It’s been a long five years since the last time I found myself in Vietnam. I went to see Ho Chi Minh City, which I didn’t like too much, and I then I went right back again the following year to give the city a second chance. The city and the country grew on me, yet I never again returned to Vietnam… until now.
This is part one of a two part series of trip reports based on my experiences in Vietnam. I first spent one week up in Hanoi, the country’s grey capital in the far north, and then another week down in Ho Chi Minh City, the country’s largest city which is located in the far south.
I have seen and experienced a lot over the last five years, and I like to think that I’m a more mature and wiser traveler now than I was back then. That said, could a smaller cultural city like Hanoi impress me these days, or will it simply be added to my Do Not Return To™ list? Seven days and thousands of pictures later, I have formed a solid first impression of Vietnam’s capital city. This trip report is all about what I learned. Let’s get started.
The very first thing that just about any newbie in Vietnam is going to notice is the motorcycles. They’re loud, and they’re everywhere. They make crossing the street a huge pain in the ass, which is only amplified by the fact that Vietnamese drivers completely ignore any and all traffic laws. I walked hundreds of kilometers all around Hanoi over the span of seven days, and not once did I stumble upon a quiet street without any motorcycles.
The next thing I noticed is how active Hanoi’s street life is. Every single square inch of the city’s sidewalks are occupied – people drinking coffee and smoking, mechanics repairing motorcycles, vendors selling produce, scavengers sorting scrap metal, and so on. Southeast Asia is well-known for its vibrant street life, and I just might say Hanoi’s is the most vibrant of them all. There are people EVERYWHERE. This of course made for very rich street photography, seeing as there were unlimited opportunities to capture very unique and distinct local photos.
Now that I’m back in Southeast Asia after a two year hiatus up in Northeast Asia, I also immediately noticed just how many Western tourists were everywhere. At least half of them were young couples, but I also noticed the occasional single dude, the ubiquitous young woman duo, or the rare Japanese tour group. Every so often I’d even spot gigantic groups of 20 or so young Westerners all sticking together everywhere they went. They stood out like a Christmas tree in July, and they were incredibly annoying to be around for more than 30 seconds. I suspect they were part of some kind of church group, but I’m not sure.
Yet the further I got away from Hanoi’s Old Quarter, the less and less Westerners I saw. Just like Central in Hong Kong, it’s been proven yet again that the average Western tourist doesn’t venture far from the comfort of their tourist bubbles. Unlike Khao San Road in Bangkok, I actually really liked the Old Quarter, but I was very turned off by the number of backpacker-looking people I was seeing there.
I gotta give some credit to the ladies of Hanoi – they really carry themselves with class, elegance, and style. Lots of them have very feminine figures and dress in a semi-modern, yet semi-traditional look. They’re not afraid to wear traditional Vietnamese dress patterns, and that’s something you just don’t see from most modern Asian women. That’s great though, because they look so damn good doing it. How many Asian women do you know that would wear their country’s traditional clothing out in public in a big city (for style, not for attention whoring)?
They’ve also got some stunning bodies, but I’m a bit undecided when it comes to Vietnamese women’s faces. Nine times out of ten I find Northeast Asian faces more attractive than Southeast Asian ones, and the girls of Hanoi were kind of stuck in the middle somewhere (a trait also found in the ladies of Bangkok). One minute I would see a girl with a really cute and attractive face, yet the next I would see a girl whose face just wasn’t my type at all. It was really 50/50.
I did feel I was getting a reasonable amount of eye contact and attention from the ladies. But sometimes it was hard to separate who was a genuine nice girl, and who was just some hustling opportunist looking for her next customer. I felt like I was getting the most attention from university-aged women, and sometimes they’d be staring at me so hard that I’d just give them a wave, which always made them smile and blush.
On the few occasions where I actually made some effort to speak to the ladies, I noticed there was quite a communication barrier. The only two languages I have in my arsenal are English and Mandarin – the former being spoken minimally in Hanoi, and the latter being completely useless. The local girls often spoke just enough English to hold a very basic conversation, but it became apparent very fast that there was a lot of miscommunication.
I’m back in the touristy backpacker world again, and what comes with that is the constant hassle from touts. As taking street photography is one my life’s greatest pleasures, I’m often getting around on foot and just exploring the unknown. Yet when I stopped to take photos in Hanoi’s Old Quarter, it seems like there was always some tout lurking around ready to buzz in my ear. “Sir, you want picture?” “Sir, try a donut?” “Motorbike? Where you go, sir?” I’m a walking ATM machine all over again, and this is one of my greatest annoyances about Southeast Asia.
One place I often found myself was Hoàn Kiếm Lake near the Old Quarter. It’s a nice place to walk around, and it even has some free weights which people can use for a workout. Day after day, locals would always approach me at this lake, and they usually made it clear straight from the get go that they’re just wanting to improve their English. At first this was cool, as it was nice to converse with some locals, but eventually it got tiresome. I just wanted to enjoy my time at the lake, not help strangers improve their English. I’ll give them credit for their courage and persistence, though. Other than the language leechers I just mentioned above, it was quite apparent that English is not spoken well in Hanoi. Beyond simple greetings and numbers, communication was rough.
There was an obvious “chill and relax” culture in Hanoi, which is a recurring theme throughout Southeast Asia. Everywhere you go there are people just lounging around in restaurants, cafes, and on the sidewalk. Napping, smoking, drinking, chatting, playing Chinese chess, and reading the newspaper were the most recurring activities I spotted. Hanoi’s traffic may be fast-paced and intense, but people’s mentalities are generally not. Visitors to Hanoi often point out how stone-faced and borderline unfriendly the locals are, but I didn’t think it was as bad as people make it out to be. The Mongolians and the mainland Chinese seem way more intense in this regard.
Most people in Hanoi were a little stand-offish about having their photo taken. I can remember a few times where people gave me the “double-handed wave of disapproval” or the “are you serious, man?” look of disbelief when I pointed my camera in their direction. So even though the city’s street life is immensely photogenic, it was hard to capture any nice candid shots, as people always had their guards up. Just like when I’m up in mainland China, I found I had to be extra sneaky with my camera in Hanoi.
Looking back I can’t say I had a single bad meal in Hanoi. Every meal was light yet satisfying, and most of the ingredients tasted fresh. Like many other Westerners, I found myself often eating bánh mì (Vietnamese-style baguette sandwiches) and phở (rice noodle soup with meat and vegetables). In fact bánh mì are one of my all-time favorite foods in Asia. I probably ate at least ten of them over a span of seven days. Phở is also very good, though perhaps a bit overhyped. I enjoyed it the most as a small meal between other bigger meals.
I also had the chance to eat some nem nướng (ground pork skewers), which were served with lemongrass tea and fruit. You dip them in a super spicy sauce, which makes them all the more enjoyable. And finally I also tried some stir-fried beef noodles at a “famous” hole-in-the-wall restaurant in the Old Quarter. The noodles closely resembled pad thai, though I would say these were more to my liking. It was a good meal.
The food of Hanoi was definitely one of the highlights of the trip. I’m not sure if I’d even rank Vietnamese as one of my favorite Asian cuisines, but I still always very much look forward to eating when I find myself in the country. The flavors and the freshness of the food are both great. And once again, I decided to forgo Western food for the time being, seeing as I’ll have plenty of that when I’m back in Bangkok a few weeks later.
I thought the weather in Hong Kong was exceptionally gloomy, but little did I know at that time that Hanoi was going to be even worse. I just couldn’t get a break in Hanoi. Overcast then mist. Repeat day after day. The temperature was consistently a pleasant 70-80° Fahrenheit, but the atmosphere was just dreadful.
Every day I would go outside and walk around for a bit to survey the area. Yet when I would go back to my room to grab my camera so I could take some photos, damn near every time I went back outside I’d be greeted with a mist that would last for hours if not days. Sometimes I would just brave the mist and take photos anyway, but I felt many of my photos turned out a bit gloomy as a result. Friends even suggested I visit nearby Halong Bay, but the never-ending inclement weather shut down that idea pretty fast.
The humidity was also sky high in Hanoi. I had a medium-large dehumidifier in my AirBnB apartment, and about every two to three hours its tank would be completely full of water. I probably emptied the water tank 4-5 times every day. Washed clothes even took around 36-48 hours to dry once they were hung up coming straight out of the washing machine. Needless to say, the humidity was overbearing.
I wonder what Hanoi would look like on a clear and sunny day, as I never saw one when I was there. I couldn’t wait to get out after seven days of this nonsense.
Things to Do
Hanoi is yet another Asian city that’s best appreciated through its environment and laid-back vibes, not through entertainment or sight-seeing. Walk through the Old Quarter, look at the old French colonial buildings, stroll around Hoàn Kiếm Lake and West Lake, take a ride on a tricycle pedicab, drink some coffee on a plastic stool on the sidewalk, get a haircut at the barbershop, and so on. Don’t try to do too much or have high expectations, and the city can be fairly enjoyable. As usual, I had the most fun simply taking pictures of all the street life, which was second to none.
Beyond the Old Quarter and the lakes, other notable points of interest are Lenin Park and the Lotte Observation Deck. The former features a large statue of Bolshevik/Communist revolutionary Vladimir Lenin, and the latter features an 830 foot (253 meters) high observation deck where you can get a nice cityscape view of Hanoi. The area surrounding Lenin Park is also home to many government offices and embassies, which means there are lots of military guards patrolling the area. Them and their olive-colored Communist uniforms reminded me a lot of Beijing.
Cost of Traveling
As of April 2nd, 2017, 1 USD = 22,755 VND.
Hanoi is a very cheap place to travel. Let’s break down the numbers: I stayed at a very nice and modern AirBnB apartment at the edge of the Old Quarter, which I had all to myself. All in it was about 436,000 dong per night. I paid anywhere from 50,000 to 150,000 per meal, but 60,000 is a safe average to go with.
Let’s pause for a second, so I can go off on a tangent about Hanoi’s (lack of) public transportation: it’s a joke. There’s no metro system of any kind, and the bus system leaves a hell of a lot to be desired. Taxis do exist – particularly motorcycle taxis – but I would only use them as a last resort. Hanoi sold itself out to private motorcycle ownership, and I think that’s a damn shame. That said, other than the 30,000 dong express bus I took to get to and from the airport, I didn’t spend a single dong on transportation. I had to walk everywhere I went, which was a great exercise in patience due to how unwalkable most of the sidewalks are in Hanoi. The never-ending mist wasn’t helping either. Hanoi absolutely is NOT a pedestrian-friendly city.
Nevertheless, I prepared a budget of 400,000 dong a day for my time in Hanoi (after airfare and accommodation), yet in the end I probably didn’t even spend half that much. It’s always nice to end a trip with way more money in your wallet than you were expecting to have left over.
Even though Hanoi has a large metro population of over 7.5 million, it in many ways feels like smaller cultural Asian cities like Phnom Penh and Chiang Mai. Everywhere you go in the city, you’re guaranteed to see two things – motorcycles and street life. If you’re a fan of distinct local vibes like me, then Hanoi doesn’t disappoint.
The women of Hanoi were definitely fun to look at, largely because of their amazingly feminine figures. Many of them still dress with tradition and class, even when so many of their Asian sisters are slowly gravitating towards the modern and slutty.
Though there was no shortage of annoying touts in Hanoi, there were also lots of local people eager to chat in English. This can be a good or bad thing, depending on how you look at the situation. Meal time was always a good time in Hanoi. The food was consistently fresh, flavorful, satisfying, and cheap. But not only was the local food cheap in Hanoi, pretty much everything else was too (particularly accommodation).
Unlucky for me, the weather in Hanoi during mid-March was absolutely dreary. The rain, even though it was very light, would just never let up. This made the city a muddy mess that wasn’t very pleasant to trek through.
The public transportation of Hanoi might very well be the worst I’ve ever seen, particularly when you consider Hanoi’s high population and dense dynamics. If you don’t mind taking taxis, then this won’t bother you, but if you hate taxis like me, you can either battle the awful traffic on your own motorcycle or get prepared to do a lot of walking.
In the end I found Hanoi to be just so-so. It’s definitely worth a look for sure, but I can’t imagine I’ll be going back anytime soon. I like other cities in the region far more. Try it and see for yourself.