Hanoi is insane. From the countless hagglers lined up along the sidewalks shoving their wares at you, to the hundreds of cars, motorbikes, bicycles, and pedestrians all vying for their share of a single-lane one way road, this city can only be described as chaotic. Here is your guide to navigating this cacophonous, and at (all) times, overwhelming city.
Where to Stay: Hanoi Old Quarter
Every hostel and hotel you’ll book in Hanoi will likely be located within the Old Quarter, so you don’t have to worry about how close your place is to the city center. The streets are lined with hostels, hotels, and guesthouses. It is actually pretty convenient as you’re always guaranteed to find at least one place with availability, even on short notice.
You can easily find a place to suit any taste. From a private suite at a quiet, luxury hotel, to a $4 dorm bed at a party hostel, you can pretty much find anything. With all the accommodations being in such close proximity and the streets being littered with tourists and bars, it basically just feels like a huge keg party on Greek Row during Homecoming Week.
For the first couple nights in Hanoi, I stayed at Central Backpacker’s Hostel. They have a bar with happy hour drink specials, and they host a nightly pub crawl. We also wandered upon a keg party that a hostel was hosting in honor of Australian Independence Day.
If you’re not into rough and rowdy, then you can easily find a place to accommodate. I actually booked a room at Hanoi Old Town Hotel for my last few nights when I wanted to take it easy. It was only down the street from my first hostel, but it was surprisingly quiet and peaceful. The hotel provided a continental breakfast, and the staff was incredibly helpful.
One of the most common things people will warn you about in Vietnam is to beware of taxi scams. From refusing to run the meter and negotiating a price that is far too high, or running the meter and driving you around in circles, taxi drivers here aren’t always the most forthcoming. While I was in the city, I mostly walked everywhere, as most of the tourist sights are within a 5km radius. The only time I took a taxi was when I was coming in from and going to the airport, and I had only booked a driver through my hotel or hostel.
One common scam I’ve heard is that taxi drivers will wait at the airport and when you ask them to take you to a hotel, they will tell you that yours is booked and take you to another hotel where they will charge you a ridiculous rate. However, most hotels will arrange your airport pickup if your request it upon reservation. Most of the trips you book through the travel agencies, such as the Ha Long Bay cruise or Sapa trekking will organize your transportation for you, as well.
Sometimes, hailing a taxi may be unavoidable. I recommend asking your hotel or hostel receptionist how much the average fare is where you are trying to go and stick with that during negotiations with a taxi driver. If in doubt, trust your instincts and walk away.
What to Do:
Being the capital of Vietnam, Hanoi has a ton of cultural sites and historical monuments. Unfortunately, I was visiting during Tet, Vietnam’s largest national holiday, and many things were closed or too overcrowded to visit. However, some of the highlights I did see and would recommend are:
Ba Dinh Square, Ho Chi Minh’s Mausoleum, and Ho Chi Minh Museum:
Hoan Kiem Lake:
Located just south of the Old Quarter and right in the midst of Hanoi’s major shopping hub, is the quaint and picturesque Hoan Lake. It’s a great spot to relax for an afternoon and to explore the countless shops and cafes.
St. Joseph’s Cathedral:
Built in 1886, this is Hanoi’s oldest Cathedral. Its design and presence further illustrate the French presence and rule in the country for almost 100 years. The surrounding area has a lot of great looking restaurants and cafes. Also, right next door is a cool, little propaganda poster store, which is great for picking up some souvenirs.
This is a place where you could easily lose yourself for an entire afternoon. Filled to the brim with street food vendors, coffee shops, bars, and restaurants there is so much to see. Join a sponsored street food tour, or make up your own as you go!
*This is also the place to go to find tour bookings, as every other store front is most likely to be a travel agency. Beware that you get what you pay for and take your time to shop around before you commit to a tour.
Temple of Literature:
As I was walking to Ba Dinh Square, I passed the Temple of Literature. Though I really wanted to visit and explore, it was way too crowded with tourists and people for the holiday that I decided to give it a miss. If you have a chance, I would definitely recommend taking an hour to wander around. However, if you don’t have a chance to hit up this particular temple, don’t fret as there are countless small temples you can explore.
Vietnam Women’s Museum:
Unfortunately, the museum is closed on Mondays, so this was another site I was disappointed to miss out on. This museum explores Vietnamese women’s history, culture, fashion, and their contribution to the war efforts and formation of Vietnam.
Go to a Spa:
I have to admit, being in Asia has absolutely spoiled me for the luxurious life of spa treatments… especially when they are so incredibly cheap! Our hotel connected us to Marguerite spa, which was very reputable and one of the higher end facilities in the city. I ended up getting a full body coconut scrub, steam bath, a 90 minute massage, and waxing for less than $45. And this wasn’t even the cheapest place we could have gone to. In the words of my roommate, “It’s so cheap, you can’t afford not to do it.”
Honestly, I would say my relationship with Vietnam was definitely more of a love/hate. I think my initial dislike stemmed from the immediate, overwhelming chaos of the capital city. However, I feel that if I had been given more time in the country and more opportunities to explore outside of the main hub of the city, I would have gained a more balanced impression of the country, overall. I can say that looking back on my trip, it wasn’t as bad as my initial impression and I think it did actually begin to grow on me. Afterall, there is beauty in chaos, right?