Sandwiched between backpackers and locals on a crowded public bus, I instantly knew my experience in Vietnam would be a lot different than the modern comforts I’d left behind in Hong Kong.
At about $1, the bus was my cheapest option to get from the airport to Hanoi’s Old Quarter, a neighborhood that beats to the spike in tourism seen across the country.
I was caught in a whirlwind of honking scooters and speeding cars as soon as I stepped off the bus. My travel partner and boyfriend Guil had warned me about how busy the traffic was here, but nothing could’ve prepared me for what came next.
Somehow I was supposed to cross the large avenue ahead of me without a crosswalk or traffic light, simply inching my way forward while motorbikes (hopefully) zigzagged around me.
The adrenaline of that first street-crossing was exhilarating. So far, my experiences in Asia had been made up of moments that captured all of my senses; that day, the heat dripped from my forehead and the smell of street food filled the air around me. My eyes intently focused on the vehicles zooming past me, while the traveler in me gushed with excitement.
I’m happy to report that I almost mastered the skill after spending two weeks in the country, which brings me to our first item. Aside from the main tourist sites in Hanoi, such as the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum and the Temple of Literature, here are seven things you can’t miss when visiting Vietnam’s capital city.
Learn How To Cross The Street Like a Champ
Watch the locals, not the backpackers. Watch how they calmly step onto the road and continue to the other side at a steady pace. Not too fast. Not too slow.
You have to trust the wits of the drivers around you, which, I’ll admit, is not an easy task at first. Alas, trust that the traffic will snake around you, and it most likely will.
See Hanoi Through a Local’s Eyes With HanoiKids
One of the top things I did in Hanoi was spending a day with a local college student.
Guil and I spent hours walking around the Old Quarter learning about her day-to-day as a teenager growing up in Hanoi. Cam, who is studying economics, shared with us her hopes and dreams of studying abroad in Australia and Japan, although she’s worried about the cost of housing in both places.
She told us her mom works for the government, which meant she would eventually follow the same path; while the salary is low, the employment is steady, she said — a remarkably mature way of thinking at such a young age.
When I asked her where she’d like to travel to next, she responded the U.S.
“Where in the U.S.?”
“Las Vegas. I want to see the Trump Tower. I heard it’s made of gold. And I want to eat at the ‘Heart Attack’ restaurant. The one that serves the most caloric burger in the world!”
I couldn’t believe her response. We all laughed. Should I add that burger to my bucket list???
Here are the details you need to know: Our meeting was set up by an organization called HanoiKids, which offers free walking tours led by local students so they can practice their English. You pick where you want to go and what you want to do. You simply cover the tour guide’s entrance fees or meal costs if you choose to visit tourist attractions or dine in a restaurant. It’s worthy way to connect with a local, and that’s one of the main reasons to travel, isn’t it?
Discover The Local Fare (try all the street food!)
Guil was feeling kind of squeamish during our first few days in the city. He had just recovered from a stomach bug he caught in South America, causing him to reject all the street-food stalls that crowd the Old Quarter’s sidewalks.
Truth is, you should find yourself a spot on one of the plastic stools next to the woman deep-frying pork on the side of the road and taste the true flavors of Hanoi.
You must try bun cha, bahn mi and pho.
For bun cha, head over to Bun Cha 34 or New Day Restaurant. For bahn mi, we hit up Bahn Mi 25. Check out Pho 10 for pho (while I didn’t have the chance to eat here, it was always packed).
And don’t forget to try Hanoi’s iced-coffee delicacies. You can find sweet, creamy egg coffee at Giang Cafe, and the cooling, ice cream-like coconut coffee at Cong Caphe. Seriously. So. Good. These are definitely the top dishes to eat in Hanoi.
Bargain At The Weekend Night Market
Make sure to visit Hanoi on a weekend if you enjoy shopping. The weekend night market is one of the top things to do in Hanoi, running from Friday to Sunday on one of the main streets within the Old Quarter.
There you’ll find the latest clothing trends (albeit cheap quality) as well as local food, electronics and souvenirs.
Bargaining prices down is common here, and this is a great place to brush up on those skills. If the vendor asks for 200,000 Vietnamese Dong, offer 100,000. Don’t be afraid to negotiate that number down to whatever you feel comfortable paying. Remember it’s OK to walk away. There are dozens of vendors selling the same thing!
The bargaining practice will pay off in the rest of Asia.
Watch The Train Pass On “Train Street”
There’s a residential street that’s home to both locals and railroad tracks. Homes line the narrow alley on either side, and at its center, you’ll find a long path of train tracks.
Deemed “Train Street” by visitors, this is one slice of Hanoi you don’t want to miss.
The morning I was there, locals were cooking meals in the middle of the train tracks. Later that afternoon, I was lucky enough to catch the train pass inches from their front doors. I glued ourselves to someone’s front porch; the passage is so narrow that if you reach your arm out you could touch the moving train.
You should show up around 3 p.m. to catch it. I waited around for about 30 minutes until I heard it chugging along in the distance.
Observe Local Life Around Hoan Kiem Lake
Everyone walks around Hoan Kiem Lake at the center of Hanoi’s historical district. You’ll see visitors trying to capture the perfect photo while locals eat ice cream on nearby benches.
And on Saturdays and Sundays, the street around the lake is closed off for pedestrians. This where you can truly witness local life in action.
Families flood the street. Friends eat and laugh at restaurants lining the lake. Live music plays in the background as kids chase one another and play with colorful airplanes made of foam.
When the sun goes down, the street really comes alive.
Drool Over The Best Pizza In Vietnam
When in Hanoi, I met an Irish father and son who tipped me off to “Vietnam’s best pizza restaurant.”
Italian-style pizza in Vietnam? How good can it be? I was skeptical.
I’m here to tell you that the pie at Pizza 4P’s is one of the best I’ve ever had in my life! Better than the pizza I’ve had in Italy. Better than the pizza I’ve had in Chicago. Almost better than the pizza I’ve had in New York.
Here, the go-to order is the three-cheese pizza, a light and airy, cheese-dripping gem served with a side of honey. We had it twice during our stay. Twice!!!
Make a reservation or just show up if you don’t mind waiting a bit. I know it sounds crazy to choose pizza over bun cha, but for 4P’s, it’s worth it. I’ll definitely come back here if I’m in Hanoi again.
Looking to book a hotel in Hanoi? Here are some great options:
Hanoi La Castela Hotel – Great Value
Hanoi Culture Hostel – Where I Stayed
Hanoi Esplendor Hotel and Spa– Best Rated on Booking.com