Okay, so we spent more than a week in Hanoi. But we did some day trips, and my friend Eliska found a job! We met some great people and explored some cool places in the city.
Hanoi Old Quarter
If you stay in Hanoi, you’ll most likely stay in the Old Quarter. This area is the urban core of Hanoi, and boy is it crowded! We arrived during Tet so it was blissfully quiet, but this area is known for its narrow streets and hordes of scooters whizzing between cars, pedestrians, bike delivery people… You get the idea. After a few days it got back up to speed, and I just could never quite get into the right headspace here.
If you’re in need of a break from the traffic, walk around Hoan Kiem Lake. There’s a decent pathway, although you’ll still have the occasional scooter riding on the sidewalk. There are benches along the lake, and a few cafes.
During the day I was approached by a Vietnamese university student who wanted to practice his English. I’d read about this, so I chatted with him for a while. It was fine until he asked me if I had a boyfriend (of course, he’s just back at the hostel…) and what a MILF is (if you don’t know, it’s a hot mom). Awkward… So I quickly made my escape!
I couldn’t go in the temple that day because I was wearing shorts, but I heard it’s nothing too special. The bridge looks cool at night, but you can only see it from the shore. I think this area is even better at night.
Train Street is a well-known spot in Hanoi. You can have an egg coffee (or regular coffee, or a beer) and wait for the train to go by. This street doesn’t look big enough for the full-sized passenger train that comes by several times a day, but somehow it is…
I enjoyed visiting the Temple of Literature, although it was extremely crowded. We wandered through the pagodas, and I tried to read a few signs, but this place would really be better with a guide.
Originally built as Vietnam’s first national university in 1070, this temple is so important that it’s on the 100,000VND bank note.
The country’s elite were educated here, and after rigorous testing, the best students became the country’s scholars. The most elaborate temple is dedicated to Confucius.
If you’re hungry, stop by this food stand next to the temple for a 20,000VND (about 80 cents) snack. Not entirely sure what was in it except an egg and chili sauce, but it was some of the best street food I had in Vietnam.
Don’t forget to pop by the craft market across the street from the temple to see some traditional calligraphy and other handiwork.
If you’re looking to buy a bag or scarf, visit nearby Craft Link for some fair trade goods. They have a huge selection over two floors, and the AC feels great after walking around humid Hanoi.
Walk past the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum. Remember to cover up your shoulders, and girls should wear something that goes to the knees. You also may have to go through a metal detector (depends on where you enter from). As far as I know you can’t enter the mausoleum.
Skip the Ho Chi Minh Museum unless you have a guide. It was seriously the weirdest museum I’ve ever been to. It looks like an art museum, but with old photos and no context.
Americans often mention visiting the Hoa Lo Prison Museum to see photos of John McCain. This prison was called the Hanoi Hilton by the American POWs. If they were being ironic is for you to decide… There were also a few exhibits about the female revolutionaries that were imprisoned here. It’s worth a stop.
The Vietnamese Women’s Museum is worth a visit, but when we arrived it was just too hot inside, so after the first few exhibits we quickly walked through the rest. We learned a bit about the traditional wedding ceremonies, work that women do in the villages outside of Hanoi, fashion, and a few other interesting tidbits. My favorite part was the photography exhibit outside, showing women doing traditional work all over Vietnam.
I didn’t make it to the Vietnam Military History Museum or the Museum of Ethnology, but I heard the latter was good.
- The Thang Long Water Puppet Theatre is popular destination for tourists, but I thought it was actually really cool. The only downside is that the narration is in Vietnamese, so you don’t really know what’s going on. But the water puppets shoot fire! Shows are five times a day.
- Visit the Night Market and buy some fake North Face stuff! It’s everywhere, and it’s cheap. What, the logo is crooked? Who cares!
Walk down Beer Street at night. It’s a crazy experience. If you’re into beer, you have to try bia hơi, the fresh beer. You’ll see little shops pop up at night selling this beer straight from the keg. And it’s 5,000VND (about 20 cents).
If you want to observe the crazy battle between pedestrians/taxis/motorbikes/police trucks on the Beer Street, go to CCraft and walk up to the 3rd floor balcony.
Other Tips for Hanoi
Hanoi has consistently poor air quality, with the average level of air pollution ranking four times higher than what’s acceptable by the World Health Organization’s air quality guidelines. Do some research and bring a mask that actually protects you from the smog. It seemed like everyone I met had a nasty cough, and I had a sore, swollen throat the whole time I was in the city.
- If you rent a motorbike, make sure you have good travel insurance. At every hostel we met someone with road burn or worse (including a broken ankle). People have died in motorbike accidents here, so be cautious!
- If you book a trip with your hostel, be prepared to pay a little (or a lot) extra. If you’re on a tighter budget, consider finding a reputable travel agency for a lower-cost trip. But don’t wander into any agency. Travel scams are common here.
- Beware when getting change, even from ticket offices. The 10,000 and 100,000VND notes look very similar, as do the 20,000 and 200,000. The Vietnamese know this, and they will sometimes take advantage of it.
Trips from Hanoi
Of course we took the trip to Halong Bay, #1 tourist destination, but one of those places that’s still beautiful, even with lots of other people looking at the same thing. We booked through our hostel, which is cheaper than booking online but more expensive than booking with a travel agency. We’d both read about some scams, so decided to go the easy route! We ended up on the Oasis Bay Party Cruise. The bus picked us up at our hostel, and we were able to leave our big packs in the luggage room.
We were entertained right off the bat by an 18-year-old Heath Ledger look-alike, a very chatty 30-something from NYC, and a sarcastic British guy. We listened to them banter for the entire 3+ hour bus ride while looking out at the urban sprawl interspersed with rice paddies.
Upon arrival, we were entertained by our guide, Phat. Yes, he made some jokes about his name! We got settled on the boat and hopped in the kayaks for a paddle to a nearby cove. Here Phat taught us the traditional Vietnamese cheers, which is actually pretty complicated!
We had some hot tub time and did beer yoga (HILARIOUS) before dinner.
We had a great time hanging out with the people on board, and this is not a trip we’ll forget anytime soon.
The weather dawned cloudy again in the morning, but we enjoyed the view as we sailed back to port.
Ninh Binh – Tam Cốc
This tour is of course very touristy, but our guide was so gosh-darn cute that we didn’t mind being rushed from point to point. After a 2+ hour drive out of Hanoi (traffic is always bad here), we stopped at Hoa Lu, an ancient capital of Vietnam. We learned about the dynasties that ruled the area, and some of the feng shui used to build the structures here. For example, the three doors here represent past, present, and future.
After a delicious buffet lunch we hopped on bicycles for a short tour of the rice paddies. And when I say short, I mean we pretty much raced after the tour guide, who only let us stop once for photos. This may have been due to the fact that we had our own private paparazzi following us (a guy on a motorbike with a nice camera). He approached us later with printed photographs, charging 50,000VND (about 2 dollars). We took some decent shots of our own!
The final stop of the tour was the highlight. The boat ride on the river started out very touristy (so many boats!).
But as soon as we rounded the bend, the peace and beauty of this area calmed us. It was pure bliss to spend an hour somewhere quiet that smelled like nature after the hustle and bustle of Hanoi.
Yes, we got to take off the life vests… We floated through a few long caves, with a stop at the far end for some snacks. They’ll ask you to buy something for your paddler if not for yourself, but they’re usually happy with water.
Many people do the Ha Giang loop, which includes a bit of the highlands and Sapa. I meant to do this, but got sidetracked. It’s on my list for next time!
Now for the most important part…
Food/Drinks in Hanoi
- If you love chocolate, visit Maison Marou. This is excellent stuff (trust me, I’ve eaten A LOT of chocolate)! It’s bean-to-bar dark chocolate, simple ingredients with no preservatives. There’s a gift shop and cafe, and you can watch the chocolatiers at work in the back!
- Always Coffee and Butterbeer – Harry Potter Cafe! Yes, we know we’re dorks. But we also know you’re jealous…
- Hidden Gem Coffee – Cool murals all the way at the top, and a unique drink menu. I tried the herbal coffee and I’m pretty sure it helped my sore throat! It’s literally down an alley. If you feel like you’re about to be in a bad horror film, keep walking.
- The Note Coffee – Kitschy but still pretty cool! You get to leave your own note. Also has a great view of the lake, and upstairs levels for people watching.
- Hanoi Social Club – Kind of a cool spot. I came for the flourless chocolate cake, which was decent. The drinks were a bit too unique for me.
- Jalus Vegan Kitchen – I don’t know why literally every guidebook mentioned this place. Skip it.
- Bun Cha Ta – I ate here so often they started recognizing me… Bun Cha is like pho but with more stuff in it, and the bun cha here was just so tasty I kept coming back for more! The upstairs levels have a sort of Japanese feel. You’ll see!
- Bun Bo Nam Bo – More of the same stuff, but so good!
- Pho Thin – They only do one thing, but they do it well.
- Pho Suong – This pho tasted good, but I definitely had an MSG reaction after eating there. Beware if you don’t respond well.
- There are these banh mi bicycle carts that ride around at night. So worth it!
- Anywhere locals are eating on the tiny stools. If it’s popular, it’s probably really good. If you’re uncertain, just check the Google reviews.
Try not to judge for all the Western food, but I can only eat so much rice!
- Hanoi Taco Bar – I was craving Chipotle and this place was as close as I could get. Go before 5pm and you can get chips and salsa, a drink, and 3 tacos for 130,000VND (less than 6USD). They make their own corn chips and tortillas, and they’re pretty good for Mexican-style food in Asia. In my opinion, the pork tacos are the best. Also try the house-made sodas, very refreshing.
- Chops Old Quarter – Almost real English Breakfast (eggs, bacon, sausage, eggs, tomatoes), and they have other Western breakfast food. The burgers were decent, didn’t try much else but they have a pretty extensive lunch menu and specials from 12-2.
- The Moose & Roo Smokehouse – This place felt like home. It’s in an enclosed courtyard, and looks and feels like a beach bar. The menu was kind of an odd mix of food, but my friend and I split a Cobb salad and pulled pork with sides and it was heavenly.
- Lifted Coffee & Brunch – This place has an extensive menu. I enjoyed the breakfast with avocado, and a smoothie made with soy milk. They even have French toast!
- If you need some Western staples (peanut butter, granola bars, pasta, cheese, candy) try L’s Place. I went to the one east of the lake, and it had 3 floors of Western products. There were a lot of German products for some reason. It’s pretty expensive (for Vietnam) but sometimes you just gotta have it!
I stayed at 3 different hostels in Hanoi.
I enjoyed my stay at Republik, which is a little bit outside of the Old Quarter. It’s still just about 10 minutes to walk to the center, and the chill vibe, great rooftop patio, and delicious food (great included breakfasts with bacon AND avocado!) were what made this a great hostel. However, I wasn’t a fan of the 12 bed dorms. With that many people there’s always someone making a lot of noise at 4am (coming back from the bars) and 6am (leaving for the airport). If you stay here, the burgers are delish.
Eliska and I got an AirBnB for a few nights, just to have our own space. It was part of a multilevel apartment building in a back alley. It was decent, and in a great location right next to the Beer Street, without much noise inside.
I was lazy and booked Vietnam Backpackers Downtown so I wouldn’t have to move my bags too far from the AirBnB. Big mistake. This is an epic party hostel, but not great if you want to actually sleep. The dorms are tiny, and I woke up early in the morning to someone puking in the hallway outside my room. Yuck. However, they had a great rooftop patio and movie/lounge area.
I switched to Cocoon and had a fantastic night’s sleep. This place is great for a chill few nights. The beds are really comfy and have thick curtains and a fan. The lockers are huge and open with your room key. They have drink specials every night, and sometimes live music in the bar downstairs.
When the time came, I was ready to leave Hanoi. Although the city has some great features, it was just too crowded and polluted for me to stay long-term. Many expats live here and love it, so maybe I’ll give it another chance later on.