Hanoi is one of my new favorite places. Everyone told me it would be awesome, and they were right.
It’s loud, smelly, noisy, and colorful—like what I thought Bangkok would be. (Whereas Bangkok was actually much more peaceful than I expected.)
When I started traveling, I wasn’t sure I would ever go to Vietnam. It sounded scary, especially since one girl told me how she panicked on her first day and almost got stuck crossing the road, until a kind bystander waded in and helped her.
She did not exaggerate. I didn’t get any good busy-intersection videos or I’d show you, but I did capture this footage of a guy crossing the street.
So I was skeptical.
But I kept meeting people who raved about it. My friend Aurora (whom I met on my first day in Chiang Mai) went there and texted me her impressions:
Hanoi is this really interesting amalgamation of ‘European city’ and ‘Asian city.’ It’s hard to get the juxtaposition in pictures.
It’s like, you go into a really tiny Asian convenience store, and they have a wrought iron spiral staircase in the middle.
And the French colonial influence means bread and bakeries all over the place, but the baguette is a little lighter and less chewy because it’s made with a percentage of rice flour 🙂
Now this was intriguing (and not just because she mentioned bread).
So when the opportunity arose to meet up with another friend from Chiang Mai in Vietnam, I took it.
My first impression of a city is the airport. Noi Bai International was much more developed than I was expecting. It even had a stand selling Royce’ chocolate, a fancy Japanese brand that I had previously only seen in Manhattan. (I’ve since noticed it in Bangkok as well.)
(Note: The airport isn’t this glamorous throughout. They must just amp it up for the international terminal. At the domestic terminal, the food options are fewer, the souvenirs are cheaper, and the air conditioning is weaker.)
When you get on the bus from the airport to central Hanoi, they let you sit down first, and then someone comes around to take your money. It feels civilized—not like at home (Toronto), where you’d better be prepared to pay when you get on or you’ll hold up the line.
Five minutes into the walk from the bus stop to my hostel, I knew I was going to like this city.
Hanoi is beautiful
I love how every street in Hanoi is interesting. Starbucks is there, but not on every corner. It’s easier to find a local cafe, and then you have a different experience every time.
I also saw what Aurora was talking about. Even though I didn’t spot any iron staircases in the middle of convenience stores, I climbed lots of them to get to cafes.
For example, here’s what it looked like to get inside one cafe.
1. Walk into a clothing shop.
2. Keep going to the back of it, where you’ll pass through another few shops.
…Including a furniture store (?).
3. Continue down a narrow hallway (with a helpful sign on the wall at right)…
4. Climb four flights of stairs.
5. Emerge onto a rooftop cafe.
…And take in the view of the lake.
And here’s the delightful decor of another place, Cafe Nola.
People must buy a lot of flowers, because there are tons of flower shops around.
And stunning lily ponds at the temples.
My recommendation: Stroll through Quoc Tu Giam Park. I found people here really cheerful and friendly.
Visit the Temple of Literature next door.
Cross the street to the little lake at Hồ Giám.
Watch the clouds, and soak in the sense of peace.
Hanoi is an adrenaline rush
Vietnam definitely felt more dangerous than Thailand—but that was kind of exciting.
Now I know what Adventurous Kate was talking about when she said Chiang Mai was too sleepy, and she preferred the rush—and edge—of bigger cities. She was talking about Bangkok, but Hanoi feels even more hustling and bustling.
The following goes for Vietnam in general: You can’t just walk around holding your phone, or it’ll be snatched out of your hand. The girl on the bunk above me had her phone stolen by a guy on a motorbike just outside the hostel.
Another girl I met, this time in Saigon, had someone try to grab her phone when she walked home on the main road between the backpacker hostels and the bars. Fortunately she had one of those ring-phone-holder things around her finger so she kept her grip on it. (And fortunately the would-be thief was walking, not on a bike, or his attempt might have broken her finger.)
Hanoi is chaotic
With traffic comes honking: So. Much. Honking. People beep whenever they pass another vehicle—which, given the number of motorbikes around, is constant.
I’m grateful for the traffic lights in the old city. Even though half the drivers ignore them, the fact that the other half acknowledges them makes a big difference (compared to crossing the road without traffic lights).
There’s also so much stuff for sale: I can’t get over the sheer volume of it! And everywhere sells the same stuff! Fake North Face shoes, pants, t-shirts, and jackets, Nike and Adidas hats and sneakers, straw hats and handbags, resin and jade necklaces, and endless incarnations of elephant pants…
Hanoi is grimy
I saw tons of mysterious tiny stores—little more than holes in the wall—stocked with random bits and bobs. They were so grimy you could hardly tell what they were selling.
In Saigon, a rat ran over my foot. I screamed and kicked it off, sending it flying towards a shocked young man, who also screamed. (My bad.) Thank goodness I was wearing running shoes and not sandals—can you imagine how gross that would have been, little rat claws scrabbling across my bare skin?
Hanoi is stylish
I saw lots of women wearing businesslike tailored dresses and heels.
Korean-style flowy white dresses were popular.
Boutiques stocked elegant pink, white, and beige. I saw so many things I wanted to buy…
I also saw lots of women wearing pointy straw hats. I had thought that was made up for tourists, like the idea of Vikings wearing helmets with horns, but no—it’s real.
Hanoi is delicious
Did you know pho varies by region? Turns out Hanoi-style pho is my favorite.
I love how they give you a free drink as well, and it’s a proper iced tea—no sugar.
Some other fascinating foods:
• Bun cha from the alley next to The Burrow hostel.
• This crispy omelette thing.
• Whatever this was.
• Pan-fried street meat “barbecue.”
• Frog hotpot.
• Deep-fried chicken foot (in the bowl).
I also had a few banh mi (Vietnamese baguette sandwiches). They were good, but compared to all the amazing items above, they weren’t that interesting 😛
Talking about food brings me to another way in which Hanoi is loud: To get someone’s attention in a restaurant, you say “An oi!”
I felt awkward saying this the first few times, because it translates to “Hey you! Guy!” (It’s “Chi oi” when speaking to a woman.)
But then I realized it was impossible to say it rudely. Locals positively bellow it across the room (or street, if dining al fresco). No one will hear you if you say it politely; the Vietnamese language, it seems, is meant to be shouted.
Hanoi is open
This is what makes walking around so transfixing. People live their whole lives right there on the sidewalk.
You can see people:
• Fixing broken bicycles.
• Playing hacky sack.
• Chilling with their phones.
Outside, Vietnamese life unfurls before your eyes.
Update—Dec. 2, 2022: I finally watched the Hanoi episode of Parts Unknown. Anthony Bourdain said it best:
“Every doorway, every window, a little slice of life—a story all its own. Lives lived, being lived; caught for a second, a moment… then gone.”
On Hanoi’s famous beer street, the restaurant touts are aggressive—they pull at your arms as you walk past, urging you inside. Ugh.
Any place with a tout is less appealing to me, not more. I’m good at staring straight ahead, keeping a constant pace, and shoving my way through when necessary, but it’s still wearing. (Aside from that, the beer street is really cool.)
Have I mentioned Hanoi is loud? I was woken up several times before 9 AM by blaring music coming in from the street. I tried to think what it could be: Something religious? A particularly musical school bell? But it sounded like happy pop music. Someone told me Vietnamese people just like loud music. Mystery solved.
The train street is super cool.
It’s lined with outdoor cafes. Just before the train comes through, the cafe owners hurriedly pack up the tables and herd us against the walls.
(The train passes by inches from your face. Then everyone sets up again and the cycle repeats.)
Two friends got an egg beer, which wasn’t so much a drink as a cup of beer-flavored foam. At least it was interesting.
Even more things I saw in Hanoi
• A beautiful sunset by the lake.
• An adorable family getting on a motorbike.
• A makeshift barbershop.
• People conducting photoshoots at the (abandoned?) train tracks.
• A lady peddling coffee from her bicycle. A hidden set of speakers blared an announcement as she walked. (I thought it was saying “Move! Get out of the way!” or something, because it had the barking tone of a fire alarm, but it was actually “Hot coffee, fresh coffee, get your coffee here…”)
• A coffee shop turned yoga studio, apparently. Note the open flame next to the man in the red shirt.
• Dragon parades in celebration of the full moon festival.
• Men sitting in little plastic chairs or on stools to eat, wearing tank tops, but with the bottoms pulled up around their chests to expose their bellies.
• A gold and white car with the interior entirely spray-painted gold.
• People cleaning the sidewalks outside their shops with buckets and broomsticks.
• A whole street for fabric supplies (elastics, sequins, feathers).
• A shop bursting with mannequins.
• A whole street for paints.
• Lots of men wearing military hats with everyday clothes. (A fashion statement? An army-surplus practicality?)
• Smoky rooms filled with women stirring pots and shirtless men. (I wish I had a photo for you, but there was no way to get one without being intrusive.)
• Pig-shaped balloons sold on the street. (They didn’t float, but ran on wheels on the ground, and made a squealing noise while the vendor tugged them along.)
What about Saigon?
As hinted at by the parentheses in this post’s title, Ho Chi Minh City (locally Saigon) was not nearly as interesting as Hanoi.
The party street was depressing.
The skyscrapers were imposing.
And the traffic felt even crazier.
I still enjoyed my visit, though.
Where I saw lots of turtles.
Some freer than others.
And smoke curling from a temple shrine.
I also liked the market…
This meal (a decent substitute for bun cha, which is really a northern Vietnam specialty).
And the temple of 10,000 Buddhas.
One last shot from Saigon:
I’ll be back. ❤
“[Vietnam] grabs you and doesn’t let you go. Once you love it, you love it forever.”
 See her blog post, Chiang Mai is Not for Everyone.
 Season 8, episode 1, timestamp 15:37–16:40.
 Ibid, timestamp 3:45–3:55.
Alison Noble says
Hi Kate! You mom shared this with me. Fabulous pix. My favourite is the random suit of armour at Cafe Nola – lol!
Thanks Alison! That’s so kind of you to say 🙂