This might have been the blog post I loved writing the most, simply because, very unexpectedly, I think we all fell in love with Hanoi. During our trip through SE Asia we were trying to mostly steer away from major cities and focus on some of the small to mid-sized gems, but the only way to efficiently get to Halong Bay is through Hanoi, so we found ourselves smack dab in its capital city with 8 million residents.
This is what a mobile fruit stand looks like in Hanoi
Hanoi presents a complex that I haven’t seen in any city before: is it more alive after 9pm or before 5:30am? Because in the case of Hanoi, I’m just not sure. But whether you’re a night owl or an early bird, there’s a lot to love about this city.
But first you have to get past a few of the basics that most westerners probably take for granted.
Sidewalks are for walking. Not in Hanoi! They double as parking for mopeds (commonly referred to as “motos”), restaurant seating, mobile ‘pop-up’ shops, and fruit/vegetable stands. If you want to walk, follow the little white stripe along the side of the road. That’s basically your path. Until it’s blocked and then you’re on your own.
Traffic laws matter. Only when you have western influences! What seemed like chaos to someone in the west works perfectly fine in the east. From what I could tell, the law of the road goes something like this: he with the biggest balls wins. Most intersections didn’t have traffic lights. Those that did had little effect, because red means go faster, honk louder, and then go straight, left, right or right down the lane of opposing traffic. It really doesn’t matter. Just go. And somehow, the great thing is, it works. We spent many hours at intersections gawking, waiting for the first major accident, and didn’t see a one. (But there were about 16 million close calls!)
When crossing the street, just wait for the light to turn green. Or a break in the traffic. But quit waiting, because it never will happen! Hanoi streets are an endless stream of traffic. You can’t wait for an opening where there isn’t a car, bicycle, motorcycle, or moped. So you just trust the process, step out, and start walking (a bit like the video game “Frogger”). And stare the oncoming drivers down. Somehow, they navigate around you. Just don’t stop or alter your course, because then the driver doesn’t know what to do and it will end badly. And if you’re the unfortunate soul who trusts the process, just goes, and stares down the opposing driver so they swerve around you, well…just hope you’re not the unlucky one crossing when someone’s driving from the opposing direction in the oncoming lane. You won’t see them, and it may not end well.
Restaurant seating is actually in the restaurant. In the case of Hanoi, the restaurant is really the kitchen and much of the seating is outside (on the sidewalk, of course!) with small plastic stools set up around short kid-sized tables. And if you think you might be too tall for that type of thing because you don’t quite fit during a parent-teacher conference in the kindergarten chairs, you’re not going to find your seating in many Hanoi “restaurants” very comfortable. Thankfully, for once, we’re on the short-side of the height chart and really enjoyed the al fresco experience!
Typical seating at a Hanoi restaurant: sidewalk seating on small plastic stools
Now that we’ve shared some of the basics, here are some of our favorite and other interesting things about Hanoi.
We arrived in the early evening on a Sunday and were lucky to find the night market in full swing. It only runs Friday-Sunday, so we were really excited to know it was going on during our visit. We’re big market-goers for food and cheap stuff we need but can’t resist buying. It seemed like everyone was on the streets of the market or around the city’s lake, Hoan Kiem Lake, which is known as the main public gathering place and the “heart of Hanoi”. The revelry seemed to go late so I expected a good, fresh start the next morning to enjoy the city in a bit of tranquility.
The day in Hanoi starts early. I’m not sure how early, but I know it’s pretty freakin’ early. I know this because I heard the thing to do is join the locals each morning on their walk around Hoan Kiem Lake in the center of the city. Jetlag worked in my favor and I got to the lake by 5:30am. Turns out I showed up late. On my way to the lake, the market was wall to wall people, bikes and mopeds were making their delivers throughout town, and the path around the lake was jam-packed with Hanoians both young and very old, walking, talking, lifting weights, practicing Tai Chi on their own or in large groups, dancing to some Zumba-type beat, and getting their groove on around the lake. I had to squeeze in to get a spot in the flow. So I can only imagine what time everyone else started their day!
A Tai Chi class just finished at the city's central lake with the participants all giving a line massage
And the hustle and bustle continued all day long. The city provided an energy that was absolutely contagious, mixed in with some of the friendliest, most welcoming people on our planet. The Vietnamese smiles were wide and their hearts were bigger. While most Hanoians seemed to live in really tight quarters, and could only dream of ever accumulating enough money to own a car someday (the average annual earnings is less than $2,500/ year), this did not affect their quality of life. We saw smiles and people living in a more simplistic lifestyle focusing on the things that truly mattered…and seemed to be in total happiness.
Sidewalks are used for anything but walking. In this case, a pop-up flower shop
Fruit is transported from the morning's local market and sold on neighboring streets
Our family had a great time in Hanoi. The city is ultra-safe (crime-wise) by the second day, the kids felt comfortable walking a few blocks ahead of us. Here were some of our favorite things to do in Hanoi. Some are free and require a little imagination and others cost money. But your dollar goes so far in Hanoi that entertainment, lodging, and eating can be done on the super-cheap.
One of our favorite activities was “MotoBingo”. We’d watch all the motos (mopeds and motocycles) go by and try to find some of the craziest ones: which ones carried the most cargo (we were amazed how much could be packed and hauled on a single moped); what were the most amount of people we saw riding one moped (five – we saw that several times, but 3-4 was most common for the more packed seats); and who was dressed the fanciest. We saw women in cocktail dresses and very high heels, and men decked on in their best as well. And if we weren’t gawking at the gear and set-up, we were waiting at intersections for that one accident that never happened.
"Motos" are used to transport everything among the street of Hanoi
Our son busted up his knee pretty good on our previous destination and was a bit out of commission while in Hanoi. So we didn’t pound the pavement as much as we would have otherwise, and thus some sites we thought we would see we aborted and moved on to other, less mobile-intensive sites. For less than $15 we rented an “eco-car” tour for an hour (basically an oversized golf-car that seats 8 people that is “green” and helps cut down on the city pollution). It took us around the French Quarter and over to the Hoa Lo Prison (otherwise known as the Hanoi Hilton that housed John McCain and other troops while POWs in Vietnam). The eco-car was a relaxing a fun way to see the city. But with its open design (no doors) and all the moto and car honking you couldn’t really hear the pre-recorded tour. But the ride (and breeze through it) were nice and refreshing.
The French Quarter seemed clean and upscale, but a little more sleepy and less congested than where we chose to stay in the Old Quarter, which in our opinion is THE place to stay. As far as we know, it’s the only part of town that accommodates the Halong Bay hotel pickups and the amount of restaurants, bars, shops make it a fun place to be. It places you right in the center of the action! We loved the Old Town and it’s crazy interconnecting streets (prepare to get lost and have fun doing it!) and our accommodations at the Hay Hostel even more. We chose Hanoi as the place to introduce our kids to hosteling. They were a little bit apprehensive of what that would mean (Would we have to share a room with strangers? Will it have a swimming pool or TV?). While it didn’t have many extra amenities, (we also didn’t expect any), we did have a private 6 bunk room just to ourselves (pre-booked that way) which had ultra-comfortable beds, lockers for your gear when you went out (even though the room locked as well, but the lockers were more in case it was shared with others), and for $5 a bunk ($30 for our whole family!), it was awesome. With breakfast included. And the hostel was staffed by some of the more friendly and helpful people we’ve ever met. They arranged for all our laundry to be done (we know we overpaid at $1.30 a kilo (or a little over 2 pounds), but compared to the running street rate ($1 a kilo) it was worth it because they made sure we got our clothes back on departure day before we had to head to the airport. The also arranged our taxi to return to the airport for our departure from Hanoi (one-hour ride, and the 7-seater car cost $16). Their huge smiles that greeted us every morning and return to the hostel during the day were infectious.
Our private bunk room at the Hay Hostel held us in six bunk beds (above) and had the friendliest staff in the world (below). Their warm smiles greeted us each morning and on our return each afternoon.
We hit the spa one afternoon (which put big smiles on all our faces) AND was air-conditioned (key in the intense summer heat and humidity). We just walked right in to one we walked past on the street. It was clean as a whistle and had big leather lounge chairs for some of the treatments. The boys got foot massages and the girls a mani/pedi. The 45-minute massage cost $9 and the nails about $2.50-5, depending on the treatment. It was a great hour being pampered and the total bill was less than $45 for the six of us.
Spa time at one of the hundreds (thousands?) of walk-in spas in Hanoi
After our spa treatments we ducked into the Water Puppet Theatre. It’s become a trendy thing to do in Hanoi and we weren’t sure how it would go over. We asked a few people in town (and some through Facebook that had been to Vietnam previously) if we should go. Most said no, including a cute little boy from Korea we met at the hostel over breakfast. But a fellow world traveler we know and respect a great deal said we had to go because it’s so different and entertaining from anything else you’d see – and he was right. We plopped down our $5 a ticket ($3 for littler kids) and went inside. The whole puppet show took place on a stage made up completely of water (like a small pond or swimming pool) with large, very animated puppets and a full band and singing duo off to the sides of the main stage. Some of our kids said it was really cool, others said it was a tad odd, but I’d liken it to an Italian opera: you can’t understand a lick of it (it’s all in Vietnamese), but in the end you realize it’s pretty entertaining. I’d go again in a heartbeat.
The stage of the Thang Long Water Puppet Theater was completely submerged and put on a very entertaining show
ATMs were everywhere, but various banks only let you withdrawal certain limited amounts. Because the transaction fees (these were all out of our bank’s network!) are fixed, we prefer to take out more at once and found HKSB (Hong Kong Shanghai Bancorp) lets you take out pretty much whatever you wanted. Of course, based on the prices, you didn’t need a whole lot of money at any given time.
And for our kids that were nervous and skeptical what they would eat during our first trip to SE Asia, they were pleasantly surprised – and then some. Even our pickiest eater who basically ate nothing but pretzels during three weeks in Europe last year was chowing down everything in sight and said he was going to really miss the food. We ate $1 Banh Mi’s several times (a massive hoagie sandwich that is most commonly vegetarian but also can be stuffed with everything from fried pork, chicken, or BBQ meat) and our favorite place to get them was this chain called Manh. Which was good, because once we discovered the Vietnamese egg coffee, and found they sold it there both hot and on the rocks, we were hooked. It became our go-to drink and funny enough doesn’t really even have eggs in it. Sort of. It’s more of a delicious black coffee topped with this sweetened meringue concoction (which yes, has beaten egg whites in the recipe), but not the ol’ “whole egg with yolk dropped in a coffee cup” like I expected by the name. I’m going to be on the hunt for these as soon as we return to the States. If neither of those are up your alley Manh also served us some mean chicken satay skewers (our son wolfed down their whole supply and the hot sauce that came with it), and yummy deep-friend cheese and meatball concoctions, as well as cheese sticks. Everything was good and basically, $1. So we walked out of there fully fed for about $12. And if you need a break, all the usual American chains are littered throughout the city. We saw McDonalds, Dunkin’ Donuts, Popeye’s Chicken, and Burger King to name a few.
We fell in love with the local Banh Mi sandwiches (above). The girls gobbled them up to the last bite. We'll be eating these throughout all of Vietnam! And the egg coffee (below) was absolutely sublime. It was like drinking a Tiramisu!
We’ve heard for a while to get to SE Asia before it’s all completely westernized and developed. Before it loses its cultural charm. In the case of Hanoi, the secret’s been out for a while but the window is closing in. On one of our walks around the lake we spotted signs showing where the Hanoi Four Seasons is being built. Its first property in the city. I know that the Four Seasons brand only puts its money where the future is and their chosen hotel site in the Old Quarter is superb. That also means the development is about to escalate and with it, potentially raise the great bargain the city is today. (Does anybody remember Prague just after the cold war ended? Yeah, it’s still a deal today but nothing like it was back then when you couldn’t spend your money there it went so far!) Book your ticket, get to Hanoi, and experience its splendid pleasure before the development – and thus an increasing hoards of tourists – change it too much from what it is today.
Newest local transporting fruit to their street-side pop-up shop