Hanoi was our first taste of Vietnam, and it left us wanting more. The capital is chaotic, but that only adds to the charm of the place. As many backpackers travel through Vietnam from North to South, Hanoi is a perfect introduction to the busy lifestyle and rich history of this incredible country.
Getting there/getting out:
Vietnam’s backpacker trail is well established by now, and Hanoi is a common start or end point. That means getting into the city is easy and convenient. Coaches arrive and leave from one of four bus stations, so arrange your travel beforehand. Most hotels and hostels will arrange this for you, often with a taxi transfer to the right station – it might cost slightly more, but it’s worth it for the convenience.
We arrived into Hanoi’s international airport from Hong Kong (check out my blog on Hong Kong here!). It’s out of town but taxis are outside to get into the city. To avoid getting ripped off, book a taxi in advance through your hotel (it might cost more, but again the convenience when arriving in a new country is worth it).
Leave time for sorting out visas, which need to be processed even though you should have arranged the documents beforehand. Vietnam Visa Pro is a good website for getting these required documents – it doesn’t look official, but it is reliable and has all relevant information.
Hanoi is well connected, and most backpackers heading South will go in the direction of Vinh, the beautiful Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park, or old city of Hue. Many tourists will head North to the picturesque Sapa or stunning Ha Long Bay. Coaches and tours leave for all destinations daily.
Where to stay:
Hanoi’s Old Quarter is where most hostels are located, and the city is very accessible from there. We stayed at the May de Ville backpackers hostel in the heart of this Old Quarter. It was reasonably priced ($6 for a dorm bed) and definitely one of the more fancy hostels we stayed at. The staff were also very helpful in arranging our transfer from the airport, and our travel to Ha Long Bay after our stay.
Lonely Planet also recommend Hanoi Backpackers 2 and Hanoi Hostels 1 and 2. We passed these when exploring and all looked full and lively.
What to do:
The Old Quarter is pretty and charming. We spent ages walking around the many independent shops and cafes. Even in these small streets the traffic is crazy, but if anything this increases the appeal of the area. Avoiding the traffic and simply crossing the road as hundreds of motorbikes whiz around you is all part of the fun. Walk around Hoam Kiem Lake, which comes alive at night with locals gathering to socialise – it’s a lively and welcoming atmosphere.
Hanoi is also home to the National Museum of Vietnamese History (entry 20,000VND), and the Hoa Lo Prison Museum (30,000VND). The history museum gives you a decent overview of Vietnamese history, especially of Vietnam’s French occupations and rise of the country’s Communist Party. The Prison is where Vietnamese Revolutionaries were held by the French, and it was later used to hold US Prisoners of War (including Senator John McCain).
For a country that is so influenced by it’s turbulent history, both museums are worth a visit to educate yourself on exactly what has gone on in Vietnam. They are interesting places, rather than fun sightseeing activities, but I found that educating myself about Vietnam was an important thing to do as I travelled down the country.
Also in Hanoi are various temples, pagodas, and the Imperial Citadel. There is also the Ho Chi Minh Museum and Mausoleum Complex. We didn’t visit these because we were limited with time, but people we spoke to said they definitely learned a lot about Vietnam’s immediate history under Ho Chi Minh and the Communist rule.
Eating and Drinking:
We generally stuck to the Old Quarter and food was good and cheap. Most places just have plastic stools and small low tables that are literally placed in the road. It’s definitely a strange experience of eating when hundreds of motorbikes are speeding past only a metre away – this is probably the memory that summed up Hanoi for me.
Drinks are wonderfully cheap in Vietnam. You won’t pay much more than 35,000VND (=£1) for a beer, and at one point we paid as little as 5,000VND (13p). If you’re walking around in the heat of Hanoi, cheap cool beer is very much appreciated.
After Hanoi, we took a tour to Ha Long Bay – one of the places I’d been most looking forward to visiting and it didn’t disappoint.
Check out my blog on this incredible place here, and take a look at my ‘Top 5’ Highlights blog, where I look at the best places we visted, stayed, ate and drank over the seven incredible weeks we spent exploring South East Asia.