My first visit to Vietnam last month was memorable:  I still vividly remember all the places I visited.  The capital of Hanoi has a different vibe compared to other Asian countries I have been to. I visited three of the main top destinations of the country – Hanoi, Halong Bay and the mountain region of Sapa. For this blog, I am going to tell you my insights and experiences of Hanoi and Halong Bay. My Sapa experience will be described in a separate blog entry.

First off, let me give you some facts about Hanoi. It has 8 million people living here, plus another 2 million or so that are not documented according to my guide. The unregistered are usually people from other provinces who come to the city for work. It has been a French colony way back in times so you can see its influence and great architecture here.

Hanoi can be very touristy and crowded – especially the Old Quarter. This is where most of the activities happen and where the most touristy spots are located. Other people call it the ‘Beer Street’ and it is closed to the motorists during the weekend for pedestrians, street acts, bazaars and small concerts. This is the place perfect for someone who is looking for nightlife.  In the morning, it gives you a different face for being quiet and calm that is good for a walk. Wandering around the Hoan Kiem Lake is just perfect for me seeing local people doing their morning Tai Chi and just hanging out.

There are massive numbers of motorcycles in the city. In fact, around 80% of the people here owned one. It can be overwhelming and stressful for first-timer like me especially when you walk along the streets or even crossing. It’s so funny how motorcycles are parked on the sidewalks too so you should be very careful while walking. They don’t have proper street signage and you can cross almost anywhere. Just a tip: when crossing the street, walk slowly, glancing from left to right like we normally do and walk towards the other side calmly. For sure, the motorcycles will be moving slowly too when they see you and go around you.

One unique thing you can see all over the city is these mini-stools along the streets for hawkers and locals selling foods. These are very common and I can say that its very Hanoi. The food is so cheap and affordable as they say, just be careful about food poisoning and other food-related sicknesses because most of the food from them is just ready to serve and literally open-air – street-food as we call it. Most locals eat here so why not give it a try right? I didn’t try it myself, not because of being picky but just avoiding having to run back to the hotel if things got worse. You know what I mean.

There are tons of scams everywhere including here. Vendors and charging tourists way above the usual price are common. Also, you will see a lot of locals wearing Grab jackets (but not on the Grab app) standing on the streets offering motorcycle rides and ladies selling donuts in a basket that are not fresh. You just need to be cautious at all times and everything will be good.

This city is one of the cheapest city I have been to for accommodation, food, and tours in general. The city doesn’t have many high-rise buildings or five-star hotels so choosing for accommodations is very easy. Most buildings I saw here actually are not even going to 5-story high. Restaurants are everywhere from local foods to westerns to Chinese, you name it. There are also a lot of tourist agents who can get and book your tour needs if you feel that you need to go around and see more. They have their own offices open and available for all your needs and just waiting for tourists. I had my whole tour arranged so I don’t have any worries about what to do and where to go.

Ha Long Bay – one of the UNESCO World Heritage Sites, is one of the most breathtaking places I have seen.  It is a group of islands located on the northern coast of Vietnam near the Chinese border and about a 2-3 hour ride from Hanoi. The place is dotted with thousands of limestone islands and islets. Here you can see different sizes of boats and some are almost like a cruise ship that will allow you to sleep on board and cruise around the islands. You can book a mid-range cruise to a 5-star’ ish stay of your choice so it’s not just for the royal family but also for budget people like us. If you have been to El Nido or Coron in Palawan, then it’s similar. The only difference is that there are cruise ships all around the islands that make it more inviting for tourists. It’s perfect for a couple who does not have much budget and want to experience being on a cruise.

Staying here for 2-3 days can be enough for a great experience. I only had 1 night and 2 days on the cruise and did a couple of excursions that were included in the tour. You can also do kayaking or boating to some of the smaller islands present in the area. I just find the water not so clear for swimming so kayaking would be enough for me. The good thing about the cruise is they have programs to reduce plastic use to protect the whole area.

With all of these, I decided to list down some of my favorite things I did in Vietnam.

Wander around the Old Quarter – For some people, walking around in a touristy place like the Old Quarter makes them bored. But for me, it gives me so much energy every time I see people being busy. I enjoyed wandering around the streets of Hanoi; looking at the locals daily living and fascinated to see how Vietnamese can be really happy people too. Watching all tourists from all walks of life also interests me in traveling. I have seen group travelers to backpackers in the area. I was thinking sometime, it takes a lot of courage to do the backpacking. I cannot imagine myself holding those big backpacks on my back for hours of walking in a vast city. They are just so brave to do it. And most travelers I have seen like these are couples, maybe way more easy to travel than in a group.

I was also amazed by how buildings and houses are built in Hanoi. I got some shots of building in this tiny alley, with 4 or 5-story high but has only a single space or room each floor. Such a tiny space for a building but they have it.

It is also fascinating to see local hawkers in all of the streets of Hanoi, all with small stools beside its tiny place where they can feed their customers. As I have said, I did not try it by myself but I suggest this is one of the things you should do when you visit Hanoi. Considering Vietnam, in general, is a very cheap country to visit, you can definitely do a lot of things here.

And lastly, the best spot for a nice walk would definitely the Hoan Kiem Lake that lies at the Old Quarter as well. It can be busy especially at night because it’s the best time to see this place where you can see all the lights on. Enjoy the moment here looking at the lake and see the people. The red bridge in this lake is one of my favorite spots during the night when it’s well-lit. There is an entrance fee when you go inside and cross the bridge but I didn’t bother to enter anymore. Just looking at it from one of the benches on the shore is all good to me plus providing a good spot to take a good picture of course.

Come to Hanoi’s local tradition through their local shows and museum – These will not go out of style. Visiting the local museums and see theater acts is always on our list. One of the best is the Lang Toi Show – My Village theater act. It is an acrobatic show showcasing Vietnamese village life, their family and way of life show in one sitting. I don’t have any photos of it because it is not allowed but I highly recommend these acts.

Next off, the Thang Long Water Puppet Show, where you will see again basic local cultures and way of life using water puppets. Yes, the main cast of the show is all puppets in the water. I was honestly bored in the latter part but it is also a nice one to try. Funny, very unusual but remarkably different from all shows.

On the other hand, visiting a museum for some is not interesting at all. This is my way of getting to know more about one country’s culture and tradition. Some museums can be overwhelming with a lot of information on it, but I  liked what I saw in the Vietnam Museum of Ethnology. It can be just a normal museum we always usually see but when you look at it, it is more than that and tells you so many stories about what their country looks like in the past.

Another side trip of your day tour is dropping by to Hoa Lo Prison. An old prison during the French colony and built to house Vietnamese ‘insurgents’. I feel like you will be brought in old times when you wander inside and see all the rooms for the prisoner and how they are treated before. They even have a guillotine that was used on some of the prisoners.

Give respect to the famous old leader of Vietnam by visiting Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum. I didn’t see it inside because I went there on a weekend and the line in the early morning is just countless and the cut-off of people to enter inside is also early, so I decided to just come later in the afternoon. But it’s all good to me as you can still see and walk around Ho Chi Minh backyard. You can see here the leader’s palace, apparently, he refused to live in it and chose to live and stay in a small house behind it.

Make sure you don’t miss the Temple of Literature, apparently the first national university in the country. Students in this place during the early days were nobles, elites, and royalty and focused on Chinese philosophy, poetry, and literature. The whole area is also divided into different courtyards that are now big draws for tourists. Most of the remnants still remain up to this day and you can see here.

We don’t miss having a picture with old churches anywhere right? So here, fulfill it to a good shot at St. Joseph Cathedral, the oldest church in Hanoi during French colonial time.

Cruise and be fascinated in Halong Bay A must visit when you travel to Vietnam. I always heard about it and was thinking of giving a visit. I am so happy with it. It’s again one of the best nature-show I have seen, aside from what El Nido is. Comparable to all the rocks and big limestones formation we have in the country, but more romantic and inviting through the boats cruising around those islands and islets. It’s unique, vibrant with life and full of surprises. Somehow similar to what the Philippines has but in a different way. Take the kayak to the cave and see the island up close and personal then you will love it.

Have you been to Vietnam? What are your thoughts?

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