The Hanoi Experience

(I and fellow Cardoner Volunteers Abdula Uka and Darl Undag went to Hanoi for three days for our regular visa renewal.Here are some thoughts on the City of the Ascending Dragon)


  • Vietnam – which has been invaded by at least three different superpowers throughout its long history – shows what effect winning has on postcolonial culture. The country has lost almost all vestiges of its pre-Chinese identity, but what was imposed on it by the Chinese and the French it has owned with a vengeance.
  • Although using the Roman alphabet, written Vietnamese might as well be written in a different writing system. If you don’t know the constellation of diacritics you will have a hard time pronouncing what you read.

I don’t even want to try pronouncing ‘Ho Chi Minh’ correctly

  • English in Vietnam is difficult, but the locals will struggle to help you.
  • Hanoi is ridiculously cheap. Entrance fees to most tourist attractions are at  30,000 Vietnamese Dong (around 67 Philippine Pesos). The money is dizzyingly small, so I have a million or two in my wallet at all times.
  • It’s a headache to hold the bills though, as the 10,000s are confusing with the 1000’s and the 100,000s.

It doesn’t help that all of them have the same shades and all of them have Ho Chi Minh. Use your many great kings for a change.

  • The Somerset Grand Hanoi, located smack dab between the French Quarter and the Hoan Kiem environs, is a lovely hotel. The pick-up service from and to the airport has wifi, the hotel itself has a convenience store and several restaurants, the buffet is great for exploring Vietnamese food, and you even get to use the pool!

Not to mention a  spectacular view. Hello Hanoi!


The view at night. I guess because America couldn’t conquer the country all they could do is put this neon sign on its skyline


One of the rooms in our unit. Of course I got the bed near the window!


Our unit had  a kitchen with a washing machine


The hotel also had restaurants and a convenience store on the ground floor


The restaurant on the fourth floor had a great and cheap buffet


Also on the fourth floor was the pool


  • First thing I ever ate in Hanoi is Phở . On its own. this noodle soup is light and simple, but made beautifully complex by the wild combination of greens you put: two kinds of basil, coriander, peppermint, lettuce.


  • Second thing I had in Hanoi: Trà sen (Vietnamese lotus tea). It is an extraordinary tea, I’ve never had anything like it before. Undag describes it as ‘pretty smelling tea.’ I expected having a hard time looking for it, but I found it just a few hours after I arrived in the city, cheap and readily available in the convenience store.
  • The next day for breakfast I had t sen with some Bánh khảo, short cake made with glutinous rice flour. There seems to be many variations of bánh khảo, but the one I had was plain white, flavoured with grapefruit blossom juice, and was slightly chewy while being powdery. It had a distinct aroma, similar to a candy sold in my elementary days in Kidapawan’s NDKC. It was beautifully nostalgic, but with t sen that nostalgia played out as a sub-note to a distinct symphony of aroma I will forever associate with Hanoi.

of course it had to come with the view

  • It is a horrible thing to have achalasia. You’re right in the middle of enjoying something exotic, but then the food gets stuck in your food pipe. When you have no toilet available nearby you have to choose between drowning in your own spit or puking in public. I should write a book about this.

Oh great Conqueror of Aberrant Peristalses!

  • No achalasia can spoil Bún chả, though. This national favourite originated in Hanoi, and even Obama knew it was good. Vermicelli served with grilled pork in a soup of vinegar, sugar, and fish sauce and eaten with Vietnam’s glorious herbs, bún chả is the most delicious thing I ever ate in Hanoi.


  • Hanoi’s historical and cultural heart is the Hoan Kiem district, the area surrounding the Hoan Kiem lake. Just south of the lake is the French Quarter, where the French colonial government built many administrative buildings. The distinct European architecture extended to the lake’s West, where the Cathedral of St Joseph was.


  • The Church is a gorgeous Gothic monolith jutting out of old-world townhouses and greenery. The adjacent plaza and road intersection are amusingly reminiscent of Davao’s San Pedro area.

Interior is remarkably well maintained for its age


The surrounding has lovely cafes. Here are the Cardoner volunteers in KOMO The Church

  • Two little-known tourist spots in the French quarter: the former Vatican embassy hall (now an open garden), and the National Library.

The former Vatican embassy is now a library and public garden

  • The National Library of Vietnam has gorgeous neoclassical architecture. When we went there the books were scarce, perhaps due to ongoing renovations.

The National Library’s facade is glorious


The contents were pretty underwhelming for a National Library though. I suspect the bulk of the books are elsewhere, the place felt like it was under rennovation.


I wasn’t able to explore this though. I don’t know if it has Filipino stuff.

  • Egg coffee, as the descriptions suggest, is like liquid tiramisu. What online articles rarely mention is that it’s usually served with a portable blow torch, so the top can be caramelized ala creme brûlée.

And if you know where to have it, you can have it with a great view


  • The Vietnamese have a way of serving balut (here called hột vịt lộn) that Filipinos should copy: served in noodles with a tomato and fish-based broth.Balut Udong anyone?

That I’m eating it a stone’s throw away from St Joseph’s gives it the added spice of irony: I’m eating duck abortion near a Catholic church

  • I finally got to see Buddha’s Hand citruses in person.

They look more like lemons cosplaying as squids

  • The Vietnamese mastery of paper cutout pop-ups is amazing. This should be listed as a cultural heritage.

An unassuming card…


… has a tower made of paper inside oh my gosh


This shop, just west of St Joseph’s, has souvenirs you won’t find anywhere else in Hanoi and has a pretty owner

  • when in Vietnam you must try Bánh Đậu Xanh. Mung bean cakes often flavoured with lotus seed, this simple treat can be so classy, smooth and sweet in a way that is at once mellow and intense. I call it Vietnamese white chocolate.

They even come in bars!

  • In Vietnamese, bánh means cake. But everything is ‘cake’: On top of the obvious sweet cakes, rice cakes, and pancakes, the word is also used for bread (bánh mì), dumplings (bánh bá trạng), rice paper (bánh tráng), the spring rolls you make out of it (bánh cuốn), noodles (bánh canh) and crackers (bánh phồng tôm). Marie Antoinette would have made more sense in Vietnam.

‘Let them eat bánh’


  • The Lake of the Returned Sword is one of the most beautiful places in the world. The heart of the only country that had defeated America in war is surrounded by buildings of neoclassical European and Chinese architecture, with banks adorned with flowers and willows and rain trees, and with one island with a temple with a gorgeous vermilion wooden bridge, and in another one of the most iconic buildings in the world, a French-Chinese tower built in honour of a legendary reptile and a magical sword. There are few places in the world for which I can write a description like that.

The lake at night


The Turtle Tower, one of the most beautiful buildings in the world


I hope the tower redeems the ugliness


When we walked along the lake there was a free open-air exhibit of lovely photos. They just add to how picturesque the place was.


Along the lakeside was this temple, built to commemorate Lê Lợi, founder of Vietnam’s glorious Lê Dynasty and the human hero of the legend of the lake.



The temple also contained a replica of a stone slab, where a poem in Chinese by Lê Lợi was carved. The poem glorifies him, so it kinda feels vain, but he did defeated the Ming Dynasty, so he deserves to praise himself a bit.

  • I first read about of the Hoan Kiem turtle when I was in early college, and it never would have occurred to me that I’d ever find myself in in its picturesque lake. It feels like a personal tragedy that, on the very same year I finally do get to visit Hanoi, the turtle went extinct. Extinction feels like a dull heartbreak.

The legendary turtle receiving the sword, Heaven’s Will, depicted as a bas relief on the Temple of the Jade Mountain


The specimen at the Temple of the Jade Mountain is the closest I’ll ever get to the turtle

  • But I believe, oh I believe. And when one believes it is difficult to lose hope. While only one old turtle has been verified for the past few decades (the lone turtle that died this year), locals report seeing at least two more. In the Temple of the Jade Mountain I paid more attention to the island’s banks than to the temple itself, looking for a turtle.  I walked around Hoan Kiem lake three times, and on the second time I saw a mass of bubbles surfacing near the Turtle Tower. Oh I want to believe.

No turtle there. All the lake’s surrounding banks are cemented like this – how was the turtle supposed to lay eggs!


  • The Temple of the Jade Mountain (Đền Ngọc Sơn), positioned on an island, feels like a fabulous sacred retreat from the mundane world, reachable only by the Bridge of Welcoming Morning sunlight, with dozens of karikomied bonsai serving as clouds in this lake paradise. Though seeing the turtle taxidermied only makes the sense of species loss sadder. Et in Đền Ngọc Sơn, ego…

The Bridge of Welcoming Morning Sunlight


Entrance fee is ridiculously cheap


The Pavilion in front of the temple overlooking the lake


Photobomber kid


The view is gorgeous


Some lovely bonsai


The turtle motif is ubiquitous, as seen on the legs of this bonsai pot


And in the intricate carved wooden latticework of the temple’s interior


One of the temple’s many altars


The Pen Tower, which stands at the entrance of the Temple, overlooks the lake

  • A couple of local shoe repair boys abused our tourist generosity by grabbing our otherwise okay shoes, repairing it before us, and charging us 650,000 VND (1,400 pesos). I wanted to be some Lê Lợi returning these swindlers to the turtle god, but that would be pollution. I don’t want to feed garbage to the turtles hiding in the lake.


  • Vietnam has ingeniously marketed its communist propaganda materials – the famous propaganda that won them two wars against western superpowers – into tourist souvenirs.

If we sell Duterte paraphernalia like this, it would have a market across Southeast Asia. Imagine statement shirts with his most controversial quotes!

  • Why can’t Filipinos think of putting snails in their noodles?

Bún ốc is noodles with freshwater snails and clear tomato soup, served with the usual greens and quẩy (Chinese youtiao). 35,000 VND

  • North of the lake is the 35 famous streets (more really) of Hanoi’s Old Quarter. It is a wonderful maze of Phốs and Hàngs, each street full of shops that sell a particular product (usually after which the street is named). In between busy stores and restaurants is the occasional temple or the bird cage with a singing bird, and at some point you will reach the Dong Xuan Public market. At night a street, starting on the lake’s north fountain court and going on to have three different names as it reaches Dong Xuan, is a bustling night market closed to vehicles. Getting lost in the Old Quarter is a must for any tourist in the city.

The fountain court north of the lake, where the Old Quarter began


The start of the night market

  • I had such an adventure looking for Hanoi’s famous Bánh cốm. The rice cake, made with cốm (young green rice made into flakes flavoured with pandan) and stuffed with bean paste, is a Hanoi delicacy and is specially in season during Autumn. I had no idea where in the Old Quarter to find it. Equipped with nothing but a picture and its name in correct diacritics, I walked around showing it. The locals, with hardly any English pointed north. When I reached the lakeside edges of the Old Quarter, one local jotted down ‘Hàng Than’ and told me to go there. I enjoyed getting lost looking for this stret until I reached Phố Hàng Đường. When I showed a picture of bánh cốm they brought out a pile of little small boxes of it. I went back to the hotel grinning. Bánh cốm may just be like a cross between suman muron and pandan tikoy, but I owe to it my exploration of Hanoi’s cultural heart.

Of course I had to have it with some t sen and a view of the French Quarter

  • Not entirely for the bánh cốm of course, I had other priorities too: I needed to look for a wallet for my Ilongga, and I wanted to buy a notebook and some Vietnamese books. For the latter excursion I was able to stray far enough to see the Opera House, and it was the occasion to go to Hiệu Sách Thang Long, a decently sized book store in Tràng Tiền street. It’s no books Kinokuniya, but I found what I wanted.

The front of the book store along Trang Thien


I bought this small book on Vietnamese folk tales. I couldn’t find any contemporary fiction in English, but this was a fun read.

  • Hanoi is a dog capital. There are dogs all over the street!
  • Folk religion in Vietnam is thriving, the dominant religion in fact. Vietnam is one of the few countries in the world which predominantly follows an ethnic religion.

You can find little altars like this even in banks


  • Contrary to what its name suggests, there is little literary about the Temple of Literature (Văn Miếu). It is in fact a Confucian temple, and the name stems from Confucius’ emphasis on literacy and learning. This emphasis is evident in the fact that Hanoi’s Văn Miếu is also the site of Vietnam’s first university, the Imperial Academy.
  • Yup, schools should be as green and garden-filled as possible.
  • Vietnam is turtle country. Because the turtle is the only one among the four sacred beasts which is a real animal (the other three are the dragon, the phoenix, and the qilin), it holds a special place in Vietnamese symbolism.

Vietnam is also Lotus country – the flower as a motif is as ubiquitous as the turtles

  • I am confusing the Ly and the Le dynasties with each other. I am a failure as a history nerd.
  • I may be stating the obvious, but the Vietnamese were really huge fans of Chinese culture.
  • Which is not to say that’s all there was to Hanoi: the charm of this city is how these Chinese-style buildings are just side by side with the old European structures the French left behind.

One of the best photos I’d ever taken in Hanoi: a Chinese-style gate beside a French style building. Hybridity!

  • Thank goodness Uncle Ho was no madman like Mao, a China-style Cultural Revolution would have destroyed so much of Hanoi.


  • The Palace of the President is a gorgeous yellow mansion. It was a shame we weren’t able to enter and see it, or Ho Chi Minh’s house.
  • But his Mausoleum is displayed in all its solid granite glory, overlooking Ba Dinh Square. I could almost imagine Voldemort blasting it open to take the Elder Wand from Uncle Ho’s crossed hands.

Eat your (wax) heart out, Marcos!

  • There is little information online in English on the buildings surrounding Ba Dinh square, so just a run through, clockwise with the Mausoleum at 12 o’clock: The Mausoleum, the Presidential Palace (and a little beyond that to the right the Ho Chi Minh house), the headquarters of the Communist Part of Vietnam, the Ministry of Planning and Investment, the Vietnamese Assembly Hall, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Embassy of Poland, and some way behind the Ho Chi Minh Museum and the One Pillar Pagoda.

Because they were wearing straw hats, the landscape maintenance personnel looked like they were planting rice

  • Be patient looking for the One Pillar Pagoda, and trust the locals when they point. Follow the tourists. The entrance is a bit of a long way from Ba Dinh Square.

The one pillar pagoda


Some electric post

  • There is a quiet beauty to the One Pillar Pagoda (Chùa Một Cột). It’s at once novel and ancient, a classic Chinese pagoda, only standing on a single stone pillar, jutting out from a pond like a lotus emerging from the water (apparently that’s the design’s intention). It is connected to the banks of the pond by a staircase, which should ruin the serenity of the  lone lotus in the water, but instead ends up having its own scenic charm.

It’s one of those rare steps that make you feel important as you climb it

  • The current pagoda is very recent, rebuilt after the French destroyed it during the Indochina War. It demonstrates best how, in the absence of tangible ancientness, heritage is all a matter of continuity in spatial and cultural position.


  • Seriously, mung bean as a flavour for ice cream is very underrated. You can never get wrong with mung bean ice cream.


  • The Imperial Citadel of Thăng Long is an interesting historical site, with both Imperial, colonial, and revolutionary significance. As such it is an interesting mix of classical Chinese, French neoclassical, and 20th century military architecture.
  • And few tourists visit! Hanoi’s most important historical attraction is still underrated.


  • Part of the Citadel’s charm is how they openly showcase the archeology going on.
  • The ceramic works they’ve unearthed in the site are impressively intricate. When I saw them I first thought they were made of wood.

Could you imagine the attention to details it takes to mold something like this from clay?


I want to be the kid who digs this up!

  • The building that now occupies the location of the destroyed Kính Thiên palace, the rather vainly named Dragon House, looks okay, but it’s depressing to know it wasn’t even a fraction of the original grandeur the site once had. The Vietnamese probably considered rebuilding the palace when they gained independence.

The incense burner was more picturesque


The altar inside the Dragon House. This really demonstrates Vietnamese anti-colonialism: make a temple of your folk religion out of a colonial building.

  • I can still imagine future restorations for the citadel: the northern area is still closed to the public, and the Eastern Clock Tower gate is poised for a refurbishing.

The eastern gate, with the clock a gaping hole


  • I noticed it first in Văn Miếu, but the Vietnamese knew how to make their stair partitions (I cannot find the right architectural term for it). In the Citadel, the stairs leading up the sacred dais of the palace site is made of dragons and, more beautifully. clouds.
  • If you’re adventurous enough, go down that inconspicuous flight of stairs behind the Dragon House and you’ll see the bunker used to hide generals from wartime shelling. it has an exit that leads out to the House D67

This entrance


Go down here


yes, through that rusty bomb-proof door


And you’ll see a cozy underground office

  • Do not let the unassuming name fool you, House D67 is a ridiculously important building: this is where the Vietnamese generals planned the Tet Offensive and the fall of Saigon – and ultimately the first time an alliance of western powers – led no less than the USA – was defeated by a still embryonic independent country.

The table where they orchestrated it all, headed by Lê Duẩn, General secretary of the Communist party and Ho Chi Minh’s successor. Could they have planned Donald Trump too?

  •  For VND 50,000 (110 pesos), you get to wear historical costumes, from ladies-in-waiting to soldiers.


  • Of course, I had to wear the heavily Chinese-inspired Emperor’s clothes: the mian guan crown with a curtain of beads to reflect the galaxy the Emperor rules over, lush imperial yellow, and a belt and boots ornately brocaded with the five-toed dragon.
  • And I look ridiculously good in Imperial clothes. The other tourists were having their pictures taken with me.

Lord of Ten Thousand Years!

  • Standing from the Duan Mon gate you get a great view of the Hanoi Tower.


  • Unfortunately by the time we finished exploring the Citadel the Hanoi Tower was closed. But because this was one of the symbols of Hanoi, we still got great pictures.

The Hanoi tower


Some chimney

  • There are squirrels in the Citadel! Watch your head, they drop the talisay seeds after they chew on them.
  • No, stupid millennial. Vladimir Lennin, who has a park in front of the Hanoi Tower, is not related to John Lennon.

The Vietnamese must really be big Beatles’ fans

  • Almost everything I discovered in Hanoi, I discovered by accident: Bún chả, Bánh cốm, the pens and notebooks, the sites in the Citadel. If I had not made a turn at a particular juncture  I’d have never be able to see a site or buy a souvenir. And sure enough we missed out on many things in this wonderful Southeast Asian capital. At every turn we make we open up new worlds, but close our doors to others. Do we regret the possibilities we never encountered? Life is far too full of things to actually experience, we have no time to regret what we missed out on.
  • Thank goodness I suggested Hanoi when we were deciding where to go.

Just go where the lotus lights lead you

(For more pictures, see my album on Facebook)


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