A couple of pearls we gleaned from two and a bit days on Hanoi:
- You are going to be sweaty, pretty much all of the time. Accept this and move on – everyone else is too. The humidity can be slightly intimidating at first, but persevere. After one day you’ll be so in love with the city, you’ll forget it’s a bit of a steam room (almost). For a short burst of relief, shops with air conditioning and open doors are well worth slowing down for. It is totally OK to feign interest in expensive designer jewellery as well, just to stand in their ice cold shop for five minutes (they’re situated on Lý Thái Tổ in the French quarter, just saying).
- Eat and drink where the locals are. Street food is amazing in Hanoi and dead cheap. From pho bo to fried sesame doughnuts, you can eat all day for next to nothing. One of our best experiences was a street barbecue; choose your meat, fish veg skewers and they’re grilled right in front of you, then they’re brought over to your hot plate. You couldn’t get fresher food, and seriously tasty! We tended to avoid establishments overly-full with tourists or too keen to bring in – we’d much rather they were busy serving locals and regulars than hawking beer to us – it’s generally a good indicator of their standard.
- If you’re able, walk everywhere. So much of Hanoi’ s charm is in its hustle and bustle – dodging mopeds, peering down alleyways, meandering towards your intended destination, stumbling upon hidden temples and new commercial streets. You’ll be constantly harangued by cyclo, xe om and taxi drivers offering you a quick and cheap lift, but with a map and an early start you can cover the majority of central Hanoi in a few days.
- Visit Ho Chi Minh’s Mausoleum. There’s not much info about the man (unless you go to the museum, in which case there’s even less and it’s all bit propaganda-ish, and Vietnam’s best pal Russia features heavily, which is not surprising seeing as they helped build it – but there are some interesting photos from the Indo-China and Vietnam War) but it’s worth popping in even if it’s just for the freezing air-conditioning. Well it has to be pretty cold to preserve a 44 year old mummy…
- Just go for it when crossing the road. The traffic is crazy, but if you stride out with purpose they will swerve to let you cross, promise. Otherwise you’ll be waiting for a gap in the traffic for a long time. Besides, you’re not exactly safe on the pavements either – if they don’t like the direction the traffic is moving in on a one way street they will mount the pavement to go the opposite way.
- Have a foot massage. All that walking will take it’s toll on your poor pins, so for about 190,000 VND (£5/$9) you can have a 60 minute foot massage, including a little bit of love for your arms, hands and legs too. You’ll feel like you’re floating and the bustle will seem slightly less stressful. We suggest you float your way to the nearest bia hoi station.
- When it rains, go for a beer. Nevermind the Vietnamese ladies touting ponchos and over-priced umbrellas, pull up a miniature red plastic stool and ask for bia hoi, local beer in Hanoi that costs 5,000 VND per half pint (23 ¢/15p). The rain usually only lasts for about an hour and it’s a good chance to people watch.
- Know the name and address of your hotel and fix the price with your driver before you get in a taxi at the airport. Luckily we did, so when he tried to drop us off at another hotel, which he assured us was very nice and belonged to a friend, we were able to get out a sheet of paper with the name and address of our hotel and tell him no, take us to the right place, please and thank you. Taxis in general, be careful.
- Get a local map from your hostel or hotel. We found the maps in guide books were generally in accurate and didn’t give us all the cool side streets that most of the good stuff was on. They’re also easier to fold up and stick in your pocket.
- Avoid Ma May street – it’s backpacker central so you pay over the odds for everything and most places have free WiFi all over the city. Only reasons to head, there, the Heritage House (number 87) and to find a decent tour operator for trips to Halong and the like.
PS. It’s totally cool to sleep wherever you want, so when nap time calls, just find a spot and bed down.