For a lot of people hoping to visit Vietnam, an epic end to end journey encompassing the whole country is the dream. But sometimes money, time and simple geography are not on our side.
Ideally, you should try to fit both Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC) into any Vietnam trip but if that’s impossible and you really must choose one, which do you go for?
For me, it has to be Hanoi! Here are the reasons why.
Hanoi is the perfect introduction to Vietnam. It’s busy and hectic, with an old city full of tree lined narrow streets, Chinese temples, Catholic cathedrals and cool shops. There’s tonnes of cafes, great street food and the chilled out Hoan Kiem lake for when you need a break.
I adore how the city is equal parts crazy and calm. At night, there’s lights and noise and buzz and scooters and people walking everywhere. By day . . . well actually it’s pretty much the same until suddenly you turn a corner and there’s a quiet spot around a beautiful temple or a small, peaceful park.
So you go from this,
Hanoi has great shopping with printed posters, knock off designer goods and cool young Vietnamese designers all up for grabs. Go to the night market for the atmosphere, rather than the wares on offer. Unless you’re on your gap year and elephant pants are your thing, of course.
Don’t miss: Hang Gai street. Pick up bone napkin holders and silver topped chopsticks. And plan a stop at Tan My Design. It’s the best spot in Hanoi for cool homeware and unusual gifts, like these beautiful embroidered silk purses.
People raving about Vietnamese food is a bit boring by now, I know, but it really is great! You’re probably already familiar with Pho and Banh Mi but they’re still must haves, as is Bun Cha- a grilled pork, noddle, salad and tofu dish. There is plenty of places serving up mediocre food for tourists though so ask around for recommendations!
And the coffee! It’s all absolutely ace in Hanoi. Most of the best coffee spots are hole in the wall, down dodgy alleys, up skanky stairwells to suddenly emerge to a beautiful, vine hung balcony overlooking Hoan Kiem lake. Or similar. But good luck finding them on your own! I certainly can’t remember the way. Just ask around your hostel and follow someone else. Make sure to try egg coffee- sounds gross, actually tastes creamy and delicious.
For a little faux-communism with your coffee, try Cong Caphe for its socialist chic interiors- there are branches all over the city. Vietnamese coffee is strong and sharp; if you’re craving a flat white, try some of the more Western style coffee spots around St. Josephs Cathedral. Or, if you must, there’s a few Starbucks dotted around the city.
The Daytrips: Sapa & Halong Bay
Hanoi is a great base for trips to Sapa and Halong Bay- both must sees if you’re visiting Vietnam. Halong Bay is 3-4 hour drive from the city and Sapa is approx. 6 hours away. Combining a few days in Hanoi with a trekking trip to Sapa and some chilled out cruising on Halong Bay is an ideal Vietnam holiday!
The Hostel: See You At Lily’s
I loved my stay at See You At Lily’s Hostel. It’s got a great location in the Old City, amazing staff and a genuinely friendly vibe. I came across the place on Instagram, booked one night via facebook and ended up staying almost two weeks! There’s lovely private rooms or beds in the dorm for just $5- breakfast included (try the French Toast!).
There’s no ‘everyone must start having fun at 9pm pub crawls,’ (Hanoi Backpackers I’m looking at you!) just the cool manager Rez organising drinks where everyone feels welcome and genuinely has a good time; not a forced drinking game in sight! Although there may be dancing on bars involved. Also if you’re an artist or have some skills of any kind, let them know and they’ll put you to work! It’s that kind of place. Check them out here.
But if you do hit HCMC. . .
Hanoi vs Ho Chi Minh can be a polarising subject for Asia-travellers! Some people seem to love one city and hate the other! I really enjoyed my time in both and though Hanoi edged out HCMC for me, there’s still so much to see and do in the Southern capital. If you do get to visit, make sure you . . .
Stay at the Common Room Project
The Common Room Project just may be the ultimate flashpacker pad. Some of the guests are a little too hipster but in general, this place attracts a cool, friendly crowd- perfect for digital nomads. I blogged about my stay here.
Shop at L’Usine
If you like your style international but your designers local, L’usine is the spot to go. I picked up the gorgeous clutch below by Valerie Cordier, a Vietnam based French designer -if you’re only hitting Hanoi, you can find her beautiful bags in Tan My Designs. L’Usine does women and menswear plus some homeware too. It also has a chic, very French influenced cafe/restaurant which is generally busy. The food’s only alright but the coffee, cakes and atmosphere is great so have some streetfood downstairs then come up here for some desert!
Have a rooftop drink downtown
HCMC certainly doesn’t have Bankgoks’ sprawling skyline views but it’s chilled out and pleasant nonetheless. Try Broma Bar; it’s only four or five storeys up but draws a cool crowd and has a great atmosphere.
Do you prefer Hanoi or Ho Chi Minh? Let me know in the comments below or over on my facebook page x