Read more about my Self Care Sabbatical and the other places I’ve visited!
I spent a full month in Vietnam, maxing out my tourist visa and traveling North to South, mostly along the coast. I was immediately taken by Vietnam – after nearly 2 weeks in Laos, the sight of a real highway and a proper big city felt almost like coming home. It was a welcome change from the rougher infrastructure in Laos.
I had heard about the insanity of the traffic long before I arrived in Hanoi, but in no way was I prepared for what I saw as we entered the Old Quarter in the city center. Motorbikes swarmed around us, seemingly ignoring all sense of traffic laws. I was thrilled and a bit terrified. My hostel was right in the thick of the Old Quarter, which meant a nonstop buzz of motorbikes and people all day and night. While my roommates were concerned about being able to sleep amidst all that noise, I felt right at home back in a loud city.
Because I arrived late at night, I didn’t really experience the Old Quarter for myself until the next morning. I’d signed up for a free walking tour through Hanoi Walking Tours – the tour guides are local students looking to practice their English and while the tour may be light on specific historical content and facts, it’s a nice way to spend a few hours exploring the city with a local. I opted for the Old Quarter and French Quarter tours partially as a way to see more of the city and partially as a means of learning how to cross the street like a local. That same evening I did a food tour with one of the student guides – I only needed to cover the cost of our food (which we shared between the 2 of us), making it a far more affordable food tour than the paid options available elsewhere ($11 total). After those two tours, I couldn’t stop recommending the tours to other travelers!
People will say the motorbikes are crazier in Saigon. They will talk about how hard it is to cross the street. I found it WAY more difficult to navigate the streets on foot in Hanoi. The trick is to just cross…the drivers know how to go around you so as long as you don’t hesitate, you will be fine. Terrified, but fine.
I visited Hanoi in December just as it was starting to get cool. The 60F temperatures were a welcome change from hot and sweaty Laos, but I wasn’t quite prepared for a full week of cool days (with few warm things to wear). It also rained. A lot. So I got used to dipping into cafes to escape the rain or spending an afternoon chilling out at my hostel rather than go sightseeing outdoors. If you do visit Hanoi in the winter, be prepared for cooler temperatures (of course you can also find cheap clothing in case you need to buy something).
Things to do:
Hanoi is full of historical sights and cultural places to visit. As a bit of a history nerd, I found it easy to pack my days with things to see (all interspersed with food stops of course). But it’s also a great place to just wander around, especially within the Old Quarter and French Quarter (just be aware for all of the motorbikes whizzing by). Taking a stroll around Hoan Kiem Lake at any time of day makes for excellent people watching.
Ho Chi Minh complex – Check out HCM’s mausoleum and (maybe) the museum. I found the museum to be totally weird and not worth my time/money.
Vietnam Women’s Museum – This museum is absolutely worth a visit! It’s an awesome way to learn more about Vietnamese culture and the role of women in various ethnic tribes, modern-day Vietnam, and in warfare.
Vietnam Ethnology Museum – If you like the Women’s Museum, check out the Ethnology Museum. It provides more information about the various ethnic tribes in Vietnam, including an entire outdoor display of different tribes’ typical homes. It’s a bit far from the Old Quarter so jump on a Grab taxi and check out another part of town.
Hoa Lo prison – Once a French colonial prison, then used by the North Vietnamese Army for American Prisoners of War (John McCain was imprisoned here). If you’re interested in history, this is a must visit.
Temple of Literature – Not really a temple, but indeed a very beautiful place to check out the Chinese influence in Vietnam. I enjoyed walking around here (and saw Morgan Freeman shooting a documentary while I was here).
Thang Long Imperial Citadel – A quite impressive citadel dating back to the 11th century. It’s a large complex so you can spend quite a bit of time here. There are various little museum displays throughout the citadel’s buildings, and there is also an entire area showing how the area has been excavated.
Dong Xuan Market – Venture here if you must, but be warned that it’s a bit insane. The market is busy and crowded and full of a lot of cheap clothes, jewelry, etc. I could only manage to walk around for 5 minutes before I had to leave. However, if you do need to buy something while in Hanoi, it’s a good place to find something cheap. There are also tons of cheap clothing stores scattered throughout the Old Quarter so you can possibly avoid the market.
Excursions out of Hanoi:
Take a trip to Halong Bay and spend the night (or two) on a junk boat in the bay. This is a quite touristy thing to do, but I would still suggest going at least once to see Halong Bay. It’s incredibly beautiful and a nice break from being in crazy Hanoi.
Trek in Sapa – Go on your own or through a tour. Sapa is further north of Vietnam, nearly on the China border. Though it was quite cold when I went trekking in December, it was still totally worth it and probably one of the best things I did in Vietnam. The trip consisted of 2 days trekking in Sapa with an overnight in a homestay. I was super lucky to have an amazing group and we had a great time trekking (and getting to know each other over rice wine).
I highly recommend booking one or both of these trips through Lily’s Travel. They were incredibly helpful in helping me choose which Halong Bay cruise to take and were available 24/7 for any problems I had while taking these trips (including when I arrived in Sapa and couldn’t find my tour guide for over an hour).
Eating in Hanoi (aka the best thing about Hanoi):
By far my favorite part of Vietnam was the food. I kept a running list on my phone’s Notes app of dishes I needed to try and the restaurants where I had to have said dishes. It kept me full and it made for a fun way of seeing the city and experiencing the local culture. The Old Quarter especially is full of street restaurants – small carts serving one or two dishes, surrounded by a sea of blue and red plastic chairs. And these chairs are low! I had trouble standing up from more than a few places while in Hanoi. One of the many embarrassing Westerner moments…
So…where to eat?
There are tons of food blogs and lists on the internet that will tell you where to get “the best ____” in Hanoi. All the tourists read these lists and you will find yourself surrounded by other people just like you who read these lists. However, on occasion, you will find yourself at a place that is popular not just with tourists but with locals as well. There is a reason some of these places are famous and popular. But you can also have a solid meal at most of the street stalls – just look for a sizable crowd (esp of locals) and a sign showing the one or two dishes they offer. Avoid the places selling 6 or 8 dishes – find a place that specializes in one thing and go there!
I’ve included my favorite spots (some of which I found through these popular lists), but don’t be afraid to find your own spots. Through some trial and error, I was able to find places that deserved to be on these lists and others that were overrated tourist spots.
One other note – if you aren’t quite sure HOW to eat a dish in Vietnam, just watch the locals (and in some cases, ask them if they speak English). Being able to eat like a local rather than a Westerner was my way of feeling like I fit in at these restaurants (especially where I was one of the only non-locals). But I was never too embarrassed to look quizzically at my server if I wasn’t sure how to eat something – they are more than willing to help!
Dishes to try:
Pho – Probably the most well known Vietnamese dish, it’s not one of my favorites because I just don’t think I’m a soup person. Pho originated in Hanoi and it is especially good on a cool, rainy day in Hanoi. Pho is eaten for all meals and some of the most popular places will be sold out by 10am. I never quite got around to eating it for breakfast. Places to try: Pho Hanh (order the dry pho here!), any number of recommended Pho places or any spot that looks busy!
Bun cha – I ate a lot of food in Vietnam, but this is my favorite dish by far. It was made famous when President Obama tried bun cha with Anthony Bourdain in Hanoi (and the Vietnamese love Obama because his image pops up everywhere in Hanoi and elsewhere). It’s a dish of rice noodles, pork belly and meatballs, and herbs. The broth is a bit sweet and the first time I tried it, I nearly wanted to drink all of the broth from my bowl. Order the spring rolls on the side as well! This is a Northern dish though it’s possible to find it throughout Vietnam (the best is in Hanoi though!). Places to try: Bun Cha Dac Kim (go to the real one – they have sign claiming that they are the original), Bun Cha Hang Quat
Banh Mi – These sandwiches are generally served on a baguette with cucumber and other crunchy veggies, pate, pork, and chili. There are so many variations on the traditional banh mi throughout Vietnam and you can find stalls selling them everywhere. It makes for a great cheap meal on the go. Places to try: Bami An Bread, Banh My Tram, Banh Mi Hoi An, Banh My Duc Long, (I do not recommend Banh Mi 25 which is quite popular with tourists. I thought it was overpriced and overrated)
Cha ca – One of the few fish dishes I found in Northern Vietnam, Cha ca is a really fun dish to eat. The dish is prepared at the table with catfish cooked in turmeric and served with rice noodles, herbs, and peanuts. Places to try: Cha Ca Thang Long, Cha Ca La Vong (the more popular place)
Xoi xeo (Sticky rice with chicken) – Comfort food! Perfect on a chilly rainy day (which was most of the time I was in Hanoi). The rice is cooked in animal fat and it’s heavy and topped with fried onions. But it will keep you full all day long. Order with chicken (and an egg on top!). Places to try: Xoi Yen
Banh cuon – These rice noodles are filled with pork and mushrooms. I frankly found better ones in other parts of Vietnam but would suggest trying at Banh Cuon Gia Truyen Thanh Van in Hanoi
Banh trang tron – I tried this on my food tour and never would have eaten it otherwise. It’s basically a “salad” with noodles, spicy fried meat, soft boiled quail egg, and crunchy bits – it’s awesome. It’s a pretty small dish so perfect for a snack or light meal.
Che – Che is a dessert soup which, aside from bun cha, became my favorite dish in Vietnam. As I traveled, I learned that different regions in Vietnam serve che quite differently so I became committed to taste testing it wherever I could! In Hanoi, I opted for the warm version (rather than having it served over ice). There are different toppings/mix-ins available to add into your bowl. I never quite knew what they were so I just pointed at a few things and hoped for the best. The toppings are typically different kinds of beans, as well as jelly, coconut, or maybe fruit (depending on where you are). Even though I never knew what I was getting, I was never disappointed. Places to try: Che Ba Thin
Egg Coffee – If tiramisu was a drink, it would be egg coffee. This is a drink best consumed as a dessert – it’s rich! And quite delicious. Make sure you stir well when you get your drink so that the drink becomes a light brown liquid (watch the locals for technique). Places to try: Cafe Dinh (this place is a bit hidden and hard to find which makes it just that much better), Giang Cafe is the more popular and crowded spot.
Make sure you try the Vietnamese coffee, especially if you like strong coffee. Lighten it up a bit with some sweetened condensed milk, the local way to enjoy it. (I prefer my coffee black and it is QUITE strong)
King Roti – If you are craving a pastry, I highly recommend trying one of the buns at King Roti. You can’t miss it – the stand is located on a busy corner near Hoan Kiem and the delightful smell of sweet baked goods is impossible to ignore. Try the chocolate or coffee bun.
Try all of the local beer, in Hanoi and throughout Vietnam. It seems like every city has its own cheap beer and it’s the best way to drink like a local.
Getting There: Hanoi’s Noi Boi Airport is accessible from most major cities, though it’s a bit far from the city center. You will need to take a taxi into town (Grab is a great option for a guaranteed rate). While in Hanoi, you can get around on foot though you will have to be careful of the motorbike traffic. To get around faster, jump on a motorbike taxi (again, Grab is great for this). It’s a bit terrifying at first, but an awesome way to see the city from a local’s point of view.
Where to Stay: Highly recommend staying in the Old Quarter to get a full taste of Hanoi life. It’s totally nuts – motorbikes everywhere, noisy, full of street food and shops and people – but also really fun. Besides, all of the amazing food is here! If you’re looking for a budget option, I cannot recommend Little Charm Hostel enough. By far one of my favorite places I stayed and one of the best hostels I’ve ever stayed in (with the most comfortable beds)! Since I stayed in Hanoi for about 7 nights, this hostel started to feel like a little home away from home.