“This is your stop. Get off!” said the bus attendant. And before I could stand up and pick up my backpack, the doors had already shut and the bus took off. Romina, my travel mate, had successfully gotten off. But I was too slow to join her. “Next stop, next stop, next stop” the man said.
Well, the next stop was 10 minutes later, and it was safe to say I was now on my own.
Here I was, standing in the middle of Hanoi, Vietnam, like a lost puppy in a world of speeding motorbikes, incessant honking, and maybe a few people who spoke broken English. Let’s just say I hailed a motorbike “taxi,” aka a nice person who agreed to drive me somewhere, and pointed to the Old Quarter in my Lonely Planet guidebook. After an hour and a half, and a tour of Hanoi that Thanh insisted on giving me, I made it.
From the moment I entered the Old Quarter of Hanoi, I fell in love. Small streets and alleys coming from every angle, kids-sized plastic chairs and tables in front of closet-sized
kitchens restaurants, and motorbikes whizzing past beeping their horns every two seconds. Women walk their bikes, which actually serve as overflowing fruit carts, while other women carry two baskets of fresh fish, balanced on their shoulders by a long piece of wood much like a set of scales. Men walk around with polishing kits, asking anyone and everyone if they need their shoes cleaned and never taking no for an answer.
I could go on and on about the charm and chaos that is Hanoi. It’s a unique city with it’s very own personality.
St. Joseph’s Cathedral
This has been one of the few churches I’ve seen in Southeast Asia! After so many temples, it was strange to see a giant church. But Christianity has some roots in Vietnam and has a following. I walked by on Sunday, while mass was going on, and got the chance to pop my head in!
Hoan Kiem Lake
It’s a beautiful lake that people hang out around. There’s the Temple of the Jade Mountain on an island in the middle and an iconic red bridge connecting it to the mainland. It’s a focal point of Hanoi and a great place for a run or a yummy egg coffee…
Yes, I said egg coffee. This is a Vietnamese speciality that took a while to understand, too. But trust me, it’s amazing. It’s basically a Vietnamese coffee (which are amazing on their own – super strong), but with an egg yolk and condensed milk whipped up and layered on top, and then sprinkled with cacao shavings. YUM!
Water puppet show
Near to the Hoan Kiem Lake, they have water-puppet shows. It’s a fun time and a cool spectacle of Vietnamese culture.
Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum
Ho Chi Minh is one of, if not the most, revered historical figures in Vietnam: He is a war hero and leader, playing a key part in securing Vietnamese independence from France.
The Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum, while having maximum security, is free of charge. There are guards all over the grounds, with maybe 15-20 inside the mausoleum. You are walked inside, enter the room with Ho Chi Minh’s preserved body, walk around the 3 sides of it for about 30 seconds, and are filtered out. It was stunning and creepy at the same time, but pretty neat to witness as an outsider of Vietnamese culture. The Vietnamese people absolutely love him.
The Temple of Literature
This point of interest would have had a small impact on me if it weren’t for the school kids there offering free tours. I met Vi and another student as I walked in and all they wanted was to practice their English and pass on their knowledge of Vietnamese culture. I took them up on their offer and loved learning about the Temple. Their excitement and energy was contagious. Don’t be afraid of these kids; it isn’t a scam.
-Nearby is also Lenin Park, the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum, and the Vietnam War Museum.
Find an intersection, preferably at night (prime-time chaos), order yourself a beer or a Vietnamese coffee, and just watch. Between the tourists, the vendors, and the traffic, Hanoi is a crazy puzzle that always seems to work-out. Just when you think someone is going to crash or get hit, a miracle happens. I could watch the weaving art of the traffic for hours and hours. It really is a crazy art.
Street food, obviously
I’ve had some amazing meals in Hanoi. From hot pots (make-your-own meat soup), to barbecued meats, bahn mi sandwiches, pho, crispy pancakes, and fried, doughy sweets, Hanoi is #foodporn.
And as if I hadn’t fallen in love with Hanoi already, I randomly stumbled upon Always Cafe, a Harry Potter themed coffee shop with delicious and fun drinks (think Butterbeer and Felix Felicis), amazing decorations, and a great staff. The walls are old-world stone archways, they have broomsticks hovering above you, and a photograph wall displaying Hogwarts’ finest students and teachers. Let’s just say I was a kid in a candy store (Honeyduke’s to be specific. 10 points, to Gryffindor, if you get the reference).
Where to Stay
Vietnam Backpackers Hostel – Downtown
Okay, so this is an obvious one. Without a doubt, one of the best hostels I’ve stayed at. It’s a Vietnamese/Australian run company with multiple other hostels throughout Vietnam. The staff is friendly and insanely knowledgeable, they offer different drink specials all day long, and there is always a party every night. This is one hostel group that has just done everything right. It’ll run you $7.50/night and includes breakfast. Just be warned: It is a huge party hostel, so if you just want a good night’s sleep, do not stay here. There are a ton of other hostels and nice hotels in the Old Quarter area.
Vietnam Backpackers Hostel – The Original
Hanoi Rocks Hostel
See you at Lily’s