Hanoi is a crazy, intriguing place. Crossing the street and forking over thousands of Dong for a meal (at least 20,000 of them per dollar) are experiences in themselves, but there are so many experiences to have in and around Hanoi. Here are 10 experiences that made my time compelling and memorable.
#1. Exploring/Getting Lost in the Old Quarter.
Strung under the facade of dingy, French colonial buildings are a mess of electrical wires. A sea of honking motorbikes weave through women in large conical hats who are selling baskets of doughy, fried balls of bliss and fresh fruit. Greying male barbers give haircuts to customers sitting streetside in plastic chairs…
The maze of streets in the Old Quarter is somewhat organized; different streets cater to different items- shops of shoes can be found on one street, mannequins on another, bars on another, etc. Communist Propaganda stores and coffee shops contribute to a sense of cohesion, as they are scattered all around. With colorful side streets sprawling out in every direction, it’s hard to maintain a sense of direction inside the Old Quarter. But getting lost is half the fun and often leads to discovery of something not on the list.
#2. Observing Coffee Culture.
Vietnam has a social culture that revolves around coffee. All day long, Vietnamese people chit-chat at teeny-tiny, plastic tables outside of tiny coffee shops. Groups of men crowd around Xiangqi game boards and ferociously slam their wooden game pieces on the tables. In between hooping and hollering, they drink from shot-glass size coffees.
It was during my personal coffee time, with coffee so strong that I was shaking after 3 sips, that I was able to observe strange things, like a bag of drowsy, drugged animals being bought and slung over the back of a motorcycle.
One of my favorite coffee experiences, as strange as it sounds, was traditional egg coffee (cá phê trung) from Cafe Giang. They have quite the selection of egg-everything. I sampled a common Vietnamese dessert, egg and green beans. Everything there is frothy and delicious, probably even the beer and egg combo.
#3. Enjoying a Bird’s-Eye View from City View Cafe.
This 6th floor restaurant lives up to its name; we had a great view of the city centre and the hustle and bustle of the surrounding streets, along with spring rolls and a bowl of pho. Although the food here is average, I find Vietnamese cuisine in general to be refreshingly light and fresh.
#4. Casually eating some dog (thit chó in Vietnamese).
There are times when we all wonder…. should I be concerned about my life choices?
#5. Watching for Turtles at Hoàn Kiêm Lake.
I kept an eye out for turtles in the lake, which are a sign of good luck. I walked across the Huc bridge to the Ngoc Son Temple, which is dedicated to a war hero. (The hero had the help of a magic sword, which was given to him by a turtle god, as legend has it.) It’s also worth it to take a leisure stroll around the lake and watch the locals do their thang.
#6. DIY BBQ Dinner.
This do-it-yourself din-din is one of my more memorable meals of all time. It’s fun to sizzle your own meat and onion pieces over a small pot and then dip them into a zesty, to-die-for lime sauce. (I had great company too.) Seriously though- take the menu being waved in your face, have a seat at the tiny table, and enjoy Hanoi’s DIY street food.
Hitting Beer Street afterwards is an awesome way to enjoy some cheap and delicious Bia Hà Nôi, until midnight anyways.
#7. Wandering Around the Temple of Literature.
A whole temple dedicated to books! and knowledge! and education! Part of the temple is a Confucius shrine, and another big part was the very first national university in Vietnam. When I visited in late April, graduate students happened to be there taking pictures and soaking up luck for their future. It’s a very peaceful place, and I gained a deeper respect for how much the country values its education.
(This temple is a great alternative if you’re not keen on seeing the embalmed “Uncle” Ho Chi Minh, who practically glows from his glass box in the dark Mausoleum. Slightly unsettling.)
#8. ‘Booze Cruising’ through Ha Long Bay.
Let’s be honest, taking a ‘booze cruise’ is not necessarily representative of Vietnamese culture; I felt it was a more Eurocentric experience than anything else, but that doesn’t necessarily make the experience any less valid. It’s just one of those you-have-to-do-it activities in which the tingle of impending fun outweighs the guilt of having fallen into an overpriced and culture-deprived tourist trap.
Was it fun and worth it? Hell yeah, I had a great time. As a social twenty-something, I spent 3 days chugging beers, following and enforcing simple drinking rules, and enjoying activities like volleyball and kayaking on our private ‘Castaway’ Island.
Would I do it again? Nah, once is plenty.
#9. Enjoying Ha Long without Booze in Hand.
It’s a shame that most of the time its visitors are in drunken stupor; the negative side of a booze cruise is that the main focus and context is, obviously, booze, which renders the incredible surrounding seascape undervalued and unappreciated. Ha Long Bay is absolutely stunning, and it’s one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever had the pleasure of visiting. Little limestone islands loom as far as the eye can see under an eery, grey fog. From time to time, I felt it necessary to set the beer can down, look around, and appreciate this strangely serene place and its inherent beauty.
#10. Unexpectedly Falling for Someone.
Although this is probably not a typical Hanoi experience, I was lucky enough to visit with someone who morphed into more than a friend and added so much pizzaz and laughter to my time in Vietnam. Getting to know a fun person while exploring a fun city is double the pleasure and double the fun. Our short time together in Vietnam was all it took to realize that we want many more trips together. Thank you, Michael, for infusing my trip with so many hilarious, wonderful memories.
Although I have unforgettable memories in Hanoi and Ha Long Bay, I hope make more in Vietnam. I would love to visit Sapa, Hoi An, and Hue.
What are you favorite Vietnam experiences?