The first place I stopped in my 3 week trip around Vietnam was the capital city, Hanoi (because that’s where my plane landed). This is a popular destination for travellers, and I would say it’s definitely worth spending a few days there.
This was the only place I made accommodation bookings for before leaving England, as I wanted to know where I’d be going from the airport. Choosing a hostel was almost impossible because there was sooooo much choice. Normally I don’t go to popular “backpacker countries” so this was a new phenomenon to me.
Anyway, if you’re in the same boat, I’d recommend the one I chose – Cocoon Inn. It was clean, the beds were super comfy and it was in an accessible location. Whichever one you choose, I’d suggest picking one in/near the Old Quarter. It’s easy to find beds for as little as £3/night including free breakfast, but just make sure you read the reviews properly to find out whether the place you’re looking at is a party hostel or a quiet hostel etc.
I’d read online that it would be easy to take a taxi from the airport using an app called Grab (like Uber for Vietnam) so this is what I did. I’d recommend downloading this and putting in your card details before you fly to Vietnam so you don’t have to deal with it when you get there. I never had any problems with Grab and I found it really useful throughout the trip. You can pick a motorbike taxi or a car taxi, so obviously you’ll probably pick a car from the airport unless you’re traveling super super light. The journey took 35 minutes to my hostel and it cost 250,000 dong (£8.20).
During my few days in Hanoi, these are the main things I did, and that I can recommend to do:
– Hoa Lo Prison Museum
As the name suggests, this is a museum that’s based in an old prison. The fact that it’s based in an actual old prison makes it way more interesting than a regular museum, in my opinion. It’s 30k Dong for a ticket (£1) and you can either take a tour or just walk around by yourself. I just walked around by myself, as I found everything was quite self explanatory. It’s good for learning about some of the horrible things that happened during the Vietnam War, and it’s quite a weird feeling, and really sad, to actually see the places where the Vietnamese political activists were imprisoned, like this cell:
– Hoan Kiem Lake and Ngoc Son Temple
Hoan Kiem Lake is a pretty lake with benches and cafes etc. around it, in one of the more upmarket parts of Hanoi. It’s a good place to just wander around and have a coffee or read a book. If you’re walking around the lake, you’ll definitely notice the Ngoc Son Temple which is built over the water.
Personally I’m not super interested in temples, but I decided to go to this one seeing as I was already there. It looks pretty cool at the entrance, as you can see below, and it costs 30k Dong (£1) and if your top doesn’t cover your shoulders, they’ll give you a kind of kimono thing to wear over your clothes.
At the back of the temple, there’s a place with great views over the water, but really I don’t think you’d spend more than 10 minutes there unless you’re actually there for religious/spiritual reasons, as there isn’t much to see once you’ve walked around it… but it definitely makes your walk around the lake a bit more interesting.
– Drink bia hoi (freshly brewed cheap beer)
Bia hoi is a type of beer that’s made daily and sold on the street and in casual restaurants, straight from a keg. People sit around on plastic chairs outside the restaurant on the street, and you can do this until the kegs run out, which could be any time (10/11/midnight etc).
The beer is served in a plastic cup, and it’s cheaper than bottled beer. The prices vary, but the cheapest one I had was 7k dong per cup, meaning 4 cups is less than £1. By the way, if you’re a hygiene freak, it might not be the best choice for you, as the cups get washed (dipped) in a bucket of water next to the keg and then used again for the next person… but to be honest the hygiene behind the bars in your home country probably isn’t much better.
Once you’re done with your first cup, the vendor will probably signal to ask if you want another one, and this will keep happening until you’re done. Once you’re done, just go over to the vendor, give them your cup and hold up your fingers to show how many you drank. The vendor would also have been keeping a tab in their head, so if you both agree on the amount of cups, then you can pay.
The fun things about drinking bia hoi include the fact that you don’t even think twice about getting another one because it’s so cheap, the fact that the atmosphere at the bia hoi spots is quite lively, and the fact that you can people-watch because you tend to be sitting right next to the road, and Hanoi is a mad city so it’s good for people-watching.
There are lots of spots for bia hoi but the two I went to were…
- Bia Hoi Junction (it comes up as this on Google Maps). There are a few spots here all opposite each other. They mostly play American music and have local people and backpackers, but they’re aimed a bit more at backpackers.
- A local restaurant on the corner of Bat Dan and Duong Thanh streets (use Google Maps to find it). I don’t know the name of the restaurant, but you can’t miss it if you can locate the two streets I mentioned. It’s a big open-front restaurant full of Vietnamese men drinking beer out of plastic cups and eating snacks. This was a really cool experience because it’s a typical place where businessmen go for after-work drinks etc., and I felt like I was getting a proper insight into their culture. Here, they bring the beer to your table and keep a tally on a piece of paper on your table, you can also order food from a huge menu. I paid 103k dong (£3.40) for 4 beers and a huge plate of amazing chilli tofu. I 100% recommend!
– Go shopping (even if you don’t have a lot of spare money)
I’m sure you all already know that Thailand and Vietnam etc. are known for selling cheap fake trainers/sneakers. After traveling around several places in Vietnam, I can confidently say that Hanoi is the cheapest place to buy them (it’s definitely cheaper than Ho Chi Minh).
They are actually not bad quality and they have a lot of the latest popular shoes. My advice would be not to pay more than 600k dong (£20) for one pair. The best area to go to for trainers shopping is a street called Hang Dau, which is full of shoe shops. If you’re a girl with big feet, like me, you might have to settle for men’s trainers, as they only tend to stock women’s ones up to a size UK6.
In addition to shoes, there are some funky shirts for sale with bananas (mine is pictured below) and other things printed on them. They shouldn’t cost more than more than 80k dong (£2.70). Other cool souvenirs include locally made bamboo straws and cutlery (I paid 60k dong – £2 – for 4 spoons and the same for 10 straws), local tea and coffee (from 60k dong per bag), shot glasses obviously (40k dong) and mini buddhas (various prices).
– Walk on a railway line (Train Street)
Train Street is kind of Insta-famous so you might have seen it already, but in case you haven’t… it’s a stretch of railway in Hanoi with houses and local cafes right next to the tracks, so it functions as a street and a railway at the same time.
Of course most tourists come from places where this wouldn’t be allowed to exist, so people like to go there and have a drink by the train tracks and take selfies standing on the tracks. Trains only go along it a few times a day, so people would watch this happen from inside the little cafes.
The government suddenly decided, just a few weeks before I went to Vietnam, that having tourists wandering along by the railway was too dangerous, so they put barriers up to stop people going onto Train Street unless they live there.
I decided to try and go there anyway because why not. I typed ‘Train Street’ into Google Maps, and when I arrived, there was an army/police offer (not sure) sitting by the barriers to stop people getting onto the street. I spoke to him and he said I could only enter to go and have a drink inside a cafe, but I couldn’t go on the train tracks, so I crossed the tracks and went into a cafe and ordered a drink.
Obviously my plan was still to walk on the tracks, because that’s the main novelty of Train Street. I kept waiting for the officer to go for a walk or something, but he wasn’t showing any signs of moving. Eventually, a tour group arrived and their leader seemed to have an agreement with the officer, so the tour group was allowed on the tracks. I went on the tracks and did my thing while the tour group was there further along, as I figured I wouldn’t be noticed. The officer started blowing his whistle at me, so I couldn’t stay there for long, but I got the all-important Instagram photo!
Basically, the moral of the story is, just go there and I’m sure you’ll find a way to go on the tracks if you want to, and if not, it’s still a nice quiet place to have a coffee, watch the world go by and support a local business.
Of course there are loads more things to do in Hanoi including taking a day trip to Hang Mua caves (I’ll write about this in another post), eating copious amounts of cheap and tasty food, buying fruit from the fruit sellers on the street and going to a water puppet show (I didn’t do this but it’s quite famous).
In general Hanoi feels quite safe, and a lot of it is easy to get around on foot (once you get used to how to cross the roads there), so it’s a good place to start your Vietnam travels.