The first thing I thought stepping out of our taxi from the airport was that Hanoi was absolute madness. We arrived at night but the streets everywhere were lined with people, outnumbered by the thousands of mopeds bobbing and weaving their way through the mayhem. At first, the simple act of crossing the road was a nightmare for a pair of novices, and with voices shouting and horns beeping around us at every angle we didn’t know where to look – a little overwhelming after ten hours of travelling!
Even though it’s mental Hanoi still manages to be lovely in its own way. The Old Quarter in particular, where the majority of tourists spend their visits, is full of pretty French-colonial buildings and cute cafes and bakeries that look really European. The Hoan Kiem Lake is here too, the iconic postcard image of Hanoi and the sight most worth going to see (though you can’t really miss it). You can cross the Huc Bridge to explore the Jade Buddhist Temple in the middle of the lake, and look out at the famous stone pagoda on its own distant island. You can also try and spot the legendary Hanoi giant turtle in the water – I’m still unsure as to whether this is actually legit or a Loch Ness Monster kind of deal, but I thought it was cool.
Walking around the lake you’ll see artists displaying their work, local people selling crafts and elderly residents stretching and working out. It’s so calm compared to the commotion of the street just steps away.
Aside from the lake, there are several temples, museums and other tourist draws around Hanoi, but to be honest I don’t really think it’s a sightseeing city. The best thing you can do to experience Hanoi is just walk around and observe local culture; like women carrying goods on shoulder poles, street vendors selling food and barbers giving haircuts in the middle of crowded streets.
Discovering Vietnamese food for the first time in Hanoi was a treat. The feasts we could get for a fiver!! We lived off of Vietnamese staples; pho – the national dish of chicken or beef noodle soup, fresh spring rolls, and bun cha which is a really soft fatty pork in soup with cold rice noodles and salad. Fatty pork aside, the food is all really healthy and as it’s so cheap too we didn’t feel bad for getting piles of it every night.
Vietnamese food is great, but I’m a burger girl at heart so I have to mention a place called Chops in the Old Quarter. I was being good so I didn’t have a burger myself (!!) but Jordan claims the mac and cheese burger from here is THE BEST he’s ever had. We are burger connoisseurs so this claim isn’t made lightly… I had a bite and can confirm it was amazing, definitely better hangover food than noodle soup!
Another thing the Vietnamese know how to do is coffee – it’s out of this world! It’s sort of their specialty and the best kind is egg coffee – a little espresso with a sweet eggy mixture on top! Sounds weird but it works. Hanoi has so many cute coffee shops where you can grab one of these, sit outside and watch the mopeds whizz by.
There are so many hostels in Hanoi, especially in the Old Quarter, so it’s fine to just find somewhere to stay when you arrive. I’d actually recommend this as then you can check the place out first – we initially had two dodgy places that we booked on booking.com, both of which we left! We stayed at Funky Jungle hostel in the end which I couldn’t recommend enough. It’s great for meeting people as the bar is always lively, plus it’s free beer between 6-7 and 8:30-9:30 every night! Other popular hostels in the area are Hanoi Backpackers and Hanoi Rocks.
Even though I found it a bit intimidating at first, there’s definitely a softer side to Hanoi waiting to be discovered amidst the chaos. Once you get used to boldly walking through traffic and master the art of saying “no” to street salesman, navigating Hanoi is a breeze!