A month ago, my best friend and I found really cheap tickets to Hong Kong and decided it was too good to pass up. But since we've been there multiple times, we decided to take a little side trip to Vietnam and Thailand. Our first stop was Hanoi, Vietnam.
Before I went, I came across a popular travel blogger's perspective on Vietnam, and it was not a favorable one (you may know him as Nomadic Matt...read his take on Vietnam here). So after reading about his horrible experience, it made me a bit nervous for my own visit, but all of my worrying was for nothing. In fact, I enjoyed our visit to Vietnam more than Thailand, and I'm hoping to take advantage of my 1 year visa and go back sometime soon!
We arrived late afternoon at Noi Bai Airport, anxious to get our adventures started. But first things first, we had to sort out our visa. I was expecting a packed airport with a mile long line of people trying to get their visa, but surprisingly it only took about half an hour.
Important: As of September 2016, US citizens will need to apply for a 1 year visa for $135, regardless of however long you're staying. Visas can be attained on arrival, but you will need to apply for a letter of approval beforehand. I got mine through Vietnam Visa Pro. After you apply through their website (it only takes a couple days to process), they will e-mail you your letter. You must print out your letter AND fill out the attached form. You will also need a passport size photo and pay in cash for the visa.
Important #2: If you need to exchange your money for Vietnamese dongs, there’s a kiosk right before you exit the airport. There aren’t any fees, so you should get exactly whatever the current exchange rate is. You can also arrange for an airport transfer there. I would suggest paying a little more for a private transfer rather than taking public transport. The drive to our hostel took a little over half an hour. However, if you take the bus, it can take close to 2 hours to get to the Old Quarter.
So after we get everything sorted, we finally made it to the Old Quarter, one of the main districts of the city. One of the first things we noticed was the insane amount of traffic. Scooters, bikes, and cars were coming from all directions, zooming around pedestrians. Just trying to cross the street is a feat in itself. The trick is to not hesitate and just go...or follow a local who actually knows what they're doing.
We stayed at Atrium Hotel (32 Dao Duy Tu Street) for the first 3 nights, which just happened to right in the middle of all the action. We booked this place through Airbnb for about $18 per night and were super pleased with it.
Once we had the chance to freshen up, we sticked to walking around the Old Quarter and the northern portion of Hoan Kiem Lake since it was already late evening.
We woke up early the next day to beat the afternoon heat. It was late November when we went and the temperature was in the upper 80s (°F), but the humidity was killer. So, to get our day started we went out looking for egg coffee, a traditional Vietnamese drink. For an authentic taste of this signature drink, head to Cafe Giang (39 Ngyuen Huu Huan, Hang Bac). Beware of the imposter shop right outside on the street. The real one is through a narrow corridor.
After a cup of coffee, we went to grab our first bowl of pho! You absolutely cannot go to Vietnam and not eat your weight in pho. Fun fact: pho is often eaten for breakfast in Vietnam. It's always good to eat when the locals do, so you know you're getting the most authentic experience. The place we went to was Pho 10 (10 Ly Quoc Su, Hang Trong). If the staff are wearing bright orange shirts, you know you're in the right place.
After a filling breakfast, we made our way to the southern part of Hoan Kiem Lake, towards the French Quarter, for a leisurely stroll and to catch some sights.
Later in the day we stopped by Bun cha Huong Lien (24 Le Van Huu, Pham Dinh Ho) to try another classic Vietnamese dish: bun cha. But what made this restaurant extra special was the fact that President Obama and Anthony Bourdain shared a meal here (watch the clip here).
This place was not fancy by any means. We sat on little plastic stools at communal tables while everyone around us was slurping their noodles. So it's pretty cool that Obama came to this little hole in the wall. And hey, if it was good enough for the president and Bourdain, it was definitely good enough for me! Not to mention, the food was delicious and it was dirt cheap.
For some late night fun, we checked out Bia Hoi Corner (20 Ta Hien, Hang Buom) aka the beer corner. It's busy, crazy, a mix of tourists and locals, and a great place to people watch. And of course, you can't go to the beer corner without trying Hanoi's famous, homemade draft beer, which will costs you a whopping 35 cents.
I'm not personally crazy about beer. It kind of tasted like the cheap beer I drank from kegs from my frat partying days lol. But for the price, it's honestly cheaper than water. Be sure to get there early though if you plan on drinking a ton because bars start running out of the draft beer as it draws closer to midnight, which is when the nightlife starts to shut down.
After exploring the area around the lake, we decided to head north of the Old Quarter. But first: a cup of egg coffee. We went over to Cafe Pho Co (11 Hang Gai, Hang Trong), which offered excellent egg coffee and also a fantastic view of the lake. This place was also a bit hidden, but it has a very distinctive interior.
Post-coffee break, we headed over to Banh Mi 25 (25 Hang Ca, Hang Dao) for the classic Vietnamese sandwiches. You can sit and eat on one of their little stools or take it to go.
Following our quick breakfast, we made our way further north towards Dong Xuan Market (Dong Xuan, Hoan Kiem). It's a huge market with all kinds of merchandise: souvenirs, electronics, knock-off goods, etc. The place was a little overwhelming, but it's a good place to find souvenirs. Remember to haggle!
For lunch, we went to this place near Truc Bach Lake at the recommendation of our hotel. According to our receptionist, this area is known for serving bun hai san, which is a seafood noodle in a slightly hot and sour soup and pho cuon, which are Vietnamese spring rolls made with fresh rice paper.
The place she recommended was Bun Hai San Long Thuy (24 Ngu Xa, Truc Bach). If you ask nicely, they'll even bring you some pho cuon from across the street.
After lunch, we went to check out Tran Quoc Pagoda while we were in the area. Sadly, it was closed that day, we did get to admire its beauty from the outside.
I found three days to be just enough to get a taste for Hanoi, but it definitely left me wanting more. If you're interested in going to all the museums, I would spend another day or two. We just decided to pass on them since we weren't particularly interested.
We also took a day trip to Halong Bay so that cut our time in Hanoi short, but I highly recommend it (read about our crazy adventure here). You can book a cheap boat tour from many of the travel agencies in Hanoi or if you just need a bus transfer, the reception at Atrium Hotel can help you with that.
If you're looking for another budget hostel, we stayed at Box Hotel (16 Hang Buom Street) when we got back from Halong Bay. It's a tiny little space (literally, it's a box) but perfect for budget travelers.
All in all, Vietnam left a great impression on me, and I'm excited to return, but I feel bad for those who've had a negative experience. I think it's important when you're visiting a developing country like Vietnam to set realistic expectations.
Don’t expect everyone to be warm and friendly. Don’t expect customer service when eating in a restaurant. Expect taxi drivers and street vendors to try to scam you because you're a tourist, but don’t dwell on it too much.
I know I probably paid too much for the souvenirs I bought, but at the end of the day, it’s just pocket change. For them, it could how they’re feeding themselves for the next day. If you focus too much on whether they're trying to scam you or the cultural differences, you'll never enjoy yourself. So just brush it off and focus on all the beauty Vietnam has to offer!