I eat a lot of pho in Melbourne. This city flirts with pork sliders, Huxtaburgers and potatoes-cooked-in-their-own-dirt, but it is married to a steaming hot bowl of pho bo. There are two excellent joints within four hundred metres of our place, and the lure of a 5 minute/$9 bowl often proves too much. Last night, for instance.
In our group of four girls, we had two Melburnians. The two of us met in Hanoi with a steely sense of determination. We would take on the soup of this city, and we would win. Breakfast, lunch, dinner. Round steak, brisket, chicken, vegetables. For a $1.70, there are no losers. Except for sodium levels.
I wouldn’t say soup was the only thing we did here, but it accounted for a large chunk of our time. No regrets.
WHERE TO STAY Definitely in the Old Town – the area immediately west and north of the Hoan Kiem Lake. We booked the four bed room at the Serendipity Hotel ($12AUD/pp), which I highly recommend – great location, comfortable room, delicious breakfast and friendly staff. We even ended up using the hotel to organise our trek in Sapa and our boat in Halong Bay, and both were brilliant and good value for money.
FOR HOW LONG If you plan to visit Sapa and Halong Bay, you’ll be based in Hanoi. Allow 2-3 days for the city itself, and the hotels are happy to look after your bags while you’re away.
GETTING AROUND The airport taxi scams are almost impossible to avoid – particularly as a solo female traveller. I took the hotel up on their transfer ($18USD), which was a few dollars more than the true taxi price, but about half of what a lot of people are realistically forced to pay. And nothing beats arriving in a city to see a man holding a sign with your name on it.
We walked pretty much everywhere around Hanoi, which is easy and enjoyable once you get your Asia-road-eye in. There isn’t a lot of ‘sightseeing’ to do, so it’s very much about the journey! We also used cabs a couple of times, and didn’t have any trouble getting the meter turned on – but we are a fairly assertive bunch. You can also easily hire bikes and scooters, and there are men lazing on their motorcycles offering rides on every corner. Not necessarily an option to recommend, but it’s there.
EATING Have I mentioned pho? Expect to pay between $1.2o-$1.70USD for a bowl, depending on the ingredients and how salubrious the restaurant is. Also look out for the chicken stalls selling cold noodles with chicken and vegetables, fried dough sticks (dau chao quay), fried rice paper rolls (so bad, but so good), the doughnut sellers wandering the streets and the carts of expertly carved pineapple.
If you want variety, head to Ma May (Street) – there’s a huge number of options. Our favourite was the curbside restaurant near the corner of Ma May and Hang Mam (diagonally opposite the Sunshine 3 Hotel). Just make sure you head inside and point at what you want to order – you’ll be charged double if you order off the menu.
If you tire of Vietnamese fare, head to Little India Restaurant – free wifi and some of the best Indian I’ve ever had. It’s also Vegetarian friendly, along with the more upmarket Tamarind Cafe on Ma May.
To try the famous egg coffee with a rooftop view of the lake, do your best to find the elusive Cafe Pho Co – walk through the silk shop and order before you climb up the rickety staircase.
SHOPPING If you have even a passing interest in handicrafts and textiles, don’t bring an almost full 45L backpack and delude yourself that “you’ll be disciplined.”
Hanoi has a growing number of beautifully curated stores full of handicrafts and antiques, and a range of artisans producing everything from modern interpretations of Vietnamese pottery and art to handmade traditional quilts. The hill tribe souvenirs were better quality and better priced than in the areas around Sapa, and there are a surprising number of interesting clothes shops. I could have gone totally crazy, if it wasn’t for the reality of my bag choice. And still having Hoi An to come.
AVOID being pick pocketed – one of our girls got close, but thankfully another saved the day with a well timed hand slap and expletive. Also avoid the lockdown surrounding the Presidential Palace – you can’t go through it (despite what the maps might say), and it takes an awfully long walk to go over it. If you’re walking from the Mausoleum, stick to Dien Bien Phu. The alternative is long, boring, and just a touch scary.
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