Our first visit to Vietnam was in 2014, and we have returned many times since. Our first visit was intoxicating and overwhelming – literally and metaphorically. This post reflects on this first trip to Hanoi, Vietnam.
We arrived in Hanoi on a Sunday night in December after spending the day in Hong Kong . Neither of us had been to either place before, and I think it is fair to say we were (almost) smitten from the get-go. Around every corner was a new discovery, and both of us exclaiming ‘How is it that we have never been here before?’. We definitely arrived into another world, and we loved it. It is noisy, chaotic and assaults all your senses.
First Impressions of Hanoi, Vietnam
Flying into Hanoi the landscape was almost dark. The luggage retrieval was chaotic and frenzied – thankfully we had got our visas before leaving New Zealand. The drive from the airport to the city was also mostly in the dark, with the odd person silhouetted on the street. Where were all the people? Why was it so dark? Where were all the lights? We kept looking at each other worried that we had made totally the wrong decision about coming here. As soon as we arrived at our hotel, our fears and worries dissipated – and we were ready to get stuck in.
We discovered that Hanoi is an easy city to navigate, surrounded by green, full of enticing food experiences and generally a great placed to visit. And surprisingly chilly in December. Central Hanoi (and particularly the Old Quarter) were great to walk around – grab a map from your hotel and get out there and explore. For destinations further out we used taxis, which were plentiful and relatively inexpensive (although be sure to catch reputable companies and make sure the meter is turned on and you can get an agreed price up front). Uber (and local alternatives) is also readily available and much easier to use.
Where to stay in Hanoi
There are so many options for good Hanoi hotels at reasonable prices. We found staying in the Old Quarter was a good option. It was easy to walk around and marvel at the various activities happening, and you don’t have to navigate multi-lane roads of motorbikes (as in Ho Chi Minh). We stayed at the Golden Art Hotel, which was perfect for our stay. Really friendly staff, good location in the Old Quarter. If you are looking for a reasonably priced, comfortable Hanoi Old Quarter hotel surrounded by plenty of places to eat and explore, then the Golden Art Hotel is a good choice. Click here to see if there are any rooms available for your visit (As I am writing this Andy is talking about how he wants to stay there again!). We quite like the look of the Metropole for a touch of luxury in Hanoi, we stopped in for High Tea while there and it was lovely.
What to do in Hanoi
There are so many things to do in Hanoi. Of course, it totally depends on your own interests and preferences. We are foodie and history buffs, so those are the types of experiences we look for. Here are our favourite things to do in Hanoi.
Of course we start here! One of us is a Chef and we both love exploring new foods and flavours. Vietnam is renowned for its amazing street food, and Hanoi Street Food is amazing. We had experienced Vietnamese food in New Zealand but didn’t really know where to start with trying local Hanoi street food, where to find good places or even what was good. So Hanoi is also where we did our first Street Food Walking Tour with Mark from Sticky Rice. Mark collected us from our hotel and we spent the next six hours eating and drinking our way around Hanoi. Our tour group was small (us + 1 other) and the experience was fantastic. It was such a good way to discover what we liked, how to ask for it, how to season dishes (many Vietnamese dishes you season yourself), and where to go for great food. We tried amazing food from soups to yoghurt coffee to crab spring rolls. It was well worth it and gave us the confidence to try new things ourselves throughout our visits to Vietnam.
Don’t be afraid of eating street food. More often than not it is cooked quickly in front of you – look for places that are busy and give it a go.
Quick tip – if a place has loads of paper tissue on the floor, check out what people are eating, and order it. The paper tissue generally indicates high turnover and good food.
Wet Markets are an eye-opening experience. For travellers used to pre-packaged refrigerated food, the wet markets are a unique experience. Many Vietnamese regularly do their food shopping (daily or every couple of days) so food is as fresh as possible, the local wet markets are where they get their daily supplies. Butchers, fishmongers, vegetable sellers, egg sellers all selling their fresh wares – with no refrigeration and no flies. For the squeamish (me) it can be a bit of an assault on the senses, but it is good to see this side of Vietnamese life.
Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum, Stilt House & Museum
These Mausoleum, Stilt House and Museum are within the same complex. Set aside a couple of hours to ensure you manage to see everything. Visiting the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum is a serious matter and one which many Vietnamese undertake. It is a particularly regimented experience – starting with being lined up and walking to the Mausoleum itself. No photos or videos in the mausoleum at all. The Guards are imposing and definitely ensure everyone follows the rules.
Next door to the Mausoleum is Ho Chi Minh’s Stilt House and building which have been preserved in time. Very beautiful and gardens well worth visiting (your ticket to the Mausoleum also includes this experience).
Also included in the complex is the Ho Chi Minh Museum, which is dedicated to the late Vietnamese leader and Vietnam’s revolutionary struggle.
Quick tip: Get there early to miss the crowds. Be respectful and wear modest clothing.
Temple of Literature
The Temple of Literature is a lovely oasis of calm in the city. It was Vietnam’s first national University and is a Temple of Confucius. Tickets can be purchased at the gate, and it may be useful to get a guide. Really lovely and worth checking out.
We walked for hours and hours each day – regularly getting lost and discovering some real gems. Grab a map from your hotel and get amongst it. There is always a place for a coffee (or beer) to take stock, check in as to where you are (or where you think you are). Walking around cities gives you a different perspective and is well worth doing.
It is what you make it….
Even though we have been back to Vietnam several times since our first visit, Hanoi remains one of our favourite places to visit. While it is as chaotic as Saigon, it is a much more intimate city which makes a good ‘first-time’ destination for travellers new to Vietnam. There is plenty more to do in Hanoi – water puppet shows, temples etc – but these are some of our highlights. There is no perfect itinerary for Hanoi – start by choosing things you love to do and go from there.