Hanoi was a city we did not think much of before arriving. We saw it as a base for trips to Sapa and Ha Long Bay. However, after spending a few days there, we came to appreciate the character and culture the city had. Though a hustling and bustling place, walking through the streets is incredibly enjoyable. We stayed in the Old Quarter of town and found that everything we wanted to explore and try was just a walk away! What we loved most was the way the city seemed to be alive around us, and the juxtaposition of beautiful, historical architecture nestled among ordinary buildings. A great destination in itself, Hanoi is definitely not to be missed!
How to Get There
We came from southern Vietnam in Hoi An. We took a 14 hour night train up from Da Nang (the closest train station to Hoi An), after taking the hour long public bus from Hoi An main bus station on Nguyen Tat Thanh. This should have been very straight forward, but we found ourselves having to fight with the bus driver to keep from paying double and triple the actual ticket price was. As we were tourists, the bus driver and the local passengers tried to convince us that it was 50,000 dong instead of the price actually written on the side of the bus (17,000 dong) because of our bags. We sat on the bus and refused to pay that amount, while they threatened to call the police. They huffed and puffed and made a big deal, but never ended up calling the police. The bus left as scheduled and when we paid him 40,000 for two of us, he tried to short us our change. We called him out on it and he gave us the extra change he owed us. This is a lesson to be very careful of being taken advantage of in Vietnam as this was not our only experience with this. We saved a lot of money this way, as the other option the hostel was trying to sell us was a 330,000 baht taxi. We paid under 40,000 baht each (including the taxi to the bus station), and were able to be dropped off right at the train station, so it was worth the headache.
The train was very comfortable, we bought soft berth beds for about 785,000 dong each. It was a little pricier than the bus but we were pretty fed up with buses at the time. Plus the train compartments reminded us of Harry Potter so that was awesome. The berths were in rooms with two bunk beds each. Later on the night train, we were given a box of cookies and instant coffee for “breakfast” by a train employee. We assumed it was a part of the ticket price. Later the employee came by and demanded money for the cookies we had eaten (60,000 dong). He took back the instant coffee, and when we said we only had 40,000 dong on us, he accepted it and walked out, clearly showing that he was scamming us and would take whatever cash he could get and put it directly in his pocket. We were unhappy, but learned our lesson. Please watch out!
The most popular way people get there is by starting in Ho Chi Minh City and working their way slowly north through the cities to end their time in Vietnam in Hanoi. There are multiple bus companies with similar plans, but be careful of scam shops with the same name as the actual companies. Research beforehand!
Other people decide to fly into Vietnam, as bussing into it from Laos or Cambodia can be strenuous. This is the more expensive but more convenient mode of travel, so it depends if it fits in your budget! Make sure you have obtained a visa for Vietnam before you get to the border, it’s the only SEA country that does not offer a simple visa-on-arrival. You can do this easily at any Vietnam embassy, though it usually take 24 hours to process.
Where to Stay
- The Charming/Cheering Hotel – We opted for a hotel at 15 Yen Thai St in The Old Quarter as we had been backpacking for over a month and wanted a little break from hostels. We loved our time at this hotel as it was amazing value for the beautiful, clean room we had with a nice en suite bathroom and a computer in the room; $18 U.S. which let us stay under our $10 CAN each per night budget. The service was impeccable; they were some of the kindest, most helpful staff we met while travelling! They recommended great places to eat, food to try, personally helped us organize our trips to Sapa and Ha Long Bay, and held our bags when we went on those trips! After all that, the breakfast was included and was huge and absolutely delicious. You can book the Charming Hotel online here.
- Little Hanoi Hostel 1 – Our friends stayed in this hostel and say it was great! Located at 48 Hang Ga Street, it was around the same place and good value that included free wifi and breakfast. Prices range from $16-$25 U.S. for two people! You can book the Little Hanoi Hostel online here.
- Hanoi Rocks – Our friends also stayed in this hostel. Located in the Old Quarter at 54 Hang Duong Street and costing around $15 U.S. for two people, it comes with wifi and included breakfast but also has a bar and restaurant under the same roof. Apparently the partying there is super fun but can be noisy sometimes! You can book the Hanoi Rocks hostel online here.
What to Do
- Hoan Kiem Lake – Lying in the middle of bustling city streets is a beautiful lake oasis, kind of similar to Central Park in New York. The lake itself holds legendary significance, and you can check out Ngoc Son Temple on the center island, dedicated to an 18th century war hero. Taking your time to walk around the lake and temple on a sunny day is a lovely way to take in Hanoi. Getting to the temple costs 30,000 dong, or 15,000 dong with a student card.
- St. Joseph’s Cathedral – After seeing so many temples, a stop by the Roman Catholic cathedral is an interesting moment. Built in 1886 it was made to resemble the Notre Dame in Paris and makes for a fascinating view in the middle of a busy Asian street. This is not necessarily a destination, but something worth strolling by if you’re looking for that lovely architectural juxtaposition we were talking about. Also, if you’re looking for something familiar, there is a Baskin Robbins on the street leading up to it!
- Hoa Lo Prison – Now a museum, it educates visitors on the rough conditions and brave acts of revolutionary Vietnamese prisoners when ruled by the French, and the lives of American prisoners during the Vietnam war. It is educational and interesting, and a great opportunity to learn more about the events that shaped the culture you’re experiencing. It’s well worth spending an afternoon there! It costs 30,000 dong to get in, or 15,000 with a student card.
- Food Tour – The food in Vietnam is unreal! Amazing combinations of rice noodles, pork and local spices and vegetables; the possibilities are endless. Hanoi is great because it offers a huge variety of dishes over a relatively small area, so signing up for a food tour with a guide to find you the best gems in the city is a great idea! If you want to save money like us, make your own food tour. Through online research, our travel books and our awesome hotel staff, we created a wish list of all the foods we wanted to try and where to try them. In our “Where to Eat” section, we outline the best places we went to in Hanoi. Check out our Vietnamese Food Wish List post to see exactly what we tried!
Where to Eat
- Ta Hien Street – While walking through Hanoi, it’s easy to see that the locals often eat outside the restaurants on small chairs and tables. They line the streets, smiling, laughing and talking. Ta Hien Street is filled with cute little authentic restaurants and some touristy ones as well depending on what you’re interested in! Green Pepper on that street is a good tourist one with delicious spring rolls. Sitting among the crowds sipping a drink and munching on some delicious food (a grill your own hot plate is a popular choice) is a great way to chill out for a few hours.
- Bun Bo Nam Bo – This tiny eatery on Hang Dieu just south of Hang Non in the Old Quarter takes its name from the food it is known for. There is nothing fancy about this place, but it is known for its absolutely delicious Bun Bo Nam Bo. The meal was cheap and a great opportunity to sample Vietnamese cuisine. It was so good that even though we were full, we kept taking more bites! We highly recommend checking it out.
- Com Pho Co – If you are looking for a nice sit down meal, then Com Pho Co on Nguyen Sieu road in the Old Quarter is a good bet. For 118,000 dong, roughly 8 Canadian dollars you get a “set” including pho (the famous Vietnamese noodle soup), stir fry, fresh or fried spring rolls as well as dessert and a drink. Maybe a little more expensive for a backpacker budget, but worth checking out if you want to sample different Vietnamese dishes.
- Bun Cha Nem Cua Be Dac Kim – Similar to Bun Bo Nam Bo, this three tiered restaurant is very basic and simple, serving up its specialty Bun Cha to customers squeezed in together on plastic tables and chairs. Don’t let its shabby appearance fool you because Bun Cha is absolutely delicious and will appear on your table in seconds. Don’t forget to split some fried crab spring rolls for the full experience! It is located in the Old Quarter on Hang Quat road, but be careful as there is an imitation one right next to it, though it is pretty easy to tell which is the real one.
- Blue Butterfly – Located on Hang Buom road at the end of Ta Hien Street, the Blue Butterfly is where we spent our Thanksgiving. We got the chicken hot pot. They bring you a pot on an electric burner with hot broth and other spices, a plate of raw chicken, a plate of noodles and a plate of veggies. They showed us what to do, but basically you just have to add the chicken in and wait for it to cook, then add noodles and veggies and scoop it out into your own bowl. So delicious!
- Roof Top Bars – Near Hoan Kiem Lake, there are tons of roof top bars surrounding the beautifully lit lake at night. We wouldn’t recommend dinner at one of these swanky places because it is quite expensive, but a drink or two overlooking the dazzling city lights and the lake is a great way to take it all in.