Fleets of scooters and motorcycles with blaring horns charge the streets alongside sidewalks brimmed with shops and tiny plastic chairs and tables serving as restaurant “patios.” This is Hanoi’s Old Quarter, the living, breathing, heart of the city. Overwhelming to all senses, Hanoi is especially a “cacophony of smells” as Grace put it best. Every inhale presents you with a new discovery. Curbside grills and spices one moment, gasoline and smog the next, and if you dare to breathe again, you might just be rescued by fresh flowers and incense.
The capital of Vietnam marked the beginning of our journey, and with that was a very immediate and immersive introduction to Vietnamese culture. Although we stayed in an area that was frequented by many tourists and backpackers, we walked the streets and dined alongside the locals, giving us some great insight as how to blend in best. Hanoi is a proper city, the type that roughs you up a little bit before showing you its soft side, but the embracing kindness of the people there had us falling in love with this country right from the start.
HOW WE DID IT
We stayed at the Vietnam Backpackers Hostel right in the heart of Old Quarter, which based on our experience may not be the best hostel for everyone. On the upside, it was a very “happening” hostel, so for those looking to make friends, it’s definitely great for that. There’s also solid wifi throughout, free breakfast, and free water. The unlimited water supply honestly made the stay for me, considering the insane heat had us each drinking a liter of water every hour. Being a “happening” hostel though, it’s got more of a party atmosphere, which wasn’t really our scene, but fortunately we spent hardly any time in the room so it wasn’t really an issue. Just something to be aware of for future travelers :)
One really invaluable thing that came out of this hostel however was discovering the travel agency literally adjacent to our place. It’s called Anna’s Booking Office, and we owe practically our entire trip to the amazing folks there. Food recommendations, money exchange, traveling tickets, you name it, they had us covered. Plus, they were our first introduction to the unrivaled friendliness of Vietnamese people and we are so grateful that they contributed to starting our trip out on such a great note.
Back to the heat real quick – we arrived in Hanoi at the beginning of July, and let me tell you, the weather was more hot and humid than anything I have experienced before (and coming from the Southwest US, that says a lot). The first day definitely wore us out. We could barely keep up with how much water we needed, and don’t even get me started on the sweat factor. We did not let it hinder our trip in any way, but I will say, traveling through ‘Nam at this time of year is not for the faint of heart.
WHAT WE ATE
(Too many good things, let me tell you, Hanoi is an incredible dining destination)
- Pho 10 is a famous pho joint that serves only beef pho, and is packed at all times. Delicious, but beware of the chili sauces!
- "Sticky rice" is definitely a must, and you can find it at the famous Xoi Yen. Each dish is incredibly cheap, so I recommend trying as many as possible.
- Then there the fruit bowls from Sinh Tố Hoa Béo – I'm not even really sure how to explain what these were, but what we ordered were mostly some combination of delicious fruit, lychee or juicy boba-type bubbles, and a sweet milk or yogurt. We ordered one of all the dishes that started with "Sua" and each bite was a little taste of heaven.
- For coffee, I implore you to stop by an iconic Cong Caphe. This Viet Cong themed cafe has coffee as bold as the vintage military decor. Order a Coconut Coffee from one of the waiters in the army green uniforms and sip slowly in a war bunker environment full of radio transmitters and metal pail lampshades.
- For 75 cent beer and some of the best people watching in town, hit up the Beer Corner at any time of day. Befriend a local as you simultaneously avoid getting hit by traffic.
WHAT WE SAW
Hoan Kiem Lake & Ngoc Son Temple: take a stroll around the lake, especially around sunset to see the mini Turtle Tower on the southern end when it’s lit up. The main temple is a great spot to enjoy the breeze of the lake as well!
Temple of Literature: one of the first historic sights we visited, with incredible gardens, pagodas, temples, and history throughout.
Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum, One Pillar Pagoda, Lenin Park: other key historic sights worth seeing that speak for themselves.
Women’s Museum: probably one of our favorite experiences from Hanoi, this museum is packed with everything about Vietnamese women from traditional folk wedding attire to entire exhibits about female guerrilla leaders during the wars. Mark off 1-2 hours for this one.
Night Market: I would say reserve all your shopping for the weekend night market. Lasting from 6-11pm, this market features just about every vendor, souvenir, and elephant-patterned pant you could hope for. Always bargain down at least 30% of the asking price.
French Quarter: after about 10 minutes of wandering around this district, we were all near suffering from heat stroke. We found solace in the incredibly air conditioned Sofitel Legend Metropole Hotel. I only bring this up because inside the hotel is a hallway that is practically a museum of historic timelines, photos, and stories about the area. A great presentation of this side of Vietnam's history.
Day Trip to Ha Long Bay: our visit to this UNESCO World Heritage Sight was an absolute dream come true. A stunning destination full of wondrous landscapes, clear waters and heaps of legends. We took a boat tour around the bay, including pit stops in a fishermen floating village to ride in bamboo boats, and a walk through the Thien Cung Cave. A day trip is totally possible, and worth the long car ride, but I would probably recommend for anyone to actually spend more than a day here. There are so many ways you can do it, from budget boats to Pirate Junk Boats to luxury cruises. Ha Long Bay is actually massive, and if I could do it again I would definitely pick an option that would allow us to see more secluded parts of it, and also the opportunity to see a sunrise or sunset here is undeniably priceless.
- Other experiences we did not have the chance to explore but can recommend: Museum of Ethnology, rooftop bars & sights in the more modern districts (see Hanoi Creative City), renting scooters and exploring the outer areas of the city.
- Excursion to Sapa: due to weather and timing, we did not get to hike this incredible mountainous region, but for those seeking more natural experiences, this side trip is a great opportunity.
Enjoy the photos, and then come along for Chapter 2: Hue!