I’ll be honest with you, I was a bit afraid of Hanoi before we went there. Most of what I’d heard about the city was contrary to our travel style: it’s busy, disorganized, full of scammers, loud, etc. I’ve had friends travel there that have absolutely hated it, but also friends that absolutely loved it. I was worried that, after three days relaxing in Luang Prabang, Laos, Hanoi’s energy would be too much for us.
As luck would have it, when you have a bar set pretty low for a place, the conditions are set for it to really knock it out of the park. And while I’m not sure my opinion of Hanoi would be the same if we’d been there a full week instead of a mere 48 hours, I’m glad we spent the time we did in Hanoi rather than skip it altogether.
Let me tell you the first step in having a positive Vietnam experience: having no issues with getting your visa on arrival. Pro tip here: When you’re traveling to a bunch of foreign countries that allow visa on arrival, do your homework. David and I had printed a bunch of DIY passport photos (there’s even a link on the Dept. of State’s website to allow you to print your own easily), filled out visa applications, had exact change for visa fees, and wore some shit-eating grins going through immigration to try and make transit as easy as possible. And it worked – we were out of Noi Bai International with our Vietnam visas a full 20 minutes before the next folks.
We arrived to Hanoi late at night, after 11pm, so went straight to bed. Upon waking the next morning, we got a map from the concierge at our extremely nice hotel, and basically drew a route around the city a la Billy from Family Circus. I was excited to test my sense of direction and map reading abilities, and to explore a city about which I had done almost zero research.
We ended up strolling through Old Town toward the Chùa Trấn Quốc on Hanoi’s large inland lake. We arrived at siesta time, so took some photos from the outside before buying a couple coconuts to drink on the sidewalk. Here’s my second Vietnam pro tip: Don’t get pissed if someone tries to charge you $2USD for a coconut. Can you really not afford it? You got to Vietnam on a flight that likely cost more than $500USD – you can pay $2 for a goddamn coconut.
We didn’t have any hard feelings about not getting to go inside the temple. Sometimes attractions are closed, and when traveling in Southeast Asia, there are ample opportunities to visit other temples, as we had done in both Laos and Cambodia before arriving in Vietnam. Plus, visiting religious architectural sites is never at the top of David’s to-do list (recovering Southern Baptist), so it wasn’t too difficult to walk away.
From there we got caught in the daily monsoon and sought shelter at a restaurant, where we drank a beer and waited out the rain. One of my favorite moments of our entire trip was seeing the roads clear as motorbike drivers headed under the tree canopies and donned special ponchos before heading back out into the action.
Once it cleared up, we sauntered into the Communist monument heavy section of town, seeing Ho Chih Minh’s mausoleum, as well as some formal looking party buildings adorned with hammers and sickles (no photos allowed, sorry!)
We then made our way back to the hotel. On the way we found a mucho homosexual storefront selling various skank wear (it’s pride season!) disguised as “gym wear”, and had some private laughs about how a size in Vietnam doesn’t exist to fit our thighs. We also did some shopping for coffee and woodblock propaganda prints, as we can’t seem make a trip without bringing home an additional piece of luggage home, bursting at the seams with kitschy loot.
We spent the rest of the evening repacking our bags, eating room service, and generally lazing around. At night we took another quick stroll around the Old Quarter and night market to look for any last deals (there are always last minute bargains to be made, after all), before retiring to bed.
We enjoyed Hanoi, albeit in a very different way from any of the other cities we visited on this trip. It was an exciting place to be – more like Seoul, Belgrade, or Bangkok than quieter cities like Vilnius, Mostar, or Kyoto. It was a great place to end our first adventure of the year – with a bang rather than with a whisper, for sure.
We loved our accommodation in Hanoi – the Essence Palace Hotel. We had originally planned on staying in an economy room, but better rooms are always for sale in the off season, and we were able to upgrade to a higher floor room with a balcony for an additional $10 per night – with a final total at $54 per night. The staff there was friendly to the point of suspicion, with recommendations for anything we were looking for (spoiler alert: you won’t find vegetarian pho). They also arranged a taxi for us to and from the airport (we didn’t use any taxis in the city on our own, we got everywhere on foot) at $18 each way, and wrote us invitation letters for our visas on arrival for $20 each. The location is superb, and I recommend it for the mid-range traveler looking for some relative comfort and peace in an otherwise rather hectic city.