We flew into Hanoi from Vientiane on Christmas Eve, and arrived at about 5 pm that evening. Vietnam is a country which you need a visa for, and you can get one either on arrival or as an e-visa prior to entering the country. If you’re British, you are able to enter Vietnam for 15 days without a visa (there are a few other European countries that allow this as well); however, Canadian’s are not eligible for this, and we planned to stay longer then 2 weeks so we chose to get the e-visa. I’m glad we did this because 1. it meant we didn’t have to have to get a passport sized picture of us, and 2. we got to skip the Visa On Arrival line once we’d landed. And it was a massive line. And I was already starving (it would not have gone well for anyone if I’d had to queue there for 2 hours).
Hanoi airport is pretty far out of the city, but they do have numerous options to get you to the city center available to choose from. I was all for getting a taxi (it was Christmas Eve, after all. Did I mention I was hungry as well?), but Rich had already found a bus that would take us in and it was much cheaper. Word of warning – it can take ages to get from the airport into the city center. We probably spent about 90 minutes on the bus, and it was not terribly comfortable. Luckily, it wasn’t a full bus and both Rich and I were each able to get two seats to ourselves, as neither of us were able to sit properly in one seat due to how close together they were and the lack of leg room. I don’t know if it was because it was Christmas Eve or if it’s always like that on a Monday evening, but traffic was horrific. It was stop/start the entire way in, although maybe it would have been faster in a taxi as they’re smaller and able to weave in and out of traffic better then a bus is. When we got on the bus and paid, we showed them where we wanted to go and they agreed that was fine (they did this for everyone); however, we eventually got to a spot kind of close to the Old City where they stopped and told everyone to get off as they weren’t going any farther. A few people tried to argue with them to take them further, but they just started chucking luggage off the bus and pointing to a bunch of taxi’s that were conveniently waiting there. We were just over a kilometer from our hostel, so we shouldered our packs and decided to walk, which I think took less time then it would have done in a taxi anyway!
It was definitely time for food by this point, so after checking into our hotel, we made our
way over towards the Old Town and the Cathedral, which we’d heard was doing some stuff for Christmas. There were so many options to choose from for food, but we eventually found a place not far from the cathedral that looked great and seemed to have a mix of locals and tourists. It did not disappoint. We ordered pho ga (chicken), bun cha (rice noodles with bbq pork), and fresh spring rolls, and although different, it was a great Christmas Eve meal. The portions, especially of pho, are huge here but everything is so delicious it’s easy to eat all of it,
although you pretty much have to roll down the street after. After stuffing ourselves, we headed over to the cathedral which was doing a Christmas Service outside for Christmas Eve. It was in Vietnamese, so we have no idea what they were saying or talking about, but it was a great atmosphere and a cool thing to watch. The had various people and choirs singing as well, and the songs were all Christmas songs we knew; however, the majority of them were also in Vietnamese. Rich and I (we spotted others doing the same) sung along in English, although there were definitely some questionable lyrics being thrown about.
We were really surprised with the amount of Vietnamese who were there; apparently Christmas has become a massive things for them to celebrate, despite most of them not being Christian/Catholic. The entire city was decorated, and although they don’t get a holiday for it they all seem to really enjoy it.
As it was pretty late by this point, we headed back to the hotel to get some sleep. It was really weird waking up the next day and it being Christmas, as it didn’t feel like Christmas. I love all the decorations, and songs, and activities around Christmas, and there was some of that throughout December regardless of where we were in Asia, but we never really got fully into the Christmas spirit. Although I was excited to spend Christmas just the two of us in a different country, once we were actually there it fell a bit flat without family and friends to celebrate with us. Don’t get me wrong, we had a great time and I’m glad we had the experience, but we don’t feel the need to do it again! Next year we want to be surrounded by the people that we love, regardless of where that might end up being.
Christmas morning dawned clear and bright (and hot), and we had a pretty lack-luster breakfast at the hotel – no smoked salmon, oyster stew or champagne in sight! We spent a lazy couple of hours getting ready and calling Canada (it was still Christmas Eve there), before heading out to explore a bit of Hanoi. A big part of Hanoi is the Old Quarter, which is an area of the city that has been there since Imperial times, and where a lot of trade is still located. You can spend hours wandering around the streets enjoying the sights and sounds and getting lost in the every day busyness that never seems to die down, and that’s exactly what we did. After enjoying our pho the night before, we thought it was appropriate to try another Vietnamese staple for lunch – bahn mi. A baguette sandwich filled with spicy mayo, bbq’d meat (pork, chicken, and duck seem to be the most common), pickled carrot cabbage, lettuce, cucumbers, and sometimes more, we’ve pretty much had banh mi for lunch every opportunity that we can. They’re delicious and super cheap and you can sit down or eat them on the go, making them ideal regardless of what you’re doing. As it was Christmas, we obviously had to have a beer (or two) to go with it, and we thoroughly enjoyed our Christmas afternoon.
We’d found a restaurant that was putting on a full Christmas dinner (stuffing included), and we also got tickets to see the Hanoi Water Puppet show in the evening. After finding a supermarket, we bought ourselves a bottle of local red wine and headed back to the hotel to relax before going for dinner. The restaurant – the Durty Bird – had been a bit of lucky find earlier in the day that happened to be a great choice. As we walked around a
corner in the Old Quarter (on a street we were on because we’d taken a wrong turn somewhere and were trying to get back) the familiar sound of the Pogues – Fairytale of New York could be heard coming from behind the bar. We’d heard most Christmas songs by that point; however, the Pogues is not one that has made it over to Asia, so we were pretty surprised to hear it. Rich immediately started singing along, and I swear there was a jolly little skip being done as well. Turns out that Colin, one of the owners, is originally from Dublin and they’d only opened their doors in October and they were putting on a Christmas Dinner despite being a friend chicken place. Anyway, it turned out great, as we were able to get an early booking so we could enjoy dinner before going to the theater.
After 3 months of SE Asian cuisine, the full on roast they served was perfect. There was chicken, ham, pork, roast potatoes, stuffing, veg, and lots of gravy. Served with a starter and a dessert, it felt like a proper Christmas Dinner where you eat more then you should; the only thing missing was the cheese! Dinner also came with Santa hats and snowman glasses, and after a couple glasses of mulled wine we did start to feel a bit of that elusive Christmas Spirit and were more than a bit jolly.
Suitably sated after consuming everything on our plates, we made our way over to the theater to watch some water puppets. The water puppets seem to be a bit of a staple attraction in Hanoi, with both locals and tourists a like enjoying multiple showings every single day. The theater is set up much the same way as any other theater; however, instead of a stage in the front there is a pool of water, with people playing traditional instruments on either side of it. Once the lights dim and the music starts, the puppets either burst up through the water or come from behind the curtain at the back of the pool. It’s a slightly bizarre sight, but pretty entertaining, especially after the amount of wine we’d had. It’s pretty amazing watching the puppets, as you never see the people controlling them but they do some incredible things. The water adds an interesting element as well, as it’s incorporated into the story and what the puppets are doing.
I can’t tell you anything about the actual story, as it was all in Vietnamese, but it had a bit of a pantomime feel to it and even had a call and answer part at one point. The entire show is only about 50 minutes long, and without understanding the language and story, I’m not sure you’d want it to be any longer then that. It was a fun thing to do, and something that anyone would enjoy, children and adults both. They run shows multiple times a day, 7 days a week (I think they’re only closed for Chinese New Year), so even if you’re short on time in Hanoi you should be able to find a time that works. I recommended consuming a few beverages before hand to get maximum entertainment value out of it, but not too much as it’s something you’ll want to remember!
By the time the show ended, the UK had started to wake up so we headed back to the hotel for a couple phone calls to family and friends before bed. Although it was a very different Christmas then what we’re used to, it was incredibly fun and a great experience for us to have. We went to bed with smiles on our faces and definitely had a good long lie in the next morning before venturing out again.