My boyfriend and I recently spent thirty days in and around Hanoi, Vietnam’s busy and bustling capital city. During that time, I received a lot of questions from friends, family and people who follow my blog on Instagram and Facebook. In this post, I’ve shared my answers to the questions I was asked most often to help anyone planning to visit Hanoi in the near (or distant) future.
(1) Where did you stay?
We rented this Airbnb apartment on a small peninsula, outside of the Old Quarter (where most tourists stay). Our neighbourhood felt very authentic – most of the people living near us were Vietnamese. Nearby restaurants and cafes were filled with locals too. It was a few bus stops away from the Old Town (or a 30-40 min walk), and 20-30 mins on foot from Quang An, the main ‘expat’ area. You can find restaurants selling pizza, pasta, burgers, curries and all other kinds of international cuisine in Quang An.
Some days we took the bus into the Old Town, to go sightseeing and exploring. Other days, we chilled out on our peninsula, drinking coffee, gazing over the water of Lake Tây Hồ and watching the fishermen searching for the catch of the day. We were a short walk from smoothie stalls, coffee shops and restaurants selling tasty food at incredible prices.
If we had been there for a shorter time, we would have stayed in the Old Quarter for convenience and access to a wider variety of restaurants, cafes and bars. However, we were happy with the apartment and the area we stayed in.
(2) What was public transport like? How about going between cities?
We managed to navigate the bus system fairly well, using Googlemaps to plot the route and work out where specific bus stops were. We didn’t have to wait long for buses – the longest wait was probably fifteen minutes. City buses are very affordable – the ticket price varies depending on the bus route, but most one-way tickets are 7,000 Vietnamese dong (which is €0.27), others are 9,000 and the express bus to the airport is 35,000. You buy tickets on the bus: once you board, a ticket inspector will approach you, collect your fare and give you your ticket. The buses are also air-conditioned which was a nice surprise!
When travelling between cities, there are options for every budget. We used 12goAsia and Bookaway to compare prices and reserve seats on buses and coaches. If you’re staying in a hotel or hostel, the staff there can make reservations on your behalf. Most of the buses left on time (give or take twenty minutes) and arrived around the expected time. Some of the journeys weren’t very comfortable; we did a six-hour ‘sleeper bus’ journey where the seats are almost horizontal but stacked on top of each other, bunk-bed style. We both had ‘top bunks’ and had to make sure we didn’t nod off, roll over and fall onto the bus’s floor, which would have been embarrassing and painful!
(3) What was the weather like?
When we first arrived, we were greeted with a thunderstorm and dark, grey clouds. It was like we had never left Germany! Luckily the weather cleared us a couple of days later. We were there across October (the end of the rainy season) and November (the start of the dry season), so the rain wasn’t unexpected. There were a few mornings with short, sudden downpours, which was a good excuse for a lie-in.
We had a lot of warm days (late 20’s/early 30’s Celsius), some sunny but mostly overcast because Hanoi has a lot of air pollution. Outside of the city, the weather was similar – some sunshine, some clouds and a few brief showers. Except in Ninh Binh, which we visited for two days. It rained constantly for the first day, but being British and rather used to rain, we went out on our excursion regardless! The next day we climbed a 500-step mountain and it was dry but so humid and muggy, we were sweating before we’d even started the climb!
(4) How was the food?
We had a lot of great meals, plenty of good ones and only a few duds. We had a lot of pho (noodle soup – served with beef or chicken), spring and summer rolls, seafood pancakes, banh mi (baguette sandwiches), noodle dishes and meat skewers. We ate a lot of beef, chicken and pork, along with seafood. Snails and frogs are very popular in northern Vietnam – naturally, we tried both. Tofu features on restaurant menus quite often, although people on a plant-based diet should check how dishes are prepared because a lot of the broths and sauces we had contained fish sauce or meat stock.
We usually paid 200,000 – 250,000 VND (€8-10) for lunch or dinner in restaurants, not including drinks. Street food was cheaper; closer to 70,000 – 100,000 for two or three dishes. You can usually find somewhere to sit and eat your street food, but don’t be surprised if you’re instructed to sit at a very low table (sometimes an overturned bucket, with a tray on top), on a tiny stool, akin to those you’d find in a child’s playhouse. As I’m 5 foot 8, it wasn’t the most comfortable way to eat, hunched over a small, low chair – but when in Rome…..!
(5) What kind of visa did you get?
We bought multi-entry visits which are valid for three months. We used My Vietnam Visa.com to request an ‘invitation letter’; an official-looking document with our full names and passport numbers on it. We applied for the letter around two weeks before flying out, and it arrived via email within three days. It was accompanied by a two-page document asking for information such as our contact details, the dates of our stay in Vietnam and the address of where we’d be staying. We printed both documents and gave them to a visa officer at Hanoi airport. We also had to provide one passport photo (2 x 2 inches). We paid ‘My Vietnam Visa’ €43 each, and paid the visa officer $50 US dollars (it was also possible to pay in Vietnamese dong).
There are lots of different visas available for Vietnam, from 15 days to one year (depending on your home country). Check the Vietnamese Embassy’s website in your home country, for accurate, up-to-date information.
(6) Where did you go besides Hanoi?
We went on four overnight trips. The first was Ninh Binh, which had stunning scenery, but unfortunately was a bit wet and cloudy (the danger of travelling during the rainy seasons!). Second, Mai Chau, a picturesque, little village surrounded by rice fields and mountains. Then Bai Tu Long Bay, where we stayed on a small cruise ship and sailed around the most beautiful islands I’ve ever seen. Our last trip was to Ha Giang, which is very far north (almost at the border with China) and is known for its winding mountain roads and spectacular views.
(7) Are there any tour companies you recommend?
We booked our overnight stay at Bai Tu Long Bay through Adventure Indochina. We got a good rate – $95 US dollars per person for one night’s stay on a 3* cruise ship, with meals and activities included. However, that was the price when we booked in person. Prices online are always higher for tour companies, so I strongly advise you to only book tours and excursions once you’ve arrived in Vietnam. Hanoi has hundreds of travel agencies so the prices are very competitive. For the other journeys, we booked tickets ourselves using 12goAsia and Bookaway.
(8) Did you feel safe going around at night?
Yes I did, even walking along quiet side streets by myself. There were no incidents when I felt uncomfortable or experienced any harassment, whether alone or with my boyfriend. I should add that I didn’t stay out very late because I’m an old woman at heart who likes her sleep, so I can’t speak for how the city is in the early hours of the morning. Generally speaking, a regular amount of caution should suffice – such as being aware of your surroundings and not being distracted by your phone while walking alone at night.
(9) Were the toilets Western-style or the hole in the ground type?
All the restaurants and cafes we went to in Hanoi had Western-style toilets. Likewise with the accommodation on our overnight trips. However, in rural areas you will find more ‘hole in the ground’ toilets at restaurants, cafes and service stations. You won’t always find toilet paper or soap, so it’s a good idea to carry tissues and hand sanitizer with you.
(10) Is there public WiFi?
You won’t have a problem finding WiFi in Hanoi! Most cafes have WiFi for their customers to use (the passwords are usually written on the cafe’s menus or displayed on signs). You can use the internet at Vinmart and Circle K, which are two convenience stores that can be found all over Vietnam. There’s apparently public WiFi on Hanoi’s city buses but I couldn’t get it to work on my phone. The internet in our apartment was very reliable as well.
I hope these answers have been interesting and informative! Scroll down further to see some of my favourite photos from Hanoi. If you have any more questions, please leave them in the comments section.
Ciao for now
The Curious Sparrow