Hanoi is one of the most breathtaking places I’ve ever visited.
Travelling to the inner city from the airport with my palm pressed against the taxi window I felt like a kid again. But it was more than just a childlike sense of wonder at what I was seeing. It was a feeling. A feeling that I was meant to be there at that moment in time. The best of Hanoi was yet to come but already within minutes the city had begun to leave a mark on me.
In some ways, I hadn’t even arrived – but one thing I knew for sure was that I’d be back. I spent the following days wandering around Hanoi alone and falling in love with the city for the first time. What was supposed to be a two-day visit turned into almost a week. I felt at home in somewhere that was so distinctly different from what I knew. The sights, the smells – the near-death motorbike experiences.
Nearly a year after that first day I went back and it was just as incredible as I remembered – alive with energy and character. Now I want to share my insights from these trips with you so you can become part of the story.
Come with me and uncover the best of Hanoi.
Arriving in Hanoi, the capital of Vietnam, there are two things you will immediately notice.
Firstly, the sheer amount of people milling around tending to their day-to-day business (at the time of writing approximately 7.7 million). Secondly, the number of motorbikes that serve as vehicles for those people. I’d heard about motorbikes in Vietnam, but when you get to the city centre of Hanoi nothing can really prepare you for seeing, or hearing, it firsthand.
In addition to hordes of motorbikes (which account for 80% of the city’s vehicles), the sound of horns beeping in every direction will also keep your senses on high alert. As it turns out these are not angry beeps, but more of a “look out I’m here”. Why? Because normal rules of the road do not apply. Traffic lights are but a mere guide, not an absolute authority.
When you finally pluck up the courage to cross the road bikes magically weave around you almost as if you aren’t even there. Reaching the other side you rejoice at your achievement that you are in fact alive and unharmed. The best advice I can give is just to walk. Don’t stop. Don’t look. Just walk to the other side. Convince yourself it’s that simple, because it really is. Crossing the road in Hanoi both heightened and cured my anxiety. I recommend everyone tries it at least once.
The Vietnamese Women’s Museum is one of those places that you experience and then think about for days, even weeks to come. For me, even now, I still feel deeply moved by what I learned. You gain a deep appreciation for how hard Vietnamese women worked, and continue to work to provide for their families. I spent my visit wandering around the museum absorbing as much history as I could and falling in love with the traditional outfits. The exhibits on women in the war were particularly fascinating – but I don’t want to give all the good stuff away. I’m afraid you’re just gonna have to go and see for yourself!
The street food
I love food. Eating it, cooking it, crying about it. When I arrive in a new city the first thing on my priority list is trying some of the local food. In Vietnam, like a lot of South East Asian countries, there is a huge street food culture and Hanoi is at the centre of it all. As you navigate your way around the streets of the city you’ll notice something odd about the pavements. They’ve been reclaimed. Now, no longer walking spaces, pedestrians take to the road while local food vendors and kiddie sized plastic chairs and tables line the streets.
The vendors here sell everything. From Bahn Mi (traditional Vietnamese sandwiches) to freshly cooked kebabs. Everything is available in to the early hours of the morning.
No trip to Hanoi is complete without eating at least one bowl of Pho (pronounced Fuh), which is eaten regardless of the time of day. Eating soup and noodles for breakfast? Completed it mate. For extra eating enjoyment ask for Dau Chao Quay, which are deep fried breadsticks. Dip them in your Pho for a whole new taste sensation.
Most of the food signs are in Vietnamese so don’t be afraid to try new things. 99% of the time those things will be delicious and that other 1%, well, it would make a good blog post!
If you’re someone who doesn’t have a lot of time to wander around, but still want to experience a lot of different food you can book a street food tour. A local guide will show you around some of the best spots and explain the different food. I didn’t do this in Hanoi, but I did do a cycling street food tour in Hoi An and it was really special.
The opportunity to learn new things
If you have the time I highly suggest booking a half day cooking class to learn more about traditional Vietnamese food.
As I visited Hanoi in low season the day I had booked my class there was no one else in that session. This meant I was lucky enough to get a one-on-one experience. I spent the afternoon with a lovely Vietnamese girl called Tami. She told me she’d been getting involved in the cooking classes as she wanted to become a translator when she finished uni. While she taught me about food, I answered all the questions she had about the UK. We were a perfect team.
The first half of the session was spent at the market buying fresh produce for the dishes. I encountered a variety of things I’d never seen before and colours I didn’t even know existed. As Tami knew all the market staff she grabbed fruit she caught me staring so we could both try. Remember the 99%/1% this applies to food on market stalls too!
When we finally made it back to the restaurant I worked with the chef as Tami translated the history behind the different dishes we were making. I loved that after you’ve finished cooking everything you make is yours to eat downstairs in the restaurant. Pre-warning – It was a serious feast, I think I’m still in a food coma.
I did my class at the Countryside Restaurant and I’d can strongly vouch for the experience I had there. It was one of my best things I did on the whole trip!
My favourite ice cream in the world
Have you ever loved something so much that you bought two – just in case? Your favourite jumper, a pair of shoes… ice cream. On one of my many days wandering around Hanoi, I made a life-changing discovery. Trawling the city for Vietnam’s best street food I came across an unusual suggestion. An ice cream shop. But not just any ice cream shop – a shop that had been popular amongst locals since 1958. One to rival all others that had gone before it.
What could be so good about an ice cream?
I couldn’t live in suspense a moment longer I needed to know, the people needed to know.
I won’t lie to you, you walk in there and it’s this huge empty, disheveled looking space. It does not look like the home of Efia’s favourite ice cream – but appearances aren’t everything. Do not be taken in by the temptation of other surrounding shops (it’s like an ice cream shop complex). You need to put your blinders on and head to the back of the shop where there are perfect little pre-scooped cones. The staff speak little to no English (why should they!) and the store is filled with Hanoi locals and school kids – this just makes the experience all the more authentic.
So there I was standing outside Trang Tien Ice Cream clutching my famed cone and you guys – it was magical. At only 8,000 dong (25p) I made an executive decision to buy another immediately after I finished the first. This is what being an adult is about and I wanted to ride that sugar high for as long as possible.
Did I feel a bit sick afterward?
Was it worth it?
Hanoi is a gateway to the ‘real Vietnam’
You’ll meet a lot of people when you’re travelling who’ll tell you how to get the ‘real’ experience. I’m adverse to this term and here’s why. Everything you experience is real. Whether visiting a temple or getting plastered on Khao San Road – for better or worse both have now become part of the tourist appeal of the city. What I prefer to say is authentic or traditional – because neither of these terms infer that they are superior to another.
Hanoi as the capital and the largest city in northern Vietnam is a hub for travel to destinations further afield. If you’d like to get off the beaten track I highly recommend hiring a motorbike and driving up to the province of Ha Giang.
You’ll be hard pushed to find hotels and hostel, but there are plenty of homestays where you can stay with friendly locals. It’s certainly not five star in terms of luxury – but don’t let that deter you – it’s all part of the experience! I can honestly say that the views I saw in Ha Giang were some of the best I’ve ever seen. You feel like you’re on a movie set – it’s all so surreal.
If you’d like to experience UNESCO World Heritage I’d recommend visiting Halong Bay and booking an overnight cruise. The bay is dotted with over a thousand limestone islands and inlets surrounded by junk boats as well as huge rock formations, which tower out of the water. These days it is a bit of a tourist trap so you don’t need to spend too long there, but I do think it’s worth seeing.
When I went I actually visited on a party boat. We stayed on our own private island then kayaked, climbed and of course partied for three days. I had an amazing time. Maybe even too amazing a time. I spent a good part of an afternoon napping on the deck of the boat due to large quantities of sun and warm beer.
I probably can’t share much of what happened on that trip on here, but what I can tell you is that I made some memories to last a lifetime. That being said, if you don’t fancy being surrounded by barely legal young adults and lads lads lads do not book the Castaway tour.
So there we have it a mega post featuring what I believe to be the best of Hanoi! In my experience, like Bangkok, Hanoi is one of those places people either love or hate. I hope that I’ve pushed you a little bit closer to the love side. Or, even better, sparked a desire to explore it for yourself and make your own adventure. If you need any advice on where to stay or other burning questions, please don’t hesitate to get in touch!
What about you guys? Where are your favourite places that you’ve visited? Have you ever been to Hanoi?
Let me know in the comments!