Our First Week in Vietnam — Hanoi and Ha Long Bay

88 days ago, Casie and I left Seattle headed for southeast Asia on what we expected to be the trip of a lifetime. We’d been planning this trip for as long as we’d been together (four years). During the months leading up to our departure, our family, friends, and coworkers asked whether we would be writing a blog about our travels. My answer was always a determined “yes.”

88 days into this trip, and we haven’t published a single written word about it. We’ve posted 62 Instagams. We’ve snapped countless Snapchat stories, and taken over 2,000 pictures. But we haven’t written a morsel. Not about the cities we’ve visited. Not about the hostels, hotels, and guesthouses we’ve crashed in. Not about the food we’ve enjoyed and the people we’ve been so fortunate enough to meet along the way. To those who were hoping we would write about and report on the details of our journey, we’ve failed you.

Before we embarked on this journey, my original plan was to set up a Wordpress website. Here we would publish updates of our trip and a detailed summary of the cities we were visiting. But due to our part-time jobs and full-time travel schedule, we got way behind.

We’re winding down the Southeast Asian part of our trip and headed to Europe in a few days. Given this, I’d now to like provide a quick snapshot of each city we visited while we were in Vietnam, Cambodia, and Thailand. I’ll also provide some city-specific and general travel tips for those hoping to one day visit Southeast Asia. Today I’m going to cover our first two stops, Hanoi and Ha Long Bay.

Hanoi

Hanoi is the capitol of Vietnam and the country’s second largest city. It’s located in Northern Vietnam, is more than 1,000 years old, and boasts a population of more than 7 million.

The busy streets of Hanoi

How We Got There

We flew to Hanoi from Seattle. We had a 13-hour flight to Taipei, and then a 4-hour flight into Hanoi.

Where We Stayed

We stayed in Hanoi for four nights in the Central Backpackers Hostel in the old quarter. I cannot recommend this hostel more. The hostel was cheap and the location was ideal. The rooms were clean and the staff was friendly. They were helpful in booking tours and our overnight train ride to Hue, Vietnam. They had a solid free breakfast and a great rooftop bar with a 7–8 PM happy hour with as much free beer as you can drink. If we ever visit Hanoi again on a backpacking budget, we’ll likely stay there.

General Observations

Immediately when you enter the city center of Hanoi, smells, sights, and sounds bombard your senses. Wafts of delicious street food, the stench of sewage, and cigarette smoke hit your nose. The sounds of motorbike horns, locals speaking Vietnamese, and motorbike drivers gesturing you to take a ride with them hammer your ears. You see the bright neon lights of storefronts, the constant flow of motorbikes in every direction, and the sidewalks filled with people taking part in the local cuisine. It’s the most organized, or unorganized, condensed chaos I’ve ever seen a city have to offer. If you don’t handle crowds, filth, and density well, you won’t enjoy Hanoi.

Motorbikes fill the streets of Hanoi

We loved Hanoi. After being there for about a day, we got used to how crowded and smelly it was. We grew accustomed to playing real-life frogger with the traffic, and how delicious the food is. Having visited so many other cities in Vietnam, we reflect on how happy we were that we visited Hanoi first. It’s density and chaos more than prepared us for the rest of our trip to cities that are much more mellow.

Places to Visit

You could rent a motorbike, but due to our inexperience and the general craziness of traffic, we decided to walk everywhere. You can visit much of what the city has to offer by taking a 30 to 45 minute stroll in any direction.

A man gets his haircut on the streets of Hanoi

We walked around Hoàn Kiếm Lake and across the Huc Bridge over to Jade Island to visit the Temple of Jade Mountain. We walked down shopping streets and into large covered markets. We visited St. Joseph’s Cathedral and various neighborhood temples and pagodas.

Hoàn Kiếm Lake
Huc Bridge
St. Joseph’s Cathedral

We walked 45 minutes from our hostel across town to visit Ba Đình Square. Here we watched the changing of the guard at Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum. We walked over to the Vietnam War Memorial, saw the President’s Palace and the various ministries they have next to the square. We also visited Lenin Park and the statue of Vladimir Lenin, which is on the way to Ba Đình Square.

Ba Đình Square
Our attempt at a selfie in Ba Đình Square
Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum
Vietnam War Memorial

Places to Eat

Looking back on our travels, Hanoi had some of the cheapest and best food in Vietnam. Bami Bread has traditional and cheap Bami sandwiches. Madam Yen Restaurant feels like a fancier restaurant than it’s price, and is delicious. Pho Thin is likely the best Pho I’ve ever had in my life, and it was cheap ($3). At Gia Ngu Restaurant we had a very nice birthday dinner for Casie on Thanksgiving. With cocktails and three courses, it only ended up being $35 (expensive for Hanoi but cheap for most Westerners).

Bami Bread
Passionfruit Ice Cream at Gia Ngu Restaurant

One thing I would definitely recommend you try is Egg Coffee. I can’t remember where we had our egg coffee, and while it sounds strange, it’s sweet and delicious. Definitely give it a try if you’re in Hanoi or Vietnam.

Ha Long Bay

You can’t visit Vietnam without visiting Ha Long Bay. The UNESCO World Heritage site is a beautiful bay roughly four hours East of Hanoi in northern Vietnam. Scattered about the bay are roughly 2,000 limestone karsts and isles varying in shape and size. The formation of the bay has taken roughly 500 million years, and karsts have taken roughly 20 million years to form. There is a huge amount of biodiversity found in the bay, and it’s so large that you couldn’t imagine visiting all its nooks and crannies.

Ha Long Bay

How We Got There

We took a one-night guided tour organized by our hostel. We were only going to do a day trip but due to the effort it takes to get there (we took two buses and two boats), we decided it would be best to do at least a one-night trip there. If you do visit Ha Long Bay (it’s a must on anyone’s trip to Vietnam), I would suggest going for at least one night and likely two because it takes at least four hours to get there and is stunning.

Ha Long Bay

Where We Stayed

We stayed one night on Monkey Island at the Monkey Island Resort in a large dorm room with the rest of our hostel. So far it’s been the only time we’ve slept in a dorm room since we’ve been staying exclusively in private rooms.

Monkey Island Resort

What We Did

Ha Long Bay is huge, and there are a lot of different activities you can do. With our hostel, we chartered a large, two-story boat. We drank, danced, jumped off the boat, and swam around in the bay’s warm turquoise waters. Later in the day we took an hour-long kayak tour around the floating fishing villages and around the various rock formations. There’s also lots of hiking trails on the various islands. I ventured out with a small group of our hostel on a rather treacherous climb over jagged rocks to the top of our islands viewpoint. The view was spectacular, but the climb was challenging and oftentimes felt dangerous.

Kayaking in Ha Long Bay

Later in the evening after dinner, we played drinking games with our group, drank rice wine, which tasted like old bacon, and sang Karaoke until the wee hours of the morning. It was one of the most fun nights we’ve had while traveling in any city.

Going for a swim

General Observations

Besides the obvious beauty of the entire bay, I found the floating villages in and around the bay quite fascinating. These are people that live primitively and are very disconnected from the rest of the world. They live in man-made shacks that rest on large wooden docks, which sit in the middle of the bay’s vast rock formations. The amount of dogs running around the fishing docks was surprising. Many of the residents seemed to house close to six or seven dogs in one area. These families go back more than three generations. Having grown up in a city all my life, it’s eye-opening to realize if you grew up in Ha Long Bay, the outside world would seem like another planet.

Places to Eat

We ate exclusively at our resort. The food was buffet style and very good. If you ever visit Ha Long Bay and don’t feel like doing research on where to stay, I would recommend staying at the Monkey Island Resort. Their private bungalows were cheap (about $40 a night), and they looked very comfortable.

Next Time

We begin to make our way to the southern part of Vietnam. The next cities we visited were Hue and Da Nang. I’ll tell you all about those two in my next post, which will be coming soon. Thanks for reading.