Backpacking begins: Hanoi
Updated: Apr 8, 2019
After running around Japan and spending a few days in Hong Kong, we were ready to get to Hanoi. Not only were we looking forward to the lower cost of living, but also to settling down in a city for a few days, and Hanoi delivered on both.
Hanoi is a chaotic city, to say the least and arriving on a Saturday afternoon made it all the more noticeable. Motor bikes take over the streets and adhere to only their own rules making it incredibly difficult to cross streets (I was like a child wanting to hold Will’s hand every time we crossed the street, if one of us was going down, we both were!). Arriving on a Saturday night also meant the Hanoi Night Market was happening, which means some of the streets in Hanoi’s Old Quarter, where we stayed, are blocked off to traffic. That provided the perfect opportunity for us to walk around and get acquainted with Hanoi with a little less fear of getting hit by a motorbike in the process.
We loved how lively the city was when we arrived, but quickly learned that was not just because it was a Saturday. We stayed for 6 nights in the Old Quarter and every night and day there is so much happening around Hoan Kiem Lake. Along with the typical street performers and vendors that you often find in areas like this, my favorite going on was the groups of middle age women getting their jazzercise on. I was always tempted to join in but refrained.
Most people don’t spend quite as much time in Hanoi as we did, but we were really excited to slow down the pace, get to explore the city and make it our own. We really enjoyed the good food, getting history & culture from the museums, and finding cute cafes all over the city. I also discovered my new favorite meal/snack/drink - avocado smoothies.
Hanoi Observations / Surprises
It was actually cold when we first arrived! I didn’t expect that at all.
Everyone is incredibly nice and hard working. Businesses are open at all hours - if there are people out and about and a sale is possible, they will be at their desk.
Not a great walking city. Not only do motorbikes rule the streets but also the sidewalks. There are bike ‘parking lots’ along the sidewalk that are managed, and of course many that are not. So walking up a street is quite the challenge. That being said, we walked everywhere.
Cost of living. We had heard Vietnam would be inexpensive, and maybe it was just the stark contrast to Japan & Hong Kong, but we were in shock seeing some of the prices. We could finally get GREAT coffee for $1 (maybe $2 if we are really splurging) and lunch dinner often was $4-5 for the two of us.
What we did
Night Market - As I mentioned above, this happens every Friday - Sunday. Several streets in the old quarter are closed off to cars & motor bikes, which is a great way to walk around and experience the city.
Hoa Lo Museum (Old Prison) - Worth a visit in my opinion. I liked that the museum was fairly small, thus manageable. It was interesting to learn the significance & history of the building, however did feel the descriptions throughout were pretty heavy handed in the way the history was presented.
Temple of Literature- my favorite site in Hanoi. This was the first ever university in Hanoi, started in 1070. Was fascinating to see the buildings and learn the significance of everything there.
Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum - We only got to walk around the outside since we went on a Monday, not realizing that's the day of the week that the museum is closed.
Vietnam Military / War Museum - This museum covered all wars in Vietnam, not just the American Vietnam War. The museum itself was not laid out well and didn’t convey the history in a way that was easy to understand. The most interesting part was the various artillery they have on display.
Massages @ Omamori Spa - We decided to treat ourselves to massages in Hanoi and chose Omamori after a quick internet scan and price comparison with nearby places. Omamori is a non-profit spa that hires seeing impaired massage therapists. It was fantastic.
Train Street - This tiny little street was one of my favorites. It’s just incredibly picturesque. Unfortunately we didn’t actually get to see a train go by despite thinking we knew the time. But it is a perfect place to sit and enjoy a coffee regardless. Definitely check before you go (it’s different on weekdays and weekends too!).
Where / what we ate
Avocado Smoothies: I hope this will continue beyond Hanoi because this is my new favorite treat. Pretty much got one wherever available.
Cha Ca Phan - Grilled fish with rice noodles. This may have been my favorite dinner. It was also our first dinner (and meal more generally) in Hanoi, so it may have an unfair disadvantage.
Cha Ca Thang Long - This place got a lot of hype but wasn’t as good as Cha Ca Phan in my opinion. Service also was pretty poor and price was a bit much. The meal combo is definitely not worth while.
Bahn Mi 25 - So good that we went twice. Great vegetarian / vegan options as well. There are actually a few on the street, but we went to a space that was upstairs and has a number of seats off the street.
Bahn Mi Hoi An: There are a few outputs of this Bahn Mi spot throughout the city. Much more casual and fewer options than at Bahn Mi 25.
Pho Bat Dan (Phở Gia Truyền Bát Đàn) - Also a place we went to twice. It’s a local spot, so there isn’t much english besides telling you the price. You have to wait on line, but it moves quickly. By the time you get to the front you order and find a place to sit. Also order the little fried things which I failed to learn the name of. They are delicious to sop up the broth.
Pho Thin - We went to a location a little outside of the old city and like Pho Bat Dan its a local spot where I think they were surprised to see us. A noticeable difference from Pho Bat Dan but loved it just the same.
Bun Bo Nam Bo - beef noodle salad dish. Another very causal spot with great food. It’s a cold noodle dish with beef and some lettuce.
Bun Cha Huong Lien -- Pork with noodles & broth. This place is famously known as the spot where Anthony Bourdain and Obama ate during one of the Parts Unknown episodes. I didn’t partake since I don’t eat pork but was one of Will’s favorite meals.
Noodle & Roll - We ended up here on a whim but liked the menu and the fact that it had a number of vegetarian options.
Xoi Yen - Savory rice dish. We went for breakfast and wasn’t bad. There is space upstairs to sit and English menus.
Kem Trang Tien - Drive in Ice Cream place. We tried the soft serve and mochi, which was delicious. They also have ice pops and ice cream cones. It’s the oldest ice cream shop in Hanoi. Really big space with lots of different counters.
Hanoi Coffee & Cafes
Cafe Giang - Egg Coffee this is the spot to go for Egg Coffee. We ended up going twice. It was noticeably busier on a Sunday morning than during the week. It’s a small alley off the street, go upstairs, sit and order and then pay downstairs.
Cong Caphe - there are a ton of these throughout Hanoi and Vietnam, but I loved the ambiance and also the coffee.
Ohi Tree Coffee - Right outside the old city. This was one of my favorite coffee spots. Really nice interior and delicious coffee drinks & avocado smoothies (we went twice).
Loading T - Nice coffee / tea spot in the old quarter. Set within a little house so it’s off the street, making it a better place to relax / spend time vs other coffee spots.
Hanoi House Cafe - Overlooking the old quarter near the cathedral. Nice spot to relax with a drink & people watch below.
Manzi Art Space - this was a spot outside of the old quarter that was fun for a little adventure. It’s a nice quiet place, good if you want to sit and read or just get out of the old city for a little.
Floral & Book Cafe - On the outskirts of the old city. This is a little cafe within a flower shop. It’s meant to be a quiet space, so good to sit and read with a coffee or tea.