Christmas in Hanoi, Vietnam

February 20, 2015  •  4 Comments

-by Vlad-

On Christmas Eve, we left Ho Chi Minh City and took a two hour flight north to Vietnam's second largest city, Hanoi. As we were checking into our hotel, we met a young woman from China, Coral, who overheard us asking about the location of the St. Joseph's Cathedral. She asked if she could join us on our visit to the church she was there by herself on a business trip and was intimidated to walk the streets alone. After Edyta and I grabbed Christmas Eve dinner, the three of us headed out to see Christmas Eve in Hanoi. 
The streets of Hanoi, especially around St.Joseph's Cathedral, were packed with people, making it impossible to get into the square where an outdoor Christmas service was being held. We did catch a glimpse from the many big screens they had set up. Seeing so many people out, combined with perfect weather (no rain or humidity), and beautiful lights and decorations made for a memorable first Christmas away from home as a married couple. 
I was very curious to see how Vietnam's second largest city compared Ho Chi Minh City (aka Saigon). The streets of the Old Quarter resembled those in Europe as they were smaller and lined with shops, restaurants, bars and cafés. One thing that remained constant was the traffic. Scooters were everywhere, sharing the streets with cars, buses and pedestrians. Vendors and parked motorbikes were taking up most of the sidewalks so we often found ourselves walking on the street. As chaotic as it was, it somehow seemed normal. Crossing the streets can look intimidating, but if you maintain a constant speed while keeping and eye on oncoming traffic, drivers will avoid you. If an old lady carrying two large baskets of sweets or souvenirs can cross without a care, we could also do this. Speaking of souvenirs, I found the vendors in Hanoi to be generally less aggressive than their counterparts in Saigon. And most of them were women. 
A contrast that stood out were the younger, stylish locals. The temperate weather provided an opportunity for the young Vietnamese to accessorize their outfit (swap flip flops and tank tops for heels and silk scarves). It was also very easy to blend in and sometimes be the only tourists at a Shisha bar patio or side street restaurant. 
To get a better feel of the local culture we visited the National Museum of Vietnamese History where we learned more about the Vietnamese/American War and the french colonization period and also attended Vietnamese Water Puppetry Show, a traditional that dates back to the 11th century. 
As if we weren't already addicted to great coffee from our travels (Croatia, New Zealand), Vietnamese coffee took it to a whole other level. A traditional Vietnamese drip had virtually no bitterness and left a decadent, sometimes nutty, aftertaste. Do as the locals and add in a touch of condensed milk and you're left with a sweet cup of heaven. Edyta discovered a "cute cafe" that unknown to her, served coffee from beans that passed through the digestive system of a civet cat. Kinda gross right? Maybe, but it was some of the best coffee we had. Ever. No wonder we always left saying 'see you tomorrow' when we left this cafe. A kilogram of these beans goes for as much as $600 in parts of the world, so the $1/cup price tag made it extra sweet. (Check out below video to see how it's served).
Overall it was a great stay in Vietnam, especially considering we were away from friends and family for Christmas. I'm glad we got to visit both of the big cities in Vietnam to see how they compared and contrasted. 
Off to Singapore for our last country of 2014! 
On Christmas Eve day we flew from Ho Chi Minh City to the much colder city of Hanoi. 

Christmas in Hanoi 

Our room for the first few days was small and pretty dark at twenty something dollars per night.  After deciding to extend our stay we switched to this more comfortable hotel for about $37 per night.

Our Christmas Eve dinner was a bit different than normal. Edyta was sad not to have her favorite Polish dishes. 

We met Coral, Chinese girl on a work trip, on Christmas eve. She asked to join us on our walk to church. Christians are a minority in China so she had to work on what should be her holiday.  This GQ guy photo-bombed Edyta trying to take a photo of the Nativity Scene. Christmas mass was held outside and drew large crowds. We were very surprised to see Christmas celebrated in Vietnam. After all, Christianity is followed only by 8% of the population. 

Next day we returned to see St. Joseph's Cathedral in daylight. Dating back to 1886, it is the oldest church in Hanoi and the first structure built by the French colonial government in Indochina.

Street Life

Hanoi street are full of interesting people. 

You can buy almost anything from these mobile vendors, most of which are women.  Feather dusters must be in high demand in Vietnam because we saw them being sold multiple times.  Hat and basket vendor.  Female fruit vendor. These things really weight a lot. Similar to Ho Chi Minh City, burning things on the sidewalk was a normal thing.   

So were sidewalk chickens.  Everything you want to buy can be found at a sidewalk vendor. That includes meats. 

Certain informal restaurants cook their food on the sidewalk.  That's also where they wash all their dishes at the end of the night.

Sidewalk haircut? Why yes please.   And a shave too? Of course.

Buildings in the Old Quarter district of Hanoi.

This part of town was outside of the Old Quarter. This building looked very French.  View from one of the rooftop restaurants. 

Traffic in HanoiTraffic in Hanoi

Check out this video of Hanoi traffic 

Turtle Tower in the middle of Hoan Kiem Lake in the Old Quarter of Hanoi. 

We spotted this pretty girl dressed in traditional Vietnamese attire getting a photoshoot by the lake. 

Weapons display at the National Museum of Vietnamese History.

Learning about the interesting and painful history of this country.

In the water puppet show, the puppeteers are hidden behind a curtain and stand in waist deep water while "operating" the wooden puppets.

Small band provided music for the show. Here are the puppeteers greetings us after the show has ended. 

Huong Mai Cafe  - according to their website, 'weasel coffee is the ultimate connoisseur coffee available in very limited, fresh roasted per order of the finest selected coffee beans that have been organically, naturally processed by the digestive juices of Vietnamese Civet Cats, also known as "Con Chon", or "Weasels" a remarkable species adapted to seeking out and selecting only the most perfect Arabica coffee beans. These then go through an enzyme active digestive process and are expelled, dried, cleaned and washed, then pre-roasted, and shipped to our roasting facility where they are finish roasted to make perfect bean coffee'. Read more about it here

This coffee was exquisite. 

Vietnamese Coffee Vietnamese Coffee

Here's a video showing how Vietnamese coffee is served. 

This noodle dish was also delicious.   And here is a restaurant we strayed (pun intended) away from. See middle right. But... to each their own. After all, some countries think that eating beef is wrong. 

So what do you think of Hanoi? Is this a place you'd like to visit or perhaps you have been there? 


Huongmai Cafe(non-registered)
Dear Vlad.

Seemed like you received a great Christmas holiday in Hanoi and I am so happy that your visiting to our shop was one of your memorable experience. I'm also proud that our coffee had pleased you and your partner as well as Ms. Carol that much, it would be a big pleasure to us if we had customers like you every day.

This reply maybe late but I just want you to know that you and your friends are always welcome at our shops. It's already June so have a great summer !

Best Regard
Phạm Quốc Tân
Customer Manager
@Lady Astin - we followed your travel path :-) Yes, it was crazy crossing those streets. Those drivers do not mess around.

@Vanessa - I remember that and back then I thought it was gross. But it turned out delish. Did you try it?
Ryan and his friends ordered some of that coffee online months back. Super delicious!
Lady Astin(non-registered)
Our hotel was right across the street from St Josephs, ahh so cray cray you were there! :) love the video of the street crossing, it's probably one of the scariest bits we remember from our time in Vietnam! Big love! x
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