Just before both couples had our second kids, Nate and I traveled to Vietnam (last minute.) Here’s the story from 2012:
We went to Vietnam on a whim, fully knowing we would spend over 60 total hours traveling on our 7 day trip. Crazy? A little bit. Worth it? Absolutely. Our trip began and ended in Hanoi for a full day on each end. The rest of our trip was a 3 day trek through the northern villages of the Sapa Region. Make sure to check out our Hanoi photos!
The Old Quarter is the best spot to cruise around. Street vendors of all kinds are selling their goods from shops, alleys, from their shoulders, and even in the middle of the street. Looking for some souvenirs to bring home? This is the spot. Looking for an industrial safe or ancient laminator? Oddly enough, you can get these too.
Hanoi’s nonstop activity rivals that of any bustling city. Take a walk from the Old Quarter to see the rundown consulate buildings with badminton being played almost religiously every day. You can also walk to the Ho Chi Minh Memorial and see Ho in person (be prepared for a serious line.) If you can’t get in, join the others and do some aggressive excercise between the plots of grass. We also enjoyed the Hanoi War Museum, where we saw a very different perspective of how the wars went down.
1st off, only get into a cab that is VERY well-marked as belonging to one of the major cab companies in Hanoi.
We made the mistake of getting into a cab with a taxi cab sign on the roof and the meter, but no markings and no designation. Our ride ended with the angry (and scary) cab driver leaving us 1/4 mile away from our hotel demanding $50 USD for a 5 minute ride. His meter ran faster than a Vietnamese dog before dinner. We threw the equivalent of 5 dollars at him and bolted.
2nd, it’s always best to agree to an amount before getting in. We agreed to $16 USD from the airport to our hotel. On the way back, I did the straight meter, which ran up to nearly $20 USD. We believe that everything is negotiable in Asia, so it doesn’t hurt to try.
Most of the time in Hanoi you’ll be dodging cars, vendors, scooters, bikes and other pedestrians where elsewhere you might be strolling on a well-designated sidewalk. Becoming a confident pedestrian in Vietnam requires a lot of practice. If you’re lucky enough to find a crosswalk, you can bet that it won’t be accompanied by a traffic light. Crossing the street takes practice and nerves of steel. The biggest mistake you can make is hesitation. If you hesitate anywhere through the process, you may end up with tire marks on your back. Walk slowly and smoothly towards your destination, only slowing to allow certain close vehicles to pass in front of you. It’s like playing Frogger, only moving backwards is not an option.
If you plan on walking for more than 5 minutes, bring shoes you don’t care about. We made the mistake of walking with sandals (slippahs), and 1 week later I’m still scrubbing embedded dirt off my ankles and feet.
Protect your Health
Stock up on vitamins and probiotics before coming. Drink loads of bottled water while traveling and consider using drops of grapefruit seed extract in your water. Wash your hands often, and do everything you can to remain healthy. Some of the food you’ll be eating is questionable (if you’re doing things right), so make sure to protect your stomach.
In my experience in Asia, you can get some great massages and some bad ones. They’re almost all worth it since you’re paying near to nothing. Vietnam is no exception. We had a very strange foot massage that began with scolding water (literally), and ended with them punching us in the foreheads. Not sure why, but our $8 USD foot massage turned into an $18 USD massage with gratuity. Our masseuses asked for a tip, and when we pulled out 5 each, they said, “no, more.” Normally, I would punch them back, but with the jet lag, we were suckers and gave it to them.
Some countries don’t need a visa to enter Vietnam, but the US does. Being such a quick trip, we didn’t think about this till the last 12 hours before departure. Lucky, there are expedited services online to get it done within 4-5 hours. I’m sure there are other ways to get the visa approval letter, but this was the easiest way for us.
Best Hanoi Food
Shady Food Stalls
Here is our recipe for an amazing food experience in Hanoi. Walk around for a while, passing a half-dozen food stalls till you’re really hungry. Choose one that has plenty of locals eating. Sit down and point to what others are eating (unless they automatically bring you the 1 thing that they make.) Use chopsticks and the funky communal hot sauce and buy some bottled water or beer. If you do this 3-4 times, you’re likely to have at least 2 amazing meals. We did this, and we found some of the best Pho (a light noodle soup served with onions, various meats, and vegetables) and Bun Cha (noodles with grilled pork meatballs, a salad of herbs and mint, bean sprouts, and cucumbers) and heavenly fried spring rolls. These stalls look like you’ll get sick from the food (watch how they wash the dishes and prepare the food)… It may happen, but it’s worth it. We didn’t get sick on this trip, but our stomachs took a beating.
Vietnamese Food Mecca
We were recommended to a spot in the Old Quarter that (in our limited experience) was the mecca of Vietnamese food. It’s called Quan An Ngon located at 18 Phan Boi Chau off of Cua Nam. Here you’ll be placed at a long table among a dozen of other tables surrounded by in-house food stalls. Each station offers different dishes from which you’ll be delivered after ordering from a huge menu. Don’t be afraid to try the croquettes (tempera frog legs), or roasted sparrow. We ate some incredible dishes, some of which were very odd. We went 2 times in 1 day, and for 2 people with 2-3 big beers each, our meals each cost an average of $8 USD. Not bad.
How has Starbucks not figured this one out yet? It’s only a matter of time. Single-serving brewed coffee over a thick, sweet condensed milk makes for the kind of sludgy coffee that will make your brain sing. If I could suck down 1of these a day, I’d be happy to pay 2-3 times the price ($1-3 USD).
Have a Vietnamese coffee hot or cold, and you won’t regret it. Order it from one of the dingy cafes on the side of the road, not from the better-branded Starbucks-style places.
Traveling Hanoi on a Budget
We used Starwood points to stay at the Sheraton for free (about 5 minutes from the Old Quarter.) There are plenty of inexpensive spots to stay at within the Old Quarter, which will save you money on cabs.
If you eat at any fancy place or any place with a view, you’re paying too much. Eat at the cheap food stalls on the side of the road and in the alleys. You can get away with amazing meals for $1-3 USD. Also, if you see someone kneeling down on the street corner frying up some spring rolls or little dough bowls of coconut-sweet-goodness, stop and buy some. SO GOOD!
You can walk to many places within the Old Quarter, if you’re willing and the weather is cooperative. You’ll need a cab to get to certain areas. Make sure to get a price before getting in the cab, and make sure they’re an accredited cab company.