Hanoi is considered as one of the oldest capitals in the world with a history of more than 1000 years. Vietnam’s capital city – Hanoi literally means city surrounded by water and is located in the banks of the Red River. It has 4 seasons – Spring, Summer, Fall, and Winter. We came here around mid-July so there were times when it was pouring but that didn’t really stop us from exploring. April or November seem to be good months to visit.
Growing up from the bustling city of Manila, I though Vietnam cannot be any different. I thought, just like in any other Southeast Asian metropolis, it’s big, chaotic, traffic, and a little bit overwhelming for first timers. However, Hanoi is definitely unique and full of character. You see and feel the simplicity and peacefulness within its busy streets. I also love the mix of modern and traditional cultures found in the city – from ancient Buddhist temples and pagodas, colonial buildings and architectures, to war remnants and buildings. Yet, Hanoi is still a growing city trying to catch the fast-paced development around the world.
I’m so excited to share what we did in a week – the places we went to, the food we ate, and the unique experiences that got our minds blown.
GETTING AROUND HANOI
We flew in from Manila, met our friend who flew in from Chicago, and landed in Noi Bai International Airport. It is about 45 minutes away from the city, but navigating your way should be hard at all. Here are some ways you can do to get around Hanoi:
This is probably the easiest, fastest, and most convenient way to get around into and out of the city. We arrived Hanoi past midnight so we just wanted to get to our place quickly with less hassle. We got our private airport transfer through KKday.
We also booked our private tours to Ha Long Bay and Ninh Binh province so that we can take our time and really explore the area at our own pace. The price for private transfers and tours vary but are very reasonable. I also love our tour guide, Ms. Lan, for being able to communicate with us well as she explains to us the history behind the places we’re visiting. She was also very friendly and caring. I highly suggest getting their services and booking through KKday.
I absolutely find this app most useful (thank God for this technology!). I can’t imagine how it was like before when you have to manually look at maps and worry if the driver’s taking you to the right destination or what. Depending where you’re coming from, you can get a price estimate for your journey before you even get in the car. You can also pay using your card that saved in the app. So convenient!
I found metered taxis a little bit pricier than Grab. The only advantage of taking this is when you’re lazy to walk towards Grab’s designated pick-up point (lol). The base charge is 20,000 VND ($0.85 USD) per 1-2 kilometers, and then each kilometer after that is 15,000 VND ($0.65 USD).
Hanoi’s tuk-tuk or rickshaw can be found all over the Old Quarter where there are narrow streets that can’t be easily navigated. Just make sure to negotiate your price ahead of time. It’s about 50,000 VND ($2.15 USD) for a short ride and prices increase at night. I wish I had time to experience this as it’s perfect for a slow chill ride during sunset or when temperature’s a bit cooler.
We didn’t really get to try Hanoi’s public bus system since we prefer using Grab to share our expenses. But in case you want to experience it, the buses are recognized by its white, red, and yellow colors. These buses take you anywhere you need to go in the city with tickets costing between 5,000-10,000 VND ($0.22-$0.43 USD), depending on the distance. Be sure to have small bills too so that it won’t be much of a hassle when you get into the bus.
Just like in any of my travels, I feel safer when I have a pocket-wifi with me. Not only can you use this when booking your transportation around the city, you can also navigate your way through easily. That's why I know I can rely on Big Sky Nation pocket wi-fi, especially for inter-cities. I'm actually impressed with its wide coverage and internet speed no matter where we are. Yup, that includes remote areas of Vietnam such as Ninh Binh. Get discounts when you use my code: MJTRAVELS
HANOI AS A CITY
As I said earlier, Hanoi is a mix of modern and traditional culture which makes it very interesting. I love the charm of the Old French Quarter which makes it ideal to explore when you just want to stroll around and chill in open cafes. We went to the following places, which are really just some of the must-see places when in Hanoi:
Hoan Kiem Lake (Turtle Lake)
If the Old Quarter feels chaotic to you, all you have to do is to take a walk to Hoan Kiem Lake and you will enjoy some peace! It's really not hard to miss. We got here some time before lunch and it was humid. However, the lake is very serene, it seems like a perfect place to relax, do morning exercises, or meet friends. The very distinct red-lacquered wooden arched bridge leading to the temple is known as Huc or the Rising Sun Bridge. The bridge leads to Ngoc Son Temple.
According to the legend, Emperor Le Thai To was handed a magic sword by a divine tortoise living in the lake in the 15th century. This sword had helped the Emperor fend off the Chinese invaders. However, after the country achieved its independence, the tortoise snatched back the sword and disappeared into the lake. Efforts were made to locate the sword and the tortoise but to no avail. The Emperor then acknowledged that the sword had gone back to the divine tortoise and renamed the lake, Hoan Kiem Lake or The Lake Of The Restored Sword.
Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum
President Ho Chi Minh is considered a hero among Vietnamese people because he fought for the independence of their country. It’s a huge communist-style structure surrounded with a peaceful park and very alert policemen. Oh and there is a very strict dress code upon entering - no tank tops and short shorts. It was raining that time we visited so good thing I had my super long rain coat to cover my short shorts.
Just beside the mausoleum is the One Pillar Pagoda. The temple was built by Emperor Lý Thái Tông, who at his time was childless and dreamt that he met the bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara, who handed him a baby son while seated on a lotus flower. The emperor then married a peasant girl that he had met and she bore him a son. And just like in the emperor’s dream, he built the one pillar pagoda in the middle of a lotus pond as a sign of his gratitude to the Goddess who blessed him with a son.
If you’re much like daredevil and you want to experience getting up close to a speeding train, then Hanoi’s ‘train street’ is for you. It is just a short walk from Hoan Kiem Lake. The trains coming Ho Chi Minh and Hani pass here everyday. There’s a schedule on this depending on the day but there are times when the train gets delayed so you may have to wait more than a few minutes or hours if you really want to catch this.
I find it extraordinary how residents are able to live quietly inside narrow and claustrophobic homes with the train tracks just a couple stones away from their doorsteps. They’ve adapted so well as they happily welcome tourists like me as we flock and pose for photos. We’re hoping also to witness the madness of a speeding train rushing just inches from the building. Unfortunately, seems like I’ve seen everything there is to see here BUT the train lol! It’s probably for my own safety as well but this place is truly a unique place to visit.
Hoa Lo Prison
One of the most interesting building in Hanoi is the Hoa Lo Prison or Maison Centrale,which was originally built by the French to hold political and other prisoners of war. It was very eerie to be in such place as I listen to the anecdotes of some prisoners there. I also learned how inhumane the torture chambers (also called Hell on Earth) were and how the prisoners try to escape through sewage canals. Crazy! The showstopper is probably the guillotine and other things used to punish prisoners (electric gas, barrels, etc) After the Vietnam war, it became the “Hanoi Hilton” by the American prisoners because of the treatment they received comparable to that of staying in a hotel.
Surprisingly, I enjoyed learning about its history and how it transformed over the years. Make sure to spend at least an hour or two. It is open from 8am to 5pm and only costs 20,000 VND ($0.90 USD) then renting also their audio tour guide is a must if you're up to learn about its in-depth history.
Tran Quoc Pagoda
This pagoda is considered as the oldest Buddhist temple in Hanoi and is located in a small island near the southeastern shore of Hanoi's West Lake. This stupa has 11 floors, each vaulted window holding a statue of Amitabha that is made from gemstone. Interestingly, I learned that there are three Mother Goddesses in Vietnam representing heaven, water, and mountains.So people gather here also as a daily practice of worship and participate in ceremonies.
Dong Xuan Market
Shopping! As if the prices aren’t cheap enough. Going to Dong Xuan Market makes you dizzy with all the things that you can buy here – from novelty items, clothes, bags, everything! We bought our Vietnamese hats from here which only cost 50,000 VND ($2 USD). Not only does it look good on photos, but it’s also very useful as a day-to-day and rain-or-shine hat.
You can also find different quirky designed shirts and shorts combo which are very comfortable and stylish. We decided to wear these during our Ninh Binh trip because, hey, why not? Or maybe to easily find one another in case we get lost?
HA LONG BAY
Ha Long Bay is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and one of the most popular destinations in Vietnam. It takes about 3 hours to get here from Hanoi. I suggest getting your own private tour so that you can take your time marveling the caves accompanied by a stress-free private boat with sumptuous lunch that makes you feel like kings and queens.
Book yours through KKday. It also comes with a 4-Star hotel stay and a tour around Hanoi the next day. What a deal!
NINH BINH PROVINCE
This tour is also available in KKday. We also got this one from the same company so that we can keep the same tour guide as we've felt very comfortable around her. Check out my blog about this trip to learn more about it but here are some snippets of what we did.
EAT YOUR HEART OUT
Hanoi is one of the best places to visit if you’re craving for endless bowls of pho, bun cha, or bahn mi which are all available in every street corner. Food is fresh, healthy, and extremely cheap. I very much enjoyed the food adventures. Perhaps a bit too much lol
Vietnam’s national dish is pho. A good bowl of pho shouldn’t cost more than 50,000 VND ($2 USD). We went to Pho 10 Restaurant located in the Old Quarter because I just love how fast they serve everyone while serving good quality pho. We were seated next to random people and it’s really them maximizing the small space they have. Honestly, it’s fine for us too as we get to meet people from different countries curious to try this heartwarming and comforting dish.
My favorite dish would probably be the Bun Cha. It is one of Vietnam’s popular dishes so we tried one where President Obama and Antony Bourdain ate theirs. We went to Bun Cha Huong Lien not just once but twice because the first time we did, they were sold out! Yup, it’s that good.
Bun Cha consists of grilled fatty pork (cha) served with white rice noodles (bun) and fresh greens like lettuce, basil, coriander, and mint. The pork belly and pork meatballs are very tender and they go well with the soupy bowl of pickled vegetables and fish sauce, which to my surprise did not taste salty AT ALL. In fact, it tasted quite sweet and savory. Aaaah I’m drooling already! You gotta taste it for yourself and perhaps experience the Obama Combo of pairing it with beer and fried seafood roll. All of it for just 90,000 VND ($3.80 USD).
We also got to try other delicious Vietnamese dishes such as the grilled fish, crab spring rolls, grilled goat (specialty in Ninh Binh), shellfish, and many many more! Seems like we need more than a week to try all these.
MERRILY MERRILY DRINKS
Hanoi is only second to Brazil when it comes to the production and export of coffee around the world. Their coffee is rich and strong, just the way I like it! I noticed that they served this either hot or iced mixed with condensed milk. It’s very flavorful so it really is no brainer how it becomes one of the bests around the world. I also like another twist they have, which is the Vietnamese coconut coffee. It has a slight hint of coconut and it’s really delicious.
Another favorite of mine is their egg coffee. Although I choose to take this after every meal, kinda like dessert. The egg coffee started when the Vietnamese wanted something creamy and sweet in their coffee so they used fresh eggs whisked with sugar until it becomes foamy. It is placed on top of the coffee and sprinkled cocoa powder. They place the cup in a bigger bowl with hot water to keep the coffee warm.
Drinking it is also is an intricate process that must be observed properly so as not to ruin the drink. You should carefully fold the foam and coffee in one direction until it blends. Tasting the coffee-mixed foam with your spoon then drinking the coffee.
But when it’s night time (or maybe any other time when you’re on vacation like me) and you feel like opening a can of beer, drink Bia Hoi which is the draft beer available almost anywhere in Hanoi. It starts merely 3,000 VND or ($0.15 per glass). Domestic beers are cheap, costing as little as 20,000 VND ($0.85 USD) in restaurants, though you can find it for about 15,000 VND ($0.65 USD) at convenience stores.
Also, here’s a cool drink we found while we were exploring the Old Quarter. We also happen to come across a cooking school/restaurant that serves vodka which they fermented themselves. It only costs 15,000 VND ($0.45 USD) and boy, does it gives kick when you drink its 40% alcohol content! Phew! We got tipsy after a shot of lychee vodka but it was goooood…
If you’re feeling adventurous and you want to get instantly ‘high’ then experience Vietnam’s Thuoc Lao. It literally means "drug from Laos" so you know what I mean. You can easily find this in every street stalls in the Old Quarter. Thuoc Lao is a long pipe made from bamboo then you smoke a ball of Vietnamese tobacco, light it up, and you're in for a trip.
I am not a smoker but I tried this because people voted on my Instagram that I should do it. I understood how this can be very addicting because of that instant high, but when I tried it the second time (which I know I should not have done), I regretted it. I've been warned several times by videos of people fainting and shaking. Yet, I still did it. 'For the gram! lol' After my second hit, I felt dizzy, I vomitted, and I felt like jelly after. Personally, it's a one-time experience and I don't ever want to do it again. Some people have quit smoking cigarettes after trying this so if you're trying then maybe this is for you.
So whether you're going to Vietnam for a short time or not, there's a lot of enriching things to do here. Are there other interesting places you've visited in Hanoi? Share it here!
See you anywhere in the world!