Just like Laos, Vietnam had been on my to-visit list for many years and more so since arriving in Cambodia about a year ago. So, when Andy announced his madcap idea to cycle from Siem Reap to Thailand to get a cheese sandwich from Tescos with a friend, I took it as the perfect opportunity for another solo trip of my own. In case you’re wondering, Andy’s logic behind his trip was that Cambodia doesn’t have Tescos and cheese is expensive here! Yes – I thought it was slightly strange too!
UK citizens can visit Vietnam for 15 days without a visa, free of charge. However, I like to eke my trips out as long as possible so paid the $25 USD (£18.90 GBP) for a Vietnam e-visa. This meant I could stay up to 30 days, although I only had 17.
I’d have happily stayed longer but my rapidly diminishing holiday from work and feeling bad for deserting Andy for too long ‘again’ won this time
Flight Delays and an Immigration Fiasco
My first destination in Vietnam was Hanoi as it had the cheapest flights. I flew with Vietjet and as often happens with budget airlines my flight was delayed…twice. By the time I disembarked at Noi Bai International Airport in Hanoi it was already 22:30 pm. Flight delays don’t normally bother me (unless I’m going to miss my onward travel). This time though I’d arranged to meet friends from Siem Reap that had moved to Vietnam. That meant I wanted to get through immigration quickly so I could still see them, albeit a little late.
Obviously, my eagerness to get out of the airport meant ‘sod’s law’ came into play. Despite already having my e-visa AND being the first in the queue I drew the short straw. I got a sour-faced immigration officer who, for some reason wouldn’t accept my e-visa. After much toing and froing between the immigration and visa desks, they finally let me through. I made my way to luggage reclaim to collect my lonely backpack off the carousel…what a fiasco!
Arrival in Hanoi
To avoid any airport taxi scams I’d pre-booked an airport transfer with Hanoi Express, which at $16 USD or £12.21 GBP was cheaper than a hotel transfer. Luckily the driver hadn’t given up on me and was still waiting in arrivals.
On the 45-minute drive to my hotel, there was very little to see due to the time of night. There was hardly any traffic on the roads, and the streets, smattered with the neon signs of shops, restaurants, and hotels, were almost empty. Finally, I arrived at Hanoi Traveller House, where I was staying for the next three nights.
I checked in, then spent 10 minutes explaining (again) that I was travelling alone. The guy on reception seemed confused that I had a husband, yet travelled without him. He told me I’d have to move rooms in the morning, as the one I’d got was too big for just little ol’ me. I started to explain that my solo traveller status should be irrelevant as I’d paid already but decided it was too late to argue. On that note, he pointed me in the vague direction of my room and left to lug my backpack up several flights of stairs to my room on the 4th floor.
Once in my room, I found there was no drinking water – surely that’s standard in any half decent hotel! Exasperated I ventured out again to buy some; not an easy task in the deserted, dark streets on the edges of Hanoi’s Old Quarter. By the time I’d found a late night convenience store and had gotten back to the hotel it was gone midnight. Knackered and grumpy, I decided the reunion with my friends would have to wait.
Integration and Assimilation
The morning of my first full day in Vietnam was overcast and grey when I woke up. It began to drizzle as I ate a standard pretty unappetising Asian hotel buffet breakfast.
After breakfast, despite my protestations, the staff insisted on moving me to a smaller room; it was 11 am before I was ready to leave the hotel. At last, though it was time for ‘integration and assimilation’, a tradition of mine and Andy’s. As I’ve mentioned before ‘integration and assimilation’ is the first days’ exploration of the first destination in a new country. It’s a great way to work out where things are and how it all works.
Traffic Rules…What Rules?
I stepped out of the hotel and glanced about in an attempt to get my bearings amidst the noise and bustle. It was a complete contrast to the quiet, shadowy streets I’d walked down in search of water the night before. Despite the overcast day, the narrow street was full of locals going about their business. Blaring horns from chaotic traffic going in all directions filled the air. I immediately noticed the distinct lack of tuk tuks that I’m so familiar with in Cambodia. Vietnam used to have tuk tuks, but the government banned them in 2008.
The main modes of transport in Hanoi appeared to be motorcycles or taxis (both car and motorcycle variety or xe om’s. Uber and Grab made up a good proportion of the car taxis and the rest were from local companies such as Mai Linh and Taxi Group. There were also many unlicensed taxis and the odd cyclo (cycle taxi). On a larger road, I noticed several bigger cars (probably owned by wealthy Vietnamese) and a few buses forcing their way through the congestion.
I turned right and stepped into the road to avoid stumbling into a woman seated on a tiny red plastic chair. She was cooking up something in the middle of the pavement outside her house, or maybe it was her shop. I was repetitively forced off the pavement as I continued up the road. It was the only way around the people cooking, eating, and selling their wares, not to mention the motorcycles parked everywhere. I thought I’d gotten good at dodging the traffic in Cambodia with its ‘there are no traffic rules’ rule. Yet, finding myself with no choice but to walk amongst the traffic on the road, this felt different and I found myself once again a nervous pedestrian. As in Cambodia, there appeared to be ‘no traffic rules’ but Vietnamese style ‘no traffic rules’, ones I wasn’t used to!
Exploring the Old Quarter
Walking through the Old Quarter (Hoam Kiem District) of Hanoi I was often but not forcefully, hassled to part with my dong for one thing or another. Fruit sellers sporting conical hats tried to persuade me to pose with them for a photo as they balanced a bamboo pole with flat baskets of fruit hanging on each end, on one shoulder. Xe om’s and cyclos tried to convince me I needed a ride, whilst vendors tried to entice me into their cluttered shops and stalls ‘just to look’.
I continued weaving my way through the hectic streets, intrigued by how narrow, tall and deep the houses were. I later found out they’re called ‘tube houses’ and the reason for the distinctive style was because of old taxation laws. The bigger the windows or wider the house front the more tax charged.
I found the vibrant maze of Hanoi Old Quarter fascinating as many streets were dedicated to a particular product or trade. Amongst others, there was a Copper Street, Mirror Street, Silver Street, Bamboo Street, and a Fabric Street. I believe there are nearly 40 streets named after the products on sale in them. I wish I’d have had the time to explore more of them!
My First Vietnamese Coffee and a Reunion
A short while later I received a message from my friends to arrange to meet up with them, immediately after that it started to tip down with rain. I’d conveniently found myself on Coffee Street so I darted across the road to Cafe Hanh, a little hole in the wall place on a street corner. It was packed, both the wooden tables and chairs inside, and the mini plastic chairs outside were all occupied. I lingered for a few moments under the canopy until someone left and swiftly jumped into the blue plastic seat they’d vacated.
I ordered a coffee with milk, which was to be my first experience of Vietnamese coffee. Not being a huge coffee drinker I have to say it nearly took my head off; it was VERY strong, dark, and almost chocolatey. Luckily like most coffee in Vietnam, it was served with a tea designed to take the edge off it if need be. Once I got over how strong it was I found I really enjoyed it and at 20,000 VND (£0.67 GBP), it was a bargain.
The rain eased off a bit so I decided to brave it to go and find my friends. They were camped out in the rooftop bar of the FlipSide Hostel where they were staying, which incidentally seemed great – very friendly!
It was great to see my friends but as anyone could predict my sightseeing and ‘integration and assimilation’ plans quickly got waylaid. We spent the afternoon reminiscing over several beers about old times and chatting about what we’d been doing since Siem Reap. I won’t bore you with those details so will fast forward to the evening of the first day.
A Motorcycle Food Tour by Night
As many of you will know I’m a bit of a foodie and love sampling as many new and different foods as possible. So naturally, when Actxplorer invited me to join them for an early evening street food tour in Hanoi I jumped at the chance.
Actxplorer provided me with a complimentary motorcycle street food tour which I’ve reviewed below. Read our full Product Review Disclosure here.
Street Food by Bike
Actxplorer offer many tours and activities in Vietnam, all hosted by locals. Local University students guide the Street Food by Bike Tour that I did. They all know the city like the back of their hand and are passionate about their street food culture. It gives them the opportunity to supplement their income, practice their English and share their favourite hidden food spots. This, of course, means you get to try some of the tastiest dishes in Hanoi.
At first, I was rather hesitant about doing a food tour in the crazy traffic of Hanoi on the back of a motorcycle. However, with another (three-day) motorcycle tour looming I knew I had to swallow my nerves and get on with it. My guide Tin Tin picked me up at about 5:30 pm with a second guide Viet Anh, who was the guide and driver for another lady that joined the tour. I could tell Tin Tin was an experienced and confident rider and she instantly put me at ease; so donning our helmets we zipped off out into traffic.
Long Bien Bridge
To get me used to the bike we started out with a ride around the Old Quarter, then out and back over the extremely busy Long Bien Bridge, built in the 20th Century.
Long Bien Bridge spans the Red River and is actually a railway bridge. There is a road either side of the tracks for motorcycles and bicycles to cross, but no other vehicles are permitted. It’s the only bridge in Hanoi where you have to drive on the left. Pedestrians can also walk over the bridge and we saw several street vendors selling snacks, fruit, and deserts.
The Americans bombed the bridge lots of times during the years of war and many of the spans remain demolished as they haven’t been repaired. Halfway across the bridge on the way back to Old Quarter there was space to stop and take photos. It’s meant to be a particularly good spot for sunset shots, but when we stopped we a little too late as it was almost dark.
Amazing Egg Coffee
After Long Bien Bridge, the first stop was Cafe Giang to sample the famed Egg Coffee that people speak so highly of. I’m doubtful if I’d have found the cafe without the guides to point it out. It’s located in one of the ‘tube houses’ and you could easily miss the entrance with its inconspicuous sign.
We walked down a long corridor into the depths of the house and up a couple of flights of stairs where we were seated at a low wooden table. The cafe had a very local atmosphere and was a great place to sit and people watch whilst we chatted with our guides and waited for our Egg Coffees.
I have to say I approached my coffee with trepidation, as I was in two minds about trying it. One article I’d read mentioned that butter and cheese were also ingredients which put me off! To my relief, there was no cheese involved and I was pleasantly surprised as my Egg Coffee was absolutely delicious. It resembled a thin, frothy custard on top of strong, dark coffee – it was more like a dessert than a coffee.
Our guides parked the bikes and escorted us into the busy streets of the Old Quarter (some were pedestrianised as it was the weekend).
We walked between market stalls overflowing with brightly coloured, tropical fruit print dresses, shirts, and pyjamas. After a few moments, we arrived at our next food spot, a little eatery called Bun Cha Nem Cua Be Dac Kim. It must have once been a very local restaurant but now also seemed quite popular amongst tourists.
As is the norm for many local eateries in Vietnam it offered just one speciality dish, on this occasion, it was one of Hanoi’s most famous dishes – Bun Cha. It consisted of a selection of ingredients in different receptacles. There were herby pork meatballs in a flavoursome broth, a plate of vermicelli noodles, a basket of fresh herbs and greens, and small dishes of fish sauce and honey water.
Our guides demonstrated the traditional Hanoian way of eating Bun Cha. You have to mix all the ingredients together in a bowl to your taste and eating it with chopsticks. I’m not the most skilled with chopsticks so tackling the vermicelli was entertaining. There was also deep-fried crab meat spring rolls, some of the best I’ve had.
The last stop on our food tour was another small local place serving only desserts. There was a sizeable menu made up of dishes upon dishes of unusual looking desserts. The majority looked like they contained some sort of milk, fruit, jelly, and beans. To be honest, I’m not a fan of desserts but didn’t want to miss out so ended up ordering Che Thap Cam. This turned out to be some sort of coconut milk, beans, jelly, ice and syrup concoction. It was too sweet for my taste but if you have a sweet tooth, it would no doubt be lovely.
The other three all selected different desserts and tried one another’s.
Cost of a Tour with Actxplorer
Actxplorer offers two street food tours in Hanoi. There’s the four-hour Street Food Tour by Bike that I did which costs $36 USD ($27.36 GBP) and the three-hour Walking Food Tour which costs $28 USD (£21.31 GBP).
I had such a fun and interesting evening on the tour. I loved trying all the different foods and weaving in and out of the crazy traffic was an exhilarating and slightly scary experience. Chatting with and getting to know our guides Tin Tin and Viet Anh made the evening even better. They were both friendly and personable, spoke good English and were very safe drivers. It was a perfect end to my first day in Vietnam.
First Impressions – Sensory Overload
Like Mumbai in India, my first impressions and thoughts on Hanoi and Vietnam was what a sensory overload! Despite it being small there was so much going on everywhere. The sights, sounds, smells, and of course, the tastes! It was definitely an exciting place to begin my Vietnam travels.
I wonder if my first impressions would have been different had I started in Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon). Sadly it wasn’t on the itinerary for this trip but Amy Poulton from Page Traveller blog has written a great post about her few days in Ho Chi Minh City, which should give you a feel for it and ideas of what to see and do.
The fact that I still had all the key sights to look forward to, meant my second day promised to be a busy one. I wanted to fit in as much as possible and my list included: the Ethnology Museum, Hoh Chi Minh Mausoleum, the Presidential Palace, One Pillar Pagoda, the Ho Chi Minh Prison, Train Street, a Water Puppet Show, and Hoan Kiem Lake. On top of that, I planned to drink more wonderful Vietnamese coffee and sample as much of the local cuisine as I had room for. In fact, after my first day in Hanoi, it was certainly the food that had made the biggest impression on me so far!
I couldn’t wait to see what else Hanoi and the rest of Vietnam had in store for me and my stomach!
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Have you been to Vietnam and where was your first stop? How did you find it?
P.S. You can read more about another my solo trip to Laos via the following link:
Product Review Disclosure: Actxplorer provided me with a complimentary Street Food by Bike tour. This did not influence my post in any way and as always I’ve provided a balanced and honest review.
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