AlleyVietnam. The Quiet American and Anthony Bourdain were the two things that had shaped my conception of Vietnam. I’ve long said that Vietnam is the one country I MUST visit before leaving Asia. The Vietnam War has always fascinated me, travel shows paint it as the cultural and culinary highlight of SEA, and plus it just seems… exotic in the truest sense of the word. My dream finally came true recently when I got the chance to spend a week in the north of Vietnam.

The majority of my week was spent in Hanoi. I stayed in the French Quarter (aka Old Town, aka backpacker central) and I am glad to have chosen this area. The French architecture was gorgeous, the food was abundant and cheap, and the central location meant most everything was within walking distance.

ArchitectureModern Church

Some examples of the beautiful French-style architecture found in Hanoi. This style of building is very different than what you’ll see in most SEA.

The big different in Hanoi and Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City) is that Hanoi tends to be a bit quieter. Traffic is crazy but not as bad, the nightlife doesn’t rage until the wee hours, and while there is plenty do, it most revolves around the historical museums. The historical aspect of Hanoi was fantastic. As I mentioned the remnants of French Indochina are very present here, and seeing the footprint of the countries Communist government was endlessly fascinating.

My first few days were spent wondering. I sampled the world famous Vietnamese coffee (which was incredible), ate more pho than any one person ever should, and drank far too much Vietnamese beer (Bia Hoi, Bia Hanoi, and Bia Saigon). The most infamous being Bia Hoi, which can be bought for less than fifty cents. The food in Vietnam lives up to the hype that surrounds it, and there’s something to be said about the ambiance of sitting on a tiny plastic stool, drinking cheep beer, and eating sunflower seeds while you watch the 24/7 flood of motorcycles navigate the streets.

CoffeePhoHanoi Beer

 Vietnamese coffee, Pho, Beer. These are a few of my favorite things.

While in Hanoi I was able to visit the National War Museum as well as the Ho Chi Minh Museum. Both were excellent and should be on every Hanoi itinerary. The War Museum offers a firsthand look at the history of war in Vietnam (from its beginnings to today). As an American I was particularly interested in seeing how the Vietnam War was portrayed inside the country itself. The Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum/Museum was not only a beautiful physical testament to the much-adored leader, but also a fascinating look at the history of Communism in Vietnam.

Communist SignHCM Mausoleum

War History

Various pictures from the museums in Hanoi. They were all great and well worth a visit.

The real highlight of my trip to Vietnam was a cruise through Ha Long Bay. Let me first say that I typically try and avoid anything “planned” or “touristy” as I feel more comfortable on my own, but I figured it was a good opportunity to see one of the most gorgeous areas of the world. I was certainly not disappointed. My friend and I booked a 2-day 1-night cruise through Ha Long Bay that would incorporate a handful of small stops to sightsee, hike, kayak, etc. There aren’t really words that can cover the natural beauty of Ha Long, but I will say that no trip to Vietnam would be complete without checking it out. The biggest cause of my enjoyment was certainly our cruise itself, a nice boat, a small number of people, great guide, and amazing food all made for a great time. Most the time was spent lounging on deck, drinking, socializing, and learning new games from all over the world. Also I’m forever indebted to the two Ukrainian gentleman on my boat (and favored dinner table companions) who made sure that no meal began without a round of shots and that our cups were never empty. Also just another note on the food – it was incredible and consisted of super fresh seafood for every meal. Do make a Ha Long Bay cruise a priority if you’re in the North of Vietnam.

HarborHa Long Bay Sunset

The harbor at Ha Long Bay and a sunset while on the cruise.

All in all I had a great visit and I do hope to make it back to Vietnam and check out the rest of the country.

Ha Long Bay Panorama