I remember feeling both overwhelmingly excited and nervous upon landing at Noi Bai International Airport in Hanoi early on May 5. One of my main fears was not getting into the country since I had an e-visa but no proof of onward travel, however the customs agent didn’t say a word to anyone ahead of me and stamped my passport without batting an eye – on the very last page of a brand new passport, no less! Meaghan and I changed into shorts and tank tops before leaving the airport because while everyone around us seemed to be fine in long sleeves and long pants, we were already feeling the heat.
We had decided that we wanted to take the public bus from the airport to the hostel we had booked in the city’s Old Quarter. Our friends and family had warned against this, telling us we would be too tired from travelling and we should just book a transfer, but we had made up our minds that we were going to get there on our own. There is some information available online about how to make this journey, however we only had a vague idea of what we were setting out to do. When you exit the international arrivals terminal, you should spot a sign for bus #86, the bus that goes between the airport and the Old Quarter. We didn’t have to wait too long before it arrived, and the bus assistant was very helpful in confirming that we had to get off at stop #7, even telling us he would let us know when it was next. The bus cost 35, 000 VND (1.50 US$ at time of writing), making it a super cost-efficient way to get into the city. It took about an hour to get to our stop, where we got off and were immediately faced with the chaos that is Hanoi’s Old Quarter.
We had saved directions to our hostel on our phones before leaving since we didn’t have SIM cards yet, however right off the bat we couldn’t seem to find the first street we had to turn on. We approached a group of girls who had gotten off the same bus as us and looked to be in the same situation, and luckily they had a working SIM card and we ended up walking most of the way with them and then finally turning onto the street our hostel was on. We had successfully completed our first journey, and arriving at Vietnam Backpackers Hostel felt like a great success.
After we had checked in and stored our luggage for the day (we wouldn’t be able to get our rooms until a little later), we headed up to the fifth floor of the hostel where there is a great communal space and a terrace with views of Hanoi. It felt so unreal to finally be there, I was really having a ‘pinch-me’ moment. It was overcast but still incredibly hot and after taking a little rest we set out on our next mission: find a Viettel store to buy local SIM cards. When we asked the receptionist for directions he instead told us about the SIM cards sold at the hostel but it wasn’t what we wanted so we did a quick search on Google Maps and set off on the 10-minute walk to the store. The nearest store we found is near Hoan Kiem Lake, and it was very easy to get set up with our SIM cards. We paid 250, 000 VND (10.70 US$) each for 5GB of data for 30 days, which also included the actual card.
After that we explored around Hoan Kiem Lake. The streets around this lake are closed off during the weekends as a pedestrian area and since we had arrived on a Sunday, we were in luck. It was great not to have to worry about the crazy Vietnam traffic and the people watching was incredible. We quickly realized that we were the subject of a whole lot of people watching, and had our first experiences being photographed – both from afar, and by people who came up close and asked (or just snapped away). We stopped for our first Vietnamese iced coffee at what we later realized was a fancy restaurant. Vietnamese coffee is a must for any caffeine fiends and my all-time favourite is a Ca Phe Sua Da – iced coffee with condensed milk!
After some more wandering around we made our way back to the hostel for some rest. Although we had thought we would take it easy our first night, we were pretty easily convinced by the first friend we met in our dorm room, James, to head downstairs for the hostel’s Taco Night and free beer hour. We quickly met tons of people, which is one of the best parts of staying in hostels. We ended up having a much bigger night out than we might have anticipated, starting with the hostel bar and local beer – bia hoi- in the street out front, then heading out on the “pub crawl” at 11:30 already more than a few drinks in. First we hit up Hangover Bar, before taking a long (and potentially hazardous for the inebriated, aka all of us) walk across the highway to another bar. This crazy first night was a great start to our trip and the best indication of what awaited us in the next few weeks.
Once we finally managed to get ourselves out of bed the next morning we had missed free breakfast at the hostel so we headed out for something even better – pho! My first bowl of pho in Vietnam was literally like a dream come true. I had actually been vegetarian for a year at that point but had decided to put that on hold to go travelling, mostly because I couldn’t imagine visiting Vietnam and not eating all the food I had been waiting to try my entire life. The Vietnamese family sitting next to us was incredibly friendly and demonstrated how she was eating her soup – turns out we had both been doing it wrong! The rest of the day was also focused on food – we had our first Banh Mi and coconut coffee, another favourite. Meaghan wasn’t feeling too well so after getting her set up in the room I ventured downstairs to try to make friends on my own. This was super nerve-wracking at the time but now blends in with countless other nights spent chatting with strangers at hostels, and making amazing friends. I ended up going on the “pub crawl” yet again, this time to Hair of the Dog Bar, where I had a great night dancing and reveling in the fact that I was really, finally there!
On our third day in Hanoi we set off on our first day trip to Bat Trang to visit a friend of mine. My friend Delora goes to my university in Montreal but is from Vietnam, and we were lucky enough to have her offer to show us around her hometown while we were there. Bat Trang is around 13 km from central Hanoi and we got there easily with our newly acquired Hanoi bus navigation skills. Delora was waiting to pick us up at the bus stop with her friend Hannah, and after hugs and introductions we made our way to the first stop of the day: a ceramic studio! Bat Trang is known for producing a certain style of ceramics, called Bat Trang Porcelain. We sat down and watched a demonstration of how it’s done, then it was time to get to work ourselves. I’ve never been the best at arts and crafts and the demo definitely made it look easy – emphasis on look. I ruined my bowl – or was it a cup? – over and over until finally it was decided that I couldn’t do any better, and sent my sad looking final creation to get baked in the oven.
Next stop was something I’m much more suited to – food! Delora took us for lunch at a traditional Vietnamese restaurant and we were served up an incredible feast, trying all of her favourite foods. I remember truly thinking it was one of the most delicious meals I’ve ever had. We spent the rest of the day exploring Bat Trang, which had a kind of sleepy village feel but views of the Hanoi skyline across the water. I would recommend it to anyone looking for a unique day trip from Hanoi, especially if you’re looking to escape some of the crowds! We saw few other tourists and got a completely different look at Vietnam than what we’d seen so far in the heart of the Old Quarter. It was great to see a friend and have her show us around where she’s from. I’m so grateful for experiences like these and headed back to Hanoi with a full heart (and stomach)!
Our final full day in Hanoi started early as we had yet another mission – head back to the airport to pick up the final piece in our travel trio! We were super excited to welcome Sarah to Hanoi and took the same bus (#86) back to the airport to greet her. We were somewhat afraid we’d never get there when we saw the highway we had to cross on foot to get to the bus station, but somehow (read: by following a local after contemplating how we could avoid death by motorcycle) we made it across and were on our way! Sarah’s bag unfortunately got lost somewhere along the way but after leaving our hostel information and musing over how convenient it is that we’re all right around the same size, we were back on the bus. Sarah is never one to turn down a good party and her first night looked much like ours had a few days before – bia hoi, Old Quarter bars, new friends and tons of fun. We tried to have an early night, because the next day we were leaving on a new adventure with an early wake-up call – our trip to Ha Long Bay.
Overall, I think Hanoi was a great place to start our backpacking trip and our time in Vietnam. We made friends that we would go on to travel with as we made our way South, and got an introduction to the country we would fall in love with over the next few weeks. I found the food in the North of Vietnam to be the best in the country, and this city will always hold a special place in my heart as the starting point of our trip. It should absolutely be included on any Vietnam itinerary, though I’d say three days would be enough to see it all. If you’re a fan of taking it slow, however, this city has tons to offer and I can assure you that you won’t be bored.
Where to Stay
We stayed at Vietnam Backpackers Hostel – Downtown the whole time we were in Hanoi and I would highly recommend it. This is one of the most popular hostels in Hanoi and was completely full when we were there, which made for a very lively atmosphere and instant friends. It is definitely a party hostel and I would not recommend it to those looking for anything quiet, private or calm. For us, it was the perfect start to our backpacking trip and gave us a real taste of the party culture that now exists on most of the ‘Banana Pancake’ trail.
We booked this hostel in advance as we wanted to know where we were going directly from the airport. I’m a big fan of booking accommodation along the way, and would usually book my hostels the night before or day of, once I knew for sure I was headed that direction. Once at a hostel, I never had issues extending my stay. I would recommend this strategy for most backpackers, however it’s worth noting that if you want to stay at a particularly popular hostel or are travelling in high season, it can be a good idea to book ahead of time. Everyone has different comfort zones and travel styles so as always, do what you feel comfortable with and find what works for you!
What to do
- Explore around Hoan Kiem Lake
- Get lost in the streets of the Old Quarter – and do some shopping at the same time!
- Check out Ho Chi Minh’s Mausoleum
- Visit some of the city’s many museums (some I’d love to check out next time are the Women’s Museum and the Museum of Ethnology)
- Spend some time at Hanoi’s infamous Train Street – schedule your visit to coincide with the thrilling passing of the train itself!
What to eat & drink
- Pho – unfortunately I don’t have the name of the restaurant I went to, but a good tip is to find somewhere filled with locals!
- Banh Mi – check out Banh Mi 25 (link)
- Bun cha – you can follow in Anthony Bourdain and Obama’s footsteps by grabbing this at Bun Cha Huong Lien
- Vietnamese iced coffee – to satisfy your caffeine cravings I recommend The Note Coffee
- Coconut coffee
- Egg coffee
How much does it cost
At time of writing, 25 US$ = 587, 860.45 VND
- Hostel – 170, 000 VND/night
- Bia hoi – 5, 000 VND
- Meal – 50, 000 VND
- Coffee – 30, 000 VND
- Drinks at bars – 100, 000 VND
I think a good estimate for the budget backpacker would be 25 US$/day, however you can definitely get away with less than that or splash out and spend a little more!
Balling on a budget - tips for how to save!
Vietnam is one of the most budget friendly countries in Southeast Asia so you can live it up on the smallest of budgets here! If you’re like me and always looking for ways to save, think about:
- Limiting your alcohol consumption, or at least watching how much you’re spending – the drinks add up faster than anything else
- Trying out the street food! Vietnam is known for its street food so grab a miniature plastic stool and eat like the locals do – your stomach and your wallet will thank you
- Take public transportation in and out of the city – it’s super affordable and will get you where you need to go easily!