Hanoi, the bustling capital of Vietnam, is less frenetic and more atmospheric than Saigon. You could spend hours wandering through the narrow, bustling lanes of the Old Quarters, or strolling among the elegant colonial buildings in the French Quarter. Hoan Kiem and West lakes give space and moment to take a break from the intensity of the large metropolis. Bear in mind that Hanoi is a stylish but pricey place and cheating isn’t uncommon.
Hanoi is in a close vicinity to the Perfume Pagoda, while extraordinary karst landscape of Ninh Binh/Tam Coc and Ha Long Bay are just a few hours away, making it an ideal base for exploring northern Vietnam.
Hanoi at small hours
We arrived at Hanoi’s Old Quarters at 4 am, hoping- as usual- to check in at the booked hotel earlier. We found our hotel tucked in a small, dark lane and entered its dusky interior. The reception desk was deserted apart from two backpackers sleeping at a table. Searching for a toilet, I stumbled upon the sleeping receptionist who told us we couldn’t check in before noon. Crestfallen, we left the backpacks and walked the streets of the Old Quarters, which were slowly coming to life.
Hanoi on a budget
The cheapest room we could find in the whole city (even though the price wasn’t low at all) turned out to be a major disappointment. The place was dark, damp, mouldy and very ran down. The shower head was missing- the water was sprouting straight from the hose. We were quite relieved to move to a lovely Couch Surfer host Thuy the following day.
During our second stay in Hanoi we chose a bed in a dormitory which – unusually for Asia- was incomparably cheaper. Two dorm beds cost just half of the cheapest room, everything was bright, clean and new. Moreover, the breakfast was included.
Luckily, transport shouldn’t be your concern in Hanoi. Most of the tourist attractions are within walking distance from the tourist areas. The bus connections (eg. to the bus stations) are really good and cheap. You can check the routes at the Hanoi Public Transport website: http://www.tramoc.com.vn or download the Bus Map app.
In our experience Hanoi is the second priciest place in Vietnam.
The price of coffee in Hanoi is double than normal but the cafes look more fancy than in the rest of the country. In northern Vietnam coffee is less popular among the locals than very strong green tea which you can buy for close to nothing directly on the streets.
The food at Dong Xuan market in the Old Quarters is expensive- it’s better to find another market, further away from the centre for fruit shopping. Hanoi is famous for street food which is generally cheap and very tasty
Vegan Hanoi on a budget
Finding vegan street food might be a challenge. You might come across a street hawker selling cold noodles with a piece of tofu and soy sauce or a night stall with a tofu or greens dish but beware of the risk of being overcharged.
The best Vietnamese vegan breakfast is sticky rice cooked with various ingredients, such as mung bean and fried onion or peanuts and salt. The only problem is that it’s sold only until 8 am as the target buyers are office workers.
There are plenty of good vegan restaurants in Ha Noi. However, as their decor and menus are more sophisticated than in com chay eateries, they tend to be more expensive. I didn’t mind that as the food was always excellent, really worth its price.
Water Puppet Show
We normally don’t attend ‘cultural shows’ but we couldn’t resist going to a beautiful theatre on the west bank of Hoa Kiem lake. We booked the tickets one day in advance. Although this was not written on the notice boards at the entrance, the tickets on the balcony were cheaper than those for the first floor.
The show lasted one hour and was very entertaining throughout. A band of musicians playing traditional instruments and a singer-storyteller sat on both sides of the stage, styled as temple. The stage itself was immersed in water. The puppeteers were operating wooden puppets on long stick from behind a bamboo screen.
Most of the stories were short, sweet and funny. We watched scenes of rural life, such as ploughing the fields, harvesting the rice or fishing, the story of a fox trying to hunt ducks and the dance of the fairies. The program was concluded with the re-enactment of the legend about Hoan Kiem or the Sword lake.
Once the show ended, the crew of puppeteers emerged from behind the screen, wading waist-deep in water. It was probably the best cultural show I’ve ever seen and also one of the cheapest one. An absolute must see!
How to get to Hanoi?
Hanoi airport has direct flights to multitude of destinations in Asia but no other continent. Budget operators fly to Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur and Penang, Singapore, Siem Reap, Yangon, Hong Kong, Tokyo and Osaka, Taipei and- from 2019 also Kolkata and Delhi.
If you want to jump from south to north of the country, budget domestic airlines might be an option. Expect to pay at least 1 000 000 VND for a flight from HCMC to Hanoi if you book a few months in advance. That’s cheaper than the train- makes sense if you travel light as you’d need to pay extra for the check-in luggage.
You can get to Hanoi airport by a regular public bus for just 5 000 VND. You’d need to change the buses, though as numbers 7 and 17 don’t stop in the old town (starting at Kim Ma and Long Bien stations respectively). Use the Bus Map app to help you to navigate.
The main Gia Lam station is just a short walk from Hoan Kiem Lake.
It is divided in section A for southbound and B for northbound trains.
The sleeper train is the most comfortable way (but not the cheapest) to get to Ha Noi from any of the coastal cities such as Hue and Da Nang (13-15 hours journey). Nha Trang and HCMC are a bit too far to make the non-stop travel worthwhile (26 and 33 hours respectively).
Hard-sitter, A/C train from Ninh Binh or Vinh would be cheaper than a bus.
Located very nearby station B serves trains to the north, most notably to Lao Cai. Overnight hard sleeper would costs at least 350 000 VND (bus could be 100 000 VND cheaper).
Ha Noi has a few bus stations connecting the capital with different parts of the country. The most useful would probably be My Dinh.
My Dinh serves the north with destinations such as Dien Bien Phu on the border with Laos (8h), Lao Cai close to SaPa (10h) and Ha Giang in the far north (8h)
Southern Terminal is for very long-distance buses such as to HCMC(37h!), Vientiane in Laos (24h!) and more reasonable Hue (14h) or Da Nang (16h).
Gia Lam bus station serves Hai Phong (2h) and Halong (4h) plus Lao Cai.
You can arrange bus to China via travel agency.
Prices [in Vietnamese dong as of August 2018]
210 000 the cheapest, poor quality double en-suite with no window
200 000 sleeper bus Hanoi- Ha Giang
180 000 sleeper bus Hanoi- Phong Nha Town
180 000 cheap seater bus Hanoi- Cat Ba island (via hotel in Cat Ba)
90 000 sleeper bus Hanoi- Moc Chau
40 000- 80 000 meal at a vegan restaurant
70 000 entrance to the Temple of Literature
64 000 bed in 10-bed dorm in Old Quarters with breakfast
60 000 Water Puppet show (balcony seat)
30 000 entrance to Ngoc Son temple
15 000 -17 000 coffee
10 000 entrance to the Ancient House
5 000-7 000 single bus ticket
3 000 green tea and a puff of pipe on the street
3 000 one deep-fried sweet from a street stall