Before leaving Europe for Asia, maybe even on the plane to Hanoi, I gave literally no thought to Vietnam. I didn’t know what it would be like or what to expect, so instead of researching it and letting my imagination run wild, I chose to let it surprise me.
And oh, did it surprise me.
Our first impression as we were driving into Hanoi? This place is total madness. There were scooters piled tall with packages, some with up to 4 people on them, weaving in, out and around cars, bicycles and humans; the sidewalks were filled with 2 ft. high plastic bar stools where small Vietnamese women were chopping meat and vegetables and creating their own mini-makeshift restaurants for walkerbys. And the buildings themselves were a mix of French Colonial Architecture and traditional Vietnamese homes – all with their doors open as you passed by and all covered in what they call “Vietnamese Spaghetti” – a huge mess of tangled wires that is definitely not up to code.
I was OBSESSED.
From the moment we arrived and went out to explore, I loved it – the chaos, the people, the FOOD, the smells. I told Steve that maybe in a past life I lived in Hanoi … because I’ve never connected anywhere (even Rome!) as instantly as I did with this city.
We spent our first hour in Vietnam eating at Phở 10, an authentic hole-in-the-wall spot where Steve tried his first real Phở, sitting at a community table with a Vietnamese family who even shared some of their sides with Steve and showed him how to eat them (the people of Vietnam were the nicest we met on our entire trip).
Post Phở, we headed to Hoàn Kiếm Lake to walk off the noodles and jet lag. The scene we found there was hilarious – the main street next to the lake had been closed off (it was a Saturday) and there were children of all ages riding small electric vehicles up and down the road while their parents watched. It almost felt like we were in Disney World vs. a busy street in Hanoi.
We sat down on a bench to watch this bizarre pastime, and were immediately approached by a little girl asking us if we spoke English. Now, because we had been traveling for a while at this point, we were very hesitant to say yes due to the assumption she was going to try to sell us something. That was not the case; we quickly learned that the people of Vietnam are all trying to improve their English and find out what Westerners think of their country. They will come up to you with a cute thought out script asking what you like about Vietnam, what activities have you done, how the food has been, etc. – all to practice their English skills. This happened to us at least 5 more times while in Vietnam, and we even ended up being in a few photos with some of these children :).
When dinnertime came, we decided to not eat street food because we were starving and as a vegetarian, street food can be quite precarious. We settled on a fancy-ish restaurant called Duongs where we had some truly amazing Vietnamese food, and then came the night markets…
I wish everyone we know could experience a night market in Hanoi on a Saturday evening. There are so many people you can’t see 1 ft. in front of you, the roads are literally jam-packed so tight that as we tried cross scooters were just casually bumping into our legs, and there are performers, food vendors, large groups of dancing women (I think they were doing Vietnamese version of Zumba) and chaos every where you look. Taking it all in, I don’t think we stopped smiling the entire night.
When our first night in Hanoi was finished, we went back to our AirBnB and instead of going to sleep, we spent a good hour hilariously trying to catch a gecko because Steve refused to sleep knowing a gecko could just fall down from the ceiling onto us at any moment (he later came around to the fact geckos and humans living together in Asia is a fact). When the gecko had been safely caught and released, we finally, finally (I don’t sleep on planes) slept for the first time in 30 hours.
Day 2 in Hanoi I wanted to rent a scooter, but the weather and the fact that we slept until like 11 AM, changed that plan. So instead we walked around, ate lunch at a vegan restaurant, shopped for souvenirs, visited the French Quarter, the Opera House and the Vietnam National Museum. All of which are must-sees if you’re ever in the city.
Now there are 2 things people should know about before visiting Hanoi – the first is the heat and humidity are oppressing in certain seasons and we were visiting in one of those seasons … I’m talking so hot that our clothes were soaked with sweat after maybe 10 minutes outside (up until this point I also didn’t know that I could sweat – not an exaggeration), and the second is that it’s unfortunately extremely polluted. Smog + heat means that you should plan all of your activities bright and early in the AM (it’s a morning city so everything should be open) and then use your lunchtime to nap until the sun goes down. We didn’t do this the first 2 days, but quickly caught on for the rest of our time in Vietnam.
That night we took Lily and Erin’s advice (these ladies are seriously our World Trip Spiritual Guides) and went to Noodles and Roll for a quick and easy Vietnamese dinner. We then journeyed over to “Beer Corner” – where there were maybe 50 bars squished onto one street, and people packed in elbow-to-elbow all sitting outside and enjoying cold beers while watching the many street bands play.
Day 3 we had booked a tour of Ha Long Bay. Now, I have mixed feelings on this place / this whole day. We took an almost 4-hour long bus ride to Ha Long Bay and then were put on a boat to explore the bay and islands. There are so many boats and other tourists around you that that is a distraction in itself, but then instead of looking at the beautiful limestone islands, you become even more distracted by how insanely dirty the water and surrounding area are – literally trash everywhere. It really breaks your heart to see.
We did make the most of our visit though, and ended up renting a kayak to explore the bay on our own, and then hiked up a mountain and through some caves before heading back. Maybe the most memorable part of the day was our trip home when it started raining so heavily that we realized we were in a bit of trouble because as we looked out the window, we saw that the water was at least knee-high and rushing by our bus so quickly it felt like we were driving through a river. It literally did not phase any of the scooter-drivers however, who kept driving even as our bus driver realized we’d never be able to make it without breaking down and took us on a 45-minute detour to enter the city.
The streets of Hanoi continued to flood and the driver didn’t want to risk getting stuck, therefore they started letting passengers off and directing them on how to walk back to their accommodations. Luckily our street was safe and once we were safely back at our AirBnB we put on our rain gear and headed out for dinner.
We didn’t want to walk too far on account of the monsoon, so we stopped at the first restaurant we saw. Turns out it was a Cantonese restaurant, and if there is one thing I’ve learned eating Asian food it’s that Cantonese = not suitable for vegetarians. I ended up having to ask the servers to just leave the meat out of one of the curry dishes so I could eat it (which seemed to really confuse them / I probably was secretly served meat anyway).
When the day was over, I was a bit sad I had used one of my precious Hanoi-days to go see Ha Long Bay, but overall glad for the experience and the monsoon-memories. If I had to do it all over again, I think maybe we would’ve used our day-trip day to go see Sa Pa instead, but c’est la vie.
Day 4 was our final day in Hanoi, and we ended up having a great day filled with INCREDIBLE pizza, buying art from a local store that we shipped home, walking to the Temple of Literature (where we both almost died of heatstroke, but still tried to appreciate how amazing the temple was!) and eating at my favorite vegan restaurant one last time.
That night we said goodbye to my beloved Hanoi, a city I cannot wait to return to, and hopped on a 16-hour, bedbug and cockroach filled train to Hoi An…but I’ll let Steve tell you about that experience in our next blog post ;).
Ha Long Bay:
Back to Hanoi:
Temple of Literature: