I visited Hanoi 2 years ago while I was travelling by myself and to be brutally honest– I hated the place. It was stinking hot, dusty and motorbikes dominated every possible space, making it hard to even walk let alone think. Despite my previous experience in Hanoi, I was determined to try again. I’m glad I gave this city another chance- because this time round I loved it! It was still hot and dusty and there were probably even more motorbikes burning around the city streets, but for some reason this time round Hanoi really did it for me (and for Ryan for that matter).
Hanoi Old Town
We stayed in the Old Town at probably the best hotel of all time (see my gushing review below). The Old Town wraps around the North end of the lake in the city centre and is tangle of tiny streets, alleyways, shops, cafes with a smattering of big old shady fig trees. The streets are packed with pedestrians, motorbikes and bicycles (cars are mostly banned) and the footpaths are equally filled with tables and chairs spilling out from cafes, parked bikes and people preparing fish and chopping up vegetables. There’s even barbers on the footpath where you can get a haircut or a shave in the sunshine. Little Vietnamese ladies roam the streets with their traditional woven baskets, pestering tourists to buy their wares- anything from books, donuts and pineapples to tacky souvenirs and postcards.
The buildings that line the old town streets have tiny frontages and burst upwards, some being no more than 5 meters wide but having up to 9 or 10 floors. We found out that this is due to landowners in having to pay hefty taxes on exclusive curbside property – usually because they then use it as a shop. Because of this, the Old Town area seems to be made up of a mass of skinny, wobbly buildings slotted tightly together, with the streets and alleys acting like bit of a rabbit warren beneath.
The Old Town in Hanoi is a great place to simply observe. It’s buzzing with colour and activity and is particularly lively because it still acts as an active market place for locals, not just a space to for tourists- in fact the tourists are hard to see amongst all the acticity. Vietnamese people still come here to buy their meat, vegies and flowers off the back of bicycle at 5am. Traditionally, many areas of the Old Town were named after the type of traders who set up shop there and the streets were named accordingly. This results in some pretty awesome street names ie. “White Trouser Street”. Although White Trouser Street is now filled with bars not white trousers, there are still plenty of streets in the Old Town that still specialize in selling particular goods- such as “Bamboo Bits Street” and “Stinky Dried Things Street”.
One of our greatest finds in Hanoi was just a restaurant just across the street from our hotel called New Day. Over 2 weeks we ate here about 7 times. It was fast, delicious, had great service and $1.75 cocktails. New Day is frequented by both tourists and locals – which is a good sign- and the menu consisted of Vietnamese classics as well as plenty of “Hanoi style” dishes. Who knew Asian pork ribs, rice and White Russians were so well suited?!
Towards the end of our stay, I got a HUGE shock when my second favourite brother, Joel, and his girlfriend Lilli showed up at our hotel for a surprise visit. I was so confused – especially because I was a little tipsy after guzzling a few White Russians with dinner and wasn’t wearing pants (embarrassing footage to come). They were in cahoots with sneaky Ryan and certainly managed to roll into the country without my knowledge. It was so great seeing some faces from home after being away for a bit. I cried. As usual.
After spending 5 weeks in sleepy Laos, Ryan and I were so grateful to be back in a city with a bit of buzz and Hanoi definitely has buzz to spare. We loved wandering around, soaking up the madness of the streets, but also quickly learnt when to slink away into the aircon at the hottest part of the day or to admit defeat and just sit back with a cold beer and watch the madness.
The best Hotel ever.
Big praise, I know, but these guys earned it. The Hanoi Guesthouse went above and beyond in everyway and really made our stay in dizzying Hanoi super easy. They picked us up from the airport and welcomed us with open arms and an icy welcome beverage. The rooms were beautiful, spotlessly clean with great bathrooms (even a shower curtain!!!) hot water and lovely squishy beds with crisp white sheets- which was a nice change to the beds/concrete slabs we’ve slept on around SE Asia. Breakfast was delicious (and free) but the best part by far was the staff. We dealt with about 4 different girls at the front desk, all of them happy, perky and eager to help with any of our needs. They helped us plan our trips up to Sapa and Halong Bay and pointed out places of interest in and around Hanoi. The best part is that you got all this awesome service, lovely rooms and free breakfasts for just $22 a night. BAM!