3 Days in Hanoi, Vietnam

For the past 5 years or so I’ve been taking various short trips around Asia, exploring parts of the local music scene in each country (while fitting in some sight-seeing.) Here is the diary recap of my recent visit to Hanoi; a more focused portrait of the jazz & traditional music scene will be up soon.)

The start of my recent, too short visit to Vietnam can be summed up with the following three quotes:

1.”We caution that with this level of turbulence, passengers use the aircraft restrooms at their own risk.” 

2. “You’re in KLIA2, you need KLIA terminal 1 for your transfer. Better rush if you want to make it, lines are long there. But don’t run in the airport, the police will surely stop you and that would take an hour at least once that happens.” 

3. And lastly, “Oh, two hours wait for a visa in Hanoi airport is about normal. I guess it would move faster if there were more than one person behind the counter handling things. Not the friendliest lady in the world either.”

Day One

Ok enough about the rather long, exhausting route to get there; all that fell away as my taxi moved through the Old Quarter of Hanoi, a place I’ve been wanting to visit for years now.

img_5791Hanoi is an old city, with a lot more than just the faded colonial mansions and french influenced coffee culture, though both jump right out at you immediately. After a quick ‘refresh’ in the very nice La Siesta boutique hotel (++ points for the very nice mango & passion fruit smoothie they bring you while checking in), I headed out into the streets of the Old Quarter at about 2:30pm, immediately jumping into the traffic.

(Street view of traffic)

Reading about the bike culture in Vietnam and experiencing it first hand is a different ballgame yet quickly picked up the technique of how to cross without getting smashed and started my wandering. It’s often the best part of a trip, that first initial rush of diving into a neighborhood with only a basic idea of which way you’re going, taking in every sight, sound and smell around you. Right away I randomly looked up to see this glorious mystery:

(Radio building)img_5870I was too late to snap a pic of the very old guy leaning out the window with a noticeably grumpy face. This had to be an old radio station but from when, and what kind? I made a mental note to come back and investigate. (Note: I never made it back. Stupid..)

The streets of the Old Quarter were enticing; I immediately fell in love with the vibe, even with the seemingly endless number of tourists. Thought not exclusively so, there was still a bit of the system of ‘one street, one type of shop’ going on. This way fabrics; this way home goods; that way lighting & hardware; this way wet market.

First stop though of course was for some Pho; I strolled over to a street round the corner road where the hotel said were many good Pho shops. #10 was delicious; clean and good quality beef, perfect portion for just about ¥300 (US$2.50). I grabbed a quick espresso at the cafe across the way from Pho 10, looking down into the action below.

img_5880If you look at the bottom right of the picture you’ll see a local guy in a green army uniform. When I left the cafe and walked by him he smiled at me and gave a wave, and I saw that the ‘name tag’ on the uniform said ‘US Marines’ in English…odd and curious for many reasons. But then, every few seconds I was already seeing things in Hanoi that could be interpreted in different ways given Vietnam’s history…for example this shop:

img_5874Surely not a coincidence, unless there’s some brand named Vichy I’m not aware of…? (Note: Looked it up later and found that’s a real French company. Shame, that would have been a sick burn by the locals towards the French. Oh well..)

Feeling full and energized I walked further through the Old Quarter and made it to the top of Hoan Kiem Lake, in the heart of the city. Fantastic spot, full of energy but not overwhelming in the least. I spent an enjoyable 10 minutes on a bench by the lake next to two very old aunties who laughed and smiled and chatted to me in Vietnamese non-stop, then I walked round the lake and down into the French Quarter south of the lake. A different universe from the crowded bustle of the Old Quarter, my first stop in the French Quarter was Bar +84. I had been told this was a nice spot for good tunes, both live and on the speakers. With a very indoor/outdoor shape and feeling quite spacious, I was happy to grab a stool and order a Tiger beer (no 333 in Hanoi!) then smiled as The Crusaders ‘Street Life’ came on, followed in succession by Chaka Khan then some Blue Note trumpet from the 60s…not Lee Morgan but of that style. Bingo! A great start to the evening, and it got me feeling positive that there were some music heads here in town I could certainly hang with.

(bar +84 pic) img_5811(Interlude: People ask me again and again WHY do I travel thousands of miles to go find bars that play the same music I can hear anywhere in Tokyo. I always say, it’s not the music, it’s the people choosing it that I go to find, to hear them talk about the local scene and tell me all about how they started their bar. Sightseeing the famous places is fun, but the best way to learn about a city, especially the music scene, is to talk to staff and musicians in the local music joints. And in doing so you learn a lot about contemporary society, way more than just blindly following a Lonely Plant Walking Map…ok, rant over.)

I drained a couple cold Tigers in bar +84 listening to some superb tunes..and then abruptly at 7pm the grooves stopped and some awful new ‘R&B’ came on..horrid and annoying. The staff said they have to switch over as the night time customers want ‘newer hits’.. (Sigh…) I finished and took a slow stroll around the French Quarter on my way to the Binh Minh Jazz Club, supposedly the only ‘real’ jazz club in Hanoi. On a side street behind the landmark Hanoi Opera House it’s well signposted:

img_5827Very nice, with seats outside and wide open windows so you can hear the music…that wasn’t playing yet. I was way early for the live sets that start at 9pm, but at 8 there wasn’t even any CD on. I ordered a drink anyways and took some pics, then waited for the first set.

Quyen Van Minh is one of the most important figures in creating a jazz scene in Vietnam, and the owner of the club. I went up to speak with him when he arrived right before 9pm; he took my card and said to email him about meeting during the week (never got a reply back from him unfortunately..) As one of the two most important jazz figures in the country, I’m going to have to get back to interview him properly with way advance notice.

The first quartet to play was solid enough, playing some mid-tempo bebop, but the effects of flying and the alcohol began to hit about 10 pm so I paid up and walked back around the lake into the Old Quarter. Even in the light drizzle though I stopped by the lake for a few minutes to enjoy the scene. It’s always so so satisfying taking that first nighttime walk back to your hotel in a new city. Got in at around 10:30 and was asleep within minutes.


Day Two

Couldn’t get out of bed; leisurely late breakfast meant I didn’t leave the hotel until about 11. I walked west from the OQ to have a look at the Confucian Temple of Literature, site of Vietnam’s first university, established almost one thousand years ago Very impressive as expected, as was sharing the experience with about one thousand other tourists, and about 150 Vietnamese school kids & recent graduates. Despite the crowds, it was interesting to see how the temple is still active; one of the attendants told me that many, if not all, students will come to pray here before and after exams. I was fascinated at the choice of books on sale at the temple gift shop:

img_5848Not really sure how to process that..I wonder what a Vietnamese reader would think of Rhett and Scarlett?

I left the temple after an hour and grabbed a baguette sandwich (delicious) from a small cafe, then put my map away and let myself get lost. And as is always the case, I remembered to follow the golden rule of traveling: when you see an interesting looking alleyway, take it.

This was actually 100x more interesting than the temple. Perhaps a bit invasive to take pics and videos right in the middle of people’s lives like this, but I was in love with these back alleys with the bird cages, small shops and people just going about things. I went around and around a maze of alleys, everyone smiled at me except for one very grumpy old lady that was yelling and waving a cabbage in my face. I wandered more, took a few turns here and there, and ended up at this wonderful local intersection.

Figured out that I was still fairly near the Temple of Literature in what seemed like an extremely local neighborhood, even with the ‘Asean Hotel’ right there. This was such a wonderful spot I lingered for ten minutes or so just observing, before popping into another cafe for an espresso.

(Interlude: The cafe culture in Hanoi is epic, monumental, exhilarating. It’s something you really want to experience while you are there. I knocked a few years off the life of my kidneys & bladder with all the espresso I drank in three days but it was worth it. And I didn’t even stop at these gorgeous joints.)

img_5876Was time to head back to the hotel for a quick change before the evening’s plans. While at a stop light I was surprised by a man sitting on a stool pointing at my shoe. He pointed and jabbered away then pulled out a small nail-file looking thing and grabbed at my shoe. Ah! This was the old ‘fix a non-existing shoe problem and ask for money’ scam I had heard about. I pulled away and said No Thanks, then walked away laughing. Surely there are more effective scams than this to reel in the tourists?

I had plans to meet for drinks at the Metropole Hotel at 9m so after a quick nap I left the hotel again at around 5ish to go see Bar Betta and the Pho Nho Bar, two places I was told to visit for good tunes. Both were on the same street not far from the area I was exploring earlier that morning. First Bar Betta, inside a huge, beautiful old colonial house, with funky decor and some okay-ish tunes playing.

Apparently Bar Betta’s popular heyday had passed, but it was a very nice vibe inside the huge house, with an open air rooftop as well for when then rain stops. The music got better after awhile but I moved next door to Bar Pho Nho to have a look. Unfortunately the rain picked up again and Bar Pho Nho was completely empty, with no music of any kind. I enjoyed a solitary beer on the balcony, exchanging FBook messages with Pho Nho’s manager, who told me there is live jazz there only on Monday nights. Pleasant spot, and one I’d return to for the live music on the next trip for sure.

I left Pho Nho and got immediately lost, then couldn’t get a taxi in the rain so ended up walking cross town to the classic, ritzy Metropole Hotel to meet Ms. Hoang Minh Chau for a drink and chat. Chau runs the Hanoi Jazz Lovers Facebook page, and had helped me prepare for my visit in the past weeks. We met at the Bamboo bar at the Metropole, with the sound of vocalist Michele Kaye coming from the inside Le Club bar.

Chau was wonderful to talk with, she gave me so much information on the formation of the jazz scene in Hanoi, the influx of new spots with live music, and a lot of thoughts on where the scene is heading, in addition to helping me understand the current social climate in Hanoi.

(Note: I’m working on an expanded section for the website to be called ‘Jazz In Asia’ so will save for now all that she told me and simply summarize by saying the jazz scene, while still small, is going to keep growing in Vietnam.)

Unfortunately the schedule didn’t work this week to meet with Chau’s university contacts, Prof. Luu Quang Minh and Dr. Nguyen Manh, two key figures in the creation of the Hanoi jazz scene over the last 25 years, but I assured here I would be returning to Hanoi as soon as possible; the city already put a spell on me in less than 30 hours. I wanted to linger at the Bamboo Bar at the Metropole; I’d never stay at such a place (even if I could afford it) but have to confess to enjoying the poolside bar very much at the end of a long day of walking.

img_5892(Bamboo Bar Pic)

Day Three

Last day in Hanoi so wanted to get a lot in. Rose early and did a little shopping, then made a fantastic discovery.

img_5906This place was just minutes from my hotel but I had not passed it the previous two days. The owner couldn’t speak a word of English but was kind enough to play the đàn bầu for me.

Awesome! This one stringed zither is one of the major instruments in all traditional Vietnamese music. Need to hear more of it, such a cool sound. I looked at everything in the shop, the gongs, the dan ty ba and something very much like a banjo, then told the guy in English I’d come back if possible with someone to translate; he smiled though no idea if we really communicated or not. This shop was such a treat.

I dropped off my shopping and grabbed a taxi up to West Lake, about a 10-minute ride northwest of the Old Quarter. I got dropped off at the Tran Quoc Pagoda,

img_5910then got started on a long walk all the way round the lake that I had been really looking forward too..but the weather was being difficult. Fog and drizzle non-stop, so although the embassies and trees and quiet was enjoyable, after about 45 minutes I took shelter in one of the many, many cafes lining the shores of the lake, the wonderfully odd ‘October’ cafe. Check the decor out in here.

With some kind of ominous sounding acoustic Vietnamese pop playing at loud volume, no one else in the whole building, and the fog over the lake, it was an atmospheric and creepy and absolutely delightful one hour break. I never drank a mango smoothie so slow in my life. (Had to cool it with the espresso, it was starting to make my heart race after awhile.)

After the mango break I zoomed back downtown to get ready for the evening’s schedule. First a quick stop to look at this awesome looking shop nearby the hotel:

(Bamboo shop)img_5922The evening’s main event for me was a performance of north Vietnamese traditional music called ‘Ca Tru’. The Ca Tru Thang Long organization was founded and led by  Ms. Pham Thi Hue. I met her at about 6 to speak a bit about her work and this kind of music. (All of the notes of our conversation lost due to rain on the way home..I’m such an amateur wannabe journalist…read a brief description about Ca Tru here.)

No videos allowed but found this official one online which gives you an idea:

It was a wonderful and fascinating performance. After the show I talked with some of the performers and also met Jin Hi Kim and Joseph Celli who were in the audience as they did a tour around the country. (Stand by for an interview with Jin Hi Kim soon..)

I walked out into the rain feeling so happy, this was exactly the kind of evening I had been looking forward to when I heard of the Ca Tru Thang Long organization.  The surrounding cheap beer joints on Hang Buom road, with their appalling music and throngs of backpackers didn’t appeal to me at all (yes, I’m old now..) so I bought a bottle of Trung Mach beer at a shop and made my way through the winding OQ streets back to the La Siesta, deciding not to pop in the Hanoi Music Social Club for a nightcap (I had missed their nightly live set and was looking at a 5am wake up call to get to the airport), or the sleepy looking Mojito Lounge bar.

In Hanoi for a grand total of 65 hours was obviously not enough. Just a small taste of what the city has to offer though made me vow to get back as soon as possible, next time setting up solid interviews with QHM and Dr. Mike beforehand, and also checking out the experimental DJ night I heard about and even making time to visit the coast. Vietnam!



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Mr. OK Jazz is a 20+ year resident of Japan and spends all his free time wandering the Kanto area looking for jazz cafes, bars, clubs and record stores. For two years he hosted the OK Jazz radio show on InterFM Radio, currently the OK Jazz podcast. You can reach him at *protected email*