Since I already had my visa for Vietnam sorted in Vientiane, I took a 1-hour 10-minute flight straight into Hanoi for $100 USD through Lao Airlines, and the process was super easy.
I overpaid for an unlimited monthly Viettel Data-only SIM card (Dcom) for 300,000₫ ($13.45 USD), which worked throughout Vietnam for the three weeks I was there. I likely would have paid 1/6 of that price outside of the airport.
Getting from the airport to the city was overwhelming. I took a private minibus — remember to confirm the price first and expect to leave only after the van is full.
I was in Hanoi for 12 days total in July + August, 2015, and was lucky to stay at a friend’s apartment in Tây Hồ. She was an endless resource when discussing places to go and good things to eat. She lived near the city’s largest lake, which is 15km in circumference and surrounded by great places to eat and drink. My favorite thing to eat was bún chả which is a heady combination of grilled pork patties, fried spring rolls, vermicelli noodles, and fresh herbs. This was the best near Tây Hồ.
Hanoi has a lot more going on than its sleepy beach towns, but is much more relaxing than Saigon (which I would later learn). Still, Hanoi can feel a bit overwhelming, especially with the underlying feeling that you’re constantly being ripped off. Once you get the hang of crossing streets and get some food in you, you’ll feel much better, though.
Someone told me that Vietnam seems like a country determined to make up for lost time, and nothing makes me believe that more than dozens of scooters zipping in all directions around me. On a whole, it felt like a very safe country, but it certainly has more scams than any other I’d ever been in. And, yes, be cautious of those scooters zipping inches from you and snatching your loosely-held (or not held at all, if you’re being absentminded) bag. Seriously.
The Old Quarter is an excellent mix of history, modern life, new businesses, fast motorbikes, and great food + drink. Vietnam has the cheapest beer in the world, bia hoi, “fresh’” or draught beer brewed daily without additives or preservatives to be drunk within hours. Vietnamese coffee is probably the best in the whole world, and is often served iced with condensed milk.
While I was in Hanoi, these were some of my favorite things to do:
- Hỏa Lò Prison, ironically nicknamed the “Hanoi Hilton” by US POWs during the war in Vietnam.
- Walk around Hoàn Kiếm Lake, and then check out the Municipal Water Puppet Theatre.
- Walk around the St. Joseph’s Cathedral and then purchase a tour to Sapa or Halong Bay. Keep mind that not every travel agency is legit. Miss Ly was recommended to me and I found her very kind and reasonably priced.
- New Day is a recommended popular restaurant. Go with a group so you can order a bunch of different Vietnamese dishes.
- Cafe Duy Tri for caphe sua chua (iced coffee with yogurt).
- Cafe Pho Co for excellent views over Hoan Kiem Lake and a caphe trung da, coffee topped with a silkily smooth beaten egg white.
- Cong Caphe serves good coffee with kitsch communist memorabilia.
- West of Old Quarter: Temple of Literature and Ho Chi Minh’s Mausoleum and Museum. Yup, I saw Ho’s embalmed body!
- A 3-hour food tour with Mark Lowerson or Van Cong Tu of Hanoi Street Food Tours, for $75 per person inclusive of all food/drinks.
- ClickSpace Coworking Center was the best place in Hanoi to get some work done.