Hanoi, The Old Quarter
Updated: Apr 15, 2020
My first visit to Vietnam was with three friends in 2018. We decided to split three weeks holiday between Vietnam and Thailand and started to explore our options. After much searching I found some options that we discussed as a group and then we narrowed down what we wanted to do for the ten days in Vietnam, Thailand was easy to sort out as we had been there as a group previously and decided that this time it was just going to be a relax after running around Vietnam.
So we booked ourselves the flights from Manchester To Hanoi and Bangkok to Manchester with Qatar Airways and bought a separate flight with Thai Airways between Hanoi and Bangkok. This saved us around £150-00 per person over booking the three legs with Qatar.
After a half hearted attempt at building an itinery it was clear that as this was the first time in Vietnam for all of us, some professional help may be a good idea. I contacted Simon and Ngat at Travel Agent Hanoi and they quickly came back with a eleven day/ten night itinerary which looked something like this
Day 1-3 Hanoi
Day 4-6 Halong Bay Cruise/Overnight train to Sapa
Day 7-8 Trekking in Sapa
Day 9-11 Hanoi
Had we arranged everything ourselves then it would possibly have been a little cheaper, but having everything including the hotels, transport and side trips all planned for us made everything so easy. We were given options such as three or fours star hotels and one or two nights cruise. Then we were sent a final itinerary for approval and it seemed that all we had to do was turn up and enjoy ourselves, and that is exactly what happened Travel Agent Hanoi offered a service that was second to none.
On landing at Noi Bai International Airport I was surprised at how quiet it seemed compared to Survanabhumi, even better was the ease and speed of passing through Immigration, collecting our luggage, and clearing customs. The driver was there waiting to take us on the short ride to the O'Gallery Premier Hotel and Spa close to Hanoi's Old Quarter and Hoan Kiem Lake. The hotel was possibly the best hotel I have ever stayed in and everything about my first day in Vietnam assured me that we had made the right decision letting Simon and Ngat organise everything for us.
If I had to choose one word to describe Hanoi it would be LOUD, everything about the place is exciting. The Old Quarter is like a rabbit warren, with side streets and alleys branching off from the main roads in all directions. All of them packed with people, traffic and businesses going about their daily routine, seemingly without noticing just how busy it is. I was happy just to survive the traffic and not get too lost, something that is very easy to do especially after dark when the street scenery changes as the restaurants take over the roads that are closed to traffic around 6pm.
We arrived on a Friday and spent that evening exploring the side streets near to Hoan Kiem Lake, sampling the various bars and roadside pop-up beer sellers that offer a glass of beer for as little as 5k Vietnamese Dong (30,000 VD = £1-00 or 24,000 = $1-00 US) six beers for a Pound is incredible even if the beer was something of an acquired taste, bottled beer was averaging 15,000 VD and food was also very reasonably priced. Tired from the flights we made our way back to the hotel a little earlier than we normally would, although this became something of a habit in Vietnam, as most bars seemed to close early anyway.
Even though we were not in Hanoi for very long we soon found our own favourite bars and one of these was a 5k Bia Hoi seller opposite Vietnam Backpacker Hostels, Downtown. Bia Hoi has a very limited lifespan and basically if a barrel is tapped it has to sell within a few hours or it loses its sparkle. Most nights we would venture into Minhs allocated pavement area, take a seat on one of the ridiculously low seats and drink a few fresh beers, before venturing on to listen to some live music from the street entertainers. If a sports event featuring Vietnam happens to be on TV things get even louder.
Weekend brings with it a closure of the roads around Hoan Kiem Lake and the various Embassies or businesses take turns to put on family orientated entertainment, this particular weekend it was the Italian Embassy and so the entertainment took on an Italian theme, stalls were full of Italian goods, Vespa had a large display of their scooters and even AC Milan became involved via their academy by holding skill sessions for the kids. Being able to escape the traffic and take a walk was something of a relief and even though the roads were now full of children in electric vehicles ranging from motorcycles to tanks the noise had vanished, for a while at least.
At weekend any foreigner walking around the lake is almost certain to be approached by very polite young people asking if they would mind talking for a while so the youngsters can practice their English. These youngsters tend to range in age from around six to twenty, with the majority being towards the younger end and always supervised by an adult. The chats are usually quite predictable; Where are you from? What do you like about Vietnam? What food do you like, have you tried Bún Chả? But when you ask them how long they have been practicing dont be surprised when a fluent English speaker tells you they started six months ago.
Finally some of Hanoi's residents have a bad reputation as con artists, the donut lady is possibly the most common one. The common story is that ladies will walk around the streets trying to sell donuts to the tourists at a highly inflated price, when the donuts are widely available and are both cheaper and much fresher when bought direct from the makers. I have no doubts that some people do get ripped off but these ladies are not overly pushy and we found them to be quite entertaining during our stay. They obviously have to try and make a living out of selling very few donuts and they put in some walking to do so, in other words the effort means a price hike is inevitable. They will usually offer a single donut for you to try, take it at your own risk. The other issue regarding quality is simply an issue of freshness, the ones the lady has in her basket are possibly 6 hours old and have been walking around mingling in with the traffic fumes.
I loved Hanoi but was ready to explore Vietnam further and our next adventure was one we were all looking forward to. A two night cruise in Halong Bay, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. I wondered if it would live up to the high expectation I had of it.....Coming Soon.