As not many people have that long to stay in one place, I’m going to be doing a series of “A Weekend In…” posts to hopefully give you some ideas on what to do in different places 🙂
I think by now it has been well established that while my soul will forever be wandering, my heart lies firmly in Vietnam, and so it makes sense to start with a guide to Hanoi! Sign up for my free printable three-day guide, including addresses and how to get to each place.
Look in any tourist book for Hanoi, and you will come up with the same things to do: the water puppet show, the mausoleum, the Hanoi Hilton (Hỏa Lò, the prison used during the Vietnam war), and the old quarter.
I lived in Hanoi for four years, and while I’m sure there are others who would argue with me, I would say that the first one is an absolute waste of time and money, and the second only worth it if you have the patience to stand in line for hours, even if you get up at the crack of dawn to beat the crowds (and if you do, make sure you wear suitable clothing – you won’t be allowed in with your shoulders uncovered or very short shorts). The prison is worth a trip just to remember how horrendous life was for the Vietnamese as well as the American Pows not that long ago at all; and the last is an absolute must, but also unavoidable!
The Old Quarter is the chaotic heart of Hanoi, beating to its never-ending, bustling, tourist-laden rhythmn. Settle yourself on a teeny tiny stool at the corner of Tạ Hiện and Lương Ngọc Quyến, and enjoy watching tourists dodging the chaos of the Hanoian traffic. Make sure you try the Nem Chua. Kind of like a Vietnamese version of a pepperami, wrapped in banana leaves and with a super spicy chilli sauce to dip it in. They are my absolute favourite beer snacks.
And as we’re talking about beer, don’t be shy about trying the Bia Hoi beer – “fresh” Vietnamese beer that is both delicious and almost guaranteed to give you a cracking headache in the morning if you go a bit wild. Some people are nervous of having ice in their drinks, but unless you like warm beer, you can’t avoid it. I have never gotten ill off it and would seldom have a drink that wasn’t filled with ice to try and cool down.
Once you’ve contemplated the travel book recommendations, I would instead direct you to Long Bien bridge. A beautiful chaos of metal crossing the red river, it is well worth walking at least half way across. There is a narrow footpath, and a “road” barely wide enough for two motorbikes to squeeze past each other, and is constantly flowing with people carrying the most unbelievable loads, as this is one of the links from the countryside to the city.
Under the bridge is a sprawling slum-like area, tin shed houses squeezed in together and alleyways meandering throughout.
If you do make it to the other side, make sure you get a Mia Da – an iced sugarcane juice, identifiable by the mangles at the side of the road that the sugarcane gets squeezed through fresh to order, leaving you with a dark yellow/green-ish juice that is pure heaven.
Next stop is to get a Xe Om (motorbike taxi) and head to West Lake. I very very seldom take a normal taxi unless it is lashing down with rain, as the motorbike taxis are both cheaper and faster as they can weave through the traffic. Tell the driver to take you to Xuan Dieu (swan zee-oh) and have a CaPhe Sua Da (café su:a da), usually with complementary lotus green tea sat at the side of the lake at café Tuyen on the little road right next to the lake. Sounds a bit simple maybe, but this is where the local men come to fish, and it is absolutely fascinating to watch how they use the big wooden spool in one hand and the rod in the other, standing on tiny little plinths in the water.
It’s also where they come to crawl inside the huge sewer pipes that flow out into the lake, their nets scooping up the fish that had swum in to feed on the sewer waste. Mmm, delicious…?! A warning on the coffee though – it is extremely strong, and comes with a healthy layer of condensed milk at the bottom making it sweet and delicious, but make sure you are within dashing distance of the loo when you have your first one! I told my dad this when they came out to visit and made sure he knew where the toilet was, and he just laughed at me. He is used to drinking strong coffee, what could it actually do? He found out soon enough though, as he dashed across the street looking sheepish! You get used to it after a while, but trust me, the first few have a fantastic gut-cleansing kick!!
Once the sun has set, and you do get a lovely sunset view, wander further down the main road to Highway4. My number one favourite restaurant in the city, it’s obviously more expensive than street food, but it’s worth splashing out on once. They have a stunning menu (have the butter fried sweet corn and drizzle it with soy sauce, the morning glory water spinach, and the buffalo in lemongrass and chilli!), and wash it down with one of their sweet liqueurs. I always have the plum, and my mouth is actually watering right now thinking of it!! They have restaurants in the old quarter too if you want to get a motorbike taxi back there instead.
Once back in the old quarter, if you fancy a walk (I never do, take a motorbike taxi haha), head out of the old quarter on Hang Bong street, and turn right at the end to head up into the French quarter. This road will take you up as far as the mausoleum, and just before you get there on the right is a café called Cong CaPhe. My lovely friend Linh started this café in a small building up near where I used to work, and she has, for good reason, now got cafes throughout both Hanoi and further afield. Based on the communist reign during the war and the subsequent propaganda posters, this café is an absolute treat of old-meets-new. I am obsessed with their brown notepaper stationary, and have been known to pass an entire day drinking their coconut coffee and writing, watching the world pass. I don’t know what exactly about that place gets my creative juices flowing, but it most certainly does.
If you’ve only got a weekend in Hanoi, these few things might not seem much, but they are my absolute favourite ways to spend a day. If they get you away from the hoards of tourists following their guide books, then all the better. To carry on your journey then, I’d recommend the sleeper train, but if you only splash out on one thing during your trip, make it a bed on the train! It will absolutely wreck your next day to have spent the entire night sat upright on a wooden bench, and for not much more you get a lovely quiet bedroom with an actually quite comfortable bed to tuck yourself into. Make sure you check when the train is meant to be arriving at your station though and set an alarm, because no one is going to come around and wake you, and the announcements for each stop are usually only made a few minutes in advance. Cue some extremely stressful times scrabbling to get all your stuff in your bag and having to run off the train, flip flops in hand, still in your pyjamas if you don’t!
Before planning your next step however, you absolutely cannot leave Hanoi without trying ALL of the food. As soon as I leave, even to go to different parts of Vietnam, I miss the food in Hanoi with all of my heart. Look out for:
* Bun Cha with Nem Ran on the side (add garlic and chilli, then dunk your salad and nem – spring rolls – into the broth of the Bun Cha)
*Bun Ca (fish broth with noodles – squeeze a healthy portion of quat (little kumquats) into the broth!)
* and my absolute favourite – Bun Bo Nam Bo. Beef, noodles, veg, peanuts and crispy onions with a bit of broth on top. My mouth is genuinely watering thinking about it.
* If you fancy an explore, head to An Duong and look for a tiny little seafood hut. Un.Believable.Food.
(Thank god I’m going back there in a few months!)