Going to Hanoi soon? Here’s a starter kit for one of the liveliest cities I’ve been to!
I loved my stay in Maison d’Orient! I was flashpacking when I was in Hanoi, so the mid-range boutique hotel suited my needs perfectly. My flight from Manila came at around 2AM so I had them pick me up from the airport. When the driver dropped me off the small alley leading to the hotel, one of the uniformed staff was even waiting for me! I panicked for a bit because I thought they were scamming me and leading me to another hotel but nope, he was there to carry(!) my luggage when he could perfectly use the luggage wheels instead.
The room comes with free breakfast and you can also have your USD changed to VND in their reception area. Digital nomads will also be pleased to know that their Wi-Fi is pretty steady too!
The St. Joseph Cathedral along Nha Tho is a Neo-Gothic cathedral similar to the Notre Dame in Paris. You’ll notice how the front door is often closed when there’s no mass, but you can take the side door to check out the interior. The caretaker will call you out if you’re wearing a pair of shorts or you’re wearing something sleeveless, so dress up a bit if you can.
On the other side of the city is Vietnam’s first university, the Temple of Literature. Locals like to dress up, drop by and have photo shoots around the courtyard. If you’ve been to the rest of Southeast Asia you’ll probably be templed out by now, but pick a time between late morning to late lunchtime and you’ll see more locals than busload of tourists.
I’m not kidding when I say there’s food in every corner. Try a steaming bowl of pho at Pho 10 for breakfast and the bun cha at Noodle & Roll for lunch. Bite into a banh mi and wash it down with fresh sugarcane juice for a snack. My best street food experience is walking along the street and buying a fried banh goi, deep fried and filled with vermicelli, meat and mushrooms. Get two or three pieces for breakfast.
If you’re looking for something fancy but still within a budget, I highly recommend Green Tangerine. Go for their set lunch menu with three courses of your choice. It’s a total steal at around $12! Available from lunchtime to 4pm.
I also enjoyed eating at Minh Thuy‘s, hidden within an alley. Minh Thuy is actually a contestant from the Vietnamese edition of Master Chef, so she’s quite a celebrity in Hanoi! She serves home-cooked Vietnamese dishes with her German husband and they go out of their way to meet their guests. The same can be said for their staff – I didn’t order a drink when I ate there and they served me with a glass of iced water, unprompted!
Don’t forget to make time for the café culture, which means one of these two: beer or coffee. Look for the bia hoi for the former and ca phe for the latter. Since I don’t like beer, I went with ca phe – there are various versions of this from cups topped with milk or even yogurt, or blended with fruits. I particularly liked the one at Cong Caphe – their version is thick and decadent, almost like a cup of melted dark chocolate.
Grab a bench and sit by the Hoan Kiem. This is where the red-painted Huc bridge and the Thap Rua or Turtle Tower are located. If you look even the tiniest bit of Asian, expect locals to approach you and befriend you. And if you look otherwise, they’d still approach you and practice their English on you. Good times!
Eat at the stalls along the street and explore Vietnamese cuisine. Even better if the locals are there, it means they serve good stuff. Sitting on the plastic kindergarten stools is also an adventure on its own!
Watch the water puppet show in Thang Long theater. It’s an entertaining way to learn about their history, with different chapters that feature myths and legends to local village life. I don’t remember how much the tickets are, but they’re inexpensive and there are usually several performances in a day.
Walk around the city. It gets crazy with the amount of people and motorbikes, but it’s an experience you shouldn’t miss. You’ll probably have to cross a street at some point – don’t run, just walk. The local drivers will weave their way around you, like you’re Moses parting the Red Sea.
If you like photography, find your way around the infamous Old Quarter and its 36 streets. Each street sells a different ware: herbs, stationery, bamboo, stamps, bird cages… you get the picture.
Oh, and should you ever find yourself lost, do as I did: use the Hoan Kiem Lake as your point of reference.
I only recommend places I’ve been to or things I’ve done, so if you’ve got other tips on Hanoi feel free to drop a comment below. Let’s trade stories!