I first traveled to Hanoi in 2015 after visiting Phuket and Ho Chi Minh City. After making my way up the coast to Danang and Hoi An, I was excited to be back in a major city. Unfortunately, it turned out that Hanoi became one of my least favorite destinations.
Thinking back on my first trip, I realize now the things that contributed to my negative perception of Hanoi. For one, Airbnb was just taking off, and the listings were less regulated than they are now. I stayed at what was listed as a homestay, expecting another amazing experience like I’d had in Ho Chi Minh; I enjoyed my stay there so much I ended up extending. Upon arrival, though, the place looked nothing like the photos. Instead of a family home, it was like a dirty, former brothel that was run by a slimey hustler who repeatedly tried to pressure me into booking tours or using his friends for rides, despite my explanations that I wasn’t interested–especially after I realized the mistake I made booking a tour through him at the beginning of my stay. Everything about the place seemed in-genuine and made me uncomfortable, but because my phone had a taken a dip in the Andaman Sea earlier that trip in Thailand and I had no secure means of accessing the internet, I decided to stick out the few days I was there.
The one tour I had planned to do was a day trip to Ha Long Bay. Not being the wiser yet, I booked one via my host for about $65 USD on the second day of my stay in Hanoi.
Ha Long Bay: a Beautiful Tourist Trap with Shocking Pollution
A UNESCO World Heritage site, Ha Long Bay is arguably one of the biggest tourism draws for Hanoi. It is also, quite unsurprisingly, a massive tourist trap.
If you take a group tour, expect a three-to-four-hour bus ride each way with a stop at a shopping center full of souvenirs in the middle of nowhere. Didn’t pack your own food or water? As with any remotely located store, prepare to pay steep prices.
Ha Long Bay is famous for its many caves, and for the immense karst limestone rocks rise up out of the water. The bay is also heavily dotted with tourist boats and businesses catering to tourists–so many that the waterways are congested, dirty, and littered with plastic garbage, and many of the boats pump out thick black exhaust into the air. I was shocked by the amount of oil coating the water and all the plastic bags bobbing around in it.
Yes, it is incredibly beautiful–especially if you’re lucky and get clear weather. However, witnessing the amount of pollution I did ruined Ha Long Bay for me, and I hope the government puts stricter measures in place to protect the area. Fortunately, according to the UNESCO site, the government is aware of and is working to address the rapid increase in tourism and its impact on the environment. In 2016 alone, Vietnam saw a 25% increase in tourist visitors over the prior year.
So, after all this, why would I ever go back to Hanoi?
Since most of my exposure to the city was coordinated through my sleazy host or one of his cronies, it left a negative taste in my mouth. After four days, I left with the impression that Hanoi was grimey, unfriendly, and dishonest. Pretty harsh, right? So, why go back? I’m a few years older and a lot more travel-savvy and now know that having expectations about a new experience is a good way to set yourself up for disappointment–expecting to replicate my experience in Ho Chi Minh City was a mis-step. I also value my time a lot more and am less likely to stick around if I’m not enjoying myself. And–I’m a firm believer that some things (like cilantro–but not ex-boyfriends) are worth a second try; I didn’t feel like I was able to make a fair assessment based on my first experience.
After quitting my job in July to travel, I decided my first stop would be Ho Chi Minh City–I wanted to start somewhere I had been before, with some familiar faces–but not too familiar a place. The plan was to make my way up the coast through a few cities I didn’t make it to on my last trip here, and a friend would join up on the way. My friend was really interested in seeing Hanoi, but I was hesitant, so we compromised and agreed on a weekend trip.
After my return to Hanoi this past weekend, I can say that it’s no longer on my list of least-favorite destinations. What was different? For one, where I stayed made a huge difference. I booked an Airbnb near the Old Quarter but tucked into an alleyway off the main drag, away from the heavily-populated tourist areas, so the vibe was much calmer. Airbnb has caught on much more since 2015, and we absolutely loved our apartment, which cost $20/day per person. Transportation is a lot easier, too, through ride share services like Grab and Uber. I also had more of a chance to appreciate the French/European influence in the area I stayed.
I would absolutely come back to Hanoi to spend more time there. Fortunately, I have a six-month multi-entry visa this time, so I have the flexibility to do that. Here’s my list of what to do and see in Vietnam’s capital, Hanoi.
My Hanoi Guide
Visit the Vietnam Museum of Ethnology: This museum is dedicated to all the ethnic sub-groups in Vietnam–54 are recognized by the Vietnamese government. I enjoyed the photography exhibition that was on display here and the museum collection was extensive and well-curated, with very informative content. You can even walk through several different traditional Vietnamese home styles inside the museum and on the beautiful grounds.
Take a Home Cooking Class: I had a fantastic experience learning how to make local specialties with my guide, Bach, from Nom Nom Travel, and his family. We picked fresh herbs from their beautiful rooftop garden and his mother took us to the local market to buy the rest of the ingredients for Pho and spring rolls. I made the Pho recipe after returning home and it was legit. You can check out their home cooking class and day tours here. They have a 5-star rating on Tripadvisor!
Explore the Old Quarter and the Night Market: The Old Quarter is home to lots of historic French-colonial architecture built when Vietnam was part of French Indochina. This is also where Hanoi’s night market is located, which opens after 6pm each evening (though not always at 6pm on the dot).
Check out St. Joseph Cathedral: Located in the Old Quarter by the backpacker streets, this is the oldest church in Hanoi.
Take a stroll around Hoa Kiem Lake. If you enjoyed the gardens by HCMC Town Hall, or are looking for some outdoor inspiration, you’ll enjoy a walk around Ho Kiem Lake, which is right next to the Old Quarter. Try to get here in the early morning when lots of people come to workout and practice everything from Tai-Chi to aerobics. Like other major cities in Vietnam, the government has installed exercise equipment here for use by the public. If you’re lucky, you might spot some of the turtles that live in the lake.