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Vietnam was the second country on our five week Southeast Asia itinerary. We (Craig and I) had spent a luxurious four days in Singapore, sipping ‘Slings and swimming in rooftop pools, but the backpacker in me was yearning for something more ‘foreign’ and Hanoi, Vietnam’s capital, certainly provided that. However don’t fear the unknown, here are first timer visitor tips for Hanoi and the picturesque Halong Bay.
First Time Visitor Tips: Hanoi & Halong Bay
Things to do in Hanoi
Hanoi is like one of those annoying friends you just can’t shake. You let them stick around because they are not only fun but also the gateway to other opportunities. However, man alive, they are loud and imposing.
Hoàn Kiếm Lake
Hoàn Kiếm Lake, also known as, Hồ Gươm, feels like the lungs of Hanoi. Escape the zooms and fumes by taking a wander around the pretty green spot.
There is an opportunity to buy a coffee, some food or ice cream around the lake too.
Be warned – just because an area of the city map is marked in green, it does not mean that it is a park.
Craig and I ended up at the equivalent of the Ministry of Defence, men with guns shooed us off *TAXI*!
- Address: Hoàn Kiếm Lake, Hoàn Kiếm, Hanoi, Vietnam
West Lake, Hanoi
Another refreshing area is Hanoi’s West Lake, not just for the 17 km (about 10.6 miles) freshwater lake but also for the restaurants in the cool area.
Watch the sun set from Summit Lounge, but stick around for dark to see the city lights sparkle.
- Address: 20th floor – Sofitel Plaza Hanoi, 1 Thanh Nien Road, Ba Dinh District, Hà Nội
Vietnam Military History Museum
The Vietnam Military History Museum has artefacts, weapons, and displays information on the 1954–1973 Vietnamese war.
Some of the weapons are Soviet and Chinese weapons which were captured during the war. The museum also holds French and US-made weapons.
Visitors can also see the American Presidential candidate, John McCain’s uniform which hangs up in a glass cabinet at Hỏa Lò Prison.
McCain was a prisoner of war who spent time in the notorious Hanoi Hilton with other American prisoners of war.
- The Vietnam Military History Museum
Address: 28A Điện Biên Phủ, Điện Biên, Ba Đình, Hà Nội, Vietnam
- Hỏa Lò Prison
Address: 1 Hoả Lò, Trần Hưng Đạo, Hoàn Kiếm, Hà Nội, Vietnam
Hanoi Free Tour Guides
A pretty authentic way to to see Hanoi attractions is with Hanoi and its culture is to take a free tour with a young person who lives in Hanoi.
This is organised by the not-for-profit company, Hanoi Free Tour Guides.
Highly recommended on Trip Advisor Hanoi, this looked like a great idea but unfortunately, our guide did not turn up!
Hanoi By Moped
This is for the brave only! There a couple of guided moped tours or the chance to hire mopeds in Hanoi.
Craig’s friend, Iain, lives in Hanoi so he picked us up on his (along with another friend).
I managed to burn my ankle (so painful) while getting off the bike so be careful! One of the Hanoi activities I would be avoiding in future!
How to Eat Local Food in Hanoi
There are plenty of Western-style cafes and restaurants in Hanoi but where is the fun in that?
Local food in Hanoi is consumed a tad different to what we are accustomed to the rest of the world!
Each vendor sells one meal (and maybe another variation) so you have to work out where ‘pork corner’ is or ‘chicken street’ depending on what you’d like for your dinner.
Customers sit on a small child-like plastic chair and the server brings the super fresh fast food over. I tried a dumpling starter and a tasty soup with meat and noodles for main, all washed down with cheap local beer!
Don’t do as Craig did – he advised the server we had not ordered yet when they initially brought our meal over!
Healthy Fast Food!
According to our Vietnamese friend, Nhung, there are certain restaurants which serve our four-legged furry friends, dogs.
We did not see any but she says that it is actually tasty!
The process in which the dogs are killed is pretty inhumane, regardless of being raised as farm animals as opposed to pets.
The sweat is battered out of them before skinning and cooking.
We wondered if Vietnamese still ate cat until we saw the evidence…
Friendly Men in Hanoi
Do not be alarmed if a Vietnamese man (of any age) comes up to you to tell you that they like your tattoos, or that you think you are handsome or shout Alex Ferguson (big Manchester United fans) at you – this man to man admiration is typical in Vietnam.
I felt like I was travelling with a celebrity while strolling the streets with Craig.
Leave Hanoi: Halong Bay
You will probably be pretty keen to leave Hanoi after a day or two and the place to head to is Halong Bay.
Stumbling across Halong Bay pictures was the draw to Vietnam for me.
However, in the end, hiking through Sapa Valley was the highlight.
Hanoi to Halong Bay
The most popular way to visit Halong Bay is by tour but you can do it independently too.
There is a three-hour bus from the city to the shore which you can book in advance here.
Hanoi – Halong Bay Day Tours
There are a variety of ways to visit the limestone lined waters of Ha Long Bay, which is located in the Gulf of Tonkin.
If you are short of time there are Halong Bay day trips as a group ($25+ per person) or private tours ($45+). If you are looking to stay overnight on a boat and/or one of the private islands around Halong Bay, there are tour companies which also offer this.
Booze Cruise to Halong Bay
We chose a group trip with Halong Bay Castaway Tour, which actually put us off party boats (but not group tours, had an incredible long weekend with West Trek Tours in Canada) for the rest of our travelling career!
The guides weren’t great (one lost my head torch while trying to find a traveller who apparently dived into the water at night), they couldn’t really tell you much about the area but could definitely show you where the bar was.
To add to this, the kayaks were crap. Craig nearly killed himself trying to save a sinking boat for another traveller since they were going to be charged a fee.
It was a learning curve but don’t just take my view on the trip, Janet from Journalist on the Run provides is far more balanced review of the 3 days/2 nights Castaway Island trip.
The Good Stuff
- The 2.5 bus journey from Hanoi to Halong bay was scenic
- Halong Bay is a unique place
- Most of the people on the Halong Bay Castaway Boat Tour were just lush (night 1)
- The cute monkeys were awesome
- The Castaways Island itself was pretty cool (night 2)
The Crap Stuff
- Some of the travellers were horrid. Really rude to the local staff on the boat
- The boat staff accused the backpackers of stealing money from the bar (really!)
- There wasn’t enough food severed on the island
Halong Bay By Public Transport
Our Irish friends were advised that there was a public boat leaving early doors on day three for 2700 dong / 12 cents so we decided to join them.
We took a small boat to the dock, then a larger boat left once it was full of people, animal in cages and mopeds!
Public Boat from Halong Bay
Getting to Hanoi – Vietnam Visa
There was no method to the madness at the visa area in Hanoi airport. We paid $14 each (online) before entering then $45 each for visas (take passport photos and be prepared to queue).
The taxi to Hanoi was 350,000 dong / $15 set price. Now Brits travelling to Vietnam for less than 15 days do not need a visa.
Hotels in Hanoi are relatively cheap, with a double room starting at £8! Hostel dorms are naturally cheaper at £2 per night.
The average Airbnb ‘entire home’ is £41 per night but do start at £17 (for a decent apartment).
We stayed at Hanoi Backpackers as this is who we booked our tours with. On arrival, they sent us in a taxi to the newer hostel as they were full.
The room was clean, the bar was busy. By the end of our time in Hanoi, we really weren’t in love with the hostel or the staff. It’s the place to stay in Hanoi so the staff can safely live off that hype.
Currency in Vietnam
Vietnam uses dong. Be prepared to feel like a millionaire going to the ATM! For the most up to date rates, see here.
Hanoi and Halong Bay Weather
Both Hanoi and Halong Bay are prone to storms and heavy downfalls which may cause you tour provider to cancel the Halong Bay tour.
The warm season starts in May and ends in October with the hottest day (in June) reaching highs of 34 degrees. December to March sees the cold season, coldest temperature quoted at 19 degrees.
Thunderstorms are most likely in June, July, August. However, we travelled around the north of Vietnam in July with no issues.
Hanoi was definitely interesting! The food was fresh and healthy, the people were super friendly (to Craig!) and Halong Bay was beautiful. However, I won’t be rushing back to Hanoi – or Hanoi’ing as the Irish coined it.
Heading to the elsewhere? See my friend Will The Broke Backpacker’s guide to backpacking around Vietnam.
Pin to your Vietnam Pinterest board
Have you been to Hanoi or Halong Bay?
Any questions, pop them into the comments below and I’ll get back to you in a jiffy!
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18 thoughts on “First Time Visitor Tips: Hanoi & Halong Bay”
I’ve been to Vietnam a couple of times and I have never stayed in a hostel there, the hotels are such good value. They do lack atmosphere and the rooms are often pokey (and occasionally windowless) but at least you can have some peace and privacy. We stay in hostels a lot, and generally I prefer them to hermetically sealing myself away in a hotel but if we can get a private room in a hotel for less than two beds in a party hostel then I am totally going to do that!
I generally like hostels (although a hotel is a nice treat, the one in Cambodia especially) but felt the staff were useless here and I never got my head torch back from the hostel worker who used it on the boat. Raging!
Beautiful post! The pictures in this post were amazing, I am eager to taste those foods.
Wait until you see the photo of the ramen noodles I had from a food truck in Austin!
The knife is so random! And those poor cats!
Thank Courtney, really appreciate it! Havana felt a bit like Hanoi actually. Will get that post up this week now we’ve touched down in Canadada.
Wow! I never saw cats. 🙁 Saw dog at a food stall though, wah!
That said, I LOVED Hanoi! We stayed in a fab hostel with really great staff so I was sorry to see you didn’t have the same experience. 🙁 We were in the old quarter which I loved, so much atmosphere and character. I want to go back so much!
I really miss the food. I was actually just showing a class these photos – they can’t believe the CATMAN obviously! We’re considering going to the Philippines next summer, after 17 months in the Americas and Europe it’s time for some more Asia time!
Yes the Philippines sound amazing! I spent the last 15 months or so in Australia / Canada etc so I definitely relate! So many options for where to go next…
Life is hard isn’t it 😉 What’s the weirdest thing you ate while travelling?
Thank you for this great post! Going to travel in Vietnam in March for 3 weeks, and got some good tips from here. 🙂 The more I read, more excited I am. Can’t wait to taste all the good food in there.
I am so envious of you. The food is so damn good and the eating street food experience is a hoot! Will you make it to Sapa? I loved the trek.
Since I’ve 3 weeks, I’ll start in North and make my way all the way down south.
Lovely. That’s a great amount of time. I never made it south. Have fun!
Hey there, how I wish I had read this before my first visit to Hanoi and Ha Long Bay Vietnam two years ago. We were greeted warmly by the crew, both dockside and once on the boat but as you noted, some of fellow cruisers were somehow rude to the attendants. The food is so damn plenty and the eating street food experience was awesome. Stories about the origin of the Ha Long bay was fascinating. LOL, did you mention the issue of local men admiring and pursuing fellow men, guess what, my hubby was a victim. Quite disgusting, right? In my opinion- Yes. This was our second trip on Vietnam’s Hanoi and Ha Long bay having been there in January and tipped that best time to visit Ha Long Bay was between September and December. This round we had great time, so much so we have two more in the diary for.
I wish we had made a better choice for Ha Long Bay! I know others did 🙂
Please can you give me more specific details of travelling from Hanoi to Halong bay? I am really struggling to plan this leg of my journey.
We took a tour, you can book one before you arrive or when you arrive. The journey consisted of bus and boat.