We spent four days in Hanoi. By the time we arrived in Hanoi, we were ready to be done with Vietnam. We will discuss our reasons a bit more in the wrap-up blog post, but in summary, Vietnam can be draining. For a quick example, see “Tourist Prices” in the More section below.
Given our mindset, we took it pretty easy during our stay. We did some shopping, eating, running, planning, and coffee drinking. We spent almost all of our time in the Old Quarter which is the main tourist area. Narrow streets, French colonial architecture, tons of shops. Cool place. One other important note – we ended up arriving in Hanoi over International Labor Day weekend. As such, things were pretty crazy. Hotels were all booked up, prices were increased, and there were lots of people out and about.
Overall, my enjoyment of Hanoi is best summarized in the following mathematical expression:
E[Old Quarter (Hanoi tourist area)] > E[1st District (HCMC tourist area)]
E[HCMC (Overall)] > E[Hanoi (Overall)]
*Where HCMC = Ho Chi Minh City
**Where E(x) represents enjoyment and is a positive integer
***And where x is an area in Vietnam
In non-mathematical terms, I enjoyed the touristy area of Hanoi more than the touristy areas of HCMC, but I enjoyed HCMC more than Hanoi taking the entire city into account. In HCMC, I wanted to visit all of the neighborhoods, but in Hanoi most of the neighborhoods I saw outside of the Old Quarter were….ok.
Madam Moon Guesthouse. This place is the worst. I’m not normally the type of person to raise my voice during a customer service dispute, but in this case Danielle had to push me out the door to prevent me from yelling. Long story short, they overbooked our room which resulted in a tired Danielle and a tired, irritable Sam roaming the streets looking for a place to stay on a holiday weekend. They implied this was a problem they had had before… yet they had not fixed it yet. They also wouldn’t give us a refund on our deposit so we had to dispute through hostelworld.com. Once again, the worst.
Other hotels. I don’t remember where we ended up staying, but it was in the Old Quarter and it wasn’t Madam Moon.
Last coffee hurrah. I’ve mentioned this before, but the coffee game in Vietnam is strong. Hanoi was no different. Egg coffee was especially delicious. As a reminder, egg coffee is a creamy, dessert-y coffee which originated in Hanoi.
Bun Cha. This is a north Vietnamese specialty. When Obama visited Hanoi (just a few weeks after we left), he tried bun cha. It is a grilled pork dish with noodles and greens. Since the pork is the star of the show, finding a vendor with the good pork is your best bet. One way to find the best pork…use your nose. If you find a smelly (in a good way) pork vendor, get your bun cha there.
Rice Porridge. Like it sounds. Porridgey rice base with cut up pastry bits (OK, maybe not exactly like it sounds) and some dehydrated pork bits. Nice breakfast option.
Shopping. Danielle and I do not consider ourselves to be shoppers. In fact, we take pride in how infrequently we shop in the United States. BUT, when you have been wearing the same five shirts and two pairs of pants for three months, shopping suddenly becomes alluring. Enter Hanoi.
On our first day in town, we went to a few dress shops looking for a bridesmaid dress for Danielle and during our wanderings around the city we stumbled into a shop called M2. This place was super interesting. It was basically an outlet for products made in Vietnam that didn’t meet export criteria for whatever reason.
For example: There was a row of probably 40 baseball caps. Out of the 40 caps, there were probably 30 different designs. There were a few plain white caps, a few plain green, some ‘hip’ caps (whatever the kids are wearing these days), and then there were some really random caps. And I mean RANDOM. There was a baseball cap (and I mean ‘a’ as there was only one of these caps in the store) with the name of a small town Iowa bank. I can’t remember the town or bank now, but I Googled it while I was in the store and it was a real bank in a real town. Then there was a ball cap with the name of a farming implement store in Illinois. Also, just a single cap this time. The list goes on. It was the most random collection of baseball caps I have ever seen
The rest of the store followed this pattern for other products. There were some well known international brands, some Vietnamese brands, and a hodge-podge mix of everything in-between. I found two pairs of shorts and two shirts to add to my wardrobe for around $20 USD. And let me tell you something, when you have been wearing the same outfits for over three months and you suddenly find yourself with new clothes (no stains! no rips! no weird stretching!), you feel like an absolute badass. Seriously, I was strutting around Hanoi like it was my job.
Explored the ‘expat’ area. There were a few tailors in the expat part of town (near the big lake north of the Old Quarter) Danielle wanted to meet with. We took an Uber (yes, Uber has made it to Hanoi) up and spent the day there. The tailor shops ended up being closed, but it was fun to explore a different area of town at least.
Night Market. The north part of the Old Quarter shuts down (to traffic) each night and becomes a huge, pedestrian friendly night market. At this point in our travels, we had seen our fair share of night markets, but the Hanoi Old Quarter night market was pretty impressive. Tons of people out and about.
Hotel. I have left three (negative) reviews for this place. Hell hath no fury like a millennial scorned. Also, we still haven’t received a refund.
Uber. Not having to negotiate for a cab fare. SIGN ME UP.
One run around the Old Quarter lake. Oof. Not the easiest place we’ve run. I’m also not sure of the name of the lake, though I likely wouldn’t be able to pronounce it even if I did know it. Regardless, there is a lake near the Old Quarter, and we ran around it. One loop of the lake is just a little over one mile. The lake is a very popular place resulting in us dodging people left and right for the duration of the run. If you are looking to run around the lake I would recommend getting an early start. 7 AM on a Sunday…not early enough. Strava data HERE.
Get your bike here. As we mentioned in our HCMC post, we briefly considered doing the whole ‘Motorbike Up (Down) Vietnam’ when we first arrived in the country. One of the biggest hindrances for us was our inability to find another backpacker looking to sell their bike in HCMC. Hanoi did not appear to have this problem. I’m not sure if it was an example of the Baader-Meinhof phenomenon (I didn’t know there was an actual name for this until, oh, about 25 seconds ago) or what, but I saw quite a few folks trying to sell their bikes in the Old Quarter area of town.
Tourist Prices. One of the most frustrating parts about traveling in Vietnam is the blatantly higher prices for tourists. For example, we had breakfast at a street side stand one morning. Rice porridge. It was delicious. We were sitting on the sidewalk on those little blue stools right next to an older Vietnamese woman. This woman was probably in her 70s or 80s. She finished her bowl of porridge and the vendor came over to take her money. Again, this is happening right next to me. The older woman hands a 10,000 dong note to the vendor and off she goes. “OK, cool.” I think, “one bowl costs 10K. Maybe 15K for us because we are tourists.” A few minutes later Danielle and I finish our bowls and the vendor comes by to take our money and says “60,000 dong.” 30K each. Three times the local price. Now, 30K dong is just a little over $1 USD, but it is still incredibly frustrating to feel like you are constantly being ripped off. The “but it’s not much money” excuse gets old after awhile. And this happens ALL THE TIME. Even to Westerners who have lived in Vietnam (and have been earning Vietnamese wages) for many years.
International Labor Day. This is a thing and it happened when we were in town. It is exactly like the USA version of Labor Day (3 day weekend y’all!!!) but it happens in May instead of September. It also resulted in hotel rates doubling. Something to keep in mind if you are planning on a visit to Vietnam in early May.