Hanoi is at once the stereotypical bustling Asian metropolis and a unique, tranquil city of beauty and historic significance. Home to over six million, the ever-present sound of motorbikes and street hawkers can be overwhelming, but you will have no problem finding respite, with shrines and temples offering a chance to reflect and enjoy this vibrant, intoxicating city.
Sadly there are no direct flights to Hanoi from the UK, but many airlines will take you there with one stopover from Heathrow for between £450 and £600 return. Once there, you are a short flight away from the rest of Southeast Asia, so Hanoi is a perfect and highly recommended destination on any trip around the region.
In the Old Quarter of Hanoi there are dozens of backpacker hostels all keen to welcome you. Tuk-tuk drivers will take you to wherever pays them a commission, and if you do not check the place out before paying you may end up getting substandard accommodation. It is worth reading recent reviews of places in the area you are looking at staying, but I can whole-heartedly recommend Hanoi Backpackers Downtown, which offers many home comforts and is located in the heart of the action. Part of the fun of the Old Quarter is getting lost amongst the shops and cafés, but if you want to make sure you don’t miss anything, the hostel will organise a walking tour of the streets, shrines and markets in the local area. The price is at the high end of what you can expect to pay for a hostel in the area, with dorms around $7 (£5) per night, but this includes breakfast, WiFi and the rooms and amenities are spotless.
Hanoi spoils you for choice and convenience with its street food, with vendors often making a delicious meal from one large pot. Barbeques are also common on the street, as are fruit and coconut sellers, who can be insistent! You will struggle to find an unpleasant meal, as the beautiful flavours of Vietnamese cuisine complement fresh vegetables and always-perfect steamed rice. Be sure to try Pho Bo before you leave; this beef noodle soup is commonplace in Vietnam but you will struggle to find anything else like it! Vegetarians are not missing out, though, as many of the best dishes in Hanoi can be enjoyed with or without meat. What you really savour is the freshness of the ingredients and the stunning combination of spices and sauces – a far cry from much of the packaged and processed fast food in the UK. Be sure to wash down your evening meal with Bia Hoi, a fresh draught beer unique to Northern Vietnam.
Strolling around the streets of Hanoi is an experience in itself, and it is worth spending a few unplanned hours to take it all in. If you are pressed for time, tuk-tuk drivers can give you a tour of the city, or if you are feeling adventurous, motorcycles are easily and cheaply hired. You may not have much time to take in the views but it is certainly an exhilarating way to travel! Take care if you choose this option.
At markets and when hailing a tuk-tuk, the price is as low as you can bargain! Be prepared to walk away, especially if you are considering buying on impulse; you can often get a much lower price than the stall owner opens with. Just remember to be respectful and polite. Many of the museums charge for entry, but this will be in the region of £2-3, and is normally well worth it.
Hoa Lo prison museum is well worth a visit and offers a stark yet informative view of life in captivity as well as an insight into the wars which blighted Vietnam’s history and their devastating effects. The war museum offers much more detail and many artefacts, including original tanks and fighter jets. You could easily spend three hours here and although it does become information overload near the end, the impact of the recent wars are still being felt across the country, and a visit to these museums will help you understand the causes, consequences and international responses of the high-profile conflicts.
For a more light-hearted experience, pay a visit to the water puppets theatre. Unique to Vietnam, this show features live music and talented marionettes acting out stories on a stage of water. Absurd as this sounds, it has to be seen to fully understand how such an old art form can remain relevant and be such a joy to watch!
Vietnam being under communist rule means that a midnight curfew is imposed on the streets of Hanoi. It is an impressive sight watching little plastic chairs and tables being cleared off the streets as police patrol the area, but what is more impressive is the locals’ resilience and their willingness to have a good time! Bar owners will likely pull their shutters down as police walk past, but will invite you in to join the party as you approach. Follow your instincts on this one and don’t take risks, but by no means let this curfew be the end to your night!
Expect free entry to the majority of nightclubs, and drinks, although marked up for the venue, will not be any more than Durham College bar prices at the very most. You’ll recognise the music played in bars and clubs, and may even be singing yourself if you end up in one of Vietnam’s popular karaoke bars, but the hospitality will likely come as a welcome surprise; there is table service in many Vietnamese nightclubs.
Once you’ve booked your flights and your Visa (which can be pricy at around £40-£50 for 30 days), Hanoi is incredibly cheap to get around. Hostel beds start at £4, a Bia Hoi will cost you the equivalent of twenty pence, and a meal on the street can be had for a pound or thereabouts. So overall, you could have a memorable day spending just £15-20, including good food and accommodation.
Photographs: Patrick Iddison, Illustrations: Mariam Hayat