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We made it to Vietnam, guys! This might be the country I’ve been looking forward to more than any other. Ever since I first started doing research way back when this trip was in the initial planning stages, I would read about all these different cities in Vietnam and get so excited. As our plane landed in Hanoi, I got goosebumps as I realized the moment (and the country) I’d been dreaming of was finally here.
Our Vietnam journey started in Hanoi, where we stayed for a week while we got ready to begin our epic three-week motorbiking journey south to Saigon (more on that in upcoming posts). After spending some time here I think Hanoi might be our new favorite city in Asia. There’s something special about this place. It doesn’t have the shining skyscrapers or fancy mega-malls of Bangkok or Kuala Lumpur, or the futuristic appeal of Hong Kong or Taipei. It’s flat and spread-out, with horrible traffic and dilapidated buildings and power lines hanging at eye level, but this city radiates an enthralling energy that we adore.
There are no tall buildings to speak of and everything happens out on the street - cooking, cleaning, working, drinking, shopping - it’s all just there waiting for you. In that regard, it’s kind of like Kathmandu, only cleaner, calmer, and a lot less dusty. Life moves at a frenetic pace and there’s something to see around every corner. It’s lively and charming, the food is delectable and the history is powerful. I honestly think we could have spent months here and been happy.
Alex and I are infatuated with Hanoi but I will say this city is not for everyone. There are some definite cons: traffic can be intimidating with the amount of crazy motorbike drivers on the streets, and merely crossing the road can be a life-threatening sport. Also, while I love the fact that everything occurs right out in the open, this can be upsetting for some, especially if you don’t love watching animals get butchered or enjoy the smell of burning incense/trash/food/undetermined objects all day every day. Also, the touts here can be aggressive (“hey lady, buy this!”) and you do have to be on your guard to avoid getting scammed by travel agencies and touts. We did not have any issues, but then, this ain’t our first rodeo.
If you’re planning a trip to Vietnam and are concerned that the big cities might be too overwhelming, my advice is to take it easy. Hanoi is the kind of city where you can go at your own pace. Yes, there are tourist attractions and historical sites, but there are also plenty of opportunities to chill in a cafe for the afternoon and let your brain recover from the overstimulation without feeling FOMO.
On to the logistics. For lodging, you’re spoiled for choice in Hanoi. One of the best things about being a tourist in Vietnam is the incredible value of most accommodations. You can easily score a hotel for like $20/night, and I don’t mean a creepy motel down a dirty alley with bedbugs and rats. Nope. I’m talking clean fluffy sheets, A/C, all the hot water you could need, and free breakfast, for $20. Hanoi is full of cute boutique hotels that meet these standards, and we strongly recommend using Agoda to find hotels - we found it to be the best booking engine for Vietnam by far.
The hostel scene in Hanoi is really strong, and if you’re a budget backpacker or want a more social environment than a hotel, there are a gazillion options. One perk of hostels, other than the great atmosphere, is that almost all of them offer free all-you-can-drink Bia Hoi (local beer) in the evenings. It’s usually only for 30 minutes or an hour, but hey, it’s free!
We stayed at Old Quarter View Hostel and loved it. We were in an 18-bed dorm (!) but it was surprisingly huge, clean and comfy. Plus it was dirt cheap, the kind of cheap where it feels almost free. We’re usually private room types, but in Hanoi we were feeling social so this was the exact vibe we were going for. It’s in the heart of the Old Quarter, which is the main tourist area of the city, and we were able to walk almost everywhere from the hostel. We did not pick up our bike until the day we left Hanoi so I can't speak to parking here, but the hostel is down a narrow alley so it’s tough to navigate on wheels.
As I said, the Old Quarter is where most of the action happens, and as a tourist this is where you’ll spend most of your time. It’s lively, easy to navigate, and most of the main sites, tourist shops, good food, and bars are within walking distance. We honestly never used any other form of transport than our own feet, although Uber and Grab are both plentiful here.
Speaking of bars, Hanoi’s nightlife is one of our favorite things about this city. Every evening (though it’s best on weekends) after dark, vendors set out tiny plastic chairs and tables on the curb, car traffic gets diverted, and bars that definitely weren’t there during the day suddenly open for business selling dirt-cheap bottled beer or fresh local bia hoi. People watching is at its best, with street vendors, food hawkers, drunk tourist bros, and tight-knit groups of locals out for the evening. This is the Beer Corner, one of Hanoi’s most unique and beloved attractions, and it should not be missed. There are of course plenty of ‘regular’ bars in the city, but we preferred Beer Corner for a night out.
For food, you honestly cannot go wrong in Hanoi. There’s a reason it’s revered as one of the finest food destinations in Asia if not the world. So many famous and delicious Vietnamese dishes can be found here - Hanoi-style pho, bun cha, bun bo nam bo, banh mi with all manners of fillings, crispy duck, and all the rice and noodles you can imagine - it’s all here. Plus, the beverages alone could fill up an entire blog post: classic Vietnamese coffee with condensed milk (ca phe sua), egg coffee, delicious espresso, smoothies made from the freshest tropical fruit, aromatic teas and more can all be found on the streets of Hanoi.
We found TripAdvisor to be useful but a lot of the restaurants on there are fairly touristy, as one might expect. If you want the true hole-in-the-wall Vietnamese experience of ordering from a cart and eating on the sidewalk on tiny plastic stools (and you should do this), Google reviews can be more helpful. When you feel hungry just open Google Maps and use the ‘search nearby’ option to look for food, then just pick one that’s highly rated. Most restaurants in Vietnamese are named for the type of food they serve, so keywords like pho (rice noodles), bun (thinner noodles), and com (rice) are good indicators of what’s being served.
Some of our favorite spots in Hanoi include: Bun Cha Ta for bun cha, a delicious pork and noodle dish served with herbs and sauce; Bun Bo Nam Bo which serves its eponymous pork dish that’s sort of like if pad thai and salad had a delicious baby; Quan Pho Suong for amazing beef pho in a very local atmosphere; Bami Bread for amazing and cheap banh mis (the bread here is to die for) and Quan Com Pho Co for a huge menu of different Vietnamese foods plus helpful staff. For snacks, King Roti serves delicious oven-fresh coffee buns that should not be missed, and our favorite cafe in town was Han Coffee - get a seat on the second floor for a brief respite from Hanoi’s chaotic streets.
One of the most common tourist attractions people do in Hanoi isn’t in the city at all - virtually all Ha Long Bay tours originate from here, and we joined the masses to do an overnight cruise. Unfortunately, we didn’t do much research. We just kinda stumbled into a travel agency in the Old Quarter, found a tour that looked nice and was in our price range, and booked it.
Sadly we did not have a great experience - we found the boat to be old and dingy, the food was borderline inedible (we somehow had soggy fries and pork schnitzel for every meal), and the tours are overcrowded and rushed. Plus, Ha Long Bay is really crowded - I’m talking hundreds of boats all doing the same route at the same time - and there’s trash everywhere, floating in the waters and littering the beach. Seeing the impact of unsustainable mass tourism is quite depressing any way you swing it, and knowing we contributed to it by not choosing a good-quality reputable tour operator made us feel especially shitty.
The best advice I can give if you’re thinking about a Ha Long Bay tour is to do your research! A middle-of-the-road two-day one-night cruise is going to cost around $120-150 USD per person, and you may want to consider splurging a bit more than that for more comfort. Check TripAdvisor ratings before booking, and make sure you get full info on what’s included so there are no surprises. For example, we were promised a ‘cooking class’ that turned out to be a 5-minute spring roll making session - not exactly what we were expecting. Obviously more money does not always equal better quality, but don’t make the same mistake we did: do your due diligence!!
Another option is to visit Bai Tu Long Bay instead. It’s technically part of Ha Long Bay but farther north. It’s less well-known and therefore less touristy. Prices for Bai Tu Long Bay cruises are somewhat higher because it’s farther away from Hanoi, but if we could get a do-over we’d do that instead of Ha Long Bay. That being said, Ha Long Bay is still beautiful, it’s just one of those places where a little bit of extra effort in the planning stage can greatly improve your experience.
To be honest, it’s hard to encapsulate Hanoi into a single blog post not only because we took it relatively easy on the tourist activities but also because so much of our experience was based on the simple feeling that we belonged there. It’s something we’ve felt a few times over the course of this trip, that we’ve found a city that feels like it was tailor-made for us. The vibe, the pace of life, the food, the history, and the affordable cost of living all fit our travel style and interests perfectly. We left with heavy hearts, because although we were excited to finally begin our motorbike journey to Ho Chi Minh City, we were sad to leave a place where we truly felt at home.