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8 things to do in Ha Noi (Part 2)

 
 

8 things in hanoi

I recommend at least two full days for a visit to Hanoi – one to get adjusted and another to make you want to stay longer or come back again. All of the major sights in Hanoi can be seen over a long weekend, but part of the appeal of Hanoi is its convenient location to nearby destinations commonly visited on overnight tours, so if you plan to head out of the city at all, you’ll need a few more days.

EAT EVERYTHING

Ah, the most important point on the list, and pretty much my favorite thing about visiting anywhere – food. Eating may be one of life’s necessities, but in Vietnam it’s one of its greatest pleasures, too. There are so many foods to try here, and like everything else, it’s all incredibly cheap. A few things you must try – bun cha (BBQ pork and noodles), pho xao (stir fried noodles with beef), bun nem (spring rolls), banh mi (Vietnam’s version of a sandwich), and of course, everyone’s favorite – pho (beef noodle soup).

Despite my infatuation with food when we travel, I’m not so great at remembering to take photos of what I eat or writing down exactly where it was I ate it. I do, however, remember where it was I ate the best pho of my life and it was at a little place on Bat Dan Street. I swear I will never forget that meal, and not just because it tasted out of this world. Our food at Pho Bat Dan was served to us piping hot outside on communal picnic tables as we sat in flimsy plastic chairs elbow to elbow with strangers. Unusual, maybe, but a part of the charm of eating in Hanoi, nonetheless. Besides these outdoor cafe-style places that you will see all over the Old Quarter, another place to get delicious and cheap food is from the street vendors. They move from place to place, but you won’t have any trouble finding them.

A note on food safety: If you get sick from eating in Hanoi (or anywhere for that matter), it’s more likely to be due to eating foods you’re not accustomed to rather than a case of food poisoning or parasites. Regardless, there are obvious steps you can take to prevent the latter including avoiding tap water or uncooked things that have been washed in tap water, such as salad, and never eating anything that looks like it’s been sitting out for awhile. Generally, if you eat from busy places and order a hot meal, you should be good to go. If you’re really worried about it, I recommend this post from Jodi (Legal Nomads) who I believe used to live in Vietnam.

MAKE A PIT STOP AT BIA HOI CORNER

Beer drinkers, you’re going to want to pay attention to this one. There is literally a place where beer costs less than a gumball from a machine (wait, do those things even still exist?) and it’s right here at the intersection of Ta Hien and Luong Ngoc Quyen. Known as Bia Hoi Corner, the “pubs” around this intersection in the Old Quarter serve freshly-made local beer, without preservatives, for just 20 cents (5,000 VND) a pop.

But what if you don’t drink beer, should you still stop by? YES! I don’t drink beer either, but loved the atmosphere at Bia Hoi Corner. This is one of the best places to come if you want to meet other travelers, expats, and locals. Everyone sits on little plastic stools on the edges of the streets (that eventually become impassable for cars as the night goes on) and it’s easy to strike up conversations and meet people. I can’t speak for the late night hours, but before 9pm, the environment is kid-friendly and all sorts of non-alcoholic drinks and street food are available in addition to cheap beer.

TAKE AN OVERNIGHT TRIP OUTSIDE HANOI

So, it feels a little strange saying that one of the things you should do in Hanoi is leave Hanoi, but it’s true. There are so many day trips and overnight trips available to take from Hanoi. Walk down any street in the Old Quarter and you’ll be able to spot travel agencies with lists hanging in the windows of all the places you can go. Not knowing exactly how easy it would be to book side trips in Hanoi, we had booked one of our overnight trips online prior to arriving in Hanoi. This is definitely not the way to do it. The cheapest way to book an overnight trip out of Hanoi is to book it in Hanoi itself. The list price for the exact same trip we had bought online was quite a bit cheaper from travel agencies in Hanoi, and just like everything else, that price can be haggled down. (FYI: Travel agencies compete with each other, so use that to your advantage when haggling!)

One of the most obvious places to take an overnight trip from Hanoi is Ha Long Bay. A UNESCO world heritage site, Ha Long Bay is one of the most popular tourist destinations in all of Vietnam. There are day trips that go there, too, but given the driving distance is four hours each way, you’d be mad not to stay overnight. Plus, waking up to see the sunrise above the rocks and islands in the bay is a once in a lifetime sort of thing you won’t want to miss. A variety of overnight junk boat tours are available in a range of budgets. The activities available are mostly the same for all tours, so the difference in price usually comes down to how luxurious the boat and meals provided on the trip are.

Another great option for an overnight tour, especially if you don’t plan to go all the way up north to Sapa, is a visit to Mai Chau, a rural area around four hours’ drive west of Hanoi. In Mai Chau, rice fields grow in valleys at the base of mountains, roads are made of dirt and gravel, and people live in beautiful stilt houses made of bamboo and timber. To call this place charming would be doing it a terrible disservice. It’s so much more than that. While you can stay in private bungalows, we chose the option of sleeping in one of the stilt houses in a common room with other travelers. And it was one of the coolest, most unique things I’ve done in four years of travel.

WHERE TO STAY IN HANOI

Cheap hotels are a dime a dozen in Hanoi’s Old Quarter. Some are better than others, I’m sure, but generally they all offer similar lodgings with breakfast included.. If you’re looking for something a little bit more luxurious, the Emerald Hotel is a popular choice.

SAFETY IN HANOI

While pick-pocketing and petty theft are not uncommon in Hanoi, what you really need to be aware of is your safety on the roads. There are no designated paths for walkers and there are no crosswalks, and even scarier, there don’t appear to be any rules for drivers either. I dreaded crossing streets in Hanoi because it felt like we were risking our lives every time. The motorbikes don’t stop, they just go around you, which means it is extremely important not to stop after you start walking across the street. The motorbike drivers are assuming you’re going to keep walking, so they plan their movements around what they think you’re going to do. It’s all very terrifying. Even standing to the side of the road can be risky. This is where people park their motorbikes, and they don’t much care if you’re standing where they want to park, they’ll park there anyway!

As for avoiding theft, all the usual rules apply. Don’t carry lots of cash. Keep your wallet someplace harder to reach than your back pocket. When walking along the streets, keep your purse or camera on the shoulder furthest from the road. That’ll prevent people on motorbikes from snatching your valuables and driving away. Same goes for your phone. Just don’t have it out while walking at all if you can help it. Avoiding the less obvious kind of theft, scams and inflated prices for tourists, will be trickier, but if you do a little research before your trip on the going rate for things you’re looking to do or buy, it’ll be much easier to tell if you’re being cheated!

Overall, we felt very safe in Hanoi (minus the roads!) and I hope to make it back there again sometime, hopefully on a trip that includes a journey up to Sapa! If you’ve been to Hanoi and have any tips to share, please feel free to leave them in the comments!

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