Admittedly, it was like a dream come true. Hanoi has been, and always been my ultimate bucket list of Southeast Asia. It’s that place that you’ve always wanted to go but never had the chance to – until one day you decided to just go for it and never looked back. On February 2014, I managed to include Hanoi in my trip despite being on a strict budget and limited time, and this little capital city of Vietnam has remained one of my favourite destination to date.
HOW TO GET THERE
Hanoi is both accessible by flights and land transports, and if you’re opting for the later be prepared to spend a couple of days just to travel up north. I was traveling from Ho Chi Minh (blog post here!) and initially wanted to take the train, but everything else was fully booked for the Tết holidays so I decided to go for the next best thing – I flew – and it costs me a bomb.
My flight from Ho Chi Minh (via Jetstar) costs me approximately USD136.54* which absolutely blew a huge chunk off my budget, and that was the cheapest deal I could find on a last minute basis. But it was either that or risk on getting stranded in Ho Chi Minh for the next couple of days, so I figured it was worth the splurge as I was chasing time anyway. Other notable airline operating throughout Vietnam would be AirAsia, VietJetAir and Vietnam Airlines, and obviously if you’re able to snag good promo deals for your flight, you’ll be able to save a lot of money in the long run.
Alternatively you can take the train up to Hanoi, with train rides from Ho Chi Minh costing you roughly USD 80 for 3 days (book here) with multiple stops (HCM – Nha Trang – Danang – Hue – Hanoi). If you’re taking the bus there’s an open bus ticket you could get your hands on, where you to drop on and off at various parts of Vietnam. Tickets are purchasable from train stations and travel agencies all over Vietnam.
ARRIVING IN HANOI AND HOW TO GET TO THE CITY
Upon arrival I was immediately swarmed by taxi drivers who wanted to charge me exorbitantly at USD 30 (VND 600,000) to the city – and there’s no way I’m forking out that much for a mere 45 minutes ride from the airport.
Thank God there’s such thing as shuttle buses, as both Jetstar and Vietnam Airlines provides transportation for as low as USD 2 (VND 40,000) regardless if you’re flying with both airline. So unless you’ve arranged yourself a pick up transfer from your hotel, this is definitely the cheaper alternative. Just walk out of the arrival hall, ask around for a Jetstar / Vietnam Airline bus and you’re well on your way to the city!
I’ve tried both shuttles as I was traveling back and forth to the airport, and they’re both fine depending on the different parts of Hanoi. If you’re residing near the Old Quarters, take the Vietnam Airline shuttle as they’re based nearby. Likewise if you’re staying nearby Downtown Hanoi, the Jetstar bus would be a better option.
WHERE TO STAY IN HANOI
Of course, I just had to check out the infamous Hanoi Backpackers Hostel (link here). The hostel is definitely well-known, as everyone flocked here to have a good time. They’re the team behind the original “Survivor” cruise of Halong Bay which many travellers endorsed.
They had two hostels all over Hanoi and I stayed at both branches (Downtown and Old Town), with the Downtown branch being my first stop (and famously known as the party hostel). For USD 8 per night it was pretty cheap – you’ll get free breakfast and hot showers, but the wifi was pretty slow. Like every other hostels I’ve stayed it’s the people who made all the differences, and when I say it’s a party hostel, it is a party hostel.
Immediately you’ll find yourself in the midst of party goers 24/7 of the time. The hostel bar is always packed to the brim, and halfway through the night you’ll find half drunkard strangers trying to climb into your bed because they have mistakenly thought it was theirs (extremely funny yet very alarming at the same time).
There’s literally non stop partying and you get to meet all sorts of characters. I met this awesome trio from Brazil who never stopped singing from their ukuleles and jamming out to Bruno Mars.
And if you’re up for all that jazz, then this hostel is for you.
But sometimes too much party is too much, and that’s when I favoured the Old Town Hanoi Backpackers hostel as opposed to the Downtown branch. Not saying that I didn’t enjoy the Downtown hostel, in fact I did – very much – but a lot of things happened in Hanoi for me (faulty ATM card, running out of cash, nursing a very bad aerosinusitis) and the crazy vibe didn’t help when all I wanted was a peace of mind.
The Old Town on the other hand was far laid back – complete with a rooftop bar, cheap shots, free breakfast and cheeky receptionist. Location wise the Old Town is the better counterpart as it’s situated nearby the Old Quarters. With the Old Quarters being the heart of Hanoi there are more eateries / sightseeing to explore on foot. I stayed at the Old Town shortly after my trip to Sapa (blog post here!) and I didn’t regret the day I transferred the very moment I found out the Downtown was fully booked.
So my first night in Hanoi sums up with good beer, and a quick trip to Hoa Kiem Lake for the Lunar New Year fireworks!
THE HOA KIEM LAKE, AND CELEBRATING THE LUNAR NEW YEAR
The Tết New Year holds a special importance among the Vietnamese, and I was lucky to be able to experience the Lunar New Year during my stay. During New Year’s eve we made our way to the Hoa Kiem Lake, clad in our best attires to celebrate the coming of the new year.
I’ve been told that the Lunar New Year is when the Vietnamese would search for a partner, or pray to get married. They’ll throw mandarin oranges into the water and pray for a suitor – so Tết is definitely the season to find love (for all the singles out this is your chance).
The Lunar New Year celebration in Vietnam was somewhat similar to the ones we had in Malaysia, but definitely with a different twist I myself couldn’t place my hands on. Perhaps it was for the different language and cultures, the atmosphere was definitely filled with joyous celebrations. You’ll find the Vietnamese burning incense and offerings by the street and lighting up fire crackers, while happily drinking to 333 (a local Vietnamese beer you should try!) toasting up to the New Year.
WHAT TO DO IN HANOI
1. THE HOA KIEM LAKE
Deemed as the “Heart of Hanoi”, the Hoa Kiem Lake served as the focal point for the Vietnamese, either for recreational activities or for prayers at the nearby Buddhist temple.
The Lake holds a very interesting legend – where the Emperor was given by the Golden Turtle God (Kim Qui) a magical sword to fend off the Chinese six centuries ago, only to be reclaimed by a giant turtle back into the Lake. Surprisingly there are real giant turtles residing in the Lake with the latest finding back in 2011 (link here) but they are very, very rare – even bordering near extinction. Many Vietnamese considered these turtles as sacred, signifying the importance of the lake.
The Hoa Kiem Lake was absolutely beautiful. I would normally make my way around the Lake, with Banh Mi and a cup of Ca Phe Sua Da in hand, sitting down by the bench and just enjoying the view. In the middle of the Lake stood a small stone Pagoda, virtually unreachable (there’s no bridge or boats nearby) and an 18th century Buddhist temple where all the Vietnamese gathered to make their prayers.
2. EXPLORE HANOI BY FOOT
I spent most of my days walking down the streets, discovering old cultural buildings and happy Vietnamese. Because it was Tết most of the shops and attractions were closed for the holidays but I didn’t mind – simply because there were so much to see. I truly enjoyed Hanoi as a city, it was a stark contrast as opposed to Ho Chi Minh down south where everything was always so busy. In Hanoi it was just different. A little more chill and laid back, and I loved every moment of it.
During Tết, everybody dresses up for the Lunar New Year. You’ll find men in handsome suits and tuxedos, and the women in cute dresses, trench coat and high heel boots. Young children flocked around in their traditional Vietnamese outfit, and the younger women walking about in their Ao Dais. It was quite a sight.
February in Hanoi means winter, so the weather was slightly colder. Hanoi itself is such a beautiful city, with the old renaissance French architecture littering through the street. Somewhere throughout the day we ventured into the Opera House area, and for a moment I forgot that I was in Hanoi, it feels like you’re somewhere in Europe or something (with everybody else dressed so well, plus the cold weather and all).
3. GO TO THE HALONG BAY
Halong Bay was one of the main reason I wanted to go to Hanoi in the first place, and it’s been on my ultimate bucket list for as long as I can remember. Featuring over 1,600 limestone karst and isle that took 20 million years to evolve, this UNESCO world heritage has been the pride and joy of Vietnam – and I couldn’t agree more.
Being a nature enthusiast myself Halong Bay fells so surreal. I would find myself staring out to the beautiful limestone karst formations, to the green waters and soaked myself in the chilly February weather while profusely thinking to myself how blessed I am to be able to witness all of this. God’s creation is just amazing. Amazing.
I spent 2 days and 1 night cruising through the emerald waters and truly had the best of time. I did a separate post about Halong Bay and my experience on the cruise here, as trying to squeeze everything feels a little too overkill – and it definitely deserves a blog post on its own.
HOW MUCH DID YOU SPENT IN HANOI?
Hanoi in general, was not cheap. Not exactly. While both Thailand, Cambodia and even Ho Chi Minh was somewhat easy on the wallet, Hanoi on the other hand was not.
While the flights definitely took a toll into my travel expenses, I spent roughly USD 173* excluding flights for the first 5 days in Hanoi while trying to keep up on my USD30/day budget.
|Accommodation||Hanoi Backpackers Hostel (USD 8/night)||USD 24|
|Transportation||Airport Shuttle Bus (return)||USD 4|
|Activities||Halong Bay (inclusive one 1 night stay, food and tours)||USD 130|
|Miscellanous||Souvenirs (postcards etc)||USD 5|
|Food and Drinks||Assorted Street Food||USD 10|
I saved a lot on transportations because most of the time I just walked, and ended up memorizing most of the streets in Hanoi. Everything in Hanoi revolves around the Lake, and if you ever find yourself lost – just ask your way to the Lake and you’ll be able to find your back from there.
*USD instead of MYR because that’s how I calculate my travel expenses – it’s easier to keep track. As of February 2014, USD173 = RM572 for the Malaysians out there.
That concludes this post, and until then – safe travels!