August 18, 2015: I will always remember that date because it was my first time to explore and engage in a different environment outside the 7,641 islands of my beloved country, the Philippines.
To get outside the seaboard and airspace of my country has always been a dream. When that dream became a reality in 2015, it felt oh so good!
Prior to booking our flight to Vietnam, I don’t have much idea about the country aside from Ms. Saigon (musical play), and tidbits of information from the Vietnam War.
Because my heart beats for history and travel, my senses experienced a one-of-a-kind treat in Hanoi.
Touch. Hanoi has a chill vibe. Why? You can just walk around the city and it works smoothly even if it’s the capital city.
It is a city that has so many trees, parks and walking spaces. I hate long walks, but the charm of the city was hard to resist. While walking, I saw its texture and personality through their preserved cultural sights and influences.
Chinese and French are the two great influences that shaped Vietnam’s culture. Once upon a time, China occupied Vietnam which lasted for more than 1,000 years. While during the late 19th century, France colonized Vietnam. The French culture was injected when it was under the French occupation from 1883 to 1954.
The fusion of these two influences was perfectly melded. This influence can still be seen in the architecture of their buildings and famous landmarks, their superb cuisine, and the country’s personality.
From Thang Long (Rising Dragon) to Dong Kinh (Eastern Capital), it was also referred to Tonkin (during the French colonial period) until it was renamed Ha Noi (Between Two Rivers).
Sight. ‘Old meets new’ perfectly fits the city, traces from the past can still be seen in the city despite the massive damages it incurred from the bombings during the Vietnam War by the United States (in 1965, 1968 and 1972).
The historical sites and scenic wonders of Hanoi that we’ve seen are the following:
Lake Hoam Kiem (Lake of the Restored Sword): Our first adventure in Hanoi was our visit to Hoan Kiem Lake. This historical landmark is easy to find because it is in the center of the busy streets of Hanoi.
So, it is not just an ordinary lake. It has a famous legend- the Legend of the Restored Sword.
Legend claims in the mid-15th century Heaven sent Emperor Ly Thai To a magical sword, which he used to drive the Chinese from Vietnam. After the war a giant golden turtle grabbed the sword and disappeared into the depths of this lake to restore the sword to its divine owners, inspiring the name Ho Hoan Kiem (Lake of the Restored Sword). Source: http://www.lonelyplanet.com/vietnam/hanoi/sights/lakes-rivers-waterfalls/hoan-kiem-lake
Aside from the legend of the lake, the scenic sight of the Turtle Tower, Huc Bridge, and Ngoc Son Temple just makes it picture perfect.
Turtle Tower: It sits on the grass-carpeted Turtle Island (Dao Rua) that was built in 1886 as a reminder of the Legend of the Restored Sword.
Huc Bridge: The Huc which means ‘morning sunlight bridge’ is probably one of my favorite landmarks in Hanoi. The Huc Bridge in red color just stands out as I enjoyed the view of Hoan Kiem lake.
When I first saw it, it reminded me of Mulan (Disney movie). I envisioned Mulan walking on that bridge, and heard the song Reflection being played in my subconsciousness. And yes, I imagined Mulan staring at her reflection on the lake. That’s why when I set foot on the bridge, I really felt I was in my own little world walking, smiling and enjoying the moment (like a crazy person).
Ngoc Son Temple: The temple which means ‘Temple of the Jade Mountain’ was constructed in classical Vietnamese style as a homage to Tran Hung Do who defeated the Mongols in the 13th century.
Temple of Literature: It was constructed to celebrate the doctorates and high rank scholars of Vietnam, and was also dedicated to Confucius. Quoc Tu Giam, the first university of the country was built within the temple in 1076.
One-Pillar Pagoda: The name says it. The shrine sits on the top of a single stand. It was built under Ly’s dynasty by Emperor Ly Thai To after he envisioned it in his dream.
Imperial Citadel of Thang Long: It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It was the country’s political center for 13 centuries and have served as the capital of Vietnam for eight years.
In 2002-2004, excavation works took place and the artifacts found dated back from 6th to the 20th century. Some of the discoveries were bronze coins, ceramics and pottery from many places in Asia.
Hanoi Flag Tower: An architecture work under Nguyen dynasty that still remains today. The nearly 200 years old tower was originally built as an observatory.
Presidential Palace: It was built to house the French Governor-General of Indochina. It really stands out because of its yellow color. Also, the neoclassical style and elements on its structure are on point.
Ba Dinh Square: It was originally developed by French, but its significance was marked on September 2, 1945 when Ho Chi Minh read the Vietnam Independence Declaration from the French Colonial rule and the formation of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam.
The square witnessed most of the country’s historical events which includes the funeral of Ho Chi Minh in 1969.
Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum: Since the funeral of Ho Chi Minh was held in Ba Dinh Square, his mausoleum was built on that area for him to be remembered.
Hanoi Opera House: It is one of the city’s cultural centers. Its architecture was patterned from the European style during the Renaissance period.
Tran Quoc Pagoda: It is the oldest pagoda or Buddhist temple in the city. Monks who have taught Buddhism to the public used to live at the pagoda. The pagoda, the landscape, and its location near the shore of West Lake makes it picturesque.
Saint Joseph Cathedral: It was built 120 years ago during the French occupation. The Gothic architecture follows the design of Paris Cathedral.
While walking around Hanoi, there was one thing I noticed right away- their major streets are filled with gorgeous flowers. Very impressive!
I have not seen all the sites the city has to offer, but it was an experience I will truly cherish forever.
Smell. Since the Philippines was greatly influenced by the Spanish and American culture, it was a breath of fresh air for me to literally breathe a different air (haha), and explore a different culture.
Walking around Hanoi, I was not just able to breathe fresh air and smell the flowers on side streets, but I was able to inhale and absorb a culture far different to what I’m used to and have lived in for the past 28 years.
Because of its uniqueness, the city’s signature scent –then and now from the cultural influences, historical landmarks, landscape of its trees, parks, flowers, people and the coffee culture made me overwhelmed with happiness.
Sound. Listening to a different language in a foreign land was an endearing treat. It was like a new music to my ears. They may not speak fluently in English, most actually had a difficulty understanding it, but the locals we got the chance to talk with are so polite (including taxi drivers).
There was definitely one thing that surprised me in Hanoi (or Vietnam in general) – MOTORCYCLES! Motorcycles/scooters were the king of the road. You can see and hear the buzz of motorcycle engines almost everywhere (and in HUGE numbers). It was a crazy and amazing experience for me.
For a couple of minutes, I had to stop, stare and observe how many motorcycles were on the street. Then, I suddenly thought – how can we cross the street without being hit?
Years ago, I was hit by a motorcycle while crossing the street, even when I was on the pedestrian crossing. Because of that incident, the trauma of crossing streets still haunts me. I really panic, squeeze the hand or arm of my companion, and sometimes holler a soft shriek out of fear. While crossing the streets in Vietnam, it was like a playing patintero (traditional Filipino game). Crossing and surviving the streets of Vietnam served as a therapy for me because I regained my confidence (a bit).
If there’s one major realization I had when I was in Hanoi, it was to listen to what my heart desires – to travel and explore other cultures.
Taste. My travel buddy and I are not certified ‘foodie travelers’. Since we were in Vietnam wherein food is a major attraction, we enjoyed the affordable food choices that it has to offer. Yes, affordable because we’re budget travelers.
Based from my observations, the best dining experience (coffee, rice noodles, beer) both by locals and tourists are at the side streets sitting on cute, small stools as you witness how the city life unfolds.
My travel buddy is a store manager in Starbucks Philippines by profession. I also used to work in Starbucks as a barista which makes us caffeine junkies. Coffee keeps us alive, and ties our relationship together (insert big smile).
While in Hanoi, we definitely didn’t miss Vietnam’s coffee culture. Of course, we did not forget Starbucks Vietnam in our coffee adventure.
In the Philippines, Starbucks is almost everywhere. With more than 300 stores to date, it is really a huge brand. While in Vietnam, it is a different story. Aside from the local coffee shops, the Vietnamese coffee shop chain, Highlands Coffee can be seen everywhere.. at every major street and every tourist attraction area.
The best food trip we experienced in the city was to cook our food (literally) with Hanoi beer to squeeze in our own shindig because we don’t party (being a self confessed ‘tita of Manila’).
To use the words of Lionel Richie: “Hanoi, I’ve just got to let you know” that my first out of the country was the sweetest experience EVER! Funding your own travel from hard earned money is unquestionably rewarding. But the feeling of liberty and adulthood while traveling (outside your comfort zone) just feeds the soul in ways I can’t explain.
My Hanoi takeaways: a. traveling is the best reward I can give to myself, b. traveling is ‘addicting’ (once you’ve tried it, it cannot be stopped), c. traveling does the heart, mind, and soul not just good, but it makes it function at its best.