At 1:30pm, we would begin what would end up being a 17 hour journey to the capital city of Hanoi.
Starting in Hoi An, we booked our bus tickets at the hotel. After waiting until 2pm for the bus to finally show, we boarded a medium sized bus that took us on a 5 hour, long winding road through the Central Highlands to Hue.
Once in Hue, a seemingly random woman asked for our tickets, and beckoned us to follow her around the block to a big sleeper bus that took us another 12 hours to our destination. The seats on a sleeper bus are reasonably comfortable as long as you are under 5’5. If you are taller than this, you’ll be in for a ride stuck in the fetal position in a seat that is only about 12 inches wide. There are also two levels of seats (like, bunk-bed style), and we’ve learned that the bottom row is slightly longer. If you’re lucky, the bus will not be full and no one will be sleeping on the aisle floor. They also played Vietnamese music videos the entire bus ride, which were…really strange, but easily ignored if you had your own music or earplugs like we did.
We finally got to Hanoi around 7am and when we stepped off the bus, we were offered a private room for $12 by a man that either owned or was somehow affiliated with the bus company we used to get to Hanoi. He also offered to pay for our taxi there, so we said we would have a look. The room was decent and for an extra $3 a day we could get breakfast down in the lobby so we agreed to the room. The place is called Violet Hotel, and while we got a good deal on the room, the constant hustling from the front desk about booking tours was extremely annoying. Any time we came in or out, we would be stopped for a 5 minute conversation about tours we weren’t interested in. That being said, it was in a really good location so we were okay with the small hassle. We dropped our stuff in the room and spent the day walking around Hoan Kiem Lake and the Old Quarter.
Although its a big city, Hanoi seems much less Westernized than the southern city of Saigon. Many of the streets here are organized by what is sold on them. For example, there is a street full of shops selling only sunglasses, another selling textiles, and another barbecue chicken. There are also beer corners where people sit on tiny stools on the street to have a drink (as opposed to sitting in a traditional bar.)
After working up an appetite walking around the city, we decided to try Bun Bo Nam Bo, a popular dish in Hanoi made with strips of grilled beef and fresh vegetables over rice noodles. Unlike Pho (more popular in the South) which is a soup, this was more like a noodle dish and a little bit tastier (despite using virtually the same ingredients.)
A little more exploring lead us to Cafe Giang, where we intended to try another Hanoi treat: egg coffee. Egg coffee is made by whisking an egg yolk with sweetened condensed milk, butter, and cheese, then adding it to a cup of Vietnamese coffee.
The place looked like a literal hole in the wall and was almost impossible to spot from the street. We were lead up to the second floor where we ordered one ‘egg coffee’ and one ‘chocolate with egg,’ which is hot cocoa made with the egg mixture, rather than coffee. Other items on the menu included ‘beer with egg’ and ‘rum and coffee with egg,’ along with a food menu as well.
We had no idea what to expect when we ordered our beverages, but once we tried them, we were hooked. They were both shockingly delicious despite the strange ingredients and we couldn’t believe we hadn’t heard of egg coffee before! It was a sweet, thick, creamy, decadent, delicious experience that one must try when visiting Hanoi.
We finished our night squatting on tiny stools at a popular beer corner on Ta Hien Street, where we sipped on cheap Vietnamese beer with a bunch of other tourists and locals alike. We also bought a couple of sugar coated donut-like pastries sold by women on the street all over Hanoi.
The next morning we woke up for a motorbike tour of the city we had scheduled the day before with a random guy that approached us on the street. Sounds sketchy, but it wasn’t. While our motorbike driving experience had been successful in Hoi An, we decided the big city traffic was best left for people who actually know how to operate motorbikes, and let ourselves be driven around instead.
We were picked up around 8:30am and were quickly off to our first stop: the Hanoi Opera House. It was built the French in 1911 and still holds regular performances. For some reason we didn’t take any pictures of this, but you can see some at the link above. Our next stop was the Long Bien bridge, where our guide told us about the history of the bridge and how it was used by the French to secure control of the North, back in the early 20th century. It was heavily damaged during the American War but some of the original structure is still intact. We got a glorious view of the Red River standing in the middle of the bridge.
Our next destinations were West Lake and Phu Tay Ho. Beside the largest lake in Hanoi, sits the Phu Tay Ho Pagoda where we witnessed people praying and leaving gifts like fruit, candy, and even some cans of Heineken. We didn’t see any other tourists in this area which was a nice change from Old Quarter.
Next, we visited the Van Nien Pagoda which is about one thousand years old, and almost entirely vacant aside from a few people taking care of the beautiful landscaping. After removing our shoes, we were allowed to walk through and take pictures of one of the worshipping halls. It was full of elaborate statues and built in the architectural style of the Ly Dynasty.
After the Van Nien Pagoda, we moved on to the Vong Thi fresh food market. We had been to several markets throughout Vietnam but this one was very different. It was apparent the second we arrived that this was not a place that tourists often visited. Food markets in Vietnam are often shocking (at least by Western standards), in that there doesn’t seem to be much regulation regarding order or cleanliness; but this one was on an entirely different level than the ones we had seen previously.
There was blood and guts covering seemingly every surface, and various types of animal carcasses and organs laying around everywhere! Despite the shocking scene, we were the ones getting the most attention as we walked through the market as people looked at us curiously and laughed at our reactions to the butchery taking place.
Once we got through the meat vendors, the market opened up to a more familiar (and far less vomit-inducing) produce market where we tried our first pieces of jackfruit. Jackfruits are large, alien looking fruits that taste a little bit like cantaloupe with a firmer texture. After only a couple of bites, my immune system determined jackfruit to be a sworn enemy, and punished me severely for having the audacity to ingest it. Only after an hour of transforming the lining of my esophagus and eye sockets into fine grain sandpaper did it finally subside. (Annoying, but no hospital visit requirement so…worth it.)
After the market we drove through “New Hanoi City” and down a street deemed ‘the most beautiful street in Hanoi’ by locals. After driving past the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum, we stopped at the Hanoi Citadel, which was constructed in 1010 and held court until 1810. On the front wall you can see large holes made by French cannons.
We ended the trip at a restaurant called Little Hanoi where we shared what was probably our best meal in Vietnam with our tour guides. They told us about their families and how they grew up very poor in a village north of Hanoi. One of the guides told us that he studied really hard to get into university after his sister told him that he would get to eat lots of food if he did. Their story was really humbling and we were glad to have supported them by going on their tour.
After the tour we met up with a friend of Jojo’s from OSU who lived in Chiang Mai, Thailand for a year and now lives in Hanoi. It was interesting getting the perspective from an American living in Southeast Asia rather than just visiting and really made us want to do the same! We ended the night after a couple of beers and retired back to our room in the Old Quarter.
We discussed whether we liked Saigon or Hanoi better, but we couldn’t really come to a conclusion. Both have their charms and drawbacks, but overall we really liked both cities for various reasons. Hanoi definitely feels less Westernized than Saigon, and it isn’t quite so blistering hot, but the street vendors seem to be a little pushier. If you sit by the lake for a while, university students will approach you and ask if they can practice English with you, which we really liked doing. A lot of Vietnamese people took pictures of us as well, and some even asked if they could pose with us which we found really amusing!
Hanoi Day 1
Breakfast: 138,000vnd ($6.47 USD)
Pastry: 5,000vnd ($0.23 USD)
Lunch (Nam Bo): 128,000vnd ($6.00 USD)
Water: 15,000vnd ($0.70 USD)
2-Egg Coffee: 40,000vnd ($1.87 USD)
Beer Corner: 40,000vnd ($1.87 USD)
Pastries: 10,000vnd ($0.47 USD)
Water: 10,000vnd ($0.47 USD)
Accommodation: 322,500 vnd ($15.12 USD)
Day 1 Total Spent: 708,500vnd ($33.21 USD)
Hanoi Day 2
Moto Tour: 1,300,000vnd ($60.93 USD)
2-Coconut Coffee: 70,000vnd ($3.28 USD)
Dinner: 260,000vnd ($12.19 USD)
Water: 10,000vnd ($0.47 USD)
Accommodation: 322,500 vnd ($15.12 USD)
Day 2 Total Spent: 1,962,500 ($91.96 USD)