We left Phong Nha during the karaoke session at Easy Tiger and was on the bus by 10pm. 8 hours later and we were at the Downtown backpackers hostel – our home for the following week.
Arriving in Hanoi
Fresh off the night bus in the early hours of 6 in morning we jumped in a taxi from the main bus station to our hostel. We’d heard rumours about the taxis in Hanoi being complete rip offs but hoped that because our taxi driver promised to use the meter we’d get a fair rate… We were wrong.
The driver drove us around the outskirts of Hanoi and turned what should have been a 5 minute journey into almost 20 – meaning that we were stuck with a 300,000 dong bill to pay (more than 2 nights accommodation cost plus 2 restaurant dinners!)
As it was 6am we were unable to check into our prebooked dorm but was able to leave out baggage in the hostels storage room. So after having a complimentary black coffee we went in search of breakfast (bananas and Bhan mi).
Although we thought finding bananas would be a relatively easy task in the city, it proved one of our hardest feats for the week. Bananas are either extortionately priced in shops or you have to find the banana women running around the city with bunches on a trolley or carrying them on her back.
Once we’d obtained our breakfast (it honestly resembled something like a super Mario game – chasing the banana women down the street, dodging bikes and other vendors…) we joined the free walking tour our hostel offered daily from 10am-12pm.
Walking tour of Hanoi
The walking tour was lead by the lovely Lien who works at the hostel. She’s from Vietnam and was really informative about the city. We began with the sites closest to the hostel such as beer corner (where the famous bia hoi is frequently drunk), a Buddhist temple (where we were informed that many Vietnamese follow animism or atheism), ending up at the Ho Hoan Kiem lake where we were told of the urban legend surrounding the lake (there’s a giant tortoise in there apparently).
The tour was really popular and there was around 10 of us on it that morning.
To bring the tour to a close, we ended with a visit to a famous coffee shop in Hanoi which specialised in ‘egg coffee’. The shop was only accessible via an alleyway from the Main Street, then up a set of stairs to the balcony area. Most of the group sampled the egg coffee hot and informed me that it tasted ‘a little bit like a cappuccino’ – the egg makes the drink fluffy and sweet. The passion fruit juice is really good there too!
Downtown backpackers hostel
We chose this hostel because it had been recommended to us on numerous occasions as we’ve travelled up Vietnam from Saigon. The hostel has a ‘party’ reputation and this was evident from the outset by the hostels choice of decor – black walls covered with chalk text promoting – bar crawls, fancy dress, beer pong, free beer…. All with the hostel. It’s a good thing that we were able to sleep lots on the night bus because we knew that we’d be in for a late night!
Thursday night out
We spent much of our first day finding out information about the various tours to Halong bay and Mai Chau that were available in the city… there’s so many!
We’d been warned that you basically get what you pay for in regards to the tours so didn’t want to settle for a really cheap one but also the ‘castaway tour’ that our hostel is famed for was well above our budget!
After successfully frying our brains with an influx of tour information a big night out was needed!
After going for dinner with a few girls who we met on our walking tour this morning plus some new room mates we all headed to our hostel bar for some ‘geek themed’ drinking games. Leah unfortunately wasn’t feeling very well so was on water all night but the rest of us got well and truly ‘merry’.
Around 11-11.30 it was time for the 50+ people that had gathered to leave the hostel bar and join the bar crawl to the ‘hangover bar’ a few minutes walk away. The music was pretty good but by 1.30am, last nights travel was catching up with Leah and I so we left for bed.
The bar was still really busy when we left and our room mates stayed on the bar crawl until 7am!
Saturday night out: Eden
On Sunday night we were taken by the hostel bus to a party in the middle of a field claiming to be a ‘festival’. The music was decent but the surroundings were really odd- a stage had been clearly set up in someones farm because there were cages of animals along the perimeters! We also had to pay to get into the ‘festival’ after being told that it would be free and had to find our own transport home (a 20 minute taxi ride). Although the night ended up being really good it was the company rather than the ‘festival’ that made it so!
What to do in Hanoi
Apart from going out in the city there were two main things that we wanted to do during our time in Hanoi; a trip to Halong bay and a trip to Mai Chau (I’m writing a separate blog posts on both of these), as well as visiting a few of the many museums that Hanoi has to offer.
The prisoners of war museum
Visiting the POW museum was a really interesting experience.
The rooms and cells that prisoners were kept in during the war have been recreated in their original positioning meaning that we were able to see the size of the solidarity confinement chambers compared to the main holding areas (which housed 50+ people regularly).
To accompany the interior layout there are information posters dotted around all of the rooms as well as glass cabinets showing different aspect of life as a POW. One aspect that struct both Leah and myself the most was the size of the baby ‘uniforms’ used in the women’s prison.
There were also recording extracts in a few of the rooms however the English ones we tried were broken (although the other languages seemed to be working fine).
The Vietnamese women’s museum
We visited the women’s museum after the POW museum and the tone of the museums were completely different. The POW museum was solemn and quite sad but the women’s museum was the complete opposite- it was a celebration of Vietnamese women!
I loved it!
The museum is set over 5 floors and we worked our way up from the ground. Each floor has a different focus such as how paternalistic and maternalistic dominant tribes in Vietnam perform customs and duties (marriage, birth, death etc).
There was also a whole floor devoted to women who took part in the Vietnamese war as well as women’s role in farming and how women’s fashion has changed throughout the past century. There was literally something to interest everyone – well worth a visit!
We even got to try out carrying the baskets that the fruit sellers use (only women) and learn about why they are in this career!
We didn’t have much time to walk around the national history museum because we arrived just after 10am and the musuem closed for lunch at 11.30am-1.30pm.
The museums split into two sites (A & B). Site A consists of artefacts and statues whereas Site B focuses on posters and photos from the 1930s onwards. Both were pretty interesting but I personally preferred Site B.
The military museum
The military museum was really interesting too! I thought by this time Leah and I may have been ‘museumed -out’ but this one was a little different. It did have lots of information posters and artefacts in 5-6 different buildings but the main draw has to be the military vehicles on display in the central courtyard!
Tanks, helicopters, Aeroplanes, missiles etc are lined up and you are able to walk amongst them, imagining how they were once used. I was shocked at how large the missiles and bombs were that were dropped!
Food in Hanoi
The food in Hanoi differs quite differently from Saigon. The further north of Vietnam that we’ve headed there has been less focus on curries, focusing more so on stir fries and rice dishes. I found it almost impossible to get a vegetarian Vietnamese curry here whereas it was on almost every menu in Saigon.
Bhan mi is also different in Hanoi. Instead of Bhan mi being almost solely street food in Saigon, in Hanoi, Bahn mi is also sold in cafes and restaurants. Meaning that it is not only available in the early morning and late evenings but anytime in the day that you fancy it.
We mostly used plain Bahn mi to compliment our fruit salad breakfast provided by the hostel but found that they also work extremely well in the evening after a few drinks…
On one night out I had one Bahn mi with chilli and salad at 12am when we got to a bar and then a second at 4am when we left….!
Fruit in Hanoi (as has been mentioned previously) is also a lot harder to find. We only found one or two fruit and veg shops in the whole of hanoi’s old quarter, instead there was a few banana women running around the city who you were lucky if you could find.
Although the fruit was hard to find, smoothie and juice bars are in abundance in Hanoi so you never have to walk too far to get a fruit fix – I was even given free bananas from the Japanese juice bar near our hostel when I tried to buy them after the banana women had gone missing!
As I mentioned on the walking tour, bia Hoi (fresh beer) in Hanoi is pretty famous. Stalls are set up along the street in the evening selling fresh beer only, with tables and chairs spilling out into the roads. The stalls are filled with both travellers and locals sampling the cheap and tasty beer on offer (between 5,000 and 10,000 dong depending if you buy it from a bia Hoi only stand or to accompany dinner).
Pig ear salad
Not all food is good in Hanoi and I made the mistake of ordering a salad off of a street cafe. There weren’t any English translations on the menu but I thought that the waitress understood when I ordered my lotus root salad without fish or meat in. She replied by saying yes ‘no meat, no meat’ but after a few mouthfuls the texture of what I thought was lotus root was a little bit off…
After looking at some suspicious slices I began removing them from the salad and put them on a tissue next to me. The waitress ran over saying ‘no meat, no meat’ again but I wasn’t convinced.
She then came over with a menu pointing to what the ingredient was… It was pigs ear… Needless to say that I was pretty upset and the thought of it still makes my stomach turn – but it has reminded me not to get too complacent in Vietnam!
Running in Hanoi
I actually got in a few decent runs whilst in Hanoi.
Because it’s a city and pretty busy there aren’t many stray dogs running around the streets making my runs a little easier/ less tense.
I ran mostly in the mornings (around 6am) which meant that the streets were almost empty when I set off as the sun came up-also making for some really pretty views.
My two favourite routes in Hanoi were around Ho Hoan Kiem lake, near my hostel, which was an almost perfectly mile loop!
The second was my attempt at running the perimeter of the larger lake – Ho Tay- which would have been a half marathon distance from my hostel and back. Unfortunately the morning I tried to attempt it I was a little hungover so ended up turning back a quarter of the way!