Hanging out in Hanoi

The old quarters in Hanoi, Vietnam
The old quarters in Hanoi, Vietnam

The Story – Hanoi, Vietnam

In total, we were in Hanoi for about 7 days. Three on the first days of our vacation, and 4 on the last days. We didn’t get bored once. Considering we didn’t really go to any tourist attractions, I think that says a lot for the city.

Sample Budget (for 2)

Accommodations: $24.66 USD (3 nights) + $1.61 (1 night) + $68.40 (3 nights) = $94.67/2,022,000 dong (7 nights) *We got some major discounts thanks to this blog and HotelQuickly. You can expect to pay about $20/night for a private double.
Meals: 3,550,000 (5 breakfasts, 5 lunch, 7 dinner)
Attraction admissions: 60,000 (we went into an ancient house and the temple on the island)
Coffee/Booze/Snacks: 1,141,000
Transportation: 370,000 (taxi from airport) + 50,000 (taxi to bus station) + 50,000 (taxi old quarters to Truch Bach Lake) + 370,000 (taxi to airport) = 840,000

Total: 7,613,000 ($356) – $25.42 each per day

We arrived at Noi Bai, Hanoi’s airport, late. Our flight with Jetstar was delayed 5 hours. Lucky for us, in the morning they sent us a text message to tell us, so we weren’t sitting around the airport all day. When you exit the airport, you’ll see a lineup of taxis. There are many different companies. Some people say Mai Linh or Vinasun are the only ones they’ll take. I haven’t had any problems with other companies, and sometimes their rates are cheaper. If you take a close look, you’ll see their rates posted on the side of their car. If you shop around it could be possible to save a couple dollars. In hindsight, I would have probably used this company. Simply send them an email with your flight information and they’ll be waiting for you with your name on a sign. They charge $15 to get downtown (you might want to ask them specifically about your hotel to make sure it’s not more). We ended up paying 370,000 VND ($17) for a taxi off the street. It took us to Hanoi Crystal Hotel, where we stayed for 3 nights. Did we book ahead? Yes. How long ahead? A few hours. At the airport, before boarding our flight, we went on the app HotelQuickly and did a search for Hanoi. Thanks to the app’s great incentive program, and the last minute deals that the app secures, we were able to book 3 nights for only $25. If you’re unfamiliar with HotelQuickly, check out our HotelQuickly review and be sure to put in our invite code to save yourself some money (after you download it go to credits, then redeem, then put in promo code RNEMU — I believe you get $15-$20 in credits if you use it). So anyways, the hotel was a great deal. The room was nothing special, but the location was good. Down the street, there was a really good bia hoi place where we ate our first meal in Hanoi.

Bia hoi is one of my favourite things about Hanoi. They’re basically restaurants, or sometimes just sidewalks, where you can get cheap glasses of draft beer. Cheap as in, 3000-10,000 VND ($0.15-$0.50). Hanoi Bia Hoi is a great website that maps the beer hoi places. We used it a lot while in Hanoi. “What do you want to do now?” “Hmm… I know!” *pulls out phone and searches for closest beer hoi place.
The next day, we woke up really early and did Frommer’s Hanoi walking tour. We usually avoid the popular travel books, but the self-guided walking tours that Frommers have on their website are a good way to see some of the city’s highlights. Without it, we would probably just walk around anyways, exploring the old town aimlessly. At least this way we get to read some info about some of the sights.

A woman walks under a train bridge in Hanoi, Vietnam
The underpass of Hanoi’s train.

I have mixed opinions about Hanoi’s old quarters. First of all, they are really cool. The buildings, the streets and alleys, the bustle of it all. If you are into photography, it’s a dream location. It’s definitely a must-see on your visit to Hanoi. I would do it early in the morning when the locals are up, but the backpackers are sleeping off their hangovers. Plus, if it’s summer it won’t be as hot. There’s so much to see, but the walking conditions aren’t great, so take your time and don’t forget to watch where you’re going (you’ll have to). All that being said… Let’s get the hell out of here before I start throwing flying knees in people’s faces! The cute narrow streets go from photographic to death via traffic. At first, the ladies selling fruit from their hanging baskets are ‘cool’ and ‘amazing’, but after a while they’re ‘in the way’ and ‘bashing into me’. And then there’s the vendors who say something like, “Hey, ghost-face! Do you want to buy something incredibly over-priced?” Hanoi will scam the shit out of you. A great man once said, DTA you stupid piece of trash! Don’t trust anyone. The nice charming ladies with the banh ran (fried doughnuts) will throw 6 pieces in a bag, hand it over, and ask you for 290,000 VND ($13.50). When they tried to pull this on me, Sara had to restrain me from giving the girl a Stone Cold Stunner. Instead, I talked her down to 30,000 VND ($1.50), which is still overpriced. Make sure you know the currency conversion before heading into the old quarters. I have a theory that those three pointless zeros at the end of their prices are only still there because they use them to rip tourists off. The old quarters are a great place to visit, but if you’re going to be in Hanoi for more than a few days, I recommend staying outside of them.

Hanoi, Vietnam streets
Good chance that you’ll get knocked in the head by something like this.

This brings me to our last three days in Hanoi. We stayed in Anh Hotel, which is in the Tay Ho District. It’s about a 15 minute walk to the old quarters, a 10 minute walk to West Lake (the largest lake in Hanoi), a 2 minute walk to Truc Bach lake, and a 20 minute walk to the Ho Chi Minh Museum and mausoleum (if you’re interested in waiting in line to stare at a dead guy). There are also plenty of restaurants and cafes in the area. It’s much quieter than the old quarters and there are a lot less white people. The hotel was clean, comfy, and the staff spoke English better than any other place we stayed (‘Anh’ is actually Vietnamese for ‘English’). If you’re going to be in Hanoi for more than a couple days, I would definitely recommend staying in this area over the old quarters.

A woman selling fruit in Hanoi, Vietnam
So what’s a person to do in Hanoi if they’re not peeping dead peeps, and looking through glass cases at old bowls? Well, the majority of our free time was spent shoving things into our mouths. There are a ton of food opportunities in Hanoi. Some dishes you’ll struggle to find in the rest of Vietnam, let alone in another country.

Some must-try dishes while in Hanoi are:

  • Pho Cuon (Pho rolls) – Vietnam’s popular soup in roll form. Try it around Truc Bach lake, where they are said to have been invented.
  • Bun Bo Nam Bo (southern beef noodles) – This dish can be found in the south, but it’s called bun bo xao. The reason I list it here is because the place that serves it does it better than anywhere else I’ve tried it. Be sure to check them out when you’re in Hanoi – 67 Hang Dieu (see map below).
  • Bun Thang (chicken and pork noodle soup) – A really amazing bowl that is packed with delicious and filling toppings like chicken, pork, egg, sometimes shrimp. We randomly walked into a packed-with-locals place on the north-side of Hang Thung close to Hang Be. It might have been the best soup I had in Hanoi.
  • Bun ca Ha Noi (Hanoi fish noodle soup) – Fish soup in Vietnam is different, depending where you are. Hanoi’s version uses mullet and dill.
  • Bun Cha (grilled pork and vermicelli) – One of the more popular Hanoi dishes. Grilled meatballs are dipped in a sweet broth-like sauce and eaten with vermicelli noodles. You should be able to find this dish all over.
  • Banh tom Ho Tay (sweet potato shrimp fritters) – A sweet potato fritter topped with a whole shrimp (originally the shrimp came from Ho Tay, the large lake). The shrimp’s head isn’t removed and the skin is left on. Why? Because that’s how the Vietnamese roll. If you can get over that fact, it’s pretty tasty and crunchy.
  • Ca Phe Trung (Egg Coffee) – Sweet and oh so good. A heavily beaten egg is mixed with delicious Vietnamese coffee. Apparently, the drink was invented by Giang Cafe, so I suggest trying it there (39 Nguyễn Hữu Huân).
  • Deep fried deliciousness – Quan Goc Da, a popular eatery at 52 Ly Quoc Su, just north of St. Joseph’s Cathedral, serves up a plethora of deep fried goodies. We tried the banh goi (dumpling stuffed with glass noodles, mushrooms, and ground pork), nem cua be (crab spring roll), and the banh bao thit (deep-fried pork dumpling).
Quan Goc Da in Hanoi, Vietnam
Quan Goc Da where you can clog your arteries with deliciousness.

Check out the map below for more restaurant recommendations. It’s also worth noting that there are a lot of great international restaurants in Hanoi. For Indian food, try Foodshop 45 (59 Truc Bach St). Gecko Cafe and Restaurant (86 Hàng Quạt… and I think a few more locations) does some pretty good western food, as well as Vietnamese food. For Mexican, you can try Provecho (18 Hang Be).

We happened to be in Hanoi during New Year’s Eve, a holiday that’s not that popular in Vietnam, but there were a few celebrations going on around the city. We decided to do an all day microbrewery tour. With some help from BeerVN.com we planned out a route, sprinkled in some bia hoi places as filler, and drank/walked our way into 2015. It was a great day with the highlight being the glass of Hoa Vien beer from Pilsner Urquell Restaurant at 10 Nguyen Bieu, and the low-light being the pink champagne we popped as the clock struck midnight.

Legend Beer in Hanoi, Vietnam.
Sara on the balcony at Legend Beer.

One of our all time favourite travelling activities is having a cup of coffee at a cafe and people watching. Of course, Hanoi is amazing for this as there are cafes everywhere, the coffee is outstanding, and there’s always crazy stuff to look at. That’s the ultimate attraction of Hanoi. A walk around a neighbourhood you’ve never been, is more of an attraction to me than a museum with artifacts that I’ll forget about twenty minutes after leaving the place. The real memories are in the streets:

the people,
Man with no legs riding a motorcycle in Hanoi, Vietnam
their interactions,
A couple walking in Hanoi, Vietnam
the bowls of food,
A bowl of bun bo nam bo in Hanoi, Vietnam
the sips of coffee.

A cup of egg coffee in Hanoi, Vietnam

The Facts – Hanoi, Vietnam

Getting In and Out

From Noi Bai airport, you’ll have to take a taxi for about 370,000VND ($17) or you can arrange a pickup for about $15.
If you’re coming in to the bus station, it’s about 50,000VND ($2.50) for a taxi to the old quarters.
The train station is even closer and will cost you about 40,000VND for a taxi.
There are a lot of taxi scams in Hanoi — meters that run fast, drivers refusing to use their meter, there’s even been robberies where the driver pretends the car is broken and when you get out he drives away with your bag. I’ve never had a problem, but be careful, only use name brand taxis (if there’s multiple cars with the logo then it’s probably ok), and if your taxi bill is outrageously high because of a fast running meter, don’t pay it. Toss the driver some money and walk away.

When it’s time to leave Hanoi, you have a ton of options. You can basically go anywhere in Vietnam by bus. If you prefer the train, you could go up to Sapa or head south all the way to Ho Chi Minh City.

Best Budget Hotel in Hanoi, Vietnam

Anh Hotel – $15-$25. If you take a risk and book it only a day ahead of time, you’re likely to get a really good deal. The Deluxe room is worth the extra money. It’s huge and has a giant window looking out to the street. The staff are extremely friendly and always greet you with a smile. It’s out of the old quarters, about a 15 minute walk, which is nice because it’s quieter, less touristy, and it’s quite close to the lake where you can try pho rolls, and relax with a coffee.

Best Budget Restaurant in Hanoi, Vietnam

Bún Bò Nam Bộ67 Hàng Điếu (see map below)
This place is in all the guide books. I usually avoid places like that because they feel less Vietnamese, but we walked by and saw that it was packed with locals — a sure sign that it’s good. We were not disappointed. Bun bo nam bo, the dish not the restaurant, is similar to a beef stir fry, but its simple flavours combine to make a perfectly balanced meal with the right textures. The cost of one bowl: 55,000VND (about $2.50).

The Video – Hanoi, Vietnam

The Perfect Day in Hanoi, Vietnam

The Map – Hanoi, Vietnam