A Woman in Hanoi
Men sought to shun her. But still she endures.
She lives in the forests, in the ocean, in the sky.
She exhales the winds, she cries the storms, she beams the sun, she burns the fire.
She brings happiness and bliss in this moment, in this life
to those who worship her beauty, to those who admire her strength.
She is the mother goddess of Vietnam.
The Dao Mau religion in the North has honored her for thousands of years
by channeling her spirit through female mediums in sacred rituals of costumes and dance.
With their fears of superstition the communist regime outlawed this worship for decades.
But today the mother goddess lives on in Hanoi.
She rides with the confidence
of a badass biker chick
with her skinny jeans and stilettos
weaving around cars, bicycles, and tourists.
She sits and watches the sunset
at Hoan Kiem lake
posing for photos
perhaps keeping up
with the men lifting weights.
She brews a cauldron of broth
with spices, herbs, and sausage
or squats on the street on her lunch break
careful not to spill the juicy noodles
on her little black dress.
She bellows like a songbird
or greets patrons at the door
dressed in satin head to toe
with a smile genuine and pure.
She leaves behind her family
to work the streets of the city
balancing bananas and flowers in baskets
bouquets on her bicycle
selling what she can
to support her children in the country.
The goddess might be mystical, fabled, or even fantasy
but I have seen her
strong and beautiful
in each and every woman
right here in Hanoi.
What I did in Hanoi
Wandered the Old Quarter
I walked for hours through tiny streets dodging cars, motorbikes, and bicycles. I stared at strange shops, ate strange food, and let myself be a total stranger in this strange land. This is the beating heart of Hanoi, maybe even Vietnam.
Temple of Literature
This beautifully preserved temple is a great place to observe Vietnamese architecture and sit in a sunny courtyard to rest your weary feet.
A fascinating museum inside of the old prison originally used by the French to imprison Vietnamese aristocrats, poets, and philosophers, later used by the Viet Cong to imprison American soldiers.
An excellent museum for any city in the world, the Women’s Museum houses a large collection of traditional costumes, jewelry, and housewares to demonstrate life and customs for women in Vietnam. They currently have an exhibition dedicated to the Mother Goddess religion in Vietnam.
Hoan Kiem Lake
This was hands down my favorite place in Hanoi. To my fellow Seattleites it reminds me a lot of Greenlake. I went there every day I was Hanoi to escape the stimulation of the city and stare at the beautiful temple. The lake is the best place for people watching. Joggers make their laps, older women do tai chi, and men lift weights and do pull ups. At sunset couples line the lake taking photos of one another. The temple on the bridge at the North end of the lake is a peaceful place to sit and ponder.
Water Puppet Theater
$3 to $5
The water puppet theater performance truly exceeded my expectations. Water puppetry originated in Northern Vietnam by villagers living in the rice fields. Hanoi’s water puppet theater has stage filled with water to replicate the tradition. While the performance is done in Vietnamese, the artistry and music is stunning and entertaining without words. The theater is quite small, so even the cheap seats are good.
Where I ate in Hanoi
$.25 to $2 depending on your haggling skills
My first night in Hanoi I walked sheepishly down the neon lit streets in search of dinner. I had forced myself to stay awake despite my 24 hours of travel from Seattle. A kind family welcomed me to the plastic tables and chairs out on the street in front of their restaurant that seemed to be made for children. I sat down, my knees in my chest and pointed to something, unsure what, that cost $1. It ended up being the most flavorful pho I have ever tasted in my life. I sat around locals unable to discern their chatter.
Eating on the street with the people is one of the best ways to experience local culture. Learn a few of the Vietnamese names for dishes and dig in. Hanoi is famous for its spring rolls and pho.
$2 to $5
This restaurant seems too good to be true. The enormous menu features Vietnamese specialties from all over the country in an open, airy, beautiful space and it costs next to nothing. Different cooking stations line the restaurant so you can walk around the perimeter for a food tour of Vietnam. My favorite dishes I tried here were the green papaya salad and the ban xeo (crispy fried crepe stuffed with shrimp, pork, and bean sprouts served with rice paper, fresh herbs, and lettuce).
$3 to $7
Hanoi is a city that loves its meat, so it was nice for me to find a place with a vegetarian menu. The space is really cozy, the perfect spot to chill with a book or do some blogging. I had an amazing juice that was reasonably priced for less than $3 with beets, carrots, and ginger. They also had a wide selection of salads and other healthy meals.
$3 to $7
This darling little café is definitely a tourist/expat spot but we all need these meccas when traveling. The menu has a selection of salads and other healthy dishes, including energy balls, and this is the only place I’ve found in Vietnam with brown rice. Check their schedule for nights when they have live music.
$4 to $8
This is the one truly healthy place I found to eat in Hanoi. It’s definitely pricier than other restaurants and cafes, but it’s totally worth it for truly organic whole food. I had a pot of fresh, hot ginger tea with lime and honey, a green super smoothie, and a pumpkin chia seed burger on whole grain bread. All were amazing. The café is also connected to a yoga studio which offers daily classes.
Where I slept in Hanoi
$7.50 for a dorm bed, $25 for a private room
If you’re traveling solo and hoping to meet other backpackers, this is the place to stay. Nightly events, pub crawls, high quality tours, and an Australian staff make it an approachable place to begin your travels. They have a new hostel with great facilities smack dab in the old quarter with an onsite bar and restaurant. If you’re looking for peace and quiet, the original location is much more chill. The price includes a small breakfast of either eggs or fruit salad.
$6 for a dorm bed, $18 for a private room
Little Hanoi quickly felt like home. The staff speaks excellent English and is so nice and accommodating, the rooms are as nice as a high end hotel, and they offer free coffee, tea, and fruit all day. The breakfast is satisfying with fruit, made to order omelets, bread, rice, noodles, and veggies. They also have a great location in the Old Quarter.
How I arrived to Hanoi
$5 flat rate
Rather than deal with a taxi, they have caused me many problems in the past, I walked right over to the shuttles that take passengers into the center of Hanoi about a half hour from the airport. Everything I researched online said $2, but after the longest day of travel of my life and an asking price of $10, I settled for $5. If you’ve got more people it could be worth arranging a shuttle through your hotel or hostel.