Hanoi, the capital of Vietnam, is a bustling metropolis but not one that you would expect. I was picturing a big city like Bangkok but that was not the case. It was definitely a big city with a thick layer of pollution hovering in the air but it wasn’t full of skyscrapers. Instead there were a few that dotted the skyline but most of the buildings we saw ranged from 4-10 stories tall.
Hanoi is a city of organized, well thought out chaos. When watching people cross the street in the French Quarter from our sixth floor balcony, we thought we were watching a game of Frogger. There are very few streetlights and even fewer crosswalks. You just have to hope you can cross the street with another person because the bigger the group of people, the bigger the dent on the car that hits you. The traffic just seems to be a steady stream of cars but mostly motorbikes. We learned quickly that with the rushing traffic comes the noise of the horns.
This is like nothing I had ever experienced before. I honestly thought with nine days away from Bangkok I would be free of at least some of the noise, you know the ones I complain about; the dreaded whistle blowing guards that seriously cause me to twitch but sadly this was not the case. I traded one big city with a distinct awful noise for another more stressful noise. From sun up until sun down and into the wee hours of the morning horns were being honked. Different horns; some played tunes, some were hit rapid fire like a machine gun, some were slammed onto so hard and so loud you would think someone was trying to communicate “WATCH OUT I AM COMING THROUGH AND I CAN’T STOP” but no. The horns in Vietnam, we quickly discovered are simply saying “Hi. I am driving down the street. I might pass you eventually.” I assume they use horns instead of mirrors. Driving by sound not by sight… The worst part was when you are actually in a car. Being from the US, a horn normally means “WATCH OUT MORON!” or “WE ARE ABOUT TO HIT!!” accompanied by screeching breaks and squalling tires. With every horn my body tensed preparing for the impending impact that never came.
*Travel Tip* If you or your child are light sleepers I would suggest earplugs. The horns (in the French Quarter anyway) never stop. If your child doesn’t do earplugs I would suggest you bring your smartphone with a sleeping sound machine app. We listened to the ocean waves to drown out the city noise and it worked like a charm.
Things to do
I say Hanoi is traveling toddler tolerated because it’s not a super kid friendly place. The people are very accommodating but there aren’t parks with playgrounds to enjoy. I know we are spoiled with playgrounds and parks in Bangkok but it seems everywhere we have traveled we have been able to find something for the toddler to enjoy and climb on but we were remiss in Vietnam. I felt he was tolerating our exploring not so much enjoying it but we did try to make it a lot of fun for him. Here are some of the fun things we did when visiting Hanoi.
*Travel Tip* Most sites close for lunch/nap time ranging from 10:45am-2pm depending on the site. It is a good idea to plan your day around this and not make the mistake once you are already out and about for the day.
Temple of Literature is the temple of Confucius and is the home of the Imperial Academy. It was first constructed in 1070, was reconstructed in 1200-1400, and then went through several restorations in the 1900s. The grounds were beautiful to walk around and take photos. So lovely in fact, it must have been graduation time with tons of photographers and students taking their portrait photos. There are several courtyards and buildings to explore. You could easily spend a couple of hours here with your kids checking everything out and once they are over it you can grab a quick ice cream bar; that’s what we did to keep the toddler happy.
Rickshaw ride around Hoan Kiem Lake is a total must for the tourist (with or without kids in tow). I am so glad my friend, who used to live there recommended this activity. Our son was thrilled to ride on the bike around the lake. If you are interested you could book these rickshaw drivers for a tour of the entire city although I am not sure of the price. We walked for around 20 minutes through the busy streets from the French Quarter to check out the local scene in the direction of the lake. Once we were tired of dodging motorbikes and the activity on the “sidewalks” we hopped on the nearest rickshaw for a ride around the lake.
The Imperial Citadel of Thang Long is a UNESCO World Heritage site right in the middle of the city. This citadel was built in the 11th century and was actually built on top of an old Chinese fortress from the 7th century. This was a fun place to explore and the toddler was able to run around a little. This still seems to be an active excavation site and it was interesting to walk through all of the exhibits to see items dating back to the 4th and 5th centuries. You could easily spend a few hours here walking around. The site is so large you almost feel that you are escaping the noise of the city and the well-kept grounds and gardens help to make you feel that you are out of the hustle and bustle if only for a short while.
The Hanoi Hilton Prison (Hao Lo Prison) was gruesome but so cool to see that side of history. It was used during the Vietnam War for POWs like John McCain and according to the propaganda in the museum the American prisoners were treated great with photos showing they were able to celebrate Christmas, play games, allowed to be outside on the grounds and had “great” medical care. Clearly, I wasn’t there and have no clue how accurate that is or how much of it is someone blowing smoke. The prison was constructed long ago by the French for Vietnamese political prisoners. The most gruesome (but again fascinating) was the guillotine on display used to decapitate many political prisoners. This might not be a kid friendly venue. In our case, our son is so young he just ran around the museum and had no clue what he was looking at. I would definitely recommend this stop for the pre-teens and teenagers.
Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum was crowded. That is about all I can say about this historic site. We had read that you should get there early to get in line but we had no clue that the line would be down the road for blocks. I am talking hundreds if not more of locals, school groups, and tourists lined up to get inside to see Vietnam’s past leader. We knew there was no way our son would stand in line for that long so we decided against getting a ticket. A fun fact on this building is that CNN International ranked it “as the sixth most ugly” building in the world.
Hanoi is just another big city. We decided our family enjoys more of the outdoor experiences like Halong Bay and Sapa so if given the opportunity we would not visit again although it was good to see once. To see the highlights, you would only need a day or two in the city. There are walking tours you can sign up for that are free and we did try to do that but the company never responded back.
The city is littered with cafes serving drip coffee and tea. If you are the traveler hoping for a McDonald’s or a familiar brand with food you know, don’t count on it. We did see one KFC by the lake that was it. If you like food and aren’t picky the local fare is great. Our son even “mastered” the art of chopsticks during our trip all on his own without direction. When his grandma questioned his “skills” with the chopsticks, I had to ask her if she could get anything to her mouth with the same utensils and she agreed he was doing better than most adults. Chris was in agreement since he was still using the chopsticks for kids with the rubber band until we moved (that might be a slight exaggeration but still he would opt for a fork or spoon).