Revisiting Hanoi

Hoan Kiem LakeFive in the morning is an interesting time to arrive in a city, and to be in Hanoi at this time of day is to reveal its hidden side. All around Hoan Kiem Lake you will find locals stretching, jogging and practicing Tai Chi. Walk around this lake after eight am and these early morning athletes have vanished, replaced by roaring traffic and people crossing the city.

We had arrived just after four on the train from Nanning, China. It was still dark and we had walked away from the Gia Lam railway station for half a kilometre then taken a taxi to our hotel in the old quarter. The hotel was in darkness and closed to the world at this unearthly hour, we sat on the step for a while, wondering what to do. These atmospheric streets were deserted, a couple of opportunistic bun vendors appeared, selling sweet fried breads from baskets.

At six a restaurant opened across the street, Tamarind Cafe, a vegetarian place we remembered from our time here in Hanoi six years ago, it was time for breakfast – french toast and maple syrup, heaven. The hotel opened, we dumped our bags then went for a walk, the tai chi-ers were still at the lake, we had finally got there early enough to witness it. Soon we were being overtaken by joggers, reminding us how exhausted we were from the overnight, cross-border train journey.

Hanoi, Vietnam

Hanoi is a thoroughly authentic asian city, the old quarter is like a pulsating heart, its narrow streets like veins vibrant with life. Motorbikes and scooters swarm through the arteries dodging pedestrians and street hawkers. The side streets become open markets with all kinds of fish and vegetables spread out in buckets and trays on the floor or on carts wheeled along the road, an assault to your senses, you are swept along the tumult and deposited at the other end to catch your breath before yet another scooter tries to knock you sideways. What a thrill!

Hanoi's crazy traffic

Hanoi’s crazy traffic

Returning to a place you previously loved can be hard, places change or aren’t how you remember them. Hanoi hadn’t changed a bit. Well, I’m sure it probably had, it had been six years, but the old quarter felt like no time had passed whatsoever, it was joyful to rediscover the bedlam!

Ngoc Son Temple sits on Hoan Kiem lake, reached by a graceful red bridge. Inside, after paying the entrance fee, you will find a curious sight, a preserved giant soft-shelled turtle. He is the stuff of legend:

Hoan Kiem translates as the Lake of the Returned Sword, like something from Arthurian legend, the story goes that Le Loi defeated the Chinese Ming Dynasty, gave Vietnam independence and became King using a magical sword forged in the watery underworld. A few years later he was out boating one day on the lake when a huge turtle appeared and took the sword, returning it to whence it came. Since that time, the giant soft-shelled turtles living in the lake have become sacred and as mysterious as Nessie. The preserved turtle isn’t the actual turtle of the legend, but he’s probably as close as you are going to get.

Hoan Kiem Lake

Most believe there is just one giant soft shell turtle left in the lake, he has legendary high status and to see him is considered lucky, we never saw him. The poor thing is alone and at risk from increasing pollution, but hopefully they can find it a mate. On a side note, I was recently at Singapore Zoo and was viewing the giant soft shell turtles they had there, a Chinese Singaporean man came over and told me how delicious they were. Doomed, the poor buggers are doomed!


One of the most enjoyable things you can do in Hanoi is go see a show at the Thang Long Water Puppet Theatre and lose yourself to the folk tales performed by beautiful wooden puppets cleverly floating on a flooded stage, accompanied by a traditional orchestra. The evening shows are always busy so get there early to buy your tickets. We were super lucky and got front row seats.

When we were in Hanoi back in 2008 we had treated ourselves to ice cream at the famous Fanny’s Ice Cream Parlour, oh boy did we want to repeat that, yet it wasn’t where we remembered it. We searched, thinking maybe we got it wrong but alas it was gone. A bit of research later on revealed it had simply moved location, this time to a lovely French colonial villa. The French style ice cream was just as good, we sat outside watching the traffic, eating it quirky before it melted. I can wholly recommend the mango and the ginger ice creams.


We had visited Halong Bay and Sapa on the previous trip. We decided to miss those places out this time and there were plenty of places in Vietnam we had yet to discover…

I’ll leave you with a few more photos from our few days in Hanoi before we headed south {a few were taken on my phone so please excuse the quality!}

Keep travelling:

Riding The Rails From China to Vietnam another border crossed in the middle of the night by train!

5 Glorious Reasons To Visit Ninh Binh Fairytale scenery, ancient Vietnamese history and overnighting in the jungle.

Phong Nha Caves: The Best Thing We Did In Vietnam this quiet corner in mid Vietnam is incredible! Huge caves and perfect cycling!

Historic Hoi An For Tet (Vietnamese New Year) Hoi An is even prettier at new year!

Is That A Crocodile? Cat Tien National Park. Jungle adventures in Vietnam with crocs and gibbons aplenty!

Tra Vinh: Khmer Culture In The Mekong DeltaA corner of Vietnam that feels more like Cambodia!

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By Rachel Davis

6 Responses

  1. agentjustyna says:

    I’m moving there in September! Can’t wait. It was a pleasure to read about your time there 🙂

  2. cvail says:

    I loved Hanoi. I never saw the turtle. Probably he was off trying to ignore all the people.

  3. Dave Rowley says:

    Can’t believe you got front row seats to the water puppets! That must have been fantastic! It was one of our favorite things in Vietnam, or really in any of our travels – a great tradition that is still alive today. I love your description of the bedlam of the side streets of Hanoi. And interesting hearing about the legend of the lake – didn’t know about that! I found Hanoi to be so different from the south of Vietnam – the people more serious and reserved. It was very interesting to me. Did you notice anything like that in the people of Hanoi vs elsewhere you’ve traveled in Vietnam?

    • I couldn’t believe our luck at the Water Puppets, oh the dirty looks we got from the people having to pass us to head up the back, heehee!

      I love Hanoi as it is so different to anywhere else in SE Asia, it’s those old french colonial streets and the cooler climate I reckon, makes a more serious local! Everywhere else seems much more chilled out but I just love the chaos of Hanoi.