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The Traveller's Magazine
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While south east Asia may, in your mind, be reserved for the most adventurous backpackers, we disagree. Hanoi in particular has a way of blending the chic of old Asia with modern touches that surprise and excite every time. Enjoy the intricacies of Vietnamese culture, here’s a guide to help get you started.

Typically if it’s your first time to Hanoi you will hit up the tourist hot spots like Ho Chi Minh’s Mausoleum and the Presidential Palace. What’s true about most places with new cultures is that your trips stop being about the “sights” so to speak and start being about the experiences. In Vietnam it’s all about getting in with the locals, riding their wave and walking in their shoes. To do that though, there’s a few things you should know…

Flights to Hanoi

Pagoda or Temple?

One Pillar Pagota

How can you tell which is which when they practically all look the same no matter which part of the country you’re in. According to the locals, a pagoda (chua) is a place of worship, where one goes to make an offering and pray while a temple (den) is a structure that has been built to commemorate someone who has died, usually some great historical figure.


It’s a fancy word for feng shui and it’s one of the most important elements in daily life. It is the art of living in tune with your surrounding environment… or is it a science? Locals call it phong thuy and if you plan to do any serious business while you’re in Vietnam then it’s essential to learn this.

Pass the fish sauce, please

fish sauce

Oh you love it, don’t say you don’t. For Vietnamese, fish sauce is like ketchup or simply salt. It goes on everything! It’s made from salty fermented fish, cured to perfection in ceramic vats for sometimes an entire year. Used for dipping, marinating, flavouring, just about anything but make sure you taste the real thing, not some cheap imitation.

Water puppets

The ancient art of water puppetry, known as roi nuoc, dates back at least one thousand years. Modern puppet theatres use a murky tank of water that is waist-deep as their stage. The performance is, well, unforgettable! The show is a water ballet with a dash of humour, it’s really like nothing else in the world. If you sit in the front row seats, expect a little splash.

Lucky Strike

betel nut

Betel nut is for sale everywhere in Hanoi and all over Vietnam. It’s not to be swallowed though, only chewed with similar effects as chewing tobacco. Betel nuts are the seeds of a betel palm tree. It usually comes cut with a slit in it, covered in lime juice and wrapped in a leaf. Regular nut chewers say the flavour gives them a little buzz, if you can get used to it that is.

Go fish

It’s not your typical father/son fishing trip to the mountains in Vietnam. The arid foothills along the southern coast are perfect for fishing but not for fish… for lizards. The traditional way to make a catch is by using a long bamboo fishing pole with a hook dangling from the end. You prop it up on a boulder and wait for the lizards to bite. If you’re lucky you’ll be eating roasted lizard pâté for dinner.

Have you ever been to Hanoi or travelled through Vietnam? What was your favourite part of the local lifestyle?

Imgs: thumb: audrey_sel / pagoda: jacqueline / sauce: avlxyz / nut: asimulator, Flickr cc.

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3 responses to “Hot for Hanoi: Experience Vietnam like a local

  1. You must be tried the taste of Betel nut in original way? components include a full piece of areca, tobacco, lime, betel leaf. For anyone new if the first try chewing a piece including all items above can be drunk.
    You can know more about Vietnam as a local via blog:

  2. Hey Connie, thanks for your comment. All I can say is eww, can you imagine what people smell like after a tour of that place?? You'd have to really (really) love fish sauce!

  3. Thanks for clearing up the temple/pagoda mystery to me! And YES, I LOVE FISH SAUCE!!! The Vietnamese version is especially delicious! I even tried to go to a fish sauce factory for a tour once in Phu Quoc Island, but the smell was too overwhelming and I had to back away quickly. =)

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