Hanoi was our point of entry into Vietnam. we flew direct from Heathrow with Vietnam Airlines. Entry through Noi Bai Airport was one of the swiftest internationals I've ever done. Under 50 mins to clear immigration and collect baggage is pretty impressive, especially as we had visas to be checked due to the length of our trip. Our flight... was a distinctly budget experience in economy. Clue is in the name I guess, but a distinct difference to the same kind of service with Virgin, KLM and BA. We really struggled to get extra water and soft drinks, and we were fairly starving when we landed as the only food was the 2 meals served over the 11 hour fly, no snacks. Not something we'd choose to repeat.
We stayed at the Silk Path Hotel which is on the South West corner of the Old Quarter. A great base for exploring, and we enjoyed our stay. It's not a budget option, although much cheaper per night than an equivalent 4* hotel in London or Paris, but I wouldn't describe it as out of this world luxury either. No complaints from us, except that a beer at the bar cost 10x as much as anywhere else in Hanoi.
We opted B&B by the way, although I'm sure that finding street corner Pho will change your life, we also wanted to start the day without the stress of working out which street corner Pho would in fact be life changing.
So Day 1- after a nap (we set alarms) because jet lag be damned, we were in no fit state to do anything without a couple of hours of shut eye, we set out to explore the Old Quarter a bit. It's organised in the Chinese style of each street tends to be themed by traider- shoes, clothes, household goods, mechanics, luggage, electronics, even coffee shops although everywhere, are in high concentration in one particular area. We made sure to try the Hanoi-famous coffee with condensed milk and egg (whipped egg whites folded into the condensed milk) to try and perk us up a bit at a cafe recommended by the driver of our airport transfer.
Cafe Giang, well worth a wander for. I loved the narrow winding staircases to multiple floors of caffeinated goodness. Apparently buildings in Vietnam are narrow and tall because tax is calculated by width of the building not square metres or height.
A strangely calming lake right in the middle of the Old Quarter Hồ Hoàn Kiếm. We chose to eat a restaurant recommended on half a dozen different blog posts I read about Hanoi before left- Quán Ăn Ngon. It brings together dozens of Vietnamese street food dishes under one roof and is popular with tourists and local young people alike. The food was very enjoyable and it was a good starting point for our weary, culture shocked selves on night one, but the service is shocking. Be prepared to be by and large ignored by every member of staff from the maitre d' to the bar- reservation or not. I'm not sure I'd go as far as recommending the restaurant for that reason, but it is handy to know about if you're not sure where to start and are prepared to put up with having to work hard to attract attention and order things. Price wise- we ordered 3 different main course sized dishes, a couple of beers and a couple of bottles of water and the total was around 350,000 VND which is around £11.50.
On Day 2, feeling minorly more human, we walked our way out of the Old Quarter towards the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum and The Temple of Literature. This is believed to be the first university of Vietnam and where Confucius studied. As a result, Vietnamese university graduates come from all over the country to take graduation pictures here, which was fun to watch, and the grounds were beautiful. Walking also gave us a chance to take the city in a little more.
The most exciting part of this particular day though, definitely our walking food tour. We opted for a much reviewed tour that starts in the old quarter. At $20 per person it was also incredible value as we tried 6 or 8 different dishes and had drinks along the way, all included in the price. I didn't end up taking any pictures as I was too busy stuffing my face, but I'd definitely recommend the tour we went on for great food, a fun guide and great value. If you find yourself in Hanoi over the weekend, I'd opt for a 1730 tour and then hit the night markets on the pedestrianised streets afterwards for shopping and general fun- we did our tour at 1830 on a Sunday, and it finished around 2130, but the night markets were starting to wind down a little by then- we found everything happens much earlier in Vietnam than for example London, with many things being closed by 2200.
Day 3, we spent doing some shopping and making sure we had another nibble on everything that caught our eye on the previous day. Our most elderly suitcase got a battering too far on the flight out so we managed to score a new one, and Tom had been eyeing up some (fake) The North Face goodies too.
Hands down my favourite coffee experience of the whole trip. Not as sickly as those with condensed milk, this is iced coffee with crushed ice (not blended like the frappe styles at home) and sweetened coconut milk.
We made our breaks plentiful- all that haggling is hard work- FYI we found the most successful haggling was to offer 50% of the quoted price and generally paid around 70% in the end, a bit less if we wanted more than one item.
We continued the trend into the evening eating our absolute favourite street food discoveries- the absolute best has to be a salad made from grated green papaya with a sharp and sweet sauce, peanuts and dried beef called Nam Bộ amongst other treats, and headed back for an early night. The next part of our trip- a cruise out into Ha Long Bay required an early start on Tuesday- I'll be talking about Ha Long in my next Vietnam post. Yes, more holiday spam!