The coffee analogy
I believe Vietnam’s capital city and its coffee have a lot in common…
The roast. A super dark roast (over roasting for some) for a lingering, strong taste reminds its visitors that although Vietnamese have gone through many internal and foreign conflicts in the past, becoming some of the darkest chapters of its history, their identity remains strong, vibrant and proud.
Then, the blending of the coffee grains. With twice as much caffeine and higher acidity compared to Arabica grains, Vietnamese Robusta grains produce a more concentrated, bitter flavor that is then merged with the distinctive sweetness of condensed milk. This clash of flavors results in a supremely delightful blend. When it comes to Hanoi, on one side culturally influenced by two powerful empires, namely, the Chinese and the French empires, and on the other side shaped by communist ideals for many decades, this contrast has resulted in a truly genuine and rich capital that stands out among others in Southeast Asia for its architecture, art, cuisine and much more.
Finally, the brewing. Both coffee and the city’s identity are brewed on the streets. Literally. It only takes a stroll to get a good taste of the daily hustle: the woks clashing against the stoves, the miniature plastic chairs and tables on the sidewalk, the swarm of motorcycles like a river flowing down the streets. In the midst of this organized mess, coffee is being brewed as part of a ritual to power up the day.
Ok, aside from the coffee analogies about Hanoi to describe its carefully brewed atmosphere (yes, yes…another coffee analogy), a thing that budget travelers get to love very soon after they arrive Vietnam is the notoriously cheap price of life (one can actually be a “millionaire” in Vietnam after exchanging many currencies to the local dongs), even in the capital. The tourism industry is also well established, making evident the great importance that the nation gives to this part of their economy. In time, Vietnam and Hanoi have become an internationally renowned synonym of exotic, affordable, high-quality experience. Thus, here is a guide to Hanoi!
How to get there
Once the capital of the northern part of Vietnam, Hanoi is easily reached by air due to the wide range of flight routes. However, with the proliferation and expansion of the Asian LCC (low-cost carriers) operations, there are more and more direct and flights from many big cities in East and Southeast Asia to Hanoi. Some of them are Hong Kong, Singapore, Taipei, Bangkok, Vientiane, Luang Prabang, Yangon, Ho Chi Minh City, Kuala Lumpur, and Manila.
On the other hand, if Hanoi is somewhere in the middle of your Southeast Asian road trip, or you just prefer to travel by land, cross border buses from Laos and Cambodia are quite popular. To book bus tickets in advance from any of these two neighboring countries, this link might be useful. Additionally, it is always a good idea to ask your hostel’s front desk for additional options or “hidden” discount prices.
If you are traveling from other cities in Vietnam, both, locals and travelers, agree that buses are the best way to commute within the country. The railway service has a reputation of being a frustrating experience when interacting with the staff, and also due to the often schedule delays. Thus, if you are trying to get to Hanoi by land from the neighboring countries, here is a useful link for booking buses in advance.
For an economy travel budget consider the following expenses per day:
- Meal prices at budget eateries and street stalls would cost on average USD 2. A fast-food combo meal will cost about USD 5.
- A night in a budget hostel ranges from USD 5 to USD 8.
- Mobile data plan. A SIM card can be purchased virtually everywhere. However, although slightly more expensive, I recommend getting it as soon as you arrive in Vietnam, along with the data plan that fits better to your needs and budget. Here I will just post two of the myriad of options available. Namely, the ideal one, and the super-tight-budget one. First, it is possible to get an unlimited data plan for USD 9-10. A few more bucks will add extra services like minutes for local calls. Second, if you are the true budget hero, you can get a data plan for as cheap as USD 5, which gives you 5 Gb of internet. Most of these plans have a validity of a month and include the SIM card.
- Transportation: local taxies can be inconvenient if you do not speak Vietnamese and if you are not careful when setting the fare for your ride (taxies do not have taximeter as far as my experience goes). Uber works quite well in Vietnam and it was my transportation choice after some rather inconvenient experiences with local taxi drivers.
- If you need to make money withdrawals, I found AgriBank’s ATM service to be the only one that allowed foreign debit card withdrawals, and also the one with the lowest handling fee.
- The language barrier in Vietnam can be considered as strong for many foreigners, even for Hanoi. Aside from the people at the front desk of your hostel, finding people with good English proficiency is hardly found.
While most opinions concur that the best time to travel to Hanoi is in the Autumn (around September to November) and Spring (March and April), I think any time between November and February is still very comfortable. Just make sure to pack a light jacket in case temperatures go a bit too low at night.
When it comes to accommodation booking, you might want to consider the northwest area of Hanoi, since most main attractions are somewhat clustered in this area. This also makes any sightseeing route more time-efficient than in other places. In fact, I spent most of my time walking rather than taking any transport. It also means a more relaxed pace for photos, and street food to try. Thus, in order to see the mainstream attractions and landmarks, four days should suffice. But if time is a constraint, three days should be enough to cover the essential places and food.
Currently, only a couple of dozens of passports are visa-free. The vast majority of visitors to Vietnam need to apply for a tourist visa. You can check if you need a visa in this link. The cost is about USD 45 and its validity ranges from fifteen to thirty days. You can apply at your nearest embassy, and there is also an on-arrival visa application available at the Noi Bai International Airport. However, there are mixed opinions about the latter option, as some visitors have been denied boarding their planes to Vietnam due to the lack of visa before arrival. Hence, to be completely sure, try your best to get it before your trip.
Where to go
As I said before, most of the main touristic landmarks are located relatively close to each other. This closeness allows us to kill many birds with the same stone (not real birds, though). The following is my list of the must-see places in Hanoi with most of them grouped for convenience:
1. Hoan Kiem Lake and Turtle Tower
This place is the perfect place to relax and appreciate the dynamic city life with some coffee (we’ll get to that later) or any other drink or food, honestly. The ubiquitous presence of street vendors and eateries around this lake and the street performances can keep you entertained for hours during day or night.
The lake hosts two really interesting sights, namely, the Turtle Tower and the Temple of the Jade Mountain. The latter can be reached by a beautiful traditional Chinese-style bridge. For turtle tower, be ready to use the zoom on your camera, and for best results, try the southwest side of the lake.
2. Saint Joseph’s Cathedral
One of the most iconic places in Hanoi portrayed in many postal cards due to its colorful surroundings including souvenir shops, cafes and a great variety of restaurants and dessert shops. The generous space in front of this 19th-century gothic cathedral allows clear photos of the beautiful façade, and it is great for group pictures and selfies as well. The well-preserved interior of this building is no less spectacular, and it is possible to appreciate it from 8 AM to 5 PM.
3. Ba Dinh Square, Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum and Museum
This square carries deep meaning for Vietnamese people. It is the place where President Ho Chi Minh read the proclamation of independence of Vietnam on September the 2nd, 1945. Even before this milestone in the country’s history, the name was given to remember the uprising against French colonialism back in the 19th century.
Without a doubt, the mausoleum is a central piece to Vietnam’s identity and a testimony of its recent history. The final resting place for Ho Chi Minh is visited by thousands of people every year. The visit is particularly interesting since the body of the nation’s leader is on display, and the admission is free. To see the interior, you have to wake up early, though, since it is only open during the morning hours (from 7:30 to 10:30, excluding Mondays and Fridays), and the queues can be unbearably long. Make sure to dress adequately and put your camera away. It is forbidden to take any photos inside.
If you visit the square and the mausoleum first, and then, as you make your way to the museum of Ho Chi Minh (and assuming you are THAT into Vietnam’s recent history and propaganda), it will be hard for you to miss the One Pillar Pagoda. Although the size of this Buddhist landmark might not be the reason for its importance, it is actually the long history behind it what makes it truly impressive. It is a reconstruction of a temple dated back to the 11th century.
4. Thang Long Imperial Citadel
Also known as the Hanoi Citadel, this historical landmark served as the capital of Vietnam for a bit more than eight centuries. It not only displays the Chinese influence in the architectural designs of the 11th century, but it is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Inside its walls, apart from a lovely stroll to appreciate its architecture, this citadel has excavation areas where many artifacts dating even back to the 6th century have been found. There is a display room where it is possible to appreciate bronze, ceramic and pottery objects, confirming the great influence of this region regarding other important civilizations in Asia and the vibrant trade activity.
For a UNESCO site, the price to enter this place is almost unbelievable, costing less than USD 2. It is open from 8 AM to 5 PM, except for Mondays.
5. Vietnam Military History Museum and flag tower of Hanoi
Just south to the Hanoi Citadel, there is the Vietnam Military History Museum. For less than USD 2, you can appreciate an interesting (but not extensive) collection of military aircraft, land transports, and weapons from different campaigns. Vietnamese really do take pride in the US tanks, planes and helicopters seized after the end of the Vietnam War in 1975, and some of them are displayed here.
At the center of the outdoor exhibition, there is a truly impressive sculpture that looks half improvised, half abstract, made out of the wreckage of all the US aircraft shot down by the Vietnamese during that conflict. This “crown of victory” is certainly worth seeing. The opening hours are pretty similar to those of the Hanoi Citadel.
When in this museum, do not forget to visit the Flag Tower of Hanoi. Being another symbol of Vietnamese pride and victory over foreign influences, it has stood the test of time for more than two hundred years. The access to the top outlook is included in the entrance to the museum. It is a great place for panoramic shots of the city, including the downtown area.
6. Hoa Lo Prison Memorial
Curiously, used first by French colonialists to imprison Vietnamese political adversaries, it was later used by the Vietnamese to hold US prisoners of war. Nowadays, only the gatehouse section of the Hanoi Hilton (named this way by the US prisoners) remains from the whole multi-storied complex and serves as a museum that depicts the life inside its walls. There is an exhibition of pictures and fragments of literature, along with interesting artistic murals that represent the revolutionary ideals.
There are sections that recreate the narrow corridors of the dungeon with cells on both sides. The experience is even more thought-evoking when entering those cells. The “beds” still have the shackles that prevented any inmate escape during the night. The dummies placed to illustrate the conditions of the inmates are quite illustrative as well.
As most of the attractions already mentioned, the entrance to the Hilton Hanoi is less than USD 2 (30,000 dongs), and it is open to the public from 8 am to 5 pm. It is worth mentioning that this might be the most distant point of interest of this list, but still reachable on foot if you are staying in the northwest area of the city.
7. Hanoi Old Quarter
How cool is it to stroll through a business area of a city that started its trade activity more than one thousand years ago? Well, the Old Quarter in Hanoi just happens to be this kind of area. As part of the Hoan Kiem District, the total area of the Old Quarter is about 100 hectares and it counts 76 streets distributed over 10 wards.
Of course, with the passing of so many centuries, commodities have changed from cotton, herbs, and silk, to 3C accessories for smartphones, SIM card stores, and other modern-day services. However, it is still possible to appreciate some of the original goods and experience the heart and soul of the old Vietnamese customs. The charming colonial-style shop-houses have a street-facing façade and multiple courtyards inside. Nowadays they not only host stores. One can expect to find plenty of bohemian cafés, bars, a variety of restaurants, bakeries, boutique shops, and art galleries as well.
If nightlife is your thing, the Old Quarter tells another story after the sun goes downs with its street food, live music and the usual swarm of tourists cramming the area. Aside from the common-sense precautions, me and my friends (including females) never felt unsafe walking the streets at night from or to our accommodation.
8. Huu Tiep Lake with the downed B-52 wreckage
This might not be a main attraction for most people, not even an attraction at all for some, but bear with me on this point. As an aircraft enthusiast myself, it certainly was. Do not expect to see a well-preserved aircraft parked in the middle of the city, though. Instead, once you arrive at this place, the most you will get to see is a bunch of twisted fuselage and some huge tires belonging to a Boeing B-52 Stratofortress downed on December 27th of 1972, inside a squared lake. A plate has been placed at one corner of the lake where a brief explanation is given regarding the “Dien Bien Phu in the air”, a victory for Vietnam in which 81 US warplanes, including 34 B-52s, were destroyed in only 12 days.
Fair enough, after the walk through the narrow alleys until this landmark, indulge yourself with some more bohemia in one of the “B-52” cafés or eateries around the lake. Furthermore, and if you have not had enough of military history and aircraft, the B-52 Victory Museum is just some blocks south of here to visit.
9. Walk the streets of Hanoi!
Few places display the heart and soul of the local idiosyncrasy with such ease as Vietnam, Hanoi included. Good food is really easy to find. The world-famous Pho soup (or stir-fried Pho), roll cakes, and the barbecue pigeon cannot be missed, just to name some of the incredible dishes of Vietnamese cuisine.
Photo wise, there is an iconic place you should head to at some point, the famous Hanoi Train Street. Try to get to this place at different times of the day to get different lighting conditions.
Finally, while in the midst of the organized mess of the city, you will have to face the river of motorcycles like a school of fish in the ocean when crossing streets. Just take a deep breath, walk naturally and the drivers will do the rest. Nothing to be worried about.
10. The coffee experience
Last and definitely not least, Hanoi coffee tasting. I believe that getting a cup of coffee here is a must-have experience. If you come from the western side of the world, you most likely grew up drinking Arabica coffee. If you thought you knew something about coffee, having a cup of coffee in Hanoi will make you feel you actually know just half of what there is to know about coffee. Vietnam is the world’s biggest producer of Robusta coffee, therefore, and luckily for a budget traveler, this specialty coffee is cheap and ubiquitous.
For Vietnamese, the burned tires or rubbery taste, the strength found in Robusta coffee is the only way to go. However, some local elements make this experience in Hanoi more meaningful than your regular coffee tasting. It is the atmosphere surrounding that cup of coffee: Decaying facades of buildings, pastel-colored French colonial-style buildings, coffee shops with faint, warm lights, and worn-out furniture, narrow alleys, the flamboyant red flood of national flags hanged everywhere.
If you fall in love with the local coffee (as I obviously did), make sure to buy a couple of bags of roasted coffee and a stainless steel filter to add to your collection
Further exploring in Hanoi
Hanoi is full of attractions for all the tastes. After my own list of awesome things to do while in this city, you might also consider the West Lake, the Presidential Palace, the Long Bien Bridge (built by the same designer of Eiffel Tower), and the Dong Xuan Market.
Hanoi is also the springboard to other incredible destinations on the north of Vietnam. Some of the most famous are:
- Sa Pa. Sa Pa is a town in the Hoang Lien Son Mountains of northwestern Vietnam that truly deserves some time to experience. It is also a popular trekking base for the 3,143meter-tall Phang Xi Pang peak, which is climbable via a steep, multiday guided walk. It also overlooks the famous terraced rice fields of the Muong Hoa Valley. The friendly hill tribes, such as the Hmong, Tay and Dao, make up much of the town’s local population. Their charm and traditional costumes make up for a good chunk of Sa Pa’s uniqueness.
- Halong Bay. This all-time acclaimed natural wonder is composed attracts visitors from all around the world with its multiple tree-covered limestone islands that dot this scenic diving, rock climbing & hiking destination. It has been named one of the world’s natural wonders by some institutions.
- Cross-border bus to Laos and Cambodia. The bus operators work pretty well crossing the borders in a relatively short time. Just make sure to have your visa and passport in order at the moment of going through the customs. There are sleeper bus options for those who wish to save some bucks in accommodation.
Cross-border bus to China. For further information, ask the hostel front desk to help you to get your Chinese visa timely, and book a seat/bed on the next bus to the Middle Kingdom.
Vietnamese have a strong character that is often seen as hostility or unfriendliness. In order to avoid misunderstandings that can spoil a rather amazing experience, make sure to be clear and express your needs as simple as possible. Also keep in mind that this is the country´s capital, and people are “busier” in capital cities than in other smaller locations.
Regarding safety to travel, according to my experience, Hanoi is safe to explore overall. I heard many stories of pickpocketing in Vietnam, but I never experienced such misfortune. Whether it is true or not, it is wise to exercise caution with your personal belongings at all times, as you would anywhere else.
Watch out for the high seasons. One festivity that is particularly important for the Vietnamese is the Lunar New Year (a.k.a. Chinese New Year). During these dates, many services relevant for tourists are especially irregular, including buses, trains, planes, and hostels. Make sure to book with enough time in advance, or stay put in the same place during the celebrations to avoid exorbitant price inflation and last-minute desperation.