Hanoi is a disorientating city: a maze of metre-wide backstreets choked with market stalls and motorcycles, where everything happens at 1,000 miles an hour and every inch of the city is steeped in history. I first came face-to-face with the city towards the end of a six week stint traversing the length and breadth of this incredible country following my first year of university.
The city fizzes with energy; even as the ubiquitous grey stone walls appear to crumble before your eyes, this manic, twisting, slightly wonky city continues to buzz with life. We stayed in a hostel in the heart of the Old Quarter, sticking to our backpackers budget of as little as physically possible. There was no hot water and a sizeable cockroach problem, but hey – the location was fantastic and the roof didn’t leak!
Vietnam is an enormously long country, spanning 1650km from top to bottom, though only 50km wide at its narrowest point. This enormous expanse of land spans several cultural, climatic and tribal regions, creating huge variation across the country. During the war, this saw the country split in two, with Hanoi and Saigon the respective capitals. Whilst the country has long been reunified, the noticeable variation remains.
Hanoi is the cooler city – in the climatic sense of the word – with regular heavy mists descending upon Hoàn Kiếm lake. The food is suitably simpler than in the humid south, with its abundance of tropical fruit and sweet coconut milk. Here, the steaming bowls of pho are more likely to be accented with peppercorns than fiery red chillies.
We only stayed in the city for a few days before heading towards the coast for Ha Long Bay and Cat Ba Island. It’s a city i’d love to visit again…
Right at the top of every travellers hit-list for Hanoi should be street food. South East Asia is renowned for cheap and delicious street food, and Hanoi excels at it. Of an evening, every street corner becomes a pop-up eatery, decked out with tiny plastic furniture intended for playrooms and crammed with locals and tourists alike. Whilst the adventurous dive into game and offal, as a veggie I was more than happy with delicious bowls of steaming veggie pho or tofu noodles.
For those with a sweet tooth (holla), head to Fanny for a delicious ice cream. The array of flavours is incredible (try avocado, chilli-chocolate or durian!), and you can opt for a platter of fruit, ice cream flavours and melted chocolate for dipping…
Hanoi has an endless amount to see and do. I could while away many an afternoon just wandering the streets and exploring the markets that crop up at every turn. If you’re looking for a more detailed itinerary, i’d definitely recommend an early-morning wander around Hoàn Kiếm lake, whilst the mists still linger over the water. Head to the atmospheric little Ngoc Son Temple, located in the middle of the lake and accessible by a little wood footbridge.
The Temple of Literature is definitely worth a visit. Located towards the west of the city, this is a sprawling affair of gardens and temples. The main temple is breathtaking and incredibly well preserved.
Otherwise, i’d recommend just walking the streets and breathing in the atmosphere. Sit on a street corner, pull up a tiny chair and sip on a delicious Ca Phe Sua Da – Vietnamese iced coffee sweetened with condensed milk. It sounds grim but it’s a revelation!
Hanoi is a haven for travellers seeking hidden, tucked-away little spots. Whilst there are many sprawling, luxury hotels – mostly towards the north of the city – i’d definitely recommend seeking out a spot in the colonial French Quarter or the chaotic, labyrinthine Old Quarter. For those seeking out a spot of luxury, centrally-located traveller favourites include the reasonably priced Hanoi la Siesta (from $80 per night), located to the north of Hoàn Kiếm lake and bordering the Old Quarter, the Sofitel Legend Metropole Hanoi (from $225 per night) and the Hotel de l’Opera (from £102 per night), both located on the lake’s south-eastern rim.
For those on a budget, hostels abound in the winding streets north of the lake, whilst airbnb offers some gems such as this French colonial-style apartment for just £39 per night.
I’d love to hear your thoughts on the city – what are your favourite secret spots? Let me know in the comments!