During three incredible motorbike tours, I’ve learned a huge amount of new information about Hanoi and Vietnam! It’s too much to cover in a single blog post. I’ll separate the motorbike tours into three posts – City, Countryside, and Night Street Food. They were arranged through Asia Motorbike Adventures, and I highly recommend my friendly guide, Hoa. Although Hoa tried to teach me some Vietnamese, so far, the only words I’ve learned are – xin chào (hello) and cảm ơn (thank you)…
Motorbikes are the best way to explore Hanoi and navigate busy city streets! People ride them, because cars are extremely expensive, and parking is limited. Bus and train transportation is used for accessing outlying areas.
They don’t use Uber. In Vietnam. It’s Grab on demand motorbike and taxi service. Booking is easy on the Grab app, or you can just hail one on the street. They’re easily recognizable in green jackets and helmets. A few Grab motorbike drivers have saved me, when I was exploring on foot and became lost, exhausted, and boiling in the hot Vietnamese sun.
After a four+-hour motorbike tour, I learned to cover up more for protection from the strong tropical sun. Even so, I got a sunburn. For Vietnam, you need sunblock and breathable UV clothing. I did my best with photos, but it’s hard to take them while riding on a motorbike, so I’ve supplemented with media shots.
A meaningful Hanoi visit requires a basic understanding of Vietnam’s unique culture and 1,000 years of history. From the 2nd Century BC to 2022, this includes decades of imperial colonization, war, border disputes, and occupations by China, Soviet Union, Japan, Cambodia, Laos, France, and the US.
For those interested, there are many articles and history books on the subject. I like the Vietnamese people and find them friendly, forgiving, peaceful, and sometimes misunderstood. Everything in Vietnam has a deeper, symbolic meaning. I learn something new every day! Before visiting, taking time to do a little research is beneficial.
My tour guide, Hoa, was lots of fun! He enlightened me about many things Vietnamese, including street burnings that I referenced in a previous post. These “ritual offerings to deceased family members” are positive and viewed as “caring acts”.
“Fire and smoke help facilitate a connection between the two worlds of living and dead. By burning paper-versions of gifts, people can “transport them to their deceased family members”. The ritual burning of “joss paper” (aka ghost money) is a part of the Vietnamese religion known as “ancestor worship”. The “offering of gifts for the sake of deceased relatives, earns their blessings and takes care of them in the after-life”. The belief is that “those in the spirit-realm need to be cared for, the same as those in the physical world”.
Bridges and Lakes
We began the City Tour with a ride near West Lake, the largest of 6 lakes in Hanoi. Then, we proceeded across Long Biên Bridge, a 100+-year-old cantilever bridge across the Red River. Long Biên is one of 8 bridges currently built over Red River. To accommodate Vietnam’s constantly-growing population, in addition to the existing bridges described below, several more new bridges are in the works:
- Long Biên Bridge (Cầu Long Biên) was completed in 1902 and serves motorcycles, bicycles, and pedestrians. There’s an operating train track in the middle surrounded by single lanes on each side. Beloved Long Biên has seen lots of history and is Hanoi’s oldest bridge.
- Thang Long Bridge connects Noi Bai International Airport with Hanoi’s city center. Construction began in 1974 and ended in 1985 – the longest period of time required to build any bridge in Hanoi. Thang Long accommodates cars, trucks, trains, motorcycles, bicycles, and pedestrians.
- Chuong Duong Bridge was built in 1986 as part of Vietnam’s Key National Highway No. 1A. It’s the first bridge built and designed solely by Vietnamese engineers.
- Thanh Tri Bridge was inaugurated in 2007 and is one of the longest bridges in Asia and the largest prestressed concrete bridge in Vietnam.
- Viet Tri-Ba Vi Bridge was built in 2008 to connect Phú Thọ and Vinh Phuc provinces.
- Vĩnh Tuy Bridge opened in 2009 and is Vietnam’s largest cantilever span.
- Vĩnh Thinh Bridge is the “largest river crossing bridge ever built in Vietnam”. It was completed in 2014 to link Hanoi’s ever-expanding “satellite towns, hi-tech parks, and tourist sites”.
- Nhật Tân Bridge was inaugurated in 2015 and connects the Dong Anh and Tây Hồ Districts.
New, projected Tran Hung Dao Bridge will connect three urban districts with the eastern part of Hanoi and reduce traffic on the Chuong Duong and aging Long Biên Bridges.
Red River Delta and the Great Vietnamese Famine of 1944-1945
In 1944, rice crop failures occurred due to a lack of dike maintenance after US bombings and typhoons brought major damage and flooding to the Delta. This contributed to a massive loss of rice plants, which resulted in a horrific famine and the tragic deaths of millions of Vietnamese.
Japanese occupation and a failed French colonial administration are said to have “hindered effective famine alleviation”. Instead of cultivating rice in Hanoi’s Red River Delta, the French created coffee and rubber plantations in mountainous areas and expanded rice paddies in the southern Mekong River Delta.
“The Japanese military occupied Vietnam in September 1940 and remained until 1945, the end of World War II. The pretext for the invasion was Japan’s ongoing war with China, which began in 1937. By occupying Vietnam, Tokyo hoped to close off China’s southern border and halt its supply of weapons and materials.”
“After the Japanese invasion, French colonial administrators occupied Vietnam from 1946 to 1954. “Whatever economic progress Vietnam made under French imperialists primarily benefited the French and the small class of wealthy Vietnamese created by the colonial regime.” The Japanese takeover strengthened the Viet Minh national independence coalition founded in 1941 to fight joint Japanese and Vichy French occupation during World War II. This contributed to the anti-colonial First Indochina War.”
Our next stop was Banana Island (Bãi Giữa), a wilderness farmland located in the Red River Delta below Long Biên Bridge. The island has about 200 residents who live a simple existence without water or electric utility systems. The island floods during high tide, so many residents live on boats docked by the river bank.
Residents grow rice, bananas, and papaya. The glorious vivid-green fields are wonderful, and seeing them was one of my favorite parts of the tour! My guide, Hoa, grew up in northern Vietnam near the China border. He reminisced about similar rural terrain from his childhood. Even though life on Banana Island is basic, residents seem happy. The children create their own amusements, like hauling each other around on banana leaves.
Train Street Old Quarter
Next, we had tea with locals along the train tracks of Old Quarter Train Street – Ngõ 224 Lê Duẩn Alley. In 2012, when I rode the Reunification Express from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City, the train passed along these very same tracks. Basic houses built by the Vietnamese government surround the tracks on both sides.
Hoa says there are more alleys than streets in Hanoi, and alley apartment rentals are less expensive. Many people take small alley apartments near their jobs in Hanoi and maintain larger residences in the countryside, where they go to relax on weekends. Students and younger Vietnamese often rent a bedroom in one large flat, sharing the kitchen, bathroom, and living area.
The Opera House is one of Hanoi’s most beautiful French Colonial buildings. The structure was built by 3,000 Vietnamese who put in 30 tons of bamboo over 10 years (1901-1911) to shore up and strengthen the ground beneath the structure. Sadly, for their hard labor, the workers were paid a mere pittance of rice to feed their families.
More places of interest in the French Quarter include St. Joseph’s Cathedral, the National Museum of Vietnamese History, Trang Tien Plaza, Hoe Lo Prison Museum. and popular restaurants and patisseries. I’ll visit as many as possible!
Ba Dinh Square
We stopped by Ba Dinh Square which contains Vietnam’s Governmental Agency Buildings, including Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum and the Vietnam National Assembly. Another place on my itinerary – Bach Thao Park (Hanoi Botanical Garden) – is near the square.
I’ll be in Hanoi for National Independence Day on September 2nd. It’s a national holiday, and there will be public celebrations.
Huu Tiep Lake and 1972 US Christmas Bombing Campaign
We visited Huu Tiep Lake and the remains of John McCain’s downed B-52 bomber from the 1972 US Christmas Bombing Campaign. Following the breakdown of peace talks with Communists in North Vietnam, US President Richard Nixon announced the massive bombing. Over a period of two weeks, the US bombed North Vietnam 24 times dropping over 20,000 tons of bombs, in the “biggest bombing campaign by US B-52 aircraft”.
After viewing the airplane wreckage, we had tea with a nearby resident, Duc, who lives a few feet from Huu Tiep Lake. Duc experienced the horrific bombings as a 12-year-old boy. Generations of his family have occupied the same house for over 1,000 years. Duc’s hobby is growing orchids, and his collection is impressive!
The City Tour was time well spent. There’s much to learn and explore in Hanoi. I’m also considering a trip to Sapa in the north to see its spectacular rice terraces and mountainous terrain. You can get there by overnight train or a faster bus ride. I’m told it’s a long, tiring trip.