Hà Nội is my favorite city in Southeast Asia by far! I can honestly say I was nowhere near prepared for the sensory overload I received during my trip. This incredible city is filled with winding alleys, loud noises and mouthwatering smells of food. I arrived in Hanoi by bus at the God-awful hour of 4:30 a.m. Naturally, it was far too early to check into my hostel, so I dropped my bags in the luggage room and stepped out into the humidity to watch the city come to life.
Women were already setting up in the streets, sitting on their little plastic children’s chairs, selling fresh meats, fruits, and various other goods. Music was playing loudly on street speakers all throughout the Old Quarter. Motorbikes were honking their way through early-morning traffic as pedestrians danced around, going about their day. Children were playing soccer on their way to school. Food vendors everywhere feeding the people of their city. Live chickens, frogs and fish waiting to be butchered. The women do most of the work here before 7:00 a.m., so if you want to catch a glimpse of this, be sure to be awake before then. Walking through the streets at that time was a wonderfully rare experience: it was as if it were my own personal chaotic symphony of sounds and colors and sights I’ve never seen before.
I fell in love with Hà Nội after I had my phone stolen the first night I was there. I know, you’d think I would be a bit bitter after that and the food poisoning I received two days later. However, when you have to learn a city like the back of your hand because you don’t have the convenience of Google Maps in your back pocket, you end up stumbling across the most interesting things. So, here I sit writing my thoughts and compilations wanting to share with the world my view of this beautiful city that’s filled with more than pagodas and mausoleums. When in Vietnam, do as the Vietnamese do. There’s no other way to travel.
Explore the Old Quarter
The first thing I suggest you do when you get to Hanoi is explore the Old Quarter. Get lost within the walls, find the Old City Gate and follow the ancient wall; weave in and out as you go. Not only will you get familiar with the city, but you’ll also experience how the locals live their lives. The streets of Hà Nội can be confusing at first because one street will turn into another within a matter of feet. One minute you think you’re on Mã Mây then all of a sudden you’re on Hàng Buồm and all you did was walk in a straight line. So if you’re not paying attention it is easy to get lost. Once you figure it out the main streets, you’ll be fine.
On this walk around the Old Quarter, you’ll find the more north you go, the less touristy the area. If you’re feeling up to it, find the Càu Chương Dương Bridge or the Cầo Long Biên Bridge and take a breezy walk across the Red River. This city has so much to offer, so get lost, explore, learn and enjoy.
Visit the Đồng Xuân Market
Location: Đồng Xuân, Hoàn Kiếm, Hà Nội
In north Hoán Kiếm, you’ll find a fairly large market full of life, random products, food, and flowers. If you’re a coffee lover, Asian knickknack hoarder, or a cell phone case junkie this is the place for you. You can even find pet birds and pet fish here if you happen to be staying a while and need a companion. There is milk candy in plethora here. Gifts for your grandma back home and you can even find these handcrafted pop-up cards to send to everyone back home. It opens early in the morning and doesn’t close until around 10pm to 11pm. I personally think it has a different vibe day vs. night. In a nutshell, this market is definitely worth the recognition.
Hồ Hoàn Kiếm Lake
Hồ Hoàn Kiếm Lake means “Lake of the Returned Sword” and it’s also known as Hồ Gươm (Sword Lake). This lake serves as the center of Hà Nội’s historical center and as a local hangout spot. On the weekends is my favorite time to go because the city actually closes the roads surrounding the lake, making it the first city I’ve seen in Southeast Asia where there is no motor traffic whatsoever. If you’ve ever been to this area then you know how peaceful that sounds, if you haven’t been yet then you will understand what I mean soon enough. Saturday and Sundays expect to see people working out around the lake, children playing in the streets and local artists selling their art.
You’ll see a few cafés placed around the lake. Stop and grab a bite to eat or a strong Vietnamese coffee and enjoy the view. This lake is famous for the Temple of the Jade Mountain and for the Turtle Tower floating so serenely in the middle of the water; it is said in ancient legends that in 1428, Emperor Lê Lợi was approached by a Golden Turtle God who asked him for his magic sword. The emperor told the Golden Turtle God it had been taken during the revolution against Ming China. He ended up giving the sword back to the turtle after the war was over. The lake received its name from this old legend. So when you’re looking over this beautiful lake make sure to keep your eyes peeled for the ancient Golden Turtle God.
Hà Nội Hilton
Location: 1 Hoả Lò, Trần Hưng Đạo, Hoàn Kiếm, Hà Nội, Vietnam
Hảo Lò Prison is a historical landmark to more people than just the Vietnamese. The prison used to serve the French colonists who wanted to lock up political wrongdoers. Its name Hảo Lò translates to “fiery furnace” or “Hell’s hole”. The name originated from the street phố Hỏa Lò, which used to be known for its surplus of stores selling wood stoves.
Later during the Vietnam/American War, the prison was used to hold U.S. POWs (prisoners of war), changing the nickname to Hà Nội Hilton. Even our own John McCain was held up there for a while. Luckily, he made it out alive. This is a place of old history and deep suffering, however, for history buffs like me, it is a must see. If you’re not the superstitious type, you can even step foot in one of the cells and have your friend close and lock the bars. Experience the Hà Nội Hilton for yourself and hopefully, you make it out alive.
A bánh mỳ is a traditional Vietnamese baguette and a must-try for anyone traveling here. It might just seem like a sandwich, but this mouthwatering baguette is a combination of veggies, paté, pork belly and of course an infamous Asian sauce all placed neatly on a toasted baguette. They weren’t lying when they said the secret is in the sauce, let me tell you.
To top it off, they’re so inexpensive! You can find them throughout the city for as little as 20k dong and you should never pay more than 35k dong. My favorite places to enjoy this glorious compilation are Bánh Mỳ P located at 12 Hàng Buồm, Bánh Mỳ 25 located at 25 Hàng Cá and surprisingly Hanoi Rocks Hostel listed below. Go make a mess of yourself and enjoy one of Vietnam’s specialties.
Hanoi Rocks Hostel
Location: 56 Hàng Đường, Hà Nội, Vietnam
When I was in Hà Nội, I stayed in at least four hostels and this one happened to be my favorite and worth writing about. Of course if you’re looking for a hostel to stay in this is definitely the best bang for your buck, however even if you’re not staying in a hostel, this one is equipped with a bar that everyone should go to. Every evening at 6pm and 10pm they serve free beer to everyone, not just those who stay there. They have a large space filled with ambiance and great music chosen by the people. The bar has two decent pool tables with decent cue sticks as well (not common in these parts of the world). A foosball table and couches everywhere. Did I mention the great vibe and badass people you meet there? When in Vietnam, you have to try the balloons at least once. Literally, they hand you a huge balloon filled with laughing gas. Not helium, but nitrous oxide, and boy do they make you laugh. So enjoy a beer on the house and a balloon next to your new best friend at Hanoi Rocks Hostel. P.S. they even have an ATM on location.
Hanoi Rocks Hostel
Vivian’s Tea Shoppe
Location: 146 Trấn Vũ Street, Ba Đình, Hà Nội, Vietnam
This place was a true treat shown to me by one of my favorite locals I met, Vivian. She showed me around town one of my days there and on our last stop of the day I was privileged enough to meet her mother. Her mother, this little Vietnamese lady born and raised in Hà Nội, opened up her own tea shoppe years ago and has since then been making the best muddled Mulberry tea I’ve ever had in my life.
When you sit at the outside tables, you get a beautiful view of Trúc Bạch Lake. Although this is a bit off the beaten path, it’s so worth it to go and enjoy the sunset over the lake with a delicious, delectable and delightful mulberry tea.
Sidetrip to Hạ Long Bay Tour
Whether you take a tour before, after or in the middle of your time in Hà Nội, you have to go. Unfortunately, I had to give up my 3 day, 2-night cruise ticket due to extreme food poisoning. However, I do know how to look for tickets to go on this amazing adventure. You need to haggle for your tickets. Plain and simple. Within the Old Quarter, there are about three dozen travel agencies willing to help you out. Most of them are polite and are willing to lower their price to have your business. I preferred to go for the 3-day tour because any less and I wouldn’t be satisfied, but the length of time you go is obviously up to you. However, based on the 3-day tour, you should be looking at as low as $60 USD to as much as $200 USD. Some of the less expensive tours seemed to be fine and I would’ve willingly gone on them. I had my ticket through Castaway Ha Long Bay Tour located in Central Backpackers Hostel on Mấ Mây Street (I bought mine online, it’s better if you buy in person). They offer so many activities, buffet style meals and accommodations. You have choices between kayaking, rock climbing, snorkeling and more. Just so you know, however, this is a party boat, so if you have little ones with you, I do not suggest this tour. It was quite amusing to watch all the Castaways come back from their tour. When they left they were pumped and happy go lucky, when they came back they looked like the walking dead from being so hungover. They all loved it, though. So go and join the Castaways!
Location: 42 Nguyễn Thiếp, Hà Nội, Vietnam
Homie’s Pub comes through on exactly what it says – a pub for you and your homies to chill in. A place to be away from judgment. Young local’s run the full liquor and beer bar. Don’t forget to do a balloon while chatting with the bartender or maybe the owner, he’s usually there. On your second beer feel free to meander up the small staircase to where the local D.J. is jamming out. Most of the D.J.s work there as well. I had a wonderful experience the first time around…and four times later, I’m tightening dreads for one of my favorite girls there. Now, you don’t have to go crazy like me, but please stop in at least once, I know you won’t regret it. Chill out at Homie’s Pub and hear some great local DJs.
Tô Tịch Road
One personal fact about me is that I am in love with board games, ever since I was little, I’ve found them quite fascinating. So, I took it upon myself to find an Asian board game shop. Well, it turns out there’s a whole street dedicated to games. Now mind you, when I finally stumbled upon this small, little side street maybe 100 meters long, I was slightly disappointed in the lack of stores that actually sold the game I wanted. In fact, only one store, it seems, in all of Hà Nội sold Mahjong. This small, quaint shop on the end of Tô Tịch Street caught my eye. Everything in the shop was dusty and looked like it had all been sitting there forever. The lady was so happy to see a customer that she practically pushed me in her store. I asked her if she had Mahjong, next thing I know is she’s digging under all this stuff behind a cabinet. Remembering to brush all the dust off before she gave it to me, she handed me a white marble box set. It was a beautiful hand engraved and painted, perfect condition Mahjong set. I was so happy, I’m pretty sure I jumped up and down a few times. The lady was so nice, so I couldn’t help buying a gorgeous eggshell chopstick box set as well. Making mosaics with eggshell is very traditional in Vietnam, so when I saw it I had to buy it. Naturally, because I bought a few items, the lady was kind enough to even give me a discount. So, if you want to lug around a heavy marble box set of Mahjong or want something very specialized and beautiful please check out Tô Tịch Street. It’s for sure a road less traveled.
I hope you enjoy Hà Nội as much as I did! Tell me all about it in the comments please, I’d love to hear your stories. And a huge thank you to Brendan with AdventureDaze.com for welcoming me as his guest. Hope to continue working together all around the world.