The few things I learned within the first couple of hours in Hanoi, were that the center of the capital of Vietnam literally is a jungle of traffic, especially motor bikes and scooters. And so much more blooms out of that issue. Crossing the street, seems at first sight impossible or suicidal, because absolutely no one stops his vehicule to let you cross the street.
Walking on the side walk ? The scooter-drivers park their bikes on the sidewalk, so there's barely, or absolutely, no space for pedestrians. During my first hours in Hanoi, i checked out the neighbourhood by walking on the street lane with the locals, and paying so much attention to avoid getting hit by a vehicle.
As my plane landed in the early morning at Hanoi's international airport, most of the passangers had to kill time, before checking-in. Luckily the hotel managers, figured out that a lot of planes hit Vietnam on early hours, so most of the hotels I stayed at, allowed early check-ins, around 10 a.m. or 11 a.m.
Nevertheless, me and other passengers, were walking around the most popular and central lake called „Hoan Kiem“. It attracts a lot of locals in the early morning, who are down for yoga, dancing classes or just jogging around Hoan Kiem.
At the lake, I quickly got in touch with different vietnamese people, in a good and a bad way. I will come back to that later. I was told a couple of facts about the city, obviously about its traffic, and why there were so many motor bikes all across of Vietnam. There are around 90 millions of people living in Vietnam. Most of them can't afford cars and opt for a scooter instead. There are lots of narrow alleys in Hanoi, which aren't accessible by car, therefor the scooter wins again. And of course the gas. Scooters consume less gas, and is budget-wise more attractive for the vietnamese folks. Car-parking in Hanoi... forget about it. It's pretty obvious, that you ride a scooter when you're living in Hanoi.
I didn't feel like being in a country's capital, after I checked out the area nearby my hotel. Most of the touristic sights are within walking distances. As soon as you get out of the city's limits, it feels like being on the country side. However in Hanoi you will be introduced to the vietnamese culture without any doubt; food, clothes, pride, politics, Ho Chi Minh, work, history. You will turn back home wiser and with a total different approach towards Vietnam. I figured out, that I absolutely knew nothing about the country, prior my arrival.
In the very center of Hanoi, nothing looks luxurious. The streets are packed with streetfood-stalls, the sidewalks are blocked by thousands of motorbikes, and a lot of locals are just waiting to hunt some tourists to offer them a service. I got really annoyed a couple of days, when just everybody seemed to get into small-talk with me and later it tourned out, that they were trying to get to the money.
Once you get the vibe of the city, it feels so satisfying, being able to walk everywhere in the city. No need for public transportation. The locals on the scooters give you a ride for 1 to 3 us$ (30.000 – 60.000 viet. dongs). Most of them are good drivers, so no need to worry.
Actually I got asked by a traveler „Hey don't you think that the vietnamese are really good drivers“. At first, I totally disagreed, and then I realized that she was so right. Ok, they don't stop and let you cross the street. They honk ALL the time. Some ride their bikes without a helmet, some ride them bare-foot. But considering the fact that there are so many bikers on the street, thousands of them, surrounded by still a lot of cars and cabs, no one ever stops, and still there are barely no accidents. During my 2 weeks in Vietnam I witnessed only 1 single accident. Two bikes, 5 people, were involved in the crash. The police, and the military, witnessed the accident, but no one helped, and the involved drivers, just drove off, with bloody scratches on their faces. Crazy!
How to cross the street in Hanoi
Well enough said about the traffic, but I gotta add a couple of lines, about „how to“ cross the street, if it's your first time in Vietnam. Be respectful towards cars and taxis, let them go first. When crossing the street, always keep eye-contact with the closest biker or driver, and they'll do the same. They will try to pass around you, and you can tell that by having eye contact. Constantly walk, until you feel that it's wiser to stop in the middle of the street. Actually it's so easy, once you get used to it. Do as the locals, just walk!
The endless streetfood stalls
The first few days, I really didn't know what to think of the local street food. I have had vietnamese food before, but mostly at restaurants. The scent of cooking, the smell of seafood, invading the street corners, initially made me avoid those places. It's obvious that the locals aren't used to the hygiene standards of the western world. Maybe they don't have to, because their food seems to be a lot fresher than ours. You get the food straight from the plantations or from the locals farmers. The differents foods are chopped on the sidewalk, and cooked on the sidewalk. The locals enjoy their dishes on tiny, yes TINY, plastic stools. Nothing fancy at all. After a while you start enjoying those little tables that look like kiddie's toys.
Everything in Hanoi, seemed to be totally different, from what I've experienced on my previous asian tavels in Japan or Hong Kong. Everything is simpler, and no one really gives a shit what it looks or smells like. The locals just want to enjoy delicious food, and the exquisite coffee. Quickly I figured out that „pho“ soup isn't pronounced „fo“ but „fa“, and that pho soup is rather a breakfast dish, than lunch food. The vietnamese spring-rolls wrapped in rice-paper are healthier than the chinese spring rolls, and got a lot more of flavour. „Bun Cha“ and „Banh Mi“ are very popular among the locals. „Bun Cha“ are pork meat-balls served in a broth, with rice-noodels aside. The „Banh Mi“ is the local sandwich, stuffed with different kind of meats and pickled veggies. 4 vietnamese spring rolls cost around 1$, the banh-mi was around 1$ as well, and the dinner I had for two people, 2 dishes for each of us, plus a bottle of water, cost around 5$ (for the whole kiddie table). Food is cheap in Vietnam, for as long as you don't go to the fancy places.
Oh yes, their coffee is so good. I couldn't stop mentioning that to my friends, that the vietnamese have such great coffee. On my bus ride to Halong Bay I was told that 90% of Vietnam's coffee are mostly „robusta“ beans, and not the popular arabica coffee, that is sold all over Europe. Robusta coffee is know for being stronger, containing more caffeine, but lacking the wide-range flavours of arabica coffee. As for myself, I love the strong taste of their coffee, and I don't agree that it lacks of flavours. I brought back home so many bags of different vietnamese coffee, and I am already trying to figure out, how I can import coffee from Vietnam. Another fact, that was unknown to me, that Vietnam is the second biggest coffee producer in the world.
Must-sees in Hanoi
What are my recommendations of Hanoi? I wouldn't say that Hanoi is THE city for touristic attractions. Surely there are lots of different spots and corners to check out in the capital, however it didn't feel like a capital trip to me. My favorite place to hang out for sunset, was the Hoan Kiem lake, close to most hotels, and right in the heart of the city.
During my stay in Hanoi I walked twice to the Long Bien bridge, known for its eye-catching architecture. From the middle of the bridge you get a beautiful view over a river, plantations, green fields, and you get a peep of what the country side of vietnamese suburbs look like. Only motorbikes, bicycles and pedestriants are allowed on the side-lanes of the bridge. No cars or trucks! The main middle lane of the bridge is used for train traffic. Walking from the lake towards the Long Bien bridge, you'll witness the traffic chaos on the main roads, and you'll walk across small typical Hanoi alleys where you will bump into the locals.
Below the Long Bien bridge is a daily food market, that mainly attracts vietnamese people, and barely no tourists. It's a lovely place for taking photographs, such a colorful place.
From that food market, walk westbound, and you'll get onto the West Lake, which is the biggest lake in the capital of Vietnam. Is it a pretty lake? Not really ... South of the West Lake lies the Ba Đình Square, where Ho Chi Minh declared the independance of Vietnam. Just next to the HCM Mausoleum, is the Ho Chi Minh Museum and the One Pillar Pagoda.
You get plenties of museums in Hanoi: the War-Museum, Hoa Lo Prison Museum, Hanoi Police Museum, Women's Museum, B52 Victory Museum, Hanoi Citadel Gate. I'm really not attracted by museums, however when i'm really in a tourist-mood, I try to check out one or two in the city. I was positively surprised by the police museum; reading the history of Hanoi's police force, they rather reminded me of a militia fighting the different secret services of France and the United States.
On the westside of the city, you can visit the Huu Tiep lake (B52 lake), which is a small pond, in which a B25 bomber crashed, after being shot down by vietnamese soldiers. It's actually not that impressive either.
Not far away from the popular Old Quarter, is the only remaining city gate. All others were destroyed during the war times.
You can do all the main city attractions withins 2 full days. Tons of tourist offices offer you day trips outside of the city, by motorbike or shuttle.
What I liked most about Hanoi, was its atmosphere. Like i already mentioned above, it's not about the tourist-attractions or historic buildings. To me it was more about the vibe, moving with the locals, going through the traffic, savouring a delicious cup of coffee, sitting on a plastic chair and enjoying my spring-rolls or pho soup. Hearing stories of the bad times and good times of the country, getting in touch with the vietnamese culture ... being part of the vietnamese daily life. The locals showed me how to brew coffee in the vietnamese way, and how to prepare the dips for my spring rolls. That's what I loved about the city, and what i brought back home with me. It was a wonderful experience!
How to get a Visa
Prior your departure for Vietnam, check if your citizenship requires a travel visa. A couple of european countries, don't need to apply for a visa. As for myself, I needed to fill out a couple of documents, before starting my journey. So I used the website „Vietnam-Evisa.org“. Before landing in Hanoi, I had to get a „letter of approval“ before applying for VOA (Visa On Arrival).
Through the mentioned website, you'll get a letter of approval, through e-mail. It costs 19 US$, and it took about 2 to 3 days to get the email. The online company will send you a handwritten letter, with your name on it (including the names of other travelers). Print that letter out. At the airport, you'll have to hand out that letter of approval, 2 passport-photographs, and 25 US$ per person.
On the Vietnam-Evisa.org website, you can choose full package option, which apparently gives you the priority, and you won't have to wait in line. Of course you gotta pay extra for that! My plane landed around 6:30 a.m. and I only had to wait for about 10 minutes on a bench, til the officer handed me out my travel visa, which allowed me to travel through Vietnam for a whole month. In my case, I'm glad I didn't pay for the express option. As soon as you're passport is ready, they'll show your photograph on a screen. So pay attention to that screen, the officers won't call out your name.
- At the airport most of the ATMs only allow you to withdraw 2.000.000 dongs (80 euro, about 70-80 US$). They'll refuse your credit card, if you're trying to get more cash out of the ATM.
- The taxi-ride costs 350.000 – 400.000 dongs, and it will take about 40 minutes to get to the Old Quarter in Hanoi, all depending on the traffic. I advise you, like in any other country, to avoid the cab drivers, who get in touch with you inside the airport building. It's been the first time, for a long time, that I fell right into the tourist trap again, and followed an unofficial cab-driver. He told me it would only cost 15 US$ to get to Hanoi. A couple of minutes later, the Hanoi police showed up, and they locked his car. Already in trouble after being half an hour in Hanoi. On my last day, my hotel called a private driver to bring me back to the airport, and it only cost around 250.000, cheaper than a taxi. Trust the hotels, but don't trust the fake cab drivers at the airport.
- While in Vietnam, the company „WAY2GO“, offers you a vietnamese sim-card for your mobile phone, which allows you to use a 3G connection, for unlimited mobile internet, during 15 days, all across the country. The sim-card costs 350.000 dongs (15 euro, 12-14 US$). Definitely worth it! The connection works pretty well in most areas, so that you get fluent skype calls and facetime chats. No need to look for a free-wifi spot anymore!
- If you plan on booking train tickets, for the night-sleeper train, do that through your hotel. You'll get better rates and you surely won't get any surprises. Most of the vietnamese people aren't that fluent in english, and therefor it's always better, if a local can help you out, to avoid any misunderstandings.
- In most parts of Vietnam, you can pay in U.S. Dollars or Vietnamese Dongs. If you're asking for the price, the vietnamese will mostly tell you the price in US$.