I am writing this with a 13 inch pizza, a litre of diet coke and Ferrero Rocher (for a touch of class), propped up in bed, alienated from the world with exhaustion. I’m a social recluse against my will. I am Julian Assange. A word to the wise: Hanoi is not a chilled weekend destination. It does not leave you rejuvenated and fresh. It is not a detox in the Austrian Alps. Go here to relax in the same way you’d go to Berlin for a pub lunch and a matineé. Hanoi is loud, frantic, awake, awesome. You’re with me.
So, arriving into Hanoi I had actual butterflies. Not just because we couldn’t see the runway until we slammed into it (the pilot performed a miracle landing that thing and I am witness). Not just because it was my first solo trip. But because Vietnam has been at the top of my bucket list ever since we learnt about Vietnamese history at school (or, rather, we learnt about how the country became embroiled in a cold war between two super powers a long long way from the rolling paddies and golden coves of Vietnam). I was super excited.
2 nights in Hanoi, hey? Firstly, it’s not enough but you do get a very good sense of the place and there aren’t huge amounts of obligatory sights that you have to see. What you may need time for, is finding your feet in this labyrinthine city. It is a crazy maze, like a Vegas casino where (a) once you’re in you can never find your way out, (b) there’s no sense of time and (c) there are heaps of overweight tourists falling sucker for something. I walked round in 10 circles and the only way I could tell was because I kept revisiting the same market stall selling ‘Guchi’ bags.
What to do?
1. The night markets
In the thronging centre of the Old Quarter, the scooters are suddenly blocked out and the market stalls appear. This is the perfect spot for getting your completely legit Raybans and Chanel shoes. It is also a great way to absorb the chaotic vibes of the city. I thought I’d just have a quick look and an hour later I was still perusing the endless nic-nacs on offer. My dad would’ve hated it. My aunt would’ve got one of everything. And I can’t publish what I bought as they’re all presents, you lucky people.
2. Eat on the streets
You see those tiny plastic stools dotted about the street. They’re for you. Sit. Eat. Hanoi food is very good (though I’m never going to order chicken feet or battered fish balls) so enjoy it street-food style. This is a city that never sleeps so even late on a Sunday night the streets were still stuffed with people squatting on these little seats and the atmosphere was buzzing.
3. Eat on a roof
If you’re above eating on the street, why not literally be above eating on the street? Get away from the madness and find a bar upstairs. It isn’t so much about the views as not many buildings are tall enough for that (my hotel, The Palmy, did have great views from their rooftop bar though) but it is nice to be elevated from the masses and enjoy people watching. I had a lovely dinner one storey up in a beautiful mezzanine restaurant that could easily have been missed. So remember, eyes down to keep your toes from being scooted on, eyes up to find some space.
4. See the lake and the temples
Like an oasis of relative calm, Hoàn Kiếm Lake is a tranquil lake in the middle of the humming city. It is tranquil now but legend has it that the lake was once the source of a great sword sent from heaven to drive the Chinese from Vietnam in the 15th Century after which a giant golden turtle (naturally) seized the sword and took it back below the depths to return it to its divine creators. Eat it Loch Ness.
5. Go out!
Hanoi truly doesn’t calm down. Ever. Obviously loads of people do go just to take in the scenery and the history, but those people are missing half the fun. On my arrival to the hostel, I immediately joined in on the Hanoi Backpacker’s bar crawl and it was brilliant (more on that to come). It is so easy to meet people in Hanoi. Everyone is a traveler or a tourist and nobody is sober, so it’s an ideal solo travel destination. I recommend wandering round Ma May and Hang Buom where the bars are buzzing and the clubs are wild.
Where to stay?
Option 1: Rowdy backpackers
This is the official hub for backpackers in Hanoi, and it is the most cranking, off the wall hostel I’ve ever stayed at (though I hear it may be beaten when I finally make it to Wild Rover on my South American tour). Cranking is an understatement, by the way. I had flown in straight from work and even from half way down the street, I could here the whoops and screams of the infamous pub quiz. If you’ve just put aside your copy of the Telegraph thinking “Oh wonderful, Freddie and I take part in the quiz at The Spotted Pony, and last time we very nearly won a bottle of scotch”, you’re mistaken love. This is no University Challenge (even post leather-vest-gate). This is the wild wild west of pub quizzing, where the only aim seems to be that people get so drunk they forget how many bare bottoms they have witnessed streaking around the bar. (I only caught the tail end (pardon the pun) of the quiz, hence I unfortunately vividly remember seeing three). The majority of people are, unsurprisingly, under 30 and many are under 20 year old sweethearts on their first gap year. And everyone is from everywhere (the well travelled Brits, Swedes and Canadians make up the majority). It is thus more multicultural than the UN and far more open minded.
The bar crawl kicked off with the chant: “Here’s to those who love us! Here’s to those who don’t! Here’s to those that **** us! And **** those who won’t!” which rang like an anthem more true than ‘Put a Ring On It’ by Queen Bey. Spirited, we all pottered off to the first of many bars of the vicinity. As mentioned, Hanoi nightlife cranks. And it is a great opportunity to meet new friends who will last you solidly for the entire night. It is worth going on this crawl even if you’re staying at a nicer / calmer hotel: getting the best of both worlds.
Having said that, the dorms are an extremely cheap $5 a night, with a private room costing only $50. I took the latter and was grateful for the peace and quiet and privacy. I’m a princess: call me kate.
Option 2: Fancy Flashpacker
Obviously, you’re trip may not be destined the way of the wild shenanigans of the backpacking tribe. Even for me, one night was enough. After the cruise (more on that requires a separate post) I needed some TLC and luxury. Luckily, Hanoi has a plethora of lovely hotels in the Old Quarter and, if you bide you’re time, you can get them at an absolute steal. I waited until just 5 days before I was due to arrive and booked The Palmy at $60. The room was small and viewless but it was super quiet, highly comfortable and well designed. It was the epitome of Flash meeting Frugal. The majority of guests were middle-aged couples and families and there was a lovely spa and rooftop bar. It was no Ritz, but it was a great Hanoi base from which to shop and see the lake.
In summary, it was an amazing city, a crazy weekend and a great solo destination. I’m already looking forward to planning a trip to Hoi An: I’ve only heard excellent things so far so would love any tips if you have them. And make sure you follow me on Bloglovin’ (link at the top) to make sure you don’t miss my Ha Long Bay posts.
Now, let’s end on the ultimate high: