Ever thought of visiting Vietnam? It’s a beautiful place that comes alive with activity. Locals on the move, buzzing around on scooters like total experts, bustling marketplaces selling everything you can imagine and food that is too good to be true. Vietnam is not only a great place to visit, it’s also very affordable, which is great for travellers on a budget.
If you’re looking for somewhere affordable to visit or just need some destination inspiration, here’s some information on where to stay, eat and play in Hanoi and guidance on taking a Halong Bay Cruise while you’re there.
Part of me had expected Vietnam to be similar to Bali, with local shop owners loudly vying for the attention of visitors. Turns out, I was wrong! For a short while, I thought I’d become a ghost, a kind of (very white) ghost that walks among the people. There was no hassling, touching, yelling or approaches from anyone and if you’ve ever been to Bali or Thailand you’ll appreciate this more than most. I asked a Hanoi local if the Vietnamese like tourists and she explained they did, they are just such a peaceful people that they don’t want to be rude and interrupt someone on their holiday. That gives you immediate insight into how lovely the locals are.
Hanoi is a buzzing city. If you think you’ve been in heavy or crazy traffic, you’re wrong, you’re not even in the same postal code as the mad-house that is Hanoi traffic. When you first arrive and venture out of your hotel, you may wish to pack some spare undies because your first street-crossing experience is going to rattle your cage. The key is confidence, just start walking in a calm, set pace and don’t stop. You’ll be fine.
To be honest, I didn’t find many sights that captured me, I found Hanoi was more about a vibe to immerse yourself in. We walked through the streets, dodged scooters and motorbikes and sought refuge behind friendly locals and their shops. The best way to soak it in is to find a cafe, restaurant or bar up high, settle in and watch the madness on the streets from a distance.
My stomach took charge of the situation and refused to let me anywhere near street food, but the local Vietnamese food served in restaurants was exceptional and so affordable. We ate like Kings ordering entrees, mains, desserts and drinks galore and barely ever went above $20us for a meal for two people. I had no issues with tummy trouble from the food and found everyone to be really accommodating of my vegetarianism, even offering to make local delights for me without meat so I could try them.
Choosing a restaurant can be a bit hit and miss, I think some of them may have studied one too many pirated copies of Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares and tried too hard to create a big western menu and a restaurant with crazy décor. The more simple the restaurant and the more traditional the menu, the better the food was. Don’t be afraid to get in there and try some new food you’ve never heard of before, I took a few risks and the paid off (for the most part).
I heard a few stories of crazy Vietnamese scooter pirates zipping around and cutting the backpacks and cameras off unsuspecting tourists. This actually happened to a friend of mine! But, I never saw any of this and it definitely didn’t happen to Matt and I. The whole city felt very safe except for one local who showed up in our room at the day spa and tried to scam us into coming to her house, presumably to harvest our organs or turn Matt into her gimp.
I enjoyed visiting Hanoi and experiencing a cramped, dense little city like no other I’ve been to. I was glad to move on after two days though as I felt like I’d seen everything I wanted to see and was starting to really choke a bit on the thick pollution from all the scooters and motorbikes. I’d recommend no more than 2 days in Hanoi, just to experience it, then head East to soak up the beautiful coastline.
Hanoi Elegance Ruby – a simple but classy little hotel, exceptional value for money and provides the best customer service I have received.
Gourmet Corner – perched on top of the Hanoi Elegance Diamond with beautiful views of Hanoi, delicious food and excellent service.
Quan An Ngon – an absolute hive of activity, this busy little place serves up more food than you can imagine and it is all tasty, cheap and traditional.
Booking a Halong Bay cruise is ridiculously stressful, I heard and read so many horror stories especially to do with theft and rats. I assume those incidents are separate and the local rats aren’t sharpening toothpicks into shivs, Shawshank style. So, I finally booked a cruise based on a recommendation from a close friend, The Paloma Cruise.
The drive out to Halong Bay from Hanoi isn’t fun, the roads are terrible, the traffic is crazy and the weather is hot and humid. I did see a local man with an unconscious (but live) water buffalo strapped to the back of his motorbike, which really made up for the painful drive. Picking a reputable cruise company also ensures a more comfortable and air-conditioned transfer out to Halong Bay, which is something you definitely want.
I recommend a 2 night, 3-day cruise as opposed to a 1 night, 2-day cruise. Once you arrive you will have forgotten all about the drive and will want to soak up as much of Halong Bay as possible as there is so much to enjoy. I also recommend splashing out the extra cash to get a room with your own balcony to sit and enjoy the sunset and sunrise.
Halong Bay is beautiful, the water wasn’t always enticing but the views as we sailed through it were breathtaking. I found the local food absolutely delicious and wasn’t bothered by the number of boats around us at all, it was really pretty seeing them lit up and night and watching them float past during the day.
We visited a few local floating villages and were amazed at how the people live in a maze of boats and floating houses they’ve built. Children, dogs, grandparents, aunties and uncles all live together in the same little place. Of course, my first question was how you go about dating as a Vietnamese teenager growing up with your entire family 1 metre away. Our guide explained they have developed their own type of ‘parking’ where young couples take a small boat to a secluded area behind one of the rock formations and enjoy ‘date night’.
The Sung Sot Cave (Surprising Cave) wasn’t highly recommended in the research I did while planning the trip, however, I really enjoyed it. Of course, there are lots of tourists there, you’re in Halong Bay and, other than some pretty awesome gigantic rock formations, there’s not much else to look at, so everyone wants to see the cave. I didn’t find it too crazy or overwhelming and think it’s well worth the visit.
As part of our 2 night cruise we were able to do some kayaking around a beautiful little secluded spot, I couldn’t even tell you where it was it was that hidden. We spent a day on a smaller boat just swimming, eating, kayaking, napping and jumping from the boat. As far as holidays go, moments like that are what really make it for me.
My tips for booking a Halong Bay cruise are to ask around and listen to recommendations from friends and family. You will always get what you pay for and it is a once in a lifetime experience so spend as much as you can afford on your cruise and your room.
Paloma Cruise – the Paloma boat was a great size and really well maintained. The room we had, with a private balcony, was more than big enough with a great bathroom comfy bed and much-needed air conditioning. The food was really delicious and we always had more than we could eat. Most importantly, the staff were incredibly friendly and accommodating.