View across West Lake, Hanoi at sunset

Hanoi: an insider’s guide – Part 1

Friends and friends of friends who travel to Hanoi often ask me what they should do in this wonderful, vibrant city. Hanoi is more than the Old Quarter (which is interesting in and of itself), more than traffic (which is not as bad as Saigon), more than the pho (which is awesome). So to save time, energy and repetition on my part, here’s my insider’s guide to Hanoi — a list of things you definitely should do and experience while you are here in Hanoi. Before you start, make sure you have a Vietnamese SIM card. You can get data, texts and calls for as little as VND100,000 (around AUD$5) — that’s how much I spend a month on my Mobifone connection. Failing that, wifi is everywhere in Hanoi, and usually free.

1. Use a motorcycle taxi

Hanoi is a city of motorcycles. It seems chaotic, but underneath the seeming chaos is a flow and rhythm that is the lifeblood of this city. One of the best ways to understand the traffic — and Hanoi — is to get in amongst it, and by that I mean jumping on a motorcycle taxi. It’s cheap, it’s quick, it’s convenient and it’s reliable, and there is nothing like zipping around the streets of Hanoi on one. Download the Uber or Grab app, input your pick-up and drop-off location, and whether you are paying in cash (or credit card or Paypal) and wait for your driver to pick you up. It’s that simple. (Your driver may call you to confirm your pickup address, and it’s likely he [it’s mostly always a he] won’t speak English. If you are at a restaurant, just hand your phone to a waiter or the security dude, tell them “Uber” or “Grab”, and they will confirm the address for you. Before I could speak Vietnamese, I’d hand my phone to random strangers on the street, and they were always happy to help!)

2. Visit the Temple of Literature

Located on Van Mieu Street, this oasis in central Hanoi — within a stone’s throw of the Old Quarter — is Vietnam’s first university. Built around 1070AD, the site consists of five courtyards. Some have gardens and pools, others have temples. There’s even a drum tower and a bell tower. Yes, it’s chock full of Vietnamese culture and history, but it’s also a lovely place to wander around: the gardens are beautiful, tranquil. I visited during Tet (Lunar New Year) and it was a vibrant place: families, music, praying and offerings. I’ve been there when classes of graduating students — young and older — were having their pictures taken, which was charming. I’ve been other times when it’s been a quiet day (from a Vietnamese visiting perspective) and it’s just as lovely.

3. Eat at KOTO Restaurant

Across the road from the Temple of Literature (at 59 Van Mieu) is KOTO Restaurant: the reason I am here in Vietnam. For those of you who don’t know, KOTO is a training restaurant for disadvantaged youth in Vietnam. It was founded by Jimmy Pham in 1999 and boasts close to 700 graduates. The staff — kitchen and front of house — in black polo shirts are our trainees, who work at the restaurant as part of their training program. The restaurant — we have one in Saigon too — funds the training program, so you can eat there knowing you are contributing to a wonderful cause.  Oh, and the food is really, really, really good.

4. Try the coffee

Hanoi has a wonderful cafe culture and very, very, very good coffee. You can get lattes and cappuccinos and espressos… anything  your little coffee heart desires. I personally like the ca phe sua da (traditional Vietnamese coffee, served with condensed milk and ice), but be warned: it’s strong. I rarely have more than one, and never past 12 noon. I’ve learned the hard way that two in the afternoon is a recipe for insomnia!And while you’re at it, try the egg coffee. It doesn’t sound at all appetising, but it is a wonderfully decadent and delicious drink. You you can get it anywhere in the Old Quarter and it is sometime listed on the menu as ca phe trung. So what is it? It’s Vietnamese black coffee, topped with egg yolk beaten with condensed milk so it’s light and fluffy like meringue. You eat some of the meringue and stir the rest into your coffee. Divine!

5. Eat street food

Don’t believe anyone when they tell you the street food isn’t safe to eat in Vietnam. It’s safe and delicious! And cheap. I eat street food all the time, and there is nothing like perching your butt on an impossibly small, plastic stool, trying to get your legs in a comfortable position under the impossibly small, plastic table and chowing down on a bowl of steaming noodles. As a vegetarian, I stay away from pho bo (beef noodle soup) and bun cha (char-grilled pork with a noodle broth), but I do love banh mi trung (omelette served with salad in a baguette), xoi yen (sticky rice, which I usually have with a fried egg or two and pickled vegetables), pho ga (chicken noodle soup), bun ca (fish noodle soup) and bun dau mam tom (deep-fried tofu served rice noodles and a fermented shrimp dipping sauce). And don’t get me started about yummy che — a cold, sweet soup that has ingredients such as beans, corn, coconut, jelly and condensed milk! Or banh ran (kind of like a coconut donut). If you aren’t sure about what to eat, book yourself on a food tour!

6. Order in

Eating out in Hanoi is heaven for a foodie, but if you want to have a quiet night in watching crap on cable (hey, no judgments here!), or you just want to experience the variety of food that is on offer or you don’t have time to get to a restaurant, ordering food is easy in Hanoi. Download the Vietnammm app and you’ll be given a list of restaurants that deliver to your area, even if you are staying in a hotel or hostel. Some restaurants have a minimum spend, and others charge a delivery fee, but all this is specified up front so you are fully aware of the cost. You can pay with cash, credit card or PayPal. Believe it or not, you can get fabulous pasta in Hanoi (I order mine from Paolo & Chi) and you can also order Thai and Indian — although, it’s a bit hit and miss (mostly miss, in my experience).

7. Book yourself onto a FVH tour

Friends of Vietnam Heritage (FVH) is a marvellous organisation that is dedicated to educating people about Vietnam and preserving Vietnam heritage, and the committee (disclaimer: I’m on it) is a delightful mix of Vietnamese and expats. Activities include super cheap and interesting walking tours, often with lunch at a local spot afterwards, day trips to villages or areas of interest outside Hanoi, art workshops, film nights and lectures by experts on various aspects of Vietnamese culture. There really is something for everyone, and every walk (or activity I’ve been a part of) is full of friendly, interesting people, and I’m made some lovely friends from going to things run by FVH.

8. Talk with students at Hoan Kiem Lake

Hoan Kiem Lake in the Old Quarter is a pedestrian only area on the weekends. No cars or motorcycles are allowed in the cordoned off areas, and it is just fantastic. Many Vietnamese head out with their families to stroll the area, eat ice cream or green mango, listen to music or just sit and watch the goings on. If foreigners stay long enough in one place, Vietnamese students (aged in their late teens or early twenties) will approach you to ask you if they can practice their English with you. Of course, you can say no (and I have at times because I haven’t felt like it) but chatting with locals is all part of the experience!

Stay tuned for Part 2!

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