Do nothing and see the best of Hanoi

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First published 18th January, 2010

I am writing this from a chair barely inside the doorway of The Cart - a small coffee and sandwich place in a narrow alley not far from St Joseph's Cathedral. My laptop tells me I have a choice of six different WiFi options courtesy of the surrounding hotels. My coffee, on this occasion, is Italian but during warmer seasons I'd choose the more ubiquitous iced Vietnamese variety.

Lifting my eyes from the keyboard I can see a lady, complete with conical hat and baskets, selling oranges. Their vibrant ripeness is complemented by the green leaves left on for purely aesthetic reasons.

A little further down is a similarly attired and kitted lady selling pineapple. As she crouches she's skillfully cutting the fresh fruit and depositing it, ready to eat, into plastic bags.

From an adjacent alley, I can see an overspill of small stools. I'm not sure what they serve in the mornings but it's a winner with breakfasting school-uniformed kids. I know from experience that, come the evening, it's frequented by a slightly older crowd. This time they're in mixed sex groups barely into their teens. There's lots of painfully shy flirting. It's very cute.

And as I type a flower seller passes by, bright yellow blooms in a wicker basket on the back of her ancient bike.

So where am I going with this?

The point is: This is Hanoi. All of this. Forget your war museums, mausoleums and pagodas. This is it.

I will spell it out for you:



And yet Hanoi itself is unmissable.

Spend your time rushing around to see any of the sites on the above list and you may miss its charms. Worse, you'll get so stressed by this crazy, congested, polluted, sometimes unforgiving city that you'll become blinded to this incredible street theatre.

I am lucky enough to live here and, when I chat to backpackers, almost without exception, those of them who love it tell me:

"We decided just to take it easy here."

Lazy days by the lakeside, Hanoi

It's the only way.

My own days off here are punctuated by a string of coffee shops and restaurants, with scooter rides in between.

That brings me to the next tip. Every time I read of backpackers complaining of being ripped off by taxi drivers I wonder why they aren't catching xe oms (motorbike taxis) instead.

I've noticed this among the expat crowd. Those who are driven in cars dislike the place. Those who ride on bikes – love it.

You can get pretty much anywhere between Hoan Kiem and Westlake for between 15,000 and 30,000 dong. Heck, you can hire you own xe om driver for under $10 a day.

Another tip: If you're headed out with a long itinerary of "must sees" then you've also got your daypack. Right? In it is a litre of water. Possibly sun cream. Maybe a hat. A book? Almost certainly a Lonely Planet.

The chances are too that if your day is going to be a route march of the sights then you're dressed to keep cool. Shorts? Vest? Flip flops?

My days are normally spent under a fan in a coffee shop or restaurant. For most of the year I can get away with jeans and a T-shirt. I'd probably dissolve into a ball of sweat if I tried to walk far but as it is I'm usually comfortable.

And when I do venture outside no one bothers me. No cyclo driver ooh oohing. No old ladies trying to sell me hats. No postcard sellers. There's no kidding anyone I'm Hanoian but they still know I'm not going to buy.

Vendor walking by the lake, Hanoi

It's an attitude. It's long trousers. It's bothering to have a shave. It's not having my head in a Lonely Planet.

If any one does approach then a quick "khong" (pronounced "com", it's Vietnamese for "no") is enough to end their interest.

A lot of people will tell you that Hanoi is a walking town. I disagree. It's a motorbike town and for me there's no better feeling in the world than buzzing around its tree-lined streets.

Hanoi is no place to have an itinerary. It's no place to have a list of places to tick off. It's no place to try and achieve something when you're fresh off the plane and still trying to battle jetlag.

The best way to see the city

Don't chase Hanoi. Find somewhere with a good view. Sooner or later everything you need to see will pass you by.

Don't walk. Watch.

Strangely, once you kick back, once you relax, once you start smiling, then so do the Vietnamese people you encounter.

This is a wonderful city and I have chosen to make it my home.

And after three years here I am yet to see the War Museum.

These are the places I like to frequent:

The Cart, 18 Tho Xuong (one street back from St Jospeh's Cathedral). It serves an international array of sandwiches, cakes, muffins, and Italian coffee.

Cong Caphe, 152D Trieu Viet Vuong. The funkiest Vietnamese coffee shop on a street of tens of other coffee shops. It also works as a bar in the evening. Take a stool at the front and watch the world go by. An old lady stationed next door sells banh mi trung (egg sandwich) to enjoy with your coffee. An iced coffee and sandwich should total around 25,000 dong.

Daytime coffee and drinks:
Highland Coffee. This swanky Vietnamese coffee chain is everywhere and they maybe somewhat corporate compared to street joints but with leather armchairs, air con and WiFi they can be a welcome break from the streets. They tend to have large windows so your street watching remains uninterrupted. My favourite is in Hanoi Towers at 49 Hai Ba Trung. There's also one near the Cathedral at 6 Nha Tho. Staff tend to speak good English. The Cafe Freeze is a summer lifesaver.

Le Pub A backpacker favourite in the Old Quarter on Hang Be. It's popular at night but I increasingly prefer it during the day. The open-fronted design on one of Hanoi's liveliest streets means an ever-changing view. A great place to shelter from a storm in the rainy season (as long as the water level doesn't start to rise). Le Pub's staff are fabulous. Expect fun and smiles.

If it's Hanoi then it has to be bun cha. Try 67 Duong Thanh Street. There's not much of a street view here but it's all about the taste and the experience.

For pho find your way to the less touristy but more rustically gorgeous parts of the French Quarter and eat at 13 Lo Duc. The pho-ladling mamma is a dragon but who cares when you're eating Hanoi's best pho.

Try heading to Tang Bat Ho. It's bia central these days and you can take your pick from the many bia hois serving up brews for pennies. It's much better than the Old Quarter's backpacker-frequented, exhaust-level bia hoi corner where you're a sitting duck for every passing vendor.

Local eating options include Kichi Kichi at 1A Tang Bat Ho. A truly bizarre sushi conveyor belt restaurant meets hotpot joint eating experience.

However if you want to splash out and go further afield then head to Don's Bistro at Westlake at 15A Lane 31 Xuan Dieu. It's a budget buster but a mojito drunk at the rooftop bar overlooking the lake cannot fail to bring a contented smile to your lips after a hard day of kicking back in Hanoi.

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Read 20 comment(s)

  • Great article Steve, and the photos really help capture the vibe of Hanoi. We used motos when we were there and they made for some great memories at cheap prices. Wish we'd had your restaurant recommendations though, especially Kichi Kichi (thanks for all the photos and details on your blog)!

    Posted by Anderson on 21st January, 2010

  • Very engaging piece and makes me rethink about my 'plans' forn Hanoi! Didn't the xe oms were very safe, especially after I saw Anthony Bourdain's Vietnam episode!
    Thanks for the cafes-with-a-view recommendations :)

    Posted by seema shah on 21st January, 2010

  • The text shows exactly what Hanoi is. I had the same feeling. I love Hanoi and what I found amazing was just sitting anywhere to watch people and life. Cold coffee, fruits, conical hats, delicious food, cold beer, the lake, the Old Quarter... I miss Hanoi.

    Posted by GRACIELA GARGIULO on 22nd January, 2010

  • Thank you very much for the perspective! I'm planning my trip, and I'll remember this article and will keep in mind to slow down. I noticed the same kind of thing in Chiang Mai, Thailand. Hanging out in a place for a while really brings out the amazing experiences!

    Posted by Bill Suphan on 4th March, 2010

  • Well, just another expat trying to be 'the guy'. If you live in a city there is no reason to go out with a packpack and a lonely guide. And congratulations, after three years you at least know hơư to say 'no' in Vietnamese. Sorry, but this text is the most ridiculous thing i've read in a while...

    Posted by Felipe on 12th March, 2010

  • I definitely agree with the principle behind Steve's article: I now live in Hanoi as well and my favourite times have been the experiences I've had whilst walking the streets / having lunch / having a beer rather than the museums etc. I've visited. And this has been reinforced by the experience of friends and family who have visited. (I'm not saying don't visit any museums - there are some great one's if you're interested).

    My view differs slightly from that of Steve's though as I do think, whilst walking isn't usually a pleasant experience in this city, it is worth pottering around the Old Quarter as well as the areas around the Mausoleum, and by the Opera House / Sofitel Metropole for example. The Old Quarter only gives one perspective.

    Motorbike's are a great experience and a good way of getting around but it's a bit tricky to absorb the atmosphere of an area unless you walk. Not to mention the difficulty in taking pictures if you're a nervous passenger!

    Posted by travellingsarah on 23rd March, 2010

  • Yes, yes, yes! You've captured exactly how I feel about Hanoi. I look forward to coming here every time just to relax, drink coffee, bia hoi, sugar cane juice and iced lemon juice, eat amazing food and watch the world go by. No itineraries, no tick list, just as the moment takes me. One of my favourite cities in the world.

    Posted by Abigail on 31st May, 2010

  • That's cool. Do nothing and enjoy it like a Zen

    Posted by Gioia on 30th August, 2010

  • I must just comment, that in my opinion, and I have said this many times to my friends and associates, I truly believe Vietnamese coffee is the best I have ever tasted. I have a passion for coffee, this is not just some words to fill in this page, but when visiting Hanoi last January, I was reluctant to leave following my days lolling around in the bohemian cafes with such rich culture and brilliant coffee.

    Posted by Simon Coleman on 25th November, 2010

  • Great article. Used the listing of your fave haunts as a little restaurant guide. Particularly enjoyed kichi kichi - what a treat! it's like shabu shabu in China.

    Posted by A on 28th May, 2011

  • steve, couldn't be a truer comment on Hanoi. My wife and I spent days in and out of Hanoi last year and the best thing was hanging getting a to die for iced coffee, eating some fruit having a lunchtime beer at the Bia Ho places and eating the snacks that come with it. We absolutely loved Hanoi with out see too much, just going with the flow and can't wait to come back.Maybe next May on our way into Southern China. Keep up the good work.

    Posted by swag on 17th July, 2011

  • Thank you for a warm and honest view of Hanoi.

    Posted by Peter on 17th January, 2012

  • love it i can't wait to be there again this November and sit and people watch

    Posted by Allison on 5th May, 2012

  • you describe its tempo very well.
    vientiane in laos also, for me.


    Posted by thomasvesely on 7th July, 2012

  • I think this view of the city, though poetic, is a bit partial and at traits arrogant (how can one, sincerely say there's nothing worse to see in Ha Noi, considering the array of excellent museums?).

    I don't see why I have to choose between taking it calmly and visit museum and stuff; I see both of them as vital parts not just of a vacation but of a life-style.

    My vision may seem very partial and one can consider it even extreme but I believe not knowing the history, the culture, the mindset of the place you're staying is quite an arrogant attinence.

    When I go to a place I want to understand it's street life (and that's why, almost without exception, I walk) but also the richness of its culture (and that's why I spend long hours, even days in museums).

    Why do I have to choose?? Just because is simpler and more "alternative" to chill-out in a cafe?

    And now, as Steve's does, I'll let some place to my narcissism by giving some very personal tips about travelling to SEAsia.

    At home, read your guide, be it LP or whatever, write down on a .doc the things that interested you. Then bury it, burn it, do whatever you want but NOT bring it with you. It will just limit your trip. If you were really interested in the places you want to see you could have read it in advance.

    While your travel forget maps, netbooks and smartphone... use Internet only from Internet points... these devices simplify your travel, but reduce as well your interactions with people.

    Avoid any back-packer district and cafes, stay away from western tourists in general if you want my tip, avoid even the expats that are arrogant enough to not learn the language properly.

    Start your trip with a phrase-book, speak mostly with the locals and improve at an extraordinary speed.

    Posted by Suturn on 25th August, 2012

  • what a good read.
    i am heading to Hanoi next month. just excited =)

    Posted by Ayan on 11th February, 2013

  • Well, after reading this, and realising the my time in HCMC and Danang will be quite full on, I think I will take your advice and wing it in Hanoi. Great post, that's convinced this traveller what (or what not) to do when in Hanoi.

    Posted by Paul on 15th May, 2013

  • of course if you have to work in between times then hanging out in cafes is what you want to do, and Hanoi, or really any city in Vietnam, is a great place to do it. There are lots of interesting places in hanoi, however, and it would be a shame to see nothing but the old quarter. catching buses is very easy and will take you all over the city rather more safely than the xe ons whose drivers frequently use their mobiphones while driving or go through red lights.

    THe war museum is a very interesting museum, and has a Highland Coffee next door, but the ethnographic museum is even better, [bus 14 from the top of the lake]. The women's museum too has great exhibitions, you could learn a lot from the exhibition on street stalls, if it's still there. And don't confine yourself to coffee shops in the old quarter, they are everywhere.

    I do agree that slow is the way to go and wandering and poking around is the best fun.

    Posted by violets on 1st October, 2013

  • Thank you! I was about to make a list, then I decided to just go with the flow!

    Posted by Triona on 3rd January, 2014

  • "THERE IS NOT ONE SPECIFIC THING WORTH SEEING IN HANOI" is true but wandering around Hanoi or motorcycling to the will see the hidden charm of the city!

    Posted by Vietnam Bikers on 25th May, 2014

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