Why I Hated Hanoi and Why I Went Back

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. 

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Ho Chi Minh City: A Guide

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If you visit Ho Chi Minh City, prepare for an adventure in this beautiful, chaotic city full of amazing food and buzzing with millions of motorbikes. My city guide below is a collection of cultural attractions and experiences, nightlife, and–most importantly–local-recommended foods and restaurants I’ve checked out over my three trips to HCMC. I recommend spending at least four days here to really get to know HCMC.

Budgeting & Where to Stay

In my guide I focus mainly on District 1, the tourist area,  and District 3, where I usually stay. D3 is just north of D1, so it’s only a quick Uber ride to downtown but you get a much better feel for the local lifestyle. Since it’s a way from the tourist sites, D3 is also much less expensive than D1, so it’s a good spot for those of you who are on a tighter budget, like me.

D3: You can get a comfortable Airbnb from $20-30/night here and easily spend no more than $15 a day on food if you stick mostly to street vendors–more if you plan to drink. My go-to Airbnb is here.

D1: In D1, an Airbnb costs ~$35-50/night, and a decent budget hotel costs around $50/night. Expect to pay $65-90 for a nicer, mid-range hotel. I’ve stayed at and recommend the Bay Hotel (booking.com).

For meals in this district, budget $5-15 USD per person, per meal if you’re keeping it on the casual side (without alcohol).

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Eat Pho like a Pro: A Primer on One of Vietnam’s Most Famous Dishes

If you’ve ever dreamed of traveling to Vietnam, you’re probably familiar with Pho (pronounced ‘fuh’) — a noodle soup made with broth from roasted beef (or chicken) bones, shallot and onion, toasted aromatic spices—like sharp, spicy ginger and star anise—and freshly cooked rice noodles.  It gets its name, like all noodle dishes in Vietnam, from the specific type of rice noodle it’s made with, called bánh phở. What I love most about Pho (and all street foods here) is that each little Pho shop or stand has their own variation, and you’ll even notice that the Pho in the North is prepared differently than in the South. What’s great for Pho gluttons like me is you could probably eat it three times a day for a week and still not hit all the spots in a major city like HCMC or Hanoi.

The Basics: the two most common types are Phở Bo (beef) and Phở Gà (chicken). It’s less popular, but some places will offer a vegetarian version, called Pho Chay. We’re going to focus on the most common type—Pho Bo.

Ordering: Most Pho stands or shops only serve it one way, though they might have a ‘special’ version (ex. Phở Bo Kho, richer and more like a stew), so it’s easy to order. My Vietnamese is kind of rusty, so I usually say hello, and nod at the boiling cauldron of soup, and hold my finger up to say one (or however many if others are eating with me). You can make your way over to a table and wait for your tray to be brought over.

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