At Home in Hanoi

After weeks of bustling around Vietnam—a few days in Ha Long Bay and Bai Tu Long Bay and a brief excursion up to the beautiful Sa Pa—I came back to the welcoming, coffee-loving arms of Hanoi, which quickly became my new favorite place.

I didn’t expect to fall in love with Hanoi, but I did.

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Hoan Kiem Lake, Hanoi

There are many reasons for this, of course—some quite logical and others perhaps metaphysical.

For starters, Hanoi’s coffee game is amazing. There are cafés on almost every corner, sometimes with multiple per block, and the coffee is just the way I like it—strong, dark, and handsome.

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Thick, creamy egg coffee (right), Old Town Cafe, Hanoi

I mean, reaaaaalllly strong. Iced, hot–it doesn’t matter. Add in some sweetened condensed milk at the bottom, and you have a sure-fire way of getting my creative energy (and productivity going). (Check out this article on ordering Vietnamese coffee like a pro.)

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View from inside a noodle shop, Hanoi

Second, the food is some of the most delicious I’ve had in all of Asia—and I’ve had some delicious food. Mostly noodles, noodles, and more noodles—some spicy, some citrusy, all of it amazing. My favorites so far are bún riêu cua (a soup/noodle dish with crabmeat, tomatoes, and lime) and bun cha (grilled pork with noodles and veg). And best part of all, most of it’s only $1-3 per meal—talk about a backpacker’s heaven.

 

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A vendor cooking street food, Hanoi
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My favorite bún riêu cua place (find on Google maps here)

(See my recommendations at the end of this post for more ideas on where to get the best meals in Hanoi–and if you love food and have any sense in you, please take the Hanoi Street Food Tour. For $20USD, I ate so much and learned so much about the different kinds of food the city had to offer. I highly, highly, highly recommend it.)

 

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Third, if you enjoy sipping on a cold, alcoholic beverage on occasion but don’t want to shill out too many extra dollars, Vietnam is the place to be. Each region/city seems to have its own brew, and usually their lagers are (not great but) a cut above the average Asian beer and quite inexpensive (about 70 cents to a dollar or two, depending on the level of touristy where you’re buying it from). Most importantly, though, there is a local/microbrewery scene, and in Hanoi, there’s a little street in the Old Quarter that’s filled with shops that sell their own better-than-average lager at just 20 cents per cup. It’s called bia hơi, and if you can, you should get it.

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Drinking bia hơi with my friend Jill
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Bia hơi corner, Hanoi

(As a side note, I am told that if you want delicious beer in Southeast Asia, you should go to Laos, where Beer Lao has taken the Laotian beer industry by storm.)

Finally, the writer in me has a confession to make about Hanoi: There’s just something about it that makes me want to sing. I know that’s a strange thing to say, but perhaps my fellow creatives will get it. Honestly, I just walk down the street, and music comes to me. Sometimes real songs, but also just other stuff—songs that just come out of my head and heart.

Now, real talk, this isn’t exclusive to Vietnam. My making up music isn’t a new thing. In fact, since I was a kid, I’d orchestrate music in my head—most notably while doing things like mowing our acres of grass out in the country in Illinois. Music was just something that would swell up out of me, and if I had a piano to play it on, I would. But often songs would just hum around in my head instead.

However, as an adult, I’ve noticed fewer and fewer instances where this music arrives unbidden. Sometimes it comes while I’m walking along the beach at night, the ocean rhythmically rolling up the shore. Often, I recognize the arrival of music as a kind of harbinger—an indication that the space or place I’m in has a kind of creative energy for me.

And I don’t know if it’s the rumble of the motorbikes or the laughter spilling out from streetside cafes, but something about Hanoi gives me music. Like, constantly. I hadn’t felt this much music inside of me for years.

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View from Old Town Cafe, Hanoi

And so, in Hanoi, I wrote and I read. I walked along the jumble of city streets. I dodged hurried motorists and drank iced coffees on café patios as young Vietnamese people chattered around me. I visited the Vietnam Fine Arts Museum (which I recommend if you like art–their exhibitions were wonderful) and ate noodle dishes (and banh mi, and sticky rice) like it was my job.

And I let Hanoi fill me up with a sense of joy and wonder and possibility that I hadn’t felt for a long, long time.

 

Travel Tips

  • Hanoi’s Hostels and Hotels: There is an abundance of good, affordable places to stay in Hanoi’s old quarter. Here are the places I stayed that I’d recommend:
    • Hanoi Massive Hostel: Super affordable, friendly staff, secure, great location, and you get a free beer every night (at least, that was the deal they had when I was there)
    • Hanoi Capella Hotel: A beautiful, small (and affordable) boutique hotel just off of Hoan Kiem Lake and close to restaurants, cafes, and bars. Perfect location, clean and well-appointed rooms. The staff was friendly and helpful and gave great recommendations for places to eat and things to do. And the rooms were clean, bigger than I’d expected, and bright/comfy.
    • Airbnb: If you’re looking for a more “local” experience or, like me, just wanted a quiet, private place to write once I’d done some traveling, Airbnb might be a good place to search for an apartment or room to rent. I stayed at a studio listed by this Airbnb host in the Old Quarter. I think she might’ve since updated the apartment (and done a lot of expanding in terms of her properties), but I had a great experience renting from her (and paid about $22USD per night and had an apartment all to myself). I think this might be the apartment post-renovation (it’s the one that loads when I click through my old reservation), but no promises. 🙂
  • Eating and Drinking
    • Cafes. Two of my favorite cafes were Aha Cafe (multiple locations) and Old Town Cafe, famous for its egg coffee and with views overlooking Hoan Kiem Lake. I also hung out a little at Cafe Nola, which is a nice space to write a little and have a cuppa.
    • Beer is Cheap and Delicious. Check out bia hơi corner or order yourself a bottle or can of Bia Ha Noi at your local eatery–and get used to putting ice in your cup to keep your beer cool.
    • Food. Try some pho (beef and noodle soup) at the famous Phở 10 Lý Quốc Sư. Try some bún bò nam bộ (grilled beef with noodles, veggies, and a yummy sauce) at the aptly named Bún Bò Nam Bộ. It might be a hike, but track down some bun cha (grilled pork with noodles and veg) at Bún chả 34 Hàng Than. Find yourself some banh mi from the myriad of vendors (we tried this one and another one right across from this cafe, and both were delicious).
    • Hanoi Social Club: On the edge of the Old Quarter, Hanoi Social Club is a local cafe and restaurant that caters to international customers and has a range of vegan and vegetarian options. This is a great place to get a coffee and get some work done–or get that brunch fix if you’ve been missing it. Food’s a little on the expensive side (compared to restaurants serving more local fare), but it’s good. As an added bonus, they’re LGBTQ-friendly and frequently host live music on nights and weekends. Just a cool place to check out in general, and a nice space for co-working.
    • Hanoi Street Food Tour: Intimidated by your options? Join a food tour with Hanoi Street Food Tour, and enjoy 3 hours of a guided walk around Old Quarter eateries. (It introduced to me to my favorite dish, bún riêu cua.)
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From the beautifully decorated rooftop seating area at Cafe Nola
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Hanoi Social Club: Come in for the rainbow flag on the door, stay for the avocado toast and strong coffee
  • Getting Around
    • Taxis and Motorbikes: Taxis and motorbike taxis are everywhere. While I’ve read about folks getting scammed by taxi drivers in Hanoi, I had no problems. We hailed a couple taxis and made sure they had metered fare (I believe all the legit ones do), and they were totally above board. Know that many taxi drivers might not speak/read English (or your terrible accent when trying to speak Vietnamese), so it’s good to have the proper Vietnamese spelling of addresses and locations when taking a taxi (you can ask your hotel to help you out with this). Most hostels/hotels can arrange pickup for you at the airport for an additional fee (maybe like $15-20USD). Find out more about Hanoi’s taxis here.
    • Grab and Uber: These two ridesharing services are now available in Hanoi. Just download the appropriate app from your phone’s app store, make sure your phone is connected to the internet, turn on your location (or write in your starting location), type in where you’re headed, and then they’ll match you with a driver. You’ll know in advance how much your ride will cost, you’ll be able to pay through the app, and you’ll have an exact map of the route your driver will (most likely) take (might vary based on traffic, etc.). Best of all, you’ll make sure your driver knows the exact address you’re going to (which will be confirmed on a map for you and the driver) without having to worry about language barriers getting in the way (and you ending up in the middle of no where). In our experience, you can even get a motorbike taxi on Uber, if you’re feeling adventurous.
  • Staying Connected
    • WiFi: All the hostels and hotels I stayed at throughout Hanoi had excellent WiFi. Most restaurants won’t, but you can find your fair share of cafes and coffeeshops that do.
    • SIM Cards: SIM cards are readily available at from registered vendors. The two companies I saw recommended most were Viettel and Vinaphone. I bought a Vinaphone SIM card and had a fine experience throughout my travels in Vietnam. For around $5, I got 5gb of data for 30 days. Viettel and Vinaphone both have stores in/around the Old Quarter (and elsewhere). For more info on buying a SIM card, topping up, etc., check out this useful post from Too Many Adapters

 

 

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