Vietnam is amazing. Natural beauty and fabulous food combined with a fascinating history make it a traveler’s dream. I always say that travel is the best educator and that certainly holds true for Vietnam.
Here are a few brief tips for first-timers…
- Prepare to become a millionaire. One million Vietnamese Dong is equal to about $46 USD, so you’ll be rolling in dough once you hit the currency exchange.
- Cross with confidence. Walking the streets of Vietnam is an art form. When you make up your mind to cross, just go for it and don’t hesitate. Don’t make eye contact with anyone- they’ll assume you’re giving them the right of way. You’ll come close to hitting everything from a motorbike carrying an entire 7-person family and 2 chickens to a truck filled with lettuce, but it’s all part of the experience.
- Watch that iPhone. My friend was standing on the sidewalk in Ho Chi Minh looking down at a map on his brand new iPhone 6+ when a motorbike drove by, grabbing his phone along the way. This sort of thing is common in the big cities, so it’s best to keep anything of value tucked away.
My Vietnamese experience began in the capital city of Hanoi, which is the jumping off point for Sapa and the world famous Ha Long Bay. Like most travelers, I expected my time in Hanoi to be the least exciting of my Vietnam itinerary, but the city didn’t disappoint.
Six Things To Do in Hanoi
#1. Take a food tour. Vietnam is renowned for their delicious food and the only way to make sure you taste all of it in the best restaurants known to locals is to take a food tour. (Contact B&B Hanoi to arrange the one I went on.) For only $25 USD, we visited eight restaurants in three hours. There were only two of us on the tour with our Vietnamese guide, so we were able to ask lots of questions and learn about local culture. You’ll try everything from Banh Mi to Pho to Com Chay. My recommendation: come starving and pace yourself. The food is phenomenal! Click here to see more of the traditional foods we encountered on the tour.
#2. Explore Hoa Lo Prison. This is where your education on Vietnam war history begins. Sarcastically dubbed “the Hanoi Hilton”, this eery establishment is anything but. This place was used to interrogate and imprison US POWs (and Vietnamese prisoners) during the Vietnam war. In fact, 2008 Presidential Candidate John McCain’s flight suit is on display there. I can’t lie – I didn’t vote for the guy, but I certainly have an increased respect for him after seeing a tidbit of what he experienced in ‘Nam.
#3. Visit Hoan Kiem Lake.
Also known as Lake of the Restored Sword, this place has a history that involves magical turtles. On the lake, you’ll cross a beautiful red bridge to visit Jade Island and the (Confucian) Temple of the Jade Mountain.
#4. Wander the Old Quarter.
The Old Quarter streets are definitely Hanoi’s most famous and most interesting. Visit a shop filled with fake Northface jackets and Prada purses, taste the world famous Vietnamese coffee or bia hoi (local beer) in a sidewalk cafe and then visit the wild and crazy Đồng Xuân Market, where you can buy literally anything from live snakes to your new favorite shoes.
#5. Tour Ho Chi Minh Museum and Mausoleum.
One of the most popular tourist attractions in Hanoi, this place is worth a visit. Just make sure you’re dressed appropriately (no shorts for women) if you want to go inside the adjacent temple. You’ll see groups of adorable school children coming to pay their respects to the beloved leader. To get there, ask any Vietnamese guy with a motorbike around the Old Quarter. Be sure to negotiate a cheap price, wear a helmet and hold on tight – it’s a wild ride.
#6. Check out the bizarre nightlife.
By law, the bars, clubs and restaurants close at midnight, but that doesn’t mean anyone actually listens. The shop across from my hotel stayed open all night long, slinging cheap food and beer. They simply slide the doors closed and tell patrons to quiet down when they get word of a police car patrolling the streets. In the hour we were there, this must have happened four times. It’s a hilarious experience and not to be missed!
Where to stay?
I stayed at Hanoi Backpackers downtown location, which turned out to be a pretty wild party spot with nightly pub crawls and daily tours to their private island, Castaways, located in Ha Long Bay. Stay here if you’re young and hoping to meet people, but avoid this place if you need to get any sleep.
For a nicer, quieter stay, I highly recommend B&B Hanoi. They offer clean, affordable rooms with enthusiastic, English-speaking staff and a travel desk that can’t be beat. This is the hotel that arranged our phenomenal food tour in Hanoi.
Where to go from here?
You absolutely can’t miss Ha Long Bay – it’s a bucket list experience just a short bus ride from Hanoi. Once that’s crossed off the list, take a trip North to Sapa or a $30-$100 flight South to Hoi An or Ho Chi Minh. JetStar and VietJet are awesome budget airlines in Vietnam, but they charge extra for any checked baggage. Either carry on (under 7 kg.) or plan to pay for luggage. Sometimes the price of checked baggage is more than the flight itself!