You should visit Hanoi because Hanoi doesn’t care about you. It doesn’t care about your worries, your hopes, or your neurosis. But it’s not that Hanoi doesn’t like you. Hanoi is just too busy to worry about you. And for some of us, that’s deeply comforting. Hanoi is Southeast Asia, turned up to full volume. It’s Vietnam at its most intense. It’s hot, loud, and chaotic. If you’re not one for hot, loud chaos, Hanoi probably shouldn’t be your first stop. Work up to it. But when you get there, it’ll be worth it.
If you’re an American, the first thing that probably comes to mind when you think about Hanoi is the war. That’s pretty normal, and you’ll have plenty of opportunities to reflect on the war while you’re there. But you’re not going to be a pariah because of it. Most of the people you’ll meet were born long after the war ended, and they’re more focused on the future than rehashing the past. Culturally, Americans and Vietnamese have a lot in common. Like China, Vietnam is communist at a national level, but capitalist at a local level. In Hanoi, you’ll see teenagers primping and flirting via Snapchat filters, not communal farms with downtrodden members of the proletariat.
Hanoi is 24/7, 365. And you can take that thought home with you. You can revel in it, when you’re feeling sad, or alone, or downbeat about the state of our national government: on the other side of the planet, there’s an army of scooters, overloaded with goods, as young Vietnamese folks make a better life for themselves. And they’re not thinking about you, or your neo-nazi joke of a president.
Escaping the Bubble
Hanoi is not off the grid. You’re not breaking new ground, and you’ll have to work hard to get out of the bubble. You’ll run into plenty of tourists – both short term visitors, and folks who live their lives doing slow loops of Southeast Asia, bouncing between 90 or 180 day visas. It’s always fun to hear their stories.
When choosing your accommodation, look for somewhere outside the Old Quarter. Staying a few blocks west of Hoan Kiem lake, or anywhere around West Lake, will get you out of the most intense backpacker areas. As long as you avoid the coffee shops with the cutesy western names and western prices, you’re likely to be in good shape.
As a visitor, you don’t need to worry about violent crime, and in general it’s incredibly safe. Don’t be afraid to wander down alleys or get lost in the small streets. You’ll usually emerge on a big street. Sometimes you’ll emerge in someone’s backyard. They’ll give you a quizzical look. You’ll give a big, sheepish smile. Everyone will laugh, and you’ll turn around.
If you’re in Hanoi on a weekend, don’t miss the night market. The streets around Hoan Kiem are closed to cars and scooters, and the city turns into an outdoor party. It’s a great chance to people-watch and feel a bit more like a resident.
You’re going to have to learn to cross the street. That’s probably the biggest challenge for most visitors to Hanoi, especially if this is your first time in the region. It’s a topic that has elicited numerous blog posts and even a New York Times article. In short: be deliberate, be predictable, and have faith in the world around you. And if you’re not sure, just tailgate behind another pedestrian and walk where they walk.
Once you’ve gotten over that hurdle, Hanoi is a great city to explore on foot. You can wander down alleys, pop into courtyards, and peer over fences. Shops often spill onto the sidewalk, so don’t be surprised if you end up in the streets sometimes.
Uber is a great option in Hanoi as well. Because the app handles all of the communication, you don’t need to worry about the language barrier. And as with most places, Uber drivers tend to be globally engaged folks who are eager to chat with you. While there are traditional taxis as well, they have a reputation for being a bit less trustworthy when it comes to pricing. The final option are the Xe om motorcycle taxis. These are quite the experience – you should get on a motorcycle or scooter at some point in Hanoi, just to really sink into the chaos.
Hanoi has an incredible diversity of sights within the city, and the surrounding region goes even further. Visitors will surely want to visit the Military History Museum, Hoa Lo Prison, the Vietnamese Women’s Museum, the Temple of Literature, and the Museum of Ethnology. But that’s just a start – there are dozens more museum and temples, plus numerous lakes to explore.
If you’ve got a little bit of time, an overnight excursion to Ha Long Bay is well worth it, despite the heavy tourism trade. There are many other day trips and overnight excursion from the city. The perfume pagoda is an easy trip that will take you into the natural surroundings just outside the city. Hanoi is an easy jumping off point for the mountainous Sapa region as well.
Whichever sites you choose to visit, be sure to give yourself time. Hanoi is intense. It’s going to be somewhere between Hot and Literally The Hottest Place You’ve Ever Been. It’s noisy and you’ll be breathing a lot of two-stroke exhaust. Taking time to space out with an iced coffee isn’t just good travel sense, it’s good medical advice.
Finally! We made it through all that boring stuff. Now we can talk about why we’re really in Hanoi: the food. Especially the street food. While Malaysia may have the edge in terms of the sheer variety of food on offer, Hanoi offers amazing food in the perfect setting: sitting on a plastic stool on a sidewalk while a man disassembles a scooter next to you.
Typical travel street food advice holds in Hanoi – look for places that are busy, grab a seat, and enjoy. Say complementary things and give a big thumbs up. Take photos. You brought your emergency cipro, so there’s nothing to worry about.
It’d be silly to try to list all the foods you should try, because the short answer is: all of them. But, to get the obvious ones out of the way: Pho Bo, Pho Ga, Bahn Mi, Bun Cha, Banh Cuon, and anything with a crowd. And while this site doesn’t typically recommend specific places: get yourself some Bun Bo Hue at the place on the corner of Pho Phu Doan and Pho Chan Cam.
Get yourself to Hanoi
Hanoi is the future. Forty years ago, the sky was full of B52s. Today the streets are full of fake Apple stores. It’s a place that gives you hope. It doesn’t welcome you with a warm embrace. But that’s ok: it just makes finding the joy that much more rewarding.