Perhaps living in Dubai warps your sense of size, but the most noticeable thing about Hanoi is how small it feels. The city is within easy reach of Dubai (about an eight-hour flight), with the added bonus of the quite brilliant www.myvietnamvisa.com allowing visitors to collect their visas on arrival and avoid a trip to the embassy. But this Asian capital couldn’t feel more different from Dubai.
From Hanoi’s old quarter, just east of the focal point that is Hoan Kiem Lake, everything seems within easy reach by foot. There are no intimidating highways and pedestrian-free routes. Exploring the narrow streets is more like walking through old hutongs, except the architecture is strikingly different. The roads are lined by an enchanting mish-mash of thin, tall buildings, which hit the eye with blasts of colour; remnants of French colonial architecture that have been built upon and added to, instead of smashing everything down and starting again. Ambling across the old quarter, visitors will stop to marvel at wonderful wooden shutters and the spindly structures covered in vines, each cuter than the one before – until they’re nearly run over by a motorbike, that is.
Ah yes – the motorbikes. Hanoi’s fairly compact size should make it easy to wander around without a care, yet the swarm of motorised two-wheelers soon proves that’s not the case. In a city of 6.5 million people, it’s as if every single soul rides a motorcycle, and afternoon strolls are typically soundtracked by the continuous drone of bike engines. Imagine being attacked by thousands of angry bees playing mini vuvuzelas through a stadium-sized amp. Without wanting to sound like a grumpy old man, it’s enough to give you a headache.
But there are plenty of sights to duck into when the noise gets too much, and the biggest draw seems to be a dead man. Dominating Ba Dinh Square is the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum. This is where ‘Uncle Ho’ declared independence from the French in 1945. And it’s here he remains, embalmed (despite his explicit desire to be cremated) and put on show like his fellow communist rock stars Mao Zedong, Kim Il-Sung and Vladimir Lenin. It’s worth visiting (free entry – open 7.30am-10.30am; closed Mon and Fri), if only to spend the rest of the afternoon debating whether the body you glimpsed under glass is real or not.
Other spots to hit include the Vietnam Fine Arts Museum for its visiting exhibitions; the Temple of Literature, a Confucian temple that was also Vietnam’s first university; plus the Presidential Palace Historical Site. The latter combines the impressive French built home for the governor-general during the colonial era with Uncle Ho’s ‘house on stilts’, a simple shack constructed because of his distaste for the ostentatious palace. Also worth a look is the historic Hoa Lo Prison, used by the French to lock up Vietnamese political prisoners, and later by the Vietnamese to hold American soldiers, who ironically referred to it as the ‘Hanoi Hilton’ – thereby posing a real marketing challenge for the Hilton Group when it opened in Hanoi in 1999.
From Hanoi, head south down this narrow nation and take a 13-hour overnight train (Dhs100) to Hue, the imperial capital of Vietnam’s last ruling family, the Nguyen Dynasty (1802-1945). The modern part of this city, home to most of the hotels, is fairly unremarkable. It’s a description that unfortunately also applies to the Imperial City, which most guidebooks will tell you to visit first.
Hue’s Imperial City carries the ugly scars of history. This place is a pale imitation of what it should be, much ruined as a result of the fight against the French during the struggle for independence, and then again during the Vietnam War. On the plus side, it is now an incredibly peaceful place for some quiet contemplation.
What makes Hue worth the trip, however, are the royal tombs. The Nguyen Dynasty lasted for 143 years and 13 emperors. Six burial sites of these former Vietnamese kings lie to Hue’s southeast – hire a driver for approximately Dhs88 and check out three of the best during an afternoon, timed to avoid the morning’s busloads of tourists. The tomb of Minh Mang, the second emperor (who reigned from 1820-1841), is a breathtaking complex of lakes and gardens, warrior statues and temples, with a commitment to architectural symmetry that’s reminiscent of a classic Chinese aesthetic. His grandson, Tu Duc, the last emperor to rule independently (1847-1883), has an equally poetic resting place.
Khai Dinh’s effort, by contrast, smacks of megalomania. This penultimate emperor (1916-1925) was a big fan of France and his grandiose design attempts to merge European features with Vietnamese tradition. Think concrete, ornate ceramics, glass, and not a wooden pavilion in sight. ‘He loved himself!’ notes one Australian tourist to her daughter as they gaze at the life-sized gold statue he built – of himself on a throne.
If all this talk of emperors and opulence has gone to your head, the next stop should be The Nam Hai, one of Vietnam’s most luxurious resorts, located between Da Nang and Hoi An, and just a couple of hours south of Hue by car. The stunning private villas are as beautiful inside as the lush grounds and ocean views outside. Some guests venture to Hoi An, just 10km away, where tailors await in the adorable little old town of this unique Unesco World Heritage Site. Others head to nearby golf courses designed by Colin Montgomerie and Greg Norman. But it can be difficult to tear yourself away from the resort’s impossibly comfortable beds, wooden beams and sunken baths – not to mention the spa and three infinity pools (that’s a lot of infinity).
If you don’t want to venture far, try the beach outside your villa; China Beach, to be precise. Except you’re not supposed to call it that any more. No, siree. That’s the nickname the American GIs gave this 30km stretch of golden-white sand between Da Nang and Hoi An when they came here for ‘R&R’ during the Vietnam War. Or should that be the American War? Because, much like ‘China Beach’, it’s known by a different name here. But you’re probably after a holiday, not a history lesson. And, standing on this strip of perfect sand, that’s exactly what you’ll get.
Need to know
Fly to Hanoi via China with China Southern Airlines from Dhs2,296 return (www.flychinasouthern.com). For a faster option, try flying via Doha on Qatar Airways, from Dhs3,096 return (www.qatarairways.com).
Where to stay
Hanoi Backpackers Hostel
This new hostel on Ma May is squeaky-clean and brand new. It’s one of the most comfortable budget stays in the city and all rooms have air-con and hot water, unlike a lot of the other hostels in the city. For Dhs147 you can get a private double room; Dhs42 will get you a bed in a mixed dorm. www.hanoibackpackershostel.com
This great venue in Hue includes a buffet breakfast, DVD library, hairdryer, ironing board and all the facilities you’ll need, including a fresh white-sheeted king-sized bed, all for a very reasonable Dhs128
per room per night. www.orchidhotel.com.vn
The Nam Hai
This fantastically upmarket spot near Hoi An boasts spacious villas, several infinity pools and a golden stretch of beach. Expect to pay at least Dhs1,800 per room per night. www.thenamhai.com
History and geography
• Vietnam is home to 90.5 million people, making it the 13th most populated country in the world.
• Vietnamese people used to write in Chinese characters. It wasn’t until the 13th century that the country developed its own script, called chu nom.
• In 1859, Vietnam became part of French Indochina and was under their control until 1885.
• The country has historically been an agricultural hub that concentrates on cultivating wet rice.
• Politically, it is run by one party and calls itself a ‘unitary socialist republic’. The newest constitution was accepted in 1992.
• The nation has 58 provinces and five municipalities.