Well friends, we’ve made it to the penultimate stop on our Southeast Asia journey: Hanoi!
After saying goodbye to Sis and Terry in Hoi An, Shane and I found ourselves back at the airport for another hour flight north to the capital city.
Looking at the map this way makes me feel pretty satisfied with how much we saw in Cambodia, and pretty disappointed in how much we saw in Vietnam… guess there’s gotta be a next trip!
Anyway, back to Hanoi.
We only had about 36 hours here, so I thought I’d go though some do’s and don’ts for a visit of this length.
Do: Stay in the Old Quarter.
Staying here, we instantly fell in love with the city.
I think I can speak for both of us when I say that cities which combine the old and new are particularly attractive. We used to live in Pittsburgh, PA, which was a modern downtown city surrounded by pockets of older, homey feeling neighborhoods. I think this is where it all began. And if I think back on the cities I’ve enjoyed the most – like Rotterdam in the Netherlands – they all have a blend of old and new. Unlike the stark new-ness of Ho Chi Minh City, Hanoi had me at hello.
And, if you stay in this area then most everything you need is easily accessible by foot. You’ll have to travel a bit to reach some of the main attractions, but you’ll be set for food, night markets, and nightlife.
Do: Find the Hanoian specialties.
Like bun cha.
I DREAM of bun cha.
Rice noodles, grilled pork, fermented cucumbers, THE MOST DELICIOUS BROTH, fresh herbs, and a side of spring rolls.
and Bia Hoi!
Bia Hoi is Vietnam street beer. Brewed fresh daily, you can only find it on a the side of the road in makeshift cafes. 5000 dong (~$0.25) will get you a draft beer to enjoy on a tiny stool.
Don’t: Skip out on the egg coffee!
Another Hanoian specialty. I know, it sounds gross but it was delicious! Egg coffee’s origins date back to 1946 during the French war. Normal Vietnamese coffee consists of condensed milk & coffee, but since milk was scarce an alternative was born! It’s frothy, creamy, sweet, and tastes nothing at all like an egg!
The true egg coffee recipe is a family secret, so don’t be fooled by imitation egg coffee. Make sure you go to the real deal on egg coffee lane!
which brings me to…
Don’t: Miss the alleyways
You might just miss out on the best bun cha of your life!
Dramatic, I know, as that was exactly my 2nd bun cha, but whatever. I liked it a lot, OK!
Don’t: Do a walking tour in the morning.
You’ll find that all the main attractions, like the Ho Chi Minh mausoleum and Tran Quoc Pagoda, have funny hours.
For instance, a quick google search will tell you that the Ho Chi Minh mausoleum is open from 8am – 5pm every day, when in reality it’s open from 8am – 11am, and if you don’t want to wait in a huge line you should prepare to be there by 7am. AND! Beware, for the mausoleum is closed for renovations from June – August each year.
You can certainly see it from the outside, like we did, but I must say I was quite disappointed to not be able to go inside.
Keeping with the “Ho Chi Minh – Closed” theme, we were also unable to go in the museum as it closes for a few hours over lunch…. ya know. Exactly the time we were there.
Do: Take a walking tour in the afternoon!
We love a good walking tour. Since we were staying in the Old Quarter, we booked a free walking tour with Hanoi eBuddies, a student run organization whose volunteers want to show visitors the city while improving their English skills. We were warmly greeted in the morning by our
guide buddy Alissa. I say buddy, because the tour guides really want you to feel like a friend and show you the city through their eyes.
So, we spent the morning with Alissa wandering the streets of the Old Quarter and learning a few things along the way. For instance, streets in Hanoi are set up in themes. You have the cooking supplies street, the coffee street, the spices street, the clothing street, etc. I can’t imagine trying to shop here – it would take you hours! At one point we ended up on the (essentially) gravestone and memorial street, which only felt a little morbid…
We also saw Hoan Kiem Lake, which is smack in the center of Hanoi, home to a mythical golden turtle, and – until 2016 – home to (so the legend says) the reincarnation of the golden turtle: Cu Rua, a Yangtze giant softshell turtle whose species is nearly extinct. Unfortunately, in 2016 she died of old age.
More spots on the tour included St. Joseph’s Cathedral and Alissa’s favorite place for ice cream!
Which brings me to my next point…
Don’t: Forget your jacket!
Go figure, the weather in northern Vietnam is drastically different than the weather in southern Vietnam! And in January, it’s still winter (relatively speaking, of course) in Hanoi.
If you don’t have a jacket, don’t stress. There will be plenty of shops where you can buy one, and that’s exactly what we did. When you want to spend time outside – walking tour, ice cream, bia hoi – a hoodie just doesn’t cut it this time of year.
Do: Visit the Temple of Literature
Built in 1070 to honor Confucius, it became Vietnam’s Imperial Academy; a prestigious school for academics. Inside the walls are 5 courtyards, where the scholars would study, have exams, or simply relax, but the importance increased with each courtyard. For example, Ph.D.s were honored in the 3rd courtyard, Confucius himself in the 4th courtyard, and the actual Academy building was located in the 5th.
Do: Plan more time in Hanoi!
This was a great city, and we barely scratched the surface. If I could do it over, I would have at very least 3 full days here.
And with that, there’s only one stop left on our Southeast Asia adventure that’s not even in Southeast Asia!
Next up, the City of Gold – Dubai!