Chào bạn! I’m so pumped to be sharing with you part one of my adventures through Vietnam. The 30 hours of travel Kevin and I endured to get to Hanoi was was tough, but it was so worth it. I’ve included a list of Hanoi travel tips at the bottom of this post too if you’re planning to visit in the near future!
First, I wanted to start off by disclosing that we booked our vacation through an agency – Indus Travels. They completely booked our flights (round trip from LAX, so we had to book our own flights to and from Los Angeles), and hotel stays including the Halong Bay cruise. They also picked us up to and from the airports in both Vietnam and Thailand! I won’t lie – it’s so nice not having to worry about taxis when arriving in new countries.
We found the trip through Groupon Getaways and paid just about $1,700 per person for the entire trip to Vietnam and Thailand including all flights, hotel stays, airport transfers, and some included tours/meals. It was a STEAL that we couldn’t resist. If you have any questions about Indus Travels as an agency or navigating Groupon Getaways, don’t hesitate to contact me! I’d be happy to share details if you’re interested in using either to book a trip! This is my second time booking a vacation abroad through Groupon Getaways. I absolutely love it!
The Old Quarter is one the main tourist areas of the capitol, Hanoi. It is a bustling commercial district full of shops, restaurants, and street vendors. These ancient commercial streets are named after their original business dating back about a thousand years, though the older goods like cotton and silk have been replaced by modern goods over time. Each street has its own specialty goods or services. We, uh, definitely became well- acquainted with the bar/restaurant streets. I left Hanoi with twins – a food baby and a beer belly baby.
Book a hotel within the Old Quarter if you can! We stayed at the May De Ville hotel which was situated right in the heart of the Old Quarter and we never had to taxi anywhere. It was incredibly convenient to walk right outside our hotel and have the Old Quarter right at our feet to explore!
One of the best parts of being in Hanoi was strolling around on the busy streets of the Old Quarter and taking in all the sites, smells, and noises. The streets are very narrow and the sidewalks are often filled with parked scooters or street vendors. You end up walking in the streets with cars and scooters zooming past you, barely a couple inches away.
When trying to cross the street, it’s often impossible to find a gap of vehicles to walk through. You just have to walk with confidence through the middle of the zooming traffic. If you just walk through the vehicles, they will slow down and swerve around you. It was kind of scary to me at first, but Kevin was skilled at this. I just clutched onto his arm and let him lead! Check out the video I took of us crossing the street! (Don’t worry, I was watching the road and hanging on to Kevin – sorry if you need a barf bag from the shakiness of the video)
At night, we found that many streets were closed off to cars to allow for night markets open up, though scooters still snuck through the barriers though and would zoom by. Local sellers would bring tents and tables into the middle of the street to sell all sorts of inexpensive goods – many of them counterfeits. We saw electronics (tons of fake Beats speakers and headphones), clothes (fake North Face is extremely popular in Hanoi, but there were also a lot of inexpensive and fashionable Vietnamese branded apparel), and shoes (we laughed at counterfeit Abercrombie flip flops that were spelled “Aberconnbie and Flish”)…you name it!
You can also find great street food at the night market! We passed by some delicious Vietnamese breads and kabobs and couldn’t resist. The kabobs were displayed raw – you’d put the the ones you wanted to purchase on a plate and they’d cook them right in front of you.
My favorite part of Hanoi was 100% the food! And bonus: it is dirt cheap. I’m talkin’ 25 cent beers ($1.50 for the good stuff in bottles) and paying max $10 for a meal for two. You can definitely find five star restaurants here, but we preferred finding random little restaurants along the streets and sitting on tiny plastic stools on the side of the road, enjoying the sites while we ate. Most workers spoke little to no English, but we found that the menus always had pictures of the food and most contained english descriptions. We’d just point to what we wanted and the server would understand.
This video below is from one of our favorite nights where we had hot pot in the Old Quarter. This woman seemed to be the restaurant owner and when she came by our table, she scolded us in Vietnamese and slapped our chopsticks out of our hands when we were apparently adding the ingredients in the wrong order. It was hilarious! She just started taking over the hot pot for us and serving the food into our bowls when it was fully cooked.
She couldn’t speak a word of English, but she sat at our little plastic table on her own tiny stool, dishing all the ingredients in the hot pot for us and showing us pictures of her cat on her cell phone. WE LOVED HER.
In the middle of our meal, a woman came by selling some fried dough desserts. Kevin and I bought a little bag, but when our newly adopted Vietnamese guardian saw how much food she had given us, she hollered at the woman to come back, absolutely screaming at her. It’s clear she thought the street seller had ripped us off, because the woman came back apologetically adding more desserts into our plastic bag. Kevin and I just stared at each other in disbelief as the restaurant owner continued to yell at the woman disdainfully, even after she had given us more desserts and was walking away. Then we just bursted out laughing as she smiled at us and we thanked her for lookin’ out.
Hoàn Kiếm Lake
If you start feeling claustrophobic in the narrow streets of the Old Quarter, The Hoàn Kiếm Lake area is a great place to get some open air. It’s technically still part of the old quarter, but it’s much more open. There are great walking paths that surround the lake if you want to walk around it. There’s also a beautiful bridge that runs over the lake to the Ngoc Son Temple (pictured behind Kevin below). There was only a small admission fee to go inside the temple, but it was quite crowded when Kevin and I were there so we opted out.
Right off of the lake, there are also a ton of high rise complexes filled with great restaurants and bars. This is also one of the few areas of Hanoi where you can find big box chains like KFC, Dunkin’ Donuts, and Dominos. We, however, stayed away from those and opted for the local cuisine.
We found a great spot to watch the traffic from a bird’s eye view at a restaurant that was on the fourth floor of a five story complex. Honestly, we just picked a random restaurant to have some beers and watch some crazy traffic at a busy intersection – I don’t even remember the name of the place! Just give me some dollar beers with a good view and you’ve got a happy Jenn.
With open spaces by Hoàn Kiếm Lake come bigger roads and busy intersections. There were no stop lights and cars, scooters, and pedestrians simply weaved around each other in complete mayhem. It was a traffic nightmare, but we were entertained for hours.
Historical Sites in Hanoi
The travel agency provided us with an English-speaking Vietnamese tour guide for a group of eight travelers to explore the historical sites of Hanoi. We spent a whole day with him as he fed us tons of information about the country and the historical sites we were visiting.
We started with Ba Đình Square and the Ho Chi Minh mausoleum, a 15 minute drive from our hotel in the Old Quarter. Ba Dinh Square is where Ho Chi Minh (communist revolutionary leader and president) read the Declaration of Independence, establishing the Democratic Republic of Vietnam in 1945. The Ho Chi Minh mausoleum is in the center of the square. It’s open to the public and contains his embalmed body, however the mausoleum is only open 8am – 11am Tuesday through Thursdays. If this is on your bucket list, plan accordingly! We unfortunately were unable to visit the mausoleum as our tour was scheduled on a Friday. We walked through the square and around the mausoleum though and it’s a great site to see!
We were also able to watch the changing of the guards!
Our next stop was to the presidential palace grounds. The palace was built in 1900 and you can’t go inside, but you can walk around the grounds for a small fee.
Ho Chi Minh’s stilt house and carp pond are also two famous sites within the palace grounds.
Next, we were off to the Temple of Literature. This Confucius temple became Vietnam’s first national university when it was built in 1070. There are multiple beautiful courtyards to walk around within the temple grounds and a lot of cultural history to learn about. My photos don’t really do it justice – we were too busy walking around and learning about the history and didn’t take a ton of photos!
Annnddd that’s it for Hanoi, folks! After Hanoi, we were off to Halong Bay where we spent a night on a cruise ship in the bay. It was definitely a highlight of our trip and I can’t wait to share all the photos and stories in my next blog post. Stay tuned!
In the meantime, I’ve complied my top five travel tips for Hanoi. Is there anything else you want to know? Anyone off to your own vacations? Any tips to get rid of jet lag? (I still can’t get on a regular sleep schedule, ugh.) Let me know!
1) You’ll need less Vietnamese dong than you think.
First of all, everything is super cheap so a little money goes a long way. Second, U.S. dollars are widely accepted at restaurants, shops, and any major tourist destinations. Kevin and I brought the equivalent of around $200 U.S. dollars in Vietnamese dong. Over four days, we actually struggled to use it all. Though, keep it mind that breakfast was free at our hotel and we never had to taxi anywhere as most of our transportation was already paid for by the travel agency.
2) Get lost in the Old Quarter, but bring a map just in case.
Kevin and I got lost multiple times in the Old Quarter. Though we always managed to find our way back, the streets can be tricky and they don’t all run parallel. So you may think you know where you’re going, until you make a turn and find yourself in a completely unfamiliar street. We found some cool shops and restaurants while getting lost, so no regrets! 🙂 But ask for a map from your hotel before you star exploring, just in case.
3) Tipping is not expected
Tipping is more of a tourist custom and it’s generally not expected. We’d tip about 10% at restaurants, but would give 30% if we had an exceptional experience, like with the hot pot lady!
4) Brush up on your bartering skills
Don’t pay for anything for full price in the Hanoi (except for food). Prices for goods are always negotiable, and usually a bit inflated. There may be some shop owners who aren’t willing to budge on price – if so, move on to the next. Often, they’ll yell out their lowest price when they see you’re on your way to the door. Don’t fall victim as the clueless tourist who pays full price for everything!
5) Many shops in Hanoi sell the same items
If you have a hunch that an item you want to buy is overpriced and the shop owner isn’t willing to negotiate the price, make a mental note of the price and location and come back later. Chances are, you’ll see the same thing in another shop later on. Kevin and I loved a chopstick set in one of the shops, but the owner laughed at us when we tried to negotiate on price, so we left! A couple blocks down, we saw the same chopstick set at another shop for a cheaper price AND the shop owner was willing to further negotiate on the price. We bought two sets here for the same price as one set at the previous store’s rate.