Although we had originally planned to stay in Sapa for longer, the cold, rainy, foggy weather made us decide to bail and head to Hanoi. When traveling between the two, you have two options – get to the city of Lao Cai via minibus or taxi and then take an overnight train, or just take an overnight sleeper bus. As it was about half the price, we opted for the bus. This particular bus had bunk beds in sets of two, plus one row in the back with five beds on the top and bottom. Of course, we lucked out and got stuck on the top bunk in the very back. Luckily, one guy chose to sleep on the floor of the bus, giving us a tiny bit of room to stretch out. It wasn’t the most comfortable ride, but we managed to make it to the Vietnamese capital in one piece.
Arriving in Hanoi at 5 AM, the fine folks at the B&B Hostel were kind enough to open their doors and let us lounge in the restaurant until our room was ready. Once the staff got up and moving, they even served us the free breakfast, even though we hadn’t technically checked in yet. This is one of many great things about traveling on this side of the world – you can almost always check in early, and if you can’t, you’ll at least be able to get in, store your bags, and hang out. Oh yeah, did we mention that our private double room plus breakfast for two only cost $18/night? In a capital city? You can see why these Gypsies love SE Asia.
We got some much-needed downtime, and then we hit the Old Quarter. A series of 36 streets, this area of Hanoi not only has most of the hotels, restaurants, shops, and entertainment but also has a very important place in the history and culture of the city. The year 2010 marked the 1,000th anniversary of Hanoi and the Old Quarter, so they must be doing something right. Our first order of business was figuring out how to cross the street. Traffic lights are few and far between, there’s no such thing as a stop sign, and motorbikes by the thousand constantly fly by. Basically, you just have to suck it up, play real-life Frogger, and pray that the guy driving a motorbike with a cigarette in one hand, a cell phone in the other, and his wife and kid on the back is paying attention. Having made it across a few streets without any severed limbs, we headed for higher ground to get some Vietnamese coffee and watch the traffic fly by.
From there, we walked around Hoan Kiem lake. The name literally means “Lake of the Returned Sword,” and it comes from an old Vietnamese legend. As the story goes, the emperor Le Loi was out enjoying a day of boating on the lake, when a Golden Turtle God popped up and asked him to kindly return his magic sword. There’s even a Turtle Tower in the middle of the lake to commemorate this glorious event. While walking around the lake and the public square nearby, we got a nice glimpse of Hanoi culture – young kids skateboarding, couples snapping wedding photos, retirees doing their daily exercise, and a band jamming out while shooting a music video.
That evening, we met up with a local guy whom we had contacted on Couchsurfing and headed out for dinner in the Old Quarter. Hanging out with a native is always the way to go – you get taken to spots where locals actually like to go, you don’t need to worry about not understanding the menu, and you don’t get stuck paying a foreigner price. We went to a bumping spot full of rowdy Vietnamese men pounding glasses of bia hoi – draft beer that costs about $0.25 per glass. Along with some mouth-watering pork ribs, morning glory stir-fried with garlic, and nem chua – fermented pork roll wrapped in banana leaves, we had one helluva meal. It may sound disgusting, but it’s the perfect complement to an ice cold Hanoi beer.
Over the course of our five nights in Hanoi, we spent countless hours getting lost in the meandering streets of the Old Quarter. After days of exploring the city and taking in the many museums, it was always nice to wander aimlessly, stopping here and there for a dirt cheap glass of beer or some tasty street snacks. Of course, there were always the ever vigilant street vendors, one of whom managed to get a dollar out of us by setting up this clever photo opp…
Aside from mingling with fellow travelers over booze and food, we also hit the Dong Xuan night market and took in a performance at the Thang Long Water Puppet Theater. This traditional northern Vietnamese art form dates back as far as the 11th century, and it’s one of the main tourist attractions in Hanoi. Although the show was hard to follow as it was all in Vietnamese, it was a good way to spend an evening and certainly worth the $3 price of admission.
We’ve covered the “Streets, Beats & Eats” of Hanoi in a short video, so check it out!
In addition to the Old Quarter, there are tons of museums to visit in Hanoi. Being the culture nerds that we are, we spent most of our days checking them out. We’ve got you covered if you’re interested in museum hopping in Hanoi, with details about the Women’s, Vietnamese History, Ethnology, and Ho Chi Minh museums. That’s not all you can do here, though. Check out “10 Things to do in Hanoi” with us: