Stepping out of Hanoi airport, the first thing that struck us was the extreme heat. We’d anticipated it was going to be warm, but it’s hard to describe the shock of leaving a heavily air conditioned arrivals terminal and being instantly hit by the fug of humidity that quickly enveloped us.
Always budget-conscious, we’d decided that rather than pay for a £15 taxi to the Old Quarter we’d try our luck on the local bus which would cost just 60 pence for both of us. Slowed by our backpacks and sweating profusely, we battled to breathe in the thick, hot air on the short walk between the terminal and the bus stop.
What To Do In Hanoi
The roar of the traffic on the highway next to us was punctuated by an almost constant beeping of horns, a noise which is part of the daily sing song of life in Hanoi. A Vietnamese couple slowed as they approached us on their motorbike and the young lady riding pillion cracked a broad smile as she began waving at us, a warm welcome that would set the tone for the rest of our time in Hanoi.
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Arriving in Hanoi
The bus took about an hour, in which time the early evening sky had darkened to pitch black with pregnant rain clouds. In this part of the world during wet season the rain often comes as a welcome relief, cutting through the humidity whilst bringing the temperature down. Fortunately for us, the torrential downpour that transpired had stopped before we arrived at the Old Quarter where we would be staying, allowing us a dry, cool walk to our hotel.
Whilst there are pavements throughout the Old Quarter, it quickly became clear to us that they’re not necessarily for walking on. Instead they’re used as makeshift street restaurants and parking spaces for the seemingly millions of motorbikes that flood the narrow roads.
Street restaurants and pavement parking in Hanoi
Wandering through Hanoi for the first time was like a dizzying whirlwind of colours, sights and smells as we were met by chaos at every turn. The battered motorbikes we were forced to share the roads with swerved courteously to avoid us, silver rickshaws carrying tourists plodded slowly by in long processions, women carrying bamboo yokes laden with colourful, exotic fruit called out to us as we passed. It’s one of the most exciting and bewildering cities we’ve arrived in yet and we were instantly intrigued by it.
Lady with Yoke in Hanoi
The Beauty of the Old Quarter
The Old Quarter is a fascinating collision of instantly recognisable remnants of French colonial rule fused with elements of heavily traditional Vietnamese culture. Most of the buildings are disproportionately tall and narrow standing at only a couple of metres wide but 4 plus stories high, reputedly due to shop taxes historically being decided by the width of the storefront.
Like many old cities, the streets are an unplanned maze connected by alleyways and ginnells which we had great fun getting lost in. Many of the larger roads are home to numerous shops that all sell the same thing, their names literally translating to the products they peddle such as Silver Street, Bamboo Street and even BBQ Chicken Street.
Enjoying chicken feet on Hanoi’s BBQ Chicken Street
To say that the Old Quarter is busy is an understatement, in truth it’s simply chaotic. But that’s part of its charm. We spent hours sitting in corner cafes and bars just watching daily life unfurl around us. Families of four squashed on to a single motorcycle making their way home from the school run. Refuse trucks calling multiple times a day to collect the piles of rubbish that get left in the gutters, announced by the sound of singing children blaring from loudspeakers. Huge PA systems pushed from bar to bar, with patrons paying to take the mic and croon Vietnamese ballads on the portable karaoke machine.
Hanoi’s Amazing Food and beer tradition
Vietnamese food has a burgeoning reputation the world over and for good reason. In general it is fresh, light and extremely delicious and Hanoi is home to lots of fantastic restaurants and street food stalls. You can’t walk five minutes without seeing somewhere serving Pho, the ubiquitous noodle soup dish that supposedly originated in Hanoi. We ate some great Spring rolls filled with pork and crab and there is a really interesting dish called Bun Cha which consists of two variations of pork, grilled and served with a dipping soup, salad leaves and herbs as well as rice noodles. These are just a few of the dishes that we tried and there is such a variety on offer that it’s impossible not to get excited by the food in Hanoi.
As we wandered around on the first day we soon realised that there is a huge beer drinking tradition here. Local bars fill up quickly from around midday and the crowds don’t die down until after ten ‘o’ clock. Small groups made up mainly of men sit on tiny plastic chairs, sinking glasses of the extremely cheap local brew of Bia Hoi and eating bar snacks of boiled peanuts and fermented pork sausages.
Drinking Bia Hoi on Beer Corner Hanoi
I found out that the beer is so cheap (prices start at about 15 pence per glass) because it is made with a high rice content and brewed quickly without the addition of the preservatives used in most beers. As a result, the beer trucks deliver to each bar on a daily basis and once a keg is opened it must be drunk within 24 hours. But thanks to its popularity, this is rarely a problem and bars regularly sell out before the end of the night. The Bia Hoi has quite a distinct taste which we actually really enjoyed and found a couple of glasses a refreshing way to cool down in the heat while taking in the hustle and bustle of the busy streets.
Hanoi’s Culture & History
Hanoi is home to a number of interesting and informative museums which tell the story of its rich and fascinating past. Our favourite, and I use that term in a very loose sense as it was by no means an enjoyable experience, was the Hoa Lo Prison Museum. We learnt so much from the various ways in which it has been used in recent times. Originally built by French colonists for the detention of political prisoners, it was later used by the Vietnamese to house American POWs during the Vietnam war, including US Senator John McCain who spent time there after his fighter jet was shot down over Hanoi.
The entrance to Hoa Lo Prison Hanoi
Much of the activity in Hanoi revolves around Hoam Kiem Lake where locals and visitors alike come to relax and hang out. It’s like a little haven of tranquility and a welcome break from the madness of the rest of the city. There are a couple of islands that house a temple and a small tower and groups of people sit at the lake’s edge to drink in its calm while appreciating its beauty.
Hoam Kiem Lake Hanoi
In total we spent just over a week in Hanoi and felt as though we’d barely scratched the surface. We loved how the people we encountered were friendly and welcoming, interested to say hello and just chat with us and despite having a population of over 7 million it still felt intimate and hospitable. Hanoi is an exciting, pulsating city, rich with culture and history and genuinely unlike anywhere we’ve visited previously. We loved it.
Ever been to Hanoi? What were your thoughts? Why did you love it? Or did you hate it? Let us know in the comments!
Travel lover, professional writer and football (soccer) obsessive, James loves nothing more than getting outside and exploring little known corners of the globe. He’s also very partial to a drop of Guinness.