Hanoi City in Vietnam is a weird, crazy yet wonderful place. It’s rich in culture & history, but is modern, chaotic & touristy at the same time. The city is so intriguing, it’s nothing like we’ve ever experienced before! We spent 7 days backpacking Hanoi before moving to Thanh Hoa to work as English Teachers, here’s our experience backpacking Hanoi!
Crossing the road in Hanoi peak hour traffic!
Hanoi is actually insane, but Hanoi during peak hour is next level! I mean there’s lanes and traffic lights, but they’re more of a guide rather than a must. Bikes weaving in small gaps between moving cars, cutting each other off, trying desperately not to get stuck behind someone slow. It’s no wonder motorbike accidents are one of their biggest killers, at least it’s mandatory you wear a helmet right?
Not going to lie, i feared for my life the first day attempting to cross the road, after almost getting taken out by a speeding motorbike. As time went by i finally managed to figure out how to cross a road. If you think you can just wait for a break in traffic you’ll be bloody waiting all day. You just have to walk with confidence. We don’t mean walk in front of a moving bike and hope that they don’t hit you. Look for a gap and take it, use your hands to signal where you are going and if you want the bike/car to pass you wave them through.
It felt like an intense real life video game, dodging bicycles, avoiding motorbikes & running from cars who’re inches from hitting you. After 3 solid days we managed to master the art of crossing the road during Hanoi peak hour traffic, hell yeah!
Where to find the cheapest beer while backpacking Hanoi!
Bia Hoi is super cheap and easy to drink, although you might need to have a couple more than usual to get drunk. This fresh, local beer is brewed daily & contains no preservatives. No wonder it’s so popular among travellers backpacking Hanoi.
You can find this cheap, delicious liquid on Ta Hien street in the Old Quarter. It’s one long road filled with people drinking, eating & having a blast. It’s the main party street of Ha Noi, so by 10pm you’ll struggle to walk down the street, let alone drive your motorbike through.
We have such good memories backpacking Hanoi with our friends from Australia, we literally sat on tiny plastic stools on Ta Hien street, drinking for 3 hours & it only cost $5!
There’s a mini night club along the strip, which is nothing at all like any nightclub back home at all. The music is intolerable & the dancing is cringe worthy. Yet the sound of PSY’s Gangnam Style somehow drew us inside. We were singing like complete idiots & having dance offs with locals. I think it lasted about half an hour until reality set in, we realised how much the music sucked and how expensive the drinks were. Time to bail!
Lockout laws in Hanoi
You lose track of time drinking when backpacking Hanoi, one minute it’s 6pm, next minute it’s 10pm and the police show up out of no where. It’s the infamous Ta Hien street shutdown.
Shop owners frantically pull their tables and chairs inside, even while you’re siting down. The police confiscate any furniture they can get their hands on and then leave, all within a space of 2 minutes. About 5 minutes later the tables & chairs are back out on the street & the party continues. At least they tried right?
We continue our loose night out in town at Base Bar around the corner, dancing on tables, breathing happy balloons & downing shots. Just before 1am they pull down the shutter, turn the music off & usher everyone to stay quiet. We were all extremely intoxicated & kinda unsure of what the hell was happening.
A few minutes later the cops walk down the street, pretending not to notice everyone “shhhhhh-ing” each other inside Base Bar. All of a sudden the music is back on & the party continues!
Apparently the police are paid off by the bars in town & get to drink for free wherever they want. I guess tourism is pretty big in Hanoi & if no tourists can go out after midnight it’ll deter people from backpacking Hanoi.
Make sure you know the back entrance into your Hotel/Hostel if you plan on partying till late. Every shopfront, hotel and hostel will close its shutters to abide by the citywide curfew. Our poor friend Jess came back to a locked hotel and had no way in. After trying to find help or a way to call the hotel, she finally got inside…an hour later.
Riding a bike in Hanoi’s peak hour traffic
Everyone’s been thrown in the deep end once in their life right? You just have to embrace it and hope for the bloody best. At least that’s what we did on our 4th night in Hanoi.
A mate from CouchSurfing offered to kindly offered to show us around town. Expect he forgot to mention it was by bicycle and in peak hour traffic…
We’ve never been a big fan of riding bikes either. I was a slow learner and didn’t get my training wheels off until i was 7 and retired at the old age of 13. I’ve done a few spin classes at the gym and always wondered why people loved it so much. Yes i know its good exercise, but i always left with a sorer vagina than legs.
Before even getting to the main road I almost crashed into a lady who was walking by… Close call. I was scared, but didn’t want to bitch out when Travis was nice enough to A) give up his time to show us around & B) lend us his bikes. So I just went with it and crossed my fingers for the best.
You’d be happy to know that we made it through the entire tour without crashing, well at least nothing major. Travis pointed out some cool local places and attempted to give us some insight into the area. But i didn’t actually see much or take anything in because I was so focused on not crashing.
It was nice to take in some “fresh air”, on our bike tour around Hanoi. I totally get why everyone wears mask’s, I probably swallowed a total of 10 bugs and a teaspoon of dirt. I figured this is why people wear the masks, but turns out its just for pollution. If you want to explore the city by bike, I’d suggest avoiding Hanoi’s peak hour traffic.
CouchSurfing while backpacking Hanoi
Couchsurfing is great way to save money on accomodation, while backpacking Hanoi. We slept for 5 days in a model areoplane, at our hosts cafe in Hanoi. It’s probably the coolest accomodation you’ll find when backpacking Hanoi and it was completely free! The window’s inside the plane lit up and had pictures taken from up in the sky.
It was a pretty wicked setup at the Bay Cafe, run by our host’s wife, keeping her busy while he’s away. He travels all over the world as a tour guide, hence the big ass plane at the cafe. It’s also a meeting place for the local English club, giving many university students the chance to interact and practice their English with Couchsurfers. We met some pretty cool people and learnt so much about Vietnamese culture and their way of life.
Public transport in Hanoi
We stayed outside the old quarter when we backpacked Hanoi, so we had to master the art of public transport. After 2 days of catching the bus into town, we thought that we had the transport system down pat. Wrong…
We got on our bus where we got off, under the assumption that it did a city loop. Apparently not, we were taken to the bus depot on the other side of town and not only did we have to pay for that bus, but also for the bus back. But hey, things could have been worse.
After yesterdays mishap we thought we were smarter & better equipped. But we still managed to get stitched up….
After getting lost for 20 minutes, we finally reached the bus stop just in time to make one of the last buses of the night. We paid for our ticket and double checked with the girl that we’re on the right but. I knew we were, but she kept shaking her head saying ‘khong’ (no) and at the next stop pretty much pushed us off with another local guy.
We were sitting at this dodgy bus stop, at 10pm at night with shady characters lurking around. One guy tried to convince us to get on this bus, going to the opposite side of the city. Another wanted to charge us a ridiculous amount of money to drive us home on his motorbike, while his friend attempted to open the zipper of my bag that i was clutching tightly. Yeah it wasn’t going well hey.
Thankfully we managed to get on the right bus & navigate our way back without anymore dramas.
The best food to eat while backpacking Hanoi
One of our favourite things about Hanoi (besides from Bia Hoi) is the incredible food. There is so much delectable food everywhere when you backpacking Hanoi! Hanoi’s signature dish is Bun Cha and it’s freaking delicious. They cook pork patties over hot coals, combine it in a soup with papaya and serve it with salad and (bun) rice noodles.
You’ll also get a good Pho wherever you go too, but you can get that anywhere in Vietnam. Bun Cha is predominately served in Hanoi, however you can find it in other places around the north of Vietnam, it’s just not as good.
The second place, we weren’t too crash hot on. It only served 2 things, weird mystery meat cooked on a stick and dried fish. We’re not big meat eaters in the first place, but we are open to trying new things.
Did you ever have dinner at a friends house back in school & had to pretend you liked the food, even when you hated it? Yeah that’s kinda how we felt here, luckily i was “soo full” from the other place i only had enough room left for 1 or 2. Don’t be deceived by the photo, it wasn’t good at all. The mystery meat was fermented Pork, but it smelt weird and stuck to the leaves on the plate. i had my suspicion it was dog meat… he laughed and said “dog meat isn’t this cheap, this is made from all the parts of the pig, the ears the skin, everything”.
We finished off our street food tour with the most delicious coconut ice-cream i have ever tasted and Hanoi’s famous egg coffee (cafe trung). The coffee was delicious, it kinda reminded me of a meringue & the strong bitter coffee cut through the sweetness perfectly.
Dylan and James opted for the egg beer, it was a normal beer and the egg whites mixture that you pour into a cup. Sounds filthy right? The boys gave it a good red hot crack & vomited it up straight after. They were probably just taking the piss out of travellers backpacking Hanoi. For more food inspo check out this article: 10 must try Vietnamese foods
The worst food you’ll find while backpacking Hanoi
You know how we said that there’s so much good food everywhere you go? Well there’s also a lot of bad food, like really bad food. We sat down at a restaurant to get lunch and noticed the pretty bird cages all around the restaurant. Isn’t it cute that they have so many pet birds! Yeah turns out they’re not pets, but in fact food on the menu… Keen to eat swallow for lunch or what?
You can also eat snake, tortoise, snails, cat, eel, dog & pretty much any other animal you can think of. Most local places prepare their meals on the side of the road, it’s interesting to watch. Whether it’s grilling meat over hot coals, cutting veggies, roasting a dog on the spit or skinning frogs on the side of the road.
I’ll never take for granted an English menu again. Most authentic non touristy food places don’t have a menu let alone anything in English. Sometimes you just have to point to something and hope for the best.
We thought we were doing okay ordering food with the little Vietnamese we know. Next minute our table is full of 6 dishes that i’m pretty sure we didn’t order & a whole chicken, head, feet and all.
If you think that you’re going to get a knife & fork to eat your food, think again. They use chopsticks and spoons, but that’s about it. If you can’t use chopsticks, you’ll learn quickly otherwise you’ll be going all caveman and eating with your hands. To avoid eating dog or other strange animals, check out our Vietnamese food guide!
Organised chaos in Hanoi
Hanoi is so chaotic, yet organised at the same time. If you want paint, there’s a whole street selling paint… Yep, every single shop selling the exact same thing. The city has dedicated streets for everything you need, food, clothes, welding, pottery, its pretty impressive how well organised it is.
It baffled us that people would want to be selling the same thing as their competitor next door? Turns out they’ve been doing this for over 1000 years in the old quarter! Still to this day artefacts are sold according to their category in the designated streets. The roads are named ‘Hang’ which means merchandise followed by the artifacts they sell.
We loved our time backpacking Hanoi but only really scratched the surface of what is has to offer. We got lost in the chaos, drinking 22c bia hoi, & sucking in happy balloons…