The promotional offer was just too good to pass up. Coaxed along from an hour of drinking alone after a long day at work (don’t judge we’ve all been there) I bought round trip tickets from Incheon, South Korea to Hanoi, Vietnam for less than $200 USD.
Details? Didn’t worry about em’. Figured I’d worry out the six hours of buses, eight hours of flying, $45 in visa fees and holiday weekend travel anger management later. Oh yeah, and I crammed it all into a three day weekend. You only live once, right?
That three day break – really closer to 2 1/2 – was one of the best mini-vacations I’ve taken. Part of it was the ephemeral break from the screaming banshees that doubled as my students. Part of it was the dopamine surge that comes with new experiences. Part of it was that, between the hectic leaving Korea and then coming back travel, I didn’t do much of anything. And it was all awesome.
A quick prefix.
As a travel destination I know nothing about Vietnam. Literally, nothing. Aside from the plot of Apocalypse Now and watching a few shows on the History Channel, the quick few days I had in Hanoi is the only relation I previously had to the country.
More embarrassingly, I know jack all about Hanoi. Still. But as someone so oblivious I quickly found these must do things that will make any trip there awesome.
This my attempt at sharing that here.
Coffee, Cigarettes & Chill
Hanoi, allegedly the laid back younger brother to Ho Chi Minh City, is still frenetic. Walking the streets of the Old Quarter is like shrinking yourself down and inserting yourself into a beehive. Everything jumps at you with more action than the opening scene of a James Bond film.
Which is exactly why I’d suggest taking a step back, grab an outside seat (preferably in the cooler morning weather) order a coffee, and watch the day light fireworks. Thanks to the French, the coffee isn’t half bad. The locals are more than friendly and a simple smile quickly follows to fun, broken English conversations.
I might need to qualify this a bit. It’s possible that praising Hanoi’s Old Quarter is tantamount to suggesting Times Square as the best way to experience New York City. Obviously there might be some problems there. I’m sure there is plenty more to explore. But for any outsider looking to spend a quality morning, I can think of no better way.
Eat Banh Mi In the Old Quarter
Banh Mi. It might just make the centuries of French colonialism worth it. The first few bites of a baguette filled with roasted pork and fresh raw vegetables is one of the most the most resplendent examples of a silver lining this world has to offer.
And with something that deserves so much respect, taking chances with where your buy your Banh Mi is unacceptable. Big decisions require homework. So make sure you go here.
Less of a restaurant and more of a guy with a stall in front of his house, it’s a pretty unassuming place – easy to miss if you don’t know what your looking for. A few tables and accompanying plastic stools provide enough seating to not piss off the neighbors. Washed down with a local beer, while continuing the laid back not doing anything theme from your morning, is nothing short of extraordinary.
Take a Ride on a Motorbike. In Rush Hour
Vietnam is famous for it’s other worldly motorbike scene. Thrown together with some of the most choking traffic in the Eastern Hemisphere, and the scene gets very chaotic. So why not strap on a helmet and throw yourself into the mix.
Personally, I prefer to first get hopped up on beer and Banh Mi – but to each their own. Anyway, wait till about 5pm to make your move. The process goes something like this.
- First, flag down a moto taxi and ask for a ride. They’re everywhere. They probably won’t speak English so it’s good to have a city map on hand.
- Point to a major destination on the map that looks interesting – popular landmark or monument is always good. DO NOT point to your hotel, especially if it’s a small guesthouse/hostel. There’s a snowball’s chance in hell your newly enlisted driver will know how to get there. Your driver will have no clue where popular landmark destination is either, and will ask for help from friendly bystanders.
- Stand awkwardly while your driver figures out how to get to your very well known and popular destination. This conversation will probably sound like loud angry Vietnamese shouting. They’re just talking, I promise. Continue to stand awkwardly.
- Driver ushers you to take a seat on the back of his death trap moto. Hop on and try your best to ignore the fact that your assigned helmet is more of an accessory than any type of function safety precaution.
- Take off into some of the most chaotic traffic while relishing the fact your entire life is in the hands of an Asian stranger who probably cares nothing for your personal safety.
- Survive. Hopefully. There’s a 50/50 chance you’ll be where you intended.
Tourists renting motorbikes in South East Asia is ubiquitous. Spice it up with a little adventure.
What did it cost me?
Cost to value, Vietnam is a gold mine.
Vietjet is the low cost carrier with some seriously great deals. As I mentioned before, my round trip ticket from Seoul to Hanoi was less than $200. It’s $10-12 US for a taxi ride to/from the airport to Hanoi Old Quarter.
US citizens pay a $35-$60 dollar visa fee depending on the number of entries into the country. You can do this at the airport. More importantly, you need a “Visa written approval letter” before you arrive in Vietnam. There are plenty of services online costing about about $10-15. (Just Google “Vietnam visa on arrival approval letter”) DO THIS at least two weeks before your arrival into the country.
Hotels are great value. I stayed in a very clean, modern, air-conditioned pad complete with a private bathroom for a cool $22 per night.
Food and alcohol is crazy cheap. Bars, well, they can get spendy if they’re in the touristy areas. Convenience stores carry local beer for less than $1 each. A great meal is less than $4. Be imaginative. Go wild.
Cabs, moto taxis and transportation around the city are all very wildly cheap.
Entrance fees to any museums will run a few dollars each. They’re cool so get yourself educated. And getting a Vietnamese perspective from the conflict 45 years is always fascinating. Hanoi’s infamous prison, aka “Hanoi Hilton” has a special area regarding John McCain.
One thing I make a point to do in most major cities is to slow down. You can’t possibly see it all, so why bother? Instead, pick an area that you know you’ll love. And enjoy it.