a part of the former prison is intact, but it is enough to give you insights into what life would have been like under oppressive, cruel colonialists and imperialists.
Most foreigners visit the prison because of its connections to the Vietnam War, famously nicknamed “Hanoi Hilton” by American prisoners of war. It is a place that causes you to reflect on the brutality of the war and be thankful that it is over.
“One tip, remember to come early, around 8-9 a.m. because it usually gets crowded after 10, that’s when tourists flock in,” the ticket seller told me.
Like the Women’s Museum of Vietnam, this place is definitely worth the $1.50 entrance fee.
At 11 a.m., the 948-year-old temple of learning is already filled with visitors. Groups of high school students were lining up for graduation photo shoots, while other visitors and I walked around with our cameras. Inside the main sanctum, many people, mostly students, were praying for good results in upcoming exams.
This is a cool place to walk around, given the shade offered by many trees and the five courtyards in the temple premises. Although it is said to be Vietnam’s first university, the peaceful feeling one gets here is more akin to that of a pagoda.
The tour guide enumerates several interesting facts about this place, or you can get an audio guide that is available in eight languages for just $1.50.
The oldest Buddhist temple in Hanoi is in a lovely setting on its own tiny island within the West Lake. It can be said the pagoda is even older than the capital city itself at almost 1,500 years.
Another noteworthy highlight of this pagoda is that it carries a cutting of the original Bodhi tree under which the Buddha attained enlightenment. The pagoda also worships several mother goddesses.
It’s nice to take a bit of time out from the hustle and bustle and just wander around. This coral brick tower is made up of 11 levels, with each level housing statues of Buddha. I spent about 20 minutes walking and visiting the temples.
Entrance is free and you can make a donation if you want to.
Cua Bac Church stands on what is arguably the most beautiful street in Hanoi, but it is a less visited church than the cathedral.
But you don’t have to be in a prayerful mood to enjoy the tranquility that the church offers. It also has interesting architectural features, combining French and Vietnamese styles. Let’s just say it is a quietly amazing place to take a stroll in a sunny afternoon.