The first five minutes of our cab ride from the airport were a brief introduction into the chaos that defines Hanoi. Cars and motorbikes weaved back and forth, leaving inches of space between them, while our cab driver drove down the breakdown lane of the highway, inches from the concrete center barrier, as if it were meant for traffic. I knew immediately that Hanoi would live up to its reputation for being in a near constant state of pandemonium.
As we drove into the historic Old Quarter, the streets were engulfed with vast numbers of people walking in every which direction with seemingly little regard to the motorized traffic. Every few feet there were fires of what we thought was trash burning in the streets (we later found out the fires were offering to the gods). Stepping out of the cab we felt the thick, hot air and realized that even at 9 PM there was no break in the heat. Hot and tired, I went to bed that night glad we only had one full day in Hanoi, as I wasn’t sure I would enjoy the city.
Luckily, our full day in Hanoi changed my opinion of the city for the better.
Hanoi Street Food Tour
After sleeping in and having a light breakfast at our hotel, we were promptly greeted in the lobby by our always smiling Hanoi Street Food tour guide, Mango. After ensuring that we were comfortable riding motorbikes for the first time, we strapped our helmets on and were off on a four-hour tour of Hanoi’s best street food joints and historic sites.
The first few minutes on the motorbikes were a little nerve-wracking, but after a while, we got the hang of it and even summoned the courage to let go and take pictures while riding. While there are thousands of motorbikes in the streets and few traffic rules, the bikes drive slowly and there is a certain harmony to how people weave around each other. It was also refreshing driving on the motorbikes as the breeze made the intense heat a little more bearable. Despite the fact that all of the locals wear long pants, jackets, and hoods in the 110-degree heat index, you’ll be glad you dressed in shorts!
We visited eight food spots. The tour spaces the food stops in between visits to historic sites and longer drives so that you can make more room to eat, but you will be full by the end of the tour! Our guide Mango did a great job of telling us all about Hanoi, its history, the sites we passed, and of course, what we were eating. A few of our favorites dishes were bún bò nam bộ (a beef noodle dish), phở chiên phồng (fried puffed noodle with beef), and nước mía (freshly pressed sugarcane juice mixed with kumquat juice). We also loved ending the tour with thecà phê trứng, traditional Vietnamese egg coffee.
As we only had one complete day in Hanoi, motorbiking through the city and visiting such an variety of restaurants was the perfect way to get a full taste Hanoi in such a short amount of time. Though we were initially wary of riding motorbikes, it ended up being very enjoyable and I’m sure it will be remembered as a once-in-a-lifetime experience! If you go to Hanoi, I highly recommend booking a motorbike street food tour with Hanoi Street Food Tour, and if possible, ask for Mango as your guide.
A few days later, when we returned from Halong Bay, we spent a few hours in the evening and the following morning exploring other parts of Hanoi. We had switched hotels and were staying in the French Quarter. After staying in both the Old Quarter and the French Quarter, I recommend staying in the French Quarter as the hotels are much more comfortable and in a quieter area. The French Quarter is like night and day compared to the Old Quarter. It has beautiful parks, wide streets, and modern cafes and hotels. It feels like you are in Europe. If you stay only in the Old Quarter, you should at least reserve a few hours to walk around the French Quarter to see the stark contrast between the areas of the city.
Tips & Recommendations For Hanoi
Besides the street food tour, I recommend dining one night at Cau Go Vietnamese Cuisine in the Old Quarter. The restaurant is on the upper floor of a building and has a lovely view overlooking the Old Quarter and lake. While the food isn’t as cheap as most of Hanoi, it is still inexpensive by U.S. standards. They have outdoor seating on the balcony, but I wouldn't recommend sitting there due to the heat. Be sure to make a reservation as they are usually booked!
For a more authentic Vietnamese meal, stop by Chả Cá Thăng Long. They only serve one thing – Chả Cá Thăng Long, a Vietnamese delicacy of grilled white fish with lots of turmeric, fish sauce, ginger, garlic, handfuls of fresh dill, spring onion and roasted peanuts. The fish is delicious and it's very fun how they cook the fish right in front of you. You can also see half a dozen restaurant workers, sitting out on the sidewalk outside the restaurant, preparing green onions for the restaurant. (Tip: the peanuts are for putting on top of the main course -- but if you snack on them with your beer instead, they'll bring you more!)
We also stumbled upon a great cocktail & wine bar that had recently opened called Ne. The wine selection by the glass is limited, but the menu is full of delicious and creative cocktails. While we were having a drink, there was a journalist interviewing the owner about his cocktail menu and we were able to chat with him a bit about his award-winning pho-flavored cocktail. It’s definitely a fun place if you are looking for a drink.
Last but not least, here are some general tips for touring Hanoi:
- Cabs are cheap and a great way to get around if you need a break from the heat. If possible, ask your hotel concierge to arrange a cab so that you go the right address. It’s also a good idea to get a business card from your hotel so that you can show the Vietnamese address to cab drivers.
- If you don’t want filthy feet, wear tennis shoes. The Old Quarter is pretty dirty (especially in the rainy season when there are puddles) and the sidewalks are not maintained well.
- Do not drink the water or have any drinks with ice, even if you see the locals doing so. Food poisoning is real and not fun! Also, try to eat when the Vietnamese are eating (not off peak hours) and go to more crowded restaurants. When in doubt, don’t eat it!
- Have fun!!!