We only had one full day in Hanoi, as we spent the majority of our week in Vietnam in Hoi An and Bai tu Long Bay. All of it we loved. The streets swarmed with bikes, the sidewalks packed with people crouched and slurping up meals at food stands, people in traditional Vietnamese hats selling fruits or donuts. The energy is high, people are busy, the air (in May) is of a humid sauna, and the city is green – healthy and massive trees somehow break through the cement sidewalks and reach up in between buildings. Being a tourist in Vietnam was refreshing, we never felt scammed or targeted – restaurants and shops gave us the same price as locals (usually) and people were not pushy and cars rarely beeped. One time we fell prey – we asked a woman where a certain restaurant was and she convinced us it was indeed hers. Still, it was a delicious meal (photo above).
So, we enjoyed wandering en foot around the Old Quarter, especially around the lake, which was great for a morning run too (about 1 mile around). While we usually lust for a simple bowl of granola in our hotel or hostel rooms, we found ourselves completely content with eating out in Vietnam. Food is cheap, delicious and going to restaurants/street carts/markets is an experience. Having never been to SE Asia before this trip, I was completely in awe of how yummy a bowl of noodles can be. As a Vietnamese man explained to us, each dish strives to achieve a yin and yang balance in flavor and texture – everything we had was both sweet and savory, and might include slippery noodles topped with crunchy sprouts. Especially delightful was the garden mixture of lettuce, mint, cilantro, and other bitter leaves, that were a fresh kick atop most dishes. The meals to try in Hanoi are bun cha (thin noodle and salad mixed with pork soup), bun (same components, less soup, more noodle, topped with peanuts), banh mi (sandwich usually with pork or pate), pho (noodle soup), BBQ pork spring rolls (cram BBQ pork, sprouts, cucumber, salad, and rice pancake into sheer slice of rice paper). We were recommended Bun Bo Nam Bo for best bun and Banh Mi 25 for banh mi. And of course we had to go to the restaurant that Obama and Anthony Bourdain dined at for bun cha – we are super fans of both of them! It was as authentic as we expected – we had to seek out someone to serve us, the place was littered with the napkins and lost lettuce leaves of many well-fed customers, and we watched a mom hand her (could not be more than ten) daughter a beer. The (buzzed?) girl and her siblings proceeded to squeal and scatter plastic stools and napkins as they ran around.
We stayed at Mai Charming Boutique Hotel which had nice modern rooms for $20 and the location was ideal. Running around the lake in the morning was lovely, dodging low hanging branches heavy with flowers, old men doing their morning shuffle and arm swing, and a group of older women gathered for a (seemingly uncoordinated and jumpy) dance routine set to some pop. There are tons of cafes, but we ducked into Joma Cafe and were surprised to bump into Claire, a relative of mine! It was a great place to sit on a laptop for a few hours, yummy food, AC, and good wifi.
So, basically we just have food recommendations for Hanoi. Other tourists said they were underwhelmed by the sites in Hanoi, but there are tons of sites on the outskirts. We booked a one night stay on an Indochina Junk on Bai Tu Long Bay, which is the less touristed and less polluted version of the well-known Halong Bay. The tour company made it easy, picked us up and dropped us back at our hotel in Hanoi.
At a glance…
- Stay in the Old Quarter near the lake. We enjoyed Mai Charming Boutique Hotel.
- Eat bun and bun cha…with chopsticks!
- Exercise by running around the lake early morning before it gets too hot. Great people watching too.
- Visit Bai tu Long Bay. Tours will provide a ride to/from Hanoi.