Over the past few years, Vietnam seems to have morphed from an untouched, mysterious country in South East Asia to a fairly regular travel destination, for visitors and expats alike. For many, it has become the first port of call for anyone looking to venture further than the boundaries of Europe – be it for the extremely good value for money, the warm weather, the beautiful landscapes or its proximity to many other countries in this part of the world. Although I only managed to see Hanoi and the surrounding areas, I completely see what all the fuss is about. Vietnam, to put it simply, is different to everything we know and love in the UK. And more interesting for it.
Hanoi is a capital city, with more than 7.5 million inhabitants – meaning that, in my 10 days there, I definitely did not manage to see everything. But, for anyone looking to spend only a few days in the city, read on for my handy guide to Hanoi, including where to see, what to do and – most importantly – what to eat.
Perhaps the most famous thing about Hanoi are the motorbikes. If you don’t have a bike in the city, you’re going by foot – or using a GrabBike, the motorbike equivalent of Uber. Although motorbikes are the easiest and cheapest way to get around Hanoi, you should bear in mind how dangerous they can be. Road traffic rules don’t exactly exist in Vietnam, so make sure that you know exactly what you’re doing before hiring a motorbike.
Motorbike rental stores can be found on almost any corner, with prices ranging greatly depending on the store and the bike size. If you’re planning to stay in Hanoi for a while, it almost makes more financial sense to buy a bike and then sell it on whenever you leave. It also allows you to leave the city and head out into the countryside, if the noise and the pollution ever gets too much!
Where to stay
In a word: hostels. Hanoi’s Old Quarter is full of them, teeming with interesting people from all over the world. Each hostel is different in their ‘vibe’, with some more obvious party hostels, with a younger clientele, and some more relaxed. Old Quarter is definitely the area to be, right in the heart of the Hanoi nightlife, within walking distance to a lot of the main sights.
When looking for hostels, try using websites such as Hostel World or Booking.com, as these will give you a comprehensive list of many different places. It’s also just as easy to turn up at a hostel and ask for a room – there are so many that you’ll never struggle for a place to stay. Bedgasm and Chien are two hostels right on one of the main squares of the Old Quarter, always filled with friendly, interesting people from all walks of life.
If you’re heading slightly further away from the Old Quarter, or maybe travelling in a couple, Vietnamese hotels are fantastic value for money, with some three-star equivalents costing only £9 a night for a double bedroom. It’s easier not to book these, and just to turn up and see what’s available. Look out for signs saying “Nhà Nghỉ”, which means Guest House in Vietnamese.
What to see
There is honestly so much to see just driving around Hanoi that it’s hard to know where to start. Unlike many European cities, with specific monuments, museums and buildings that make them stand out, Hanoi is best enjoyed simply by its atmosphere, and by its incessant colour and noise. Having said that, there were a few spots in particular that I really enjoyed:
Hoàn Kiếm Lake
Probably the most popular tourist spot in the city, this lake is literally right in the centre of the Old Quarter, with a bridge and a temple based largely on Chinese architecture and culture (bearing in mind that Hanoi itself is only about 150km from the Chinese border). The lake is a perfect place to take a stroll, and acts as a little haven of nature in the centre of such a bustling city.
St Joseph’s Cathedral
Completely out of place in South East Asia is the city’s only Catholic cathedral. Its facade is based loosely around the architecture of Paris’ Notre Dame, making it stand out like a sore thumb from all the typically Vietnamese buildings that surround it. The cathedral is a tribute to the French culture that is still sometimes evident in Vietnam.
A few miles away from the centre, hidden by tall houses and tower blocks, is an old Chinese mansion set on a small, man-made pond. Although this is just a tiny neighbourhood area, with no real sights to see, the mansion itself is worth the trip, allowing you then to wander through some of the more local side streets, which are often filled with Bia Hois and tiny shops. Although difficult to find, even with Google Maps, just look out for the Chinese mansion’s glistening white dome while heading North along the Western bank of the Tô Lịch River.
Bà Đá Pagoda
Bringing you back into the very centre of the Old Quarter, this Buddhist temple, built in 1056, actually doubles up as a motorbike parking space. However, stepping inside will fill you with serenity, and set you back from the madness of the streets just outside. You could almost miss its modest entrance, which is nestled between the buildings of one of Old Quarter’s main streets.
Eating and drinking
Vietnamese cuisine is slowly making its way over to Europe, with more and more Vietnamese restaurants appearing seemingly every day. However, heading to a fancy restaurant isn’t really the way to do it in Hanoi. Every street is filled with small cafe-looking places, with low tables and stools spilling out onto the pavements. Although these places may look modest, the food is fresh and amazing, and is definitely the best way to experience some of the best dishes Vietnam has to offer.
Drinking is done in a similar way, at places called Bia Hois. The same concept applies here, with people mainly sitting outside at tiny tables – but the beer is cheap, and brewed right on-site. After working out that one beer in Hanoi costs roughly 8p (in GBP), it was hard to say no to more than one! For Hanoi’s best rooftop bar, The Chi is the place to go. If you close your eyes and pretend it isn’t 40 degrees, it could almost be in Shoreditch, with its sleek decor and live DJ. This is the place to meet like-minded travellers in the city.
Also, quick disclaimer: Vietnamese coffee is NOT coffee as we know and love it. I’ll let you discover the rest for yourself.
Some of my favourite dishes included:
Bún chả: a grilled pork and noodle dish, served with herbs and a dipping sauce (I haven’t stopped talking about this meal since I got back, no joke – and I got back over a year ago)
Phở: a soup containing rice noodles, herbs and meat – usually beef or chicken. Probably the most famous Vietnamese dish.
Bánh mì: a perfect breakfast snack, this is a heated baguette, generally filled with scrambled egg and sweet and sour sauce, but the fillings can vary.
Cơm Gà: literally, fried rice and chicken, using a mixture of other vegetables and a LOT of coriander.
Outside the city
Although Hanoi is teeming with life, there is so much nature and scenery to see in Vietnam that it would be a waste not to visit. And with Hai Phong only a 3-hour motorbike drive away, it makes a welcome break from the constant buzz – and the pollution – of the city itself. Following the highway, you pass through rice fields, tiny towns, and industrial shipping docks until you reach the coastline. Given that I visited out of season, Hai Phong was calm and relaxed, with no tourists at all along the beach. The food there was different, with a lot more fresh fish on offer, and the locals were all super friendly and curious.
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