We landed in Hanoi after a short flight from Siem Reap in Cambodia, only due to a change in climate (its very warm in Cambodia and the North of Vietnam in December is colder), I got sick, it was a normal cold that hit me like a tonne of bricks so I spent a full day in bed being watched over by our lovely receptionist who kept coming to my room to make me lemon tea. Jon went out on a walking tour as I didn’t want him to miss out. For this part of our trip we were only in Hanoi for a day because we were to head out to Cat Ba island for a few days and then onwards to Ninh Bình for Christmas eve, Christmas day and two days after then Sa Pa as the grand finale. We were to finish our Vietnam trip back in Hanoi for two days before flying home. So essentially me being ill during this one day pitstop in Hanoi didn’t really matter because I knew we’d be coming back anyway.
To be honest I wasn’t excited about Hanoi and was also a little disappointed by this second half of the trip. This was largely due to our own lack of research. I really enjoy warm climates, I thrive in mild weather, most people say this but unlike most people I’m less likely to get sick in warmer climates, my body type is always cold with low blood pressure and I suffer with bladder infections a lot so I need to keep my bladder and kidneys warm and dry. I never expected the North of Vietnam to be as cold and damp as it was, especially after the tropical climate of the south and of Cambodia, it put me low spirits and frightened me. I was genuinley worried the chill would weaken my body.
So these photos below were of our last two days before we caught our flight and by then my cold had shifted. By some miracle my body didn’t manifest a kidney infection, thank God!
Regardless of the colder weather, Hamoi is a quirky and interesting city and I think if we went to the North of Vietnam at a different time of year, then I probably would have enjoyed it better.
We ventured out on a walking tour on the first day, using our trusty Lonely Planet guide. Hanoi is just caked in winding streets and alley ways full of stalls and market places. Its literally a feast for the eys just watching locals go about daily life.
Like most places in Vietnam, you don’t need to prebook a hotel, you can just show up and ask around because there are so many hotels and so many hotel owners waiting for tourists who are looking for somewhere to stay. You will enter into a good bartering battle which is always fun, but it doesn’t take long to find a room at all and at a better price than websites like booking.com.
Hanoi is Vietnam’s capital and second largest city by population (behind Ho Chi Minh City). It’s located in the northern part of the country, and is home to some 10 million people in the metropolitan region.
You will likely be spending most of your time in the Old Quarter, where you will find tons of cafes, restaurants, hotels, bars, lounges, markets, clubs, street food vendors, etc. It is, without question, the “most happening place” in the city — and for this reason, you can “see” Hanoi in 1 or 2 days (no need to spend a week here)- this is why we left Hanoi until the very end, to do a quick bit of site seeing and gift shopping.
Another area of town that you may find yourself in is called Tay Ho (translated to ‘West Lake’). It’s where all the expats in Hanoi live, who mostly consist of English teachers. Tay Ho has all the fancy restaurants and foreign food to enjoy, so if you’re tired of eating Pho, then go here! As a TEFL English teacher myself (and soon to be yoga teacher) I have considered living and working in Vietnam because overall I do like this country and its a nice place to work and I know this from three friends who moved out there as teachers and never want to come back to the UK.
Hanoi doesn’t have many tall buildings or a financial district in a “downtown area” — in fact, most buildings are under 5 stories tall. If you want to see skyscrapers in Vietnam, then head to Ho Chi Minh city.
80% of vehicles in Hanoi are motorbikes, and it will certainly overwhelm you at first. Crossing the street is like playing Frogger in real life… and it doesn’t help that there are no street lanes!! My best piece of advice is to always walk the same pace when crossing the road, and the drivers will go around you. If you slow down or speed up, then you might be in trouble…
People in Hanoi – Most people in Hanoi (and the Vietnamese in general) don’t speak English or speak at a very beginner level. With the exception of workers in tourist places (i.e. hotels, restaurants, cafes) and college students, you will find the English levels lower than most countries in Asia.
To be honest, people in Hanoi are quite lazy, and are usually seen chilling outside on the street curb drinking tea and spitting sunflower seeds (it’s the thing to do in Hanoi). Nobody seems to be in a rush, and things just happen as they happen. Hanoians love sitting in TINY chairs and tables (like preschool-sized chairs) – and it’s pretty funny the first time you see it. If you are a tall person, then you might have some issues sitting down!
In the center of the Old Quarter lies Hoan Kiem Lake, an beautiful and charming lake with amazing views. Go here to escape the hustle and bustle of the city, especially on weekends, when they block off the streets for cars and it’s pedestrians only. When we were there (December 2017) sadly there was construction work going on around this lake which ruined an possibility of getting nice photos of the area. However crossing the bridge (for a small fee) you can enter the turtle temple on an island off Hoan Kiem lake.
Known as Ngoc Son temple. It is dedicated to the famous giant turtle that apparantly once lived in the lake.
According to the legend, in early 1428, the Emperor was boating on the lake when a Golden Turtle God surfaced and asked for his magic sword. Lợi concluded that Turtle God had come to reclaim the sword that its master, a local God, the Dragon King (Long Vương) had given Lợi some time earlier, during his revolt against Ming China Later, the Emperor gave the sword back to the turtle after he finished fighting off the Chinese. Emperor Lợi renamed the lake to commemorate this event, from its former name Luc Thuy meaning “Green Water”. The Turtle Tower (Tháp Rùa) standing on a small island near the centre of lake is linked to the legend. The first name of Hoàn Kiếm lake is Tả Vọng, when the King hadn’t given the Magical Sword back to the Golden Turtle God (Cụ Rùa).
On the final day and after a spot of present shopping we ventured further out of the city centre to visit a bizarre little street famous for a train that passes through it twice daily. Aptly called “Train Street”, this was my favourite part of Hanoi because I love anything quirky.
Hidden amidst the hectic, narrow streets of the Hanoi Old Quarter lies a funky little area, where motorbikes are no longer the biggest danger to locals stepping outside of their front door. They’re replaced by high speed trains, hurling through the residential street, mere feet away from peoples everyday lives – their dishes and laundry drying by the tracks. This is the Hanoi Train Street.
The street itself is not dissimilar to the majority of the streets in Hanoi’s old quarter – slim, tall buildings line the bustling, narrow streets. But of course with one main difference: a working railway track fills up the space where a road should be. It was pretty surreal to see locals sitting on their doorsteps going about their everyday lives – washing dishes, hanging up laundry, cleaning their motorbikes and even playing with babies. Right on the train tracks.
The train street lies on a small street between Kham Tien and Le Duan, the exact lane the train passes along is called Ngo 224 Le Duan. It is walkable from the old quarter, and it will take you about 35-40 minutes to walk at a decent speed. Try Uber or Grab if you are wanting to get a ride there.
There are two trains which run along this route every day, one at 3:30pm and one at 7:30pm. We opted to watch the 3:30pm train for the daylight and photo taking opportunities. Aim to be at the train street around 3pm in order to make sure you are there in plenty time and find a safe spot to watch from. The train comes from the South so you know which way to keep an eye out!
Watching the train whizz past was one of the highlights of our visit to Hanoi. It offers such a unique and off-the-beaten-path insight into local life in Vietnams bustling capital. Do you reccommend any other quirky places to visit around the world?
Check out my write up about Ho Chi Minh City
As well as Cai Be & Meekong
If you wish to see more of my travels visit the links below: