When I touched down in Hanoi for the first time, it's safe to say I was entirely unprepared for the chaos waiting for me on the other side of the arrivals gate.
Sure, I had done the basic research; picking up the obligatory copy of Lonely Planet Vietnam, scrolling absent mindedly through the colourful #TravelAsia search results on Instagram, scoping out the best bars and Banh Mi vendors in the city. But it became apparent almost immediately that my futile research efforts had failed to prepare me for the truly weird and wonderful alternate universe that is the Vietnamese capital city of Hanoi.
There are an infinite number of reasons to visit Vietnam, which is why so many consider Hanoi a must-see place of interest during their travels of South East Asia. The authenticity of its colourful culture and rich history is still distinctly intertwined within modern life even in the fast-paced, forward-thinking capital city.
However, as exciting and eye opening as the city is, one must leave one's Western expectations at home as holidaying in Hanoi can at times be an attack on the senses. Having lived in the city for several months, I feel a moral obligation to provide a few pearls of wisdom to any and all prospective tourists headed for Hanoi.
Prepare To Walk Directly Into Oncoming Traffic
I've put this one first as it should 1,000,000 per cent take priority despite the concept going against all your natural instincts. You will have never seen vehicles being operated quite like they are in Hanoi, and you will certainly think twice when complaining about rush-hour traffic when you return home. While the sheer volume of vehicles may cause you to develop a very real fear of an Impending Death by Motorbike, I am here to assure you that as bonkers as the roads may appear, you are in the presence of organized chaos. It is (somehow) all working beautifully around you, just embrace the chaos and step on out into the street. This brings me to my next tip...
It Is Acceptable To Jump On The Back Of Random Motorbikes
A motorbike, or Xe ôm (pronounced Zay Om), is the primary method of transportation in Hanoi and if you want to get around the city, this is the way to go. It will seem unnatural at first — can you see a pattern forming? — but jumping on the back of a random bike in Hanoi is as normal as hailing a cab in Vancouver. To be on the safe side, I recommend downloading the GrabTaxi app in order to predetermine the price of your journey and avoid any confusion with directions. Rush hour in Hanoi is no joke, but you are not going to get anywhere anytime soon in a conventional car — it's Xe ôm's all the way!
If In Doubt, Go Veggie
Or "an chay" as the Vietnamese say. The meat options in Hanoi can at times prove to be problematic; this largely comes down to us precious Westerners being far more fussy when it comes to cuts of meat. However, if you are having trouble understanding translations of a menu (this will happen at least once a day), and want to play it safe while still getting a hit of Hanoi home-cooking, I suggest heading to Noodle & Roll in the Old Quarter, for big, hearty bowls of Pho and fresh, fragrant Bun cha. Aubergine Cafe and Jalus are two other tried and tested vegetarian-friendly establishments I found sanctuary in after several episodes with questionable street meat.
OTHER MUST-SEE SPOTS:
Head to Hanoi's famous Beer Street, pull up a pint-sized stool and help yourself to a frothy Bia Hoi! Hundreds of locals and expats will be found here on any given night, with ice-cold draft beer typically costing just 6,000 VND, roughly 35 cents! (Ta Hien Street, Old Quarter).
Coffee made with egg may sound egg-stremely unappetizing but in reality it basically tastes like a warm coffee-flavoured crème brulee. Giang Coffee on Nguyen Huu Hua is the go-to-spot to sample this Vietnamese favourite.
If you are seeking sanctuary after a manic day of playing with traffic and haggling street sellers, I suggest the Lantern Lounge on Ma May. Amazing food and delicious cocktails can be consumed while you laze across a sea of comfy cushions.
Read more about my various Asian Adventures here: aprilabroad.com/category/asia.