My first stop on my impromptu Vietnam trip was hot Hanoi. Why hot? Well first of all the heat and humidity in August was just sweltering.. But secondly, because I think exploring Hanoi is awesome and the city should be on anybody’s ‘hot picks’ of places to visit!
I came to Hanoi not really knowing what to expect. I have encountered stories of people who hated it and those who absolutely adored the city. Well I can now say that Hanoi has stolen my heart! Yes it is hot, busy, noisy and full with too many backbackers on epic benders…
But I fell in love with the old colonial style center, the tree lined streets, the many nice restaurants, café’s and terraces. And especially when the buzzing city transforms itself at the end of the day. The pace slows down and it time to enjoy good food and drinks with family and friends. Life plays out on the sidewalk terraces as you order a few ‘Bia Hoi’ beers and streetfood and sit on the low plastic chairs and start chatting to your neighbours.
I left Hanoi with the desire to rent a little apartment, and base myself in this amazing city for a while.
Getting pleasantly lost in the Old Quarter
After a smooth late night airport pickup and a good nights sleep in my awesome hostel I was ready to start exploring Hanoi. I started my first full day in Hanoi by heading out for a stroll in the Old Quarter. Starting out along Hoàn Kiếm Lake I took in the sights of bridge and the little pagoda in the middle of the lake. Also I just enjoyed watching the many local relaxing by the lake, grabbing a drink and snack in the shade and catching up with friends and family.
From the lake I walked North into the heart of the Old Quarter. There I just did my best to embrace the art of getting lost in the many streets and alleyways. And that is easy and so much fun in the Old Quarter! With old houses, trees lining the streets, many restaurants and shops it is just a great place to walk around and enjoy the scene. As it is Vietnam is of course busy with people and traffic everywhere, and the main streets are a bit touristy.
Also I spend just a bit too much at a motorcycle shop getting myself informed about the ins and outs of a two month trip of Vietnam by motorbike…
During my stroll I stopped for a coffee break. Just enjoying a great cappucino on a little balcony overlooking the street scene. Later I stopped for a Bánh mì sandwich at a random little streetside stall. This stall turned out to be Banh Mi 25, maybe the best one in the city!
Time for some history – Hanoi Hilton
After the great Bánh mì I felt re-energized enough to take on some Vietnam history. So I walked the 20 minutes or so South from the heart of the Old Quarter to Hỏa Lò Prison. The prison was originally built by the French in the late 1800’s. It became (in)famous when it was used to house U.S. Prisoners of War (P.O.W.) during the Vietnam war. The P.O.W.’s quickly dubbed the prison the ‘Hanoi Hilton’.
In the 1990’s the prison was mostly demolished and today only the gatehouse remains containing a museum. Entrance is 30.000 VND (1,2 Euro) and it is an interesting 45-60 minute visit. The museum contains an exhibition about the French imprisoning the Vietnamese independence activists. It also covers the time it was used to house American P.O.W.’s. Both exhibitions feature a clear Vietnamese point of view so be prepared for that…
A meal fit for a President
From the Hỏa Lò Prison it was only a short 15 minute walk to my planned restaurant for dinner. As some of you might know I am a big fan of the travel and food shows by Anthony Bourdain. In May 2016 US President Barack Obama was in Vietnam for a visit. At the time Bourdain did a segment with Obama for his show Parts Unknown. They ate at a local restaurant called Bún chả Hương Liên so I decided it would be fun go there for dinner! The restaurant is located at 24 Le Van Huu street. I arrived close to dinner time and I expected it to be packed seeing its newfound fame… but was pleasantly surprised that there was enough place!
I quickly ordered a cold Bia Hanoi (Hanoi Beer) and tried the Bún chả. This a soup with grilled pork pieces, served with a side of noodles and some veggies. It was delicious and I followed it up with another cold beer and a seafood spring roll. The bill for this presidential meal…. 60.000 VND (2,5 Euro).
Of course you can get Bún chả everywhere in Hanoi but Bún chả Hương Liên is known as one of the better ones. And yes it is fun to say you have eaten in the same place as Anthony Bourdain (and some soon to be ousted American politician…)
Back at the hostel to recharge myself and my phone, I wasn’t ready yet to resist the temptation of Hanoi. In the mood for another stroll and a beer, I made my way into the Old Quarter again.
I passed by a bustling little night market on Hàng Đào street selling the usual assortiment of tourist souvenirs to selfie sticks.
However my destination was the popular ‘beer corner’. Bia Hoi Junction is located at the corner of Ta Hien and Lương Ngọc Quyến streets and is a very lively outdoor drinking spot. You will find both tourists and locals digging in to the 5.000 VND (0,20 Euro) Bia Hoi beers. Bia Hoi is a very light Vietnamese style of draft beer. Of course you can also select from a wide range of bottled beers, both local and international. The streets around ‘beer corner’ are also full of party type bars aimed more at the backpacking crowd. Seemed like a lot of fun if you are in that type of thing! Although I have to admit those days are somewhat behind me.
Hanoi Hospitality at the ‘Beer Corner’
As I was enjoying my beer and some people watching, two Vietnamese guys next to me invited me to join them. Unfortunately their grasp of the English language was only slightly better than my Vietnamese. But a generous use of hand gestures and some english words had us quickly discussing the examples of the fairer sex passing us by…. When the bill came and I reached for my pocket, my new Vietnamese friends forcibly removed my hand from my pocket (repeatedly) as they insisted to pay my share. It’s a small gesture, but says so much about the hospitality of the people when these things happen (reminds me of a drinking session in the middle of the Pantanal which I will tell you about at some point…).
Luckily I didn’t have to say goodbye to lovely Hanoi just yet. I came back twice again after my visits to Sapa and Halong Bay although it sadly was only briefly. But even in that short time I had some amazing moments which only re-enforced my love affair with the city!
Coming back from Halong Bay I just wanted to have a quiet beer. Looking upwards during my strolls I had seen many nice rooftop terraces. So when I located Marilyn Cafe I settled down there. A great terrace, nicely decorated with plants and a great view of St. Joseph’s cathedral. According to the reviews the food is not great (and neither the service in my experience!), but for a beer with a view I enjoyed it a lot! Entrance is a bit hard to find as you enter through a clothing shop, so just look up and spot the terrace!
Celebrating Independence day
The next day it was September 2nd, Vietnam’s independence day. The day started with a professional looking bicycle race around Hoàn Kiếm Lake. After that the main streets around the lake were car-free for the day. Together with many Vietnamese having a day off it made for a great day! Vietnamese families mingled with tourists as everybody was strolling around, stopping for food and drinks at the many vendors found everywhere. An awesome way to experience the vibe and beauty of Old Quarter Hanoi.
Later I learned that actually Hanoi has started a pilot project on September 1st to keep a few main roads in the center car free for the weekend. A great initiative, it made the city so liveable and I hope the pilot becomes a permanent project!
I followed a car-free main road to see the Hanoi Opera House. This is a beautiful building from the French colonial times, who seemed to quite miss Paris going by the design of the Opera House.
From the Opera House it was a short walk to the Hotel Metropole. Again an example of French colonial style, it was the place to see and been seen in the colonial days. And it still is that way as the hotel and the many upmarket bars, cafés and shops in the area are the domain of the beautiful people. Certainly a recommendation to have a walk around to see this side of Hanoi and Vietnamese society.
All the walking made thirsty. I had read about a really nice and affordable rooftop terrace overlooking the lake, Cafe Phố Cổ. After some wandering I found a little sign on the street, walked in through a shop, a courtyard and many steps up… But the reward was a cool lemonade overlooking Hoàn Kiếm Lake.
Sadly at that point the moment had arrived to say goodbye to ‘hot Hanoi’… A short 5 minute walk led me to the shuttle service for a quick transfer to the airport.
As said I arrived with an open mind and not knowing what to expect. l left having fallen in love with Hanoi, and having grown my list of favourite cities in the world!
Hanoi practical information
I arrived late at night on Hanoi airport and had heard many stories of the hassles of getting an taxi to town. Being overcharged, all kind of fees being added, being dropped off at a different hotel and more horror stories. Therefore I sent a mail to the recommended Hanoi Airport taxi and had a nice taxi (modern SUV) waiting for me at arrivals for the fair fare of 15 USD. Looking on Uber there seemed a fair number of rides available so that could be an option to look into as well.
On the way back I had an afternoon flight. Taxi towards the airport were a bit cheaper at 12 USD. However as I was traveling light I decided to use the airport shuttle bus. The shuttle leaves every hour from 05.00 AM to 19.00 PM with a last one at 19.30 PM. The cost is 40.000 VND (2 USD) and you buy a ticket at the shuttle. There are no reservations, just show up 15 minutes for departure. The drive to the airport takes around 45 minutes. The shuttle leaves at 2 Quang Trung street, near the SW corner of Quang Trung and Tràng Thi streets.
You can also take the shuttle bus from the airport to the city. As mentioned I arrived late it was not running anymore and couldn’t research where you can find it at the airport.
Walking in the door after my smooth airport pickup immediately liked my hostel. I stayed in the Luxury Backpackers hostel which I found through Agoda. It was a pretty new hostel with only one review at the time so it was a bit of a gamble. But I liked the look from the pictures so booked. As I was only sleeping there I just picked the dorm room at 7 USD per night including breakfast.
It is a really nice, modern and clean hostel. There is a very cozy and hip lounge/restaurant area downstairs. The dorm was designed cleverly, with each bed more a private ‘capsule’ than your usual bunkbed affair. So no being shaken awake when the other bunkbed occupant moves! The bathrooms were clean with good hot showers. The staff was friendly and helped me with arranging bus tickets and Halong Bay cruise without being overly pushy.The Luxury Backpackers is certainly not a ‘party’ hostel but that is what I prefer (yes yes I’m becoming a grumpy old man…).
The location was right in the Old Quarter so easy to discover the area by walking around. It also just a short walk to the airport shuttle stop.
Of the many hostels I’ve used in my travels I must say that Luxury Backpackers in Hanoi ranks among the best. I used them again when I passed through Hanoi later in my trip.
Menno has had the travel bug ever since spending his childhood in the tropics. In 2013 he left his office career and is now diving and sailing the world.
He enjoys sharing the beautiful underwater world and exploring remote islands. He gets his kicks when he can help fellow travelers have an amazing life-changing experience.