I feel like Hanoi was the first truly Asian city I’ve visited so far. It’s much less Westernized than any city I saw in Thailand. The traffic isn’t quite as scary as I had feared, but it is still pretty chaotic. You just have to get used to stepping out in front of moving cars and motorbikes if you want to cross the street. And for the most part, you can’t walk on the sidewalks because that’s where everyone parks their motorbike. Since the length of a motorbike is about the same as the width of the sidewalk, you have no choice but to walk in the street.
On my first day in Hanoi, I decided to stroll around and see how many sights I could manage to cover on my own two feet.
I started with a stroll around Hoan Kiem Lake and a visit to the Ngoc Son temple, which stands on a little island in the lake and is accessed via a cute red footbridge. It was a cool, grey, misty day, and the lake looked beautifully mystical shrouded in fog.
After that I wandered to Ba Dinh Square, Hanoi’s main public square. It certainly wasn’t like any public square that I’ve seen in Europe. It was basically just a vast, mostly empty expanse of land.
Nearby Ba Dinh Square is the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum, where the body of former Vietnamese President Ho Chi Minh lies on display. I opted not to go inside, since I have zero interest in seeing the dead body of someone whom I didn’t even know existed before I came on this trip.
Also close by is the Single-Pillar Pagoda, which is pretty cute and worth a quick snap if you’re in the area.
The #1 reason I was excited about my time in Hanoi is the hostel I stayed in. I stayed at the downtown location of the legendary party hostel chain Vietnam Backpacker Hostels. Every single night they organize a different event (beer pong competitions, BBQs, pub quizzes, etc.) and then take everyone on a pub crawl afterwards.
I went on the hostel pub crawl on my second night in Hanoi. To be honest, it wasn’t much of a pub crawl at all. They took us to a club just down the street from the hostel, and we stayed there for what must have been about two and a half hours. We all kept wondering when we were going to move to the next place. We finally did, but not until the club we were in closed. Then the pub crawl leaders took us to a small bar nearby, but by that point most of the pub crawlers had already left. The leaders themselves even left as soon as we got to the second place, so it was obvious they weren’t planning on taking us anywhere else. I still had fun because I met four cool guys from California that I chilled with for a while at the second place, so the night was far from being a disaster. But really, don’t tell drunk backpackers that you’re taking them on a pub crawl and then not take them on a pub crawl. It ain’t right.
If you want a recommendation for an activity that might not be on your radar, I advise you to check out a building called the Lotte Centre. It has a glass-floor observation deck on the 65th floor that gives you an amazing view of the city. I’m terrified of heights, so it was a little nerve-racking for me to step out on that glass floor and stare down at the city streets far beneath my feet, but I managed it. Best part was that the place was almost totally empty. There were only two other people on the observation deck when I got there, so I hung around as long as I wanted and took selfies to my heart’s content.
The ticket price of 230,000VND (about $13CAD) to visit the observation deck is pretty steep, but everything else in Vietnam is so cheap that I guess it balances out!
Okay, not everything else. The biggest budget blower of my time in Hanoi was my two-night tour of Halong Bay. There are tons of different Halong Bay tours to choose from, and after a lot of careful research I decided to go with the infamous Castaways Island tour run by Vietnam Backpacker Hostels. This tour is so popular that it has many imitators, but I made sure to get the real deal by booking directly on the Vietnam Backpacker Hostels website.
On the first day of the tour, we all met at the downtown hostel (conveniently the one where I was staying) at 7:00AM. We then took a bus, a boat, another bus, and another boat, finally arriving at the private island where we would be sleeping in bungalows for the next two nights.
After an excellent buffet lunch, it was time for tubing and rock climbing. I opted to skip the rock climbing since (as I mentioned previously) I’m terrified of heights, but the tubing was really fun.
At about 4:00PM we were joined on the island by the group that had arrived the day before and had spent the day getting drunk while cruising around Halong Bay on a party boat. The rest of the night was spent partying on the island.
Unfortunately, that first night was not much fun for me because I was finding it impossible to get drunk. I felt like I had drunk a LOT of vodka and orange juice, but for some reason it wasn’t having any effect on me. I was pretty bummed about it because I came on this tour to party and ended up going to bed at 10:00. I hoped the next day would be better.
The next day it was my group’s turn to go on the party boat. We left the island at 9:30AM and cruised around Halong Bay for about an hour before stopping and allowing anyone who so chose to jump off the boat and go for a swim. Considering that the air temperature was about 15°C, I was amazed at how many people actually jumped into the frigid water. No thank you.
Here are some of the awesome views we were treated to on the boat:
Halong Bay is truly one of the great wonders of the world.
After the swimming we all went kayaking together for about an hour. The scenery was obviously amazing, and we got to paddle through a couple of cool caves. Unfortunately, I don’t have any photos of the kayaking trip because I was afraid to take my phone along in case it should get wet.
After we got back to the boat we had lunch and then spent the next three hours drinking and partying. We arrived back at the island around 4:00PM to welcome the newcomers who had just arrived that day. Then it was the same drill as the day before: drinking and partying all night. Once again I was having the hardest time getting drunk, but eventually I managed to get a bit tipsy so I definitely had more fun than I had the first night. The next day we left the island at 11:30AM and arrived back at the hostel at 4:00PM.
All in all, I had a decently good time on the Castaways Island tour, but I don’t think it was worth the huge price tag it came with. I paid about $261CAD for the tour, plus about $55CAD for drinks. Way overpriced, if you ask me. That being said, I’m still glad I did it because I feel like I completed a major backpacker rite of passage. The Castaways Island tour is a pretty big deal among young travellers in Vietnam, and I can totally see why. I’m sure it’s a ton of fun if you can manage to be drunk the whole time.
All in all, Hanoi is not my favourite city. It’s not particularly attractive, the traffic can be scary, and I found walking around the city unpleasant. In all fairness though, I did leave Hanoi with a more favourable impression of it than I had gained on my first day. It’s a place that can definitely be jarring at first, but once you get used to it, you realize it’s not that bad. I certainly don’t hate Hanoi by any means, but I wouldn’t get excited at the idea of living there. I spent a good chunk of time there and did all the things I wanted to do. I don’t feel any particular desire to go back, but I’m glad I got to experience Hanoi.
Next stop: Hoi An, Vietnam!