Vietnam was pretty much exactly like Top Gear made it out to be. Before visiting, many people told me Hanoi was a quiet city and Saigon was chaos. People said Vietnam becomes calmer and friendlier the further north you go. I honestly couldn’t see any of this; Hanoi was pretty mad and nobody ever wanted to smile or act helpful in any way whatsoever. I still loved it, but I loved it like it was somewhere confusing, different and exciting that I’d probably never visit again.
Hanoi is nowhere near Halong Bay. This is a mistake most travellers seemed to be making. They’re hours apart. Halong City is a ghost town so you don’t want to stay there, but Halong Bay is really really really far away from Hanoi. Don’t expect to get the bus to Hanoi from Hue and continue on to Halong Bay – it’s just too far!
Mandatory lake lap. I dont know about you, but when I arrive in a new destination that has a lake – that’s where I head. It’s a couple of kilometres around the edge of the lake and a pretty nice walk to find bang int he middle of the city. There’s also a temple over a bridge on the lake, but you’re probably bored of temples by now.
Get some morning excercise. Go for an early morning walk and you’ll see locals exercising everywhere! Lakeside yoga, dancing in the park or small groups jogging around city blocks – Hanoi is full of people looking to boost their health and fitness. They’re also very open to letting others tag along, so give it a try!
Walk down the streets at night. A few of the busier roads get closed off at night and turned into walking streets. They still sell the same tat as they do during the day, but the sounds, smells and lights make the walking streets really come alive. There’s also a huge variation in restaurants and street food, as well as local beer being sold for pennies all down the road.
Do a Halong Bay excursion. Some people travel to Halong City to try and integrate it into their travels, but everyone said the same thing; “it’s a ghost town, don’t bother”. There were also a few groups getting on the same bus, but just paying the bus fair and trying to figure out the tour themselves in the hopes of saving £1.20 – don’t do that, it will just cost more when you arrive and be a lot of hassle. Literally just arrange a one or two day excursion from Hanoi where everything is included. It’s worth making this whole experience as simple as possible so you can really enjoy it. I would also reccomend purchasing the kayaking add-on to your excursion for £4 extra or whatever it costs.
Only buy excursions from your hostel! There were constant horror stories of people buying tickets to Halong Bay, cheap Air Asia flights, Sapa Excursions and more from travel agencies down the street, only to turn up and find out their ticket was fake and the travel agency had completely vanished from their location. It sounds like a lot of effort for a scam, but they make big money. Your best bet when avoiding scams in Hanoi is to buy everything directly from your hostel.
Visit Uncle Ho! Remember Ho Chi Minh? Well his embalmed body is located in the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum, right here in Hanoi. It’s not actually that interesting (a big grey building with two guards in front), but the surrounding grounds are quite pleasant and it’s weird how much it feels like a Western tourist destination. I can’t quite describe it, but once you’re there it’ll make sense.
Would I vsit Hanoi again? Sure, but it would be so I could take another stab at Halong Bay, or so that I could continue to Sapa for a weekend of trekking. Hanoi itself doesn’t have a lot to offer – I much preferred Saigon, although both cities struggle to live upto the delightful time I spent in Hoi An. I bloody love Vietnam.