Hanoi, until relatively recently was not open to the outside world, and it is now making up for it rapidly. It is a place like no other, the traditions of the past mix side by side with modernity and mobs of scooters clog the old narrow cobbled roads. You can see the evolution of Hanoi by just walking down a street, the French colonial influenced perfectly baked bread, and the more traditional strong whiffs of coriander, lime and sizzling pork. It is one of the most fascinating places I have ever been to. Hanoi has been the stronghold of the Communist Party for a long time and you can still tell that Communism continues to have a hold on this rapidly changing city. A strong police presence and strict curfew hours seem to clash with the many vendors selling and bargaining their wares. But hey, it all seems to work, as long as you know how to work the system (we didn’t!). It is beautifully baffling and we loved our time here.
We found that the best places to drink were at the pop up stalls/bars on the side of the road who were selling their own beer for about 20c. You sit on stools attempting to chat with locals, until at exactly midnight you have your stool swiped from under your bum and you are left bewildered with how fast the vendors can pack up before a police officer walks around the corner.
And the food, oh the food! This place is a culinary paradise. Banh Mi was our absolute highlight, the perfectly crisp and fluffy baguette filled with roasted pork, pate and coriander. We ate this every day. From spring rolls to Pho Bo we ate our way around the city. We took a cooking class that included a tour around the food markets with a local. I strongly urge you to do this as we learnt so much and were able to truly appreciate and understand the different cuisine in Hanoi. For a more in depth and amazing summary on the food in Hanoi follow this link to Andrew’s blog post on our time there, it is a fantastic read!
If you are going to see a museum while in Hanoi go to the ‘Hanoi Hilton’. This was a prisoner of war camp originally run by the French to keep the Vietnamese, but after the revolution was taken over by the Vietnamese and used as a camp for dissidents and foreigners, in particular Americans during the war. It is an incredibly interesting place to visit as all the information is told from the Vietnam Government’s point of view, i.e. a lot of propaganda. The Americans nicknamed this place prison the ‘Hanoi Hilton’ as a joke. In reality a lot of American prisoners and Vietnamese dissidents were treated terribly and many died here. However, when you visit the ‘Hanoi Hilton’ you find that it was actually a place where the French treated the Vietnamese appallingly, however, under the Vietnamese, the prisoners were treated very well and allowed to play basketball. Go there, it is a fascinating way to see the communist propaganda machine in action.
Definitely stay in the old quarter, there is a great hostel called Hanoi Backpackers which is clean and very well run. It is slightly more expensive than the others but well worth it, and plus you won’t be breaking the bank, it is still less than US$10 a night! A tip – watch out for scams and be wary when asking for directions. We arrived very early in the morning and were told that our hostel did not have any vacancies and were taken to a different place by our taxi driver. Have the maps loaded on your phone before arriving in Vietnam so that you can see exactly where you are going. Don’t let this scare you though, Hanoi is brilliant and you should definitely visit.
One of the main reasons people come to Vietnam is to visit the beautiful Halong Bay. While we were here it was New Years Eve so it was the perfect opportunity to take a boozy boat trip. There are many vendors willing to sell you a trip and it will cost you about US$100 – US$200 for two nights out on a boat in Halong Bay. Definitely shop around, we were naïve and booked straight away so paid a higher price. In the morning a bus takes you a couple of hours out to a dock where you board your boat with about 20 other tourists. The boats are old but pretty good and all your meals and some booze is provided, take some extra though. Vendors still manage to find you out in the bay to sell you things, but this time they approach you in canoes!
We had a really fun time on the boat and it was a pretty great way to see in the New Year! The scenery is spectacular and everywhere you look there are tiny islands and dramatic cliffs. It really is some of the most spectacular scenery I have ever seen.
Our favourite time was visiting Cat Ba Island for a night. It is an idyllic beach where we made bonfires, played volleyball and went kayaking. Stopping for a night on an island in Halong Bay is a must do! It was then time to cruise to the docks and take a bus back to Hanoi.
Cost wise Hanoi is very cheap, you are looking at less than US$35 (NZ$50) a day. The only big expense is booking your Halong Bay trip.
Editor’s Note: Visited Vietnam in 2014, updated in 2017.