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June 2, 2022

Discovering Hanoi - Best Things to do in the Old Quarter

Encompassed:

  • Visas
  • Hostel
  • Hanoi Old Quarter
  • Dong Xuan Market
  • Hoàn Kiếm Lake
  • St. Joseph’s Cathedral
  • Midori Spa
  • Street Food

I owe everything I am today to the four days I spent in Vietnam.

Yes, it sounds cliche - four days is short. But, if I could trace all of my desire to travel to one trip it all traces back to Hanoi. 

In 2019 I was in my first year of living in Japan. Every May a series of national holidays align just right to give workers almost a full week of vacation. This year was special, in that I had a staggering 12 days of vacation!

I wasn’t about to let the time slip away from me, and decided to embark on a trip to Southeast Asia. At the time I was more concerned with how many countries I could check off versus the quality of time spent in them - hence why I flew in and out of Cambodia in one day to see Angkor Wat. 

But, at the time I was still relatively inexperienced, having only been to about five countries, and my last solo trip was at 19 to Germany and Austria for three short days.

I had not discovered the type of traveler I was, or the woman I would become because of it. 

So, why did I choose Vietnam? Simply put, because it was there. It was right in between my flight home out of Hong Kong and my stopover in Siem Reap. After doing more research, I found that if I stopped over in Hanoi for a few days I was in the perfect position to take several day trips around the area.

I didn’t know this would be some of the most formative days of my life. I didn’t know that I would meet people for only a few hours and have them shift my world perspective. I didn’t know I would see some of the most stunning scenery in the world.

I didn’t know I would gain my love of hostels from this trip - even more that I would always compare every trip I took to this one. 

Visas

Many countries, including The US, need a visa to enter Vietnam.

The concerning thing was that there was no government designated service to supply the visa information; It is all handled third party.

I did some research and eventually went with Vietnam Visa

The application was simple, cheap, and clear. Upon arrival at Noi Bai Airport in Hanoi, I had to wait nearly an hour for them to process my Visa at the counter and make it through immigration.

Note: The visas require your photo at the counter! You can pre-prepare a photo, or have them take it there. The process will go MUCH QUICKER if you prepare photos in advance! 

Hostel

I chose a random hostel in the Old Quarter from Hostelworld based on pictures alone - Central Backpackers Hostel

It had absolutely everything I was looking for! They offered pickup from the airport. I could book tours through the hostel, treat myself to a free breakfast, and party at night. Through their website I could easily arrange my tours to Ha Long Bay and the Ninh Binh province. 

If you’ve ever stayed at a party hostel, you’ll know all too well how things go later in the evening.

It was there, on the hostel terrace at 3am, with free hourly shots poured down backpacker's throats, that I had the realization that these sorts of experiences are what I’m meant to be basing my life around. 

These people I’d met, the conversations that flowed so freely, and the things I was learning were all shaping me. 

Old City Gate and The Old Quarter 

Hanoi has several attractions that make it a bucket list place, and I would have loved to have seen them all. Given that I only had two days to be able to see the city, I mainly spent my time in the Old Quarter.

Bright and early the day after arriving at the hostel, I waited in the lobby to join the free walking tour. A young man with an effervescent personality presented himself and guided us into the moped-filled streets. 

The Old City Gate

The hostel was situated beside the gateway to The Old Quarter.

Standing proudly at the entrance is the last remnant of what was once 16 gates surrounding the city, built to protect from invasions. Quan Chuong, in Vietnamese, is built in the typical architectural style of the Nguyen Dynasty. It serves as a constant source of pride for the Vietnamese.

The guide told us how apt the Vietnamese drivers are at avoiding people amongst the chaos, and we all in awe as he demonstrated his point by covering his eyes and walking right out into the street. At least ten moped drivers safely evaded him and he made it across the street in one piece. 

I was surprised at how bustling the streets were for still being the morning. It was all before noon and busier than any place I’d ever seen in my hometown. The tour guide explained that the hard workers who occupied the streets here rose with the sun and worked hard at their business all day. 

Dong Xuan Market

Our stops took us next to the largest indoor market in Hanoi, Dong Xuan. It was there that I tried haggling for the first time - which I was absolutely miserable at. The vendors could tell very well I didn’t know what I was doing, and I’m sure I paid more for my elephant pants than the average tourist.

Walking the streets of the Old Quarter. Our guide at the lead.

It did raise a question for me. The average salary in Hanoi is 6.2million Vietnamese dong per month - roughly $271 USD. With that staggering gap, was I really about to be upset over the fact that I paid what came out to be a quarter more for my pants?

The market was busy. Passageways large enough for one person to pass through stretched in a maze throughout. Towering open spices made the air fragrant, and colorful arrays of fabric decaled the walls. It was like a wonderland.

The live animal section was attached nearby, and with a warning from our tour guide that it wasn’t pleasant, I went to look. I’ll spare the details, but it was heartbreaking to see the conditions the animals lived in before slaughter.

But, just because something isn’t always visible to the eye, doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen in my own home as well. It was all part of the experience and learning. 

Hoàn Kiếm Lake

The bubbly guide took us next to the Hoàn Kiếm Lake - in English meaning “The Lake of the Returned Sword”, situated in the heart of the Old Quarter. Legend tells a former king visited the lake and received a sword from the Golden Turtle God. He used the sword to vanquish his enemies, and returned the sword to the lake properly.

Now, the Turtle Tower stands  in the middle of the lake. Several soft-shell turtles inhabit the waters.

All around it’s a serene place, full of life and bustling vendors. The lake is situated near Hanoi’s famous Water Puppet Theater. I didn’t get the chance to see a show, but I would love to sometime soon!

It was more than worth it to spend a quiet afternoon my second day in Hanoi strolling around the lake.

I was met with a surprise that day, too.

I should have done more research because I stumbled right into the heart of the Old Quarter during a national holiday - Reunification Day.

The area surround the lake was alive. Children ran around, blowing bubbles. Adults delighted. Friends were laughing. 

I realized everything in my life was leading me to that moment. Every decision I had ever made had put me right in that spot. I could not share the Vietnamese pride in their national holiday, but I could delight with them as a human. 

That night I made friends around the lake. I had conversations in broken English with small children, and received several waves from some kindly grandpas. 

Train Street

No one can mention going to Hanoi without hearing about a visit to Train Street. It’s a tiny, narrow street stretching about 100 meters long. 

It’s famously known as being the place where, a few times a day, a train comes squeezing through the residences - at times only 20cm away from the walls.

Old Instagram picture from train street. The only picture I took there, unfortunately. The basket to the right of the picture contains donuts. Sales people walk the streets selling them.

The safety zone is marked in clear yellow.

As of October, 2019, tourists were banned. Reportedly there were problems where train conductors had to abruptly stop in order to avoid hitting tourists - luckily, no one was injured.

I feel fortunate to have been able to go and experience it when I did, but I can easily understand why tourists were stopped from going.

At the time, the local residents used the opportunity to turn their backyards into petite cafes. They were full of color and character, breathing life into the neighborhood.

It’s the type of place that makes you realize the beauty humanity is capable of creating. 

There, I sat with friends I had just made at my hostel and shared conversations like we’d known one another our entire lives. 

St. Joseph’s Cathedral

Located in the heart of the Old Quarter near the lake, St. Joseph’s Cathedral stands tall over the square. The Neo-Gothic cathedral, built in a style resembling Notre Dame, was one of the first buildings constructed by the French Colonial government in 1886.

Before going to Vietnam, I didn't know that this part of the world was once colonized by France. It is not something taught in American schools. 

The cathedral constantly reminds me how much more there is in the world I haven’t learned yet. That this is the reason to keep traveling, and growing as a person.

If I were to go back home to America, how much culture, history, worldliness would I miss out on?

The bells high in the tower chimed, echoing across the streets and mingling in with the honking mopeds.

The old world meeting the new one.

Spa treatments

A key feature of many South East Asian countries is the affordable spa treatments - namely massages. All around the streets of the Old Quarter were men and women waiting on stools advertising foot massages for less than $1 USD. 

At 22, I’d never received a professional massage before and decided that while on vacation, why not try it out?

After doing some research, I decided on Midori Spa - known for hiring visually impaired masseuses. I was concerned at first about the ethics of it. Were they hiring these women and exploiting their disability, or giving them an opportunity? 

The reviews I saw online seemed ethical, so I decided to try it out. I opted for a 90 minute full body oil massage.

I was taken into a serene room with the lights dimmed and curtains drawn.

The masseuse was professional and kind - all until a man came into the stall next to me.

At first I didn’t pay any mind, until I heard a man - American or Canadian based on the accent - tell his masseuse “Touch me hard - I like it firm. I like a woman with strong hands.”

The woman laughed uncomfortably, and immediately I was disgusted at this moron. Clearly he’d come to a spa, known for employing disabled women, expecting a happy ending.

It didn’t stop there. Throughout the massage he moaned, clearly getting pleasure from it and the poor woman doing her job had no choice but to continue her duties. At one point I heard him ask, “I like a strong woman. Do you like a strong man?”

Again, the woman laughed nervously, and said, “No.” 

I laughed, and I believe the other man heard me. I wanted to run and give this woman a hug and pull her away from this disgusting man. I regret every day I didn’t actually do something. Sometimes I like to blame it on the fact that I was young and naïve in my travels, but the honest truth is I took the backseat to sexual harassment happening blatantly in front of me. 

That’s something I’ll never do again. 

However, the woman who massaged me was nothing short of wonderful. At the very end she sat me up and braided my hair for me. She didn’t have to do that, but it was an extra little touch - a human connection.

Street Food

No article about Hanoi is complete without talking about street food.

Food is the heart and soul of any culture. To get the true Hanoi experience, plop down on a plastic stool in an alley and eat to your heart's content.

Women working at a pop up restaurant in a covered street. Photos taken with permission.

Most small stands selling pho will be spread out with additional toppings for you to freely top your meal with.

Not pictured, and my personal favorite, is the bánh mì (a Vietnamese sandwich in a French baguette) cart that trotted along the streets.

Encompassed

In all, the days I spent in Hanoi were amazing, formative. The night life was cozy and intimate, and even walking through the alleys at 3am and eating sandwiches on tiny stools in the middle of the night, I felt safe. 

Hanoi and the day trips I took surrounding it were a formative period in my travels.

I always want to try going to new countries, but I feel absolutely compelled to go back to Hanoi and properly try Vietnamese coffee under the lush canopies in the Old Quarter. 

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