When we arrived in Hanoi, Vietnam’s capital city located in the north, locals couldn’t believe how long we were staying. “Two weeks? Why are you staying here for so long?” It wasn’t that they hated living there. It’s simply that Hanoi is not known for sightseeing. More often than not, travelers backpack through the city on their way to Sa Pa or Ha Long Bay. We spent one day out of the two weeks visiting Ha Long Bay (one of the New7Wonders of nature), which was supposed to be a three-day excursion but was cut short due to storms on the water. In spite of the unexpected additional time we had in Hanoi, we developed quite a liking for daily living in Hanoi. If you enjoy culture, good food, and really cheap beer, this just might be the place for you.
A day in the life of Hanoi
As the motorbike traffic picks up and the symphony of honking horns begins, you awake to another beautiful day in northern Vietnam. You walk outside and, right on schedule, the humidity is rising near 100% again and it’s only 8am. A morning run was originally in the plans but you’ll have to wait until the evening when it “cools” off to about 80% humidity. Even though it’s really hot, there’s never a bad time to start the day with an egg coffee (cà phê trứng), which consists of two egg yolks beaten together with coffee powder and poured over hot espresso. From there, you stroll down the busy streets which are bustling with more traffic than you can imagine. Motorbikes and people walking on the road; street vendors strewn all over the sidewalk; bicycle taxis clamoring for your attention. It’s controlled madness. You nicely turn down their offers and head to the local bánh bò mặn street stall to grab a morning pastry. Sweet cheese, salty cheese or green tea flavored? You can’t go wrong.
Darting through motorbikes and cars you cross the roundabout and arrive at Hoàn Kiếm Lake. It’s a beautiful mile-long circular walk around the rim of the lake. There are groups of Vietnamese women (and some men) doing their daily exercises near the water, but mostly just people sitting and enjoying the scenery. You walk around just long enough to really crave what’s next: some bubble tea! Ice cold tea with tapioca pearls (aka “bubbles”) is nothing short of perfection on a hot and humid day in Vietnam. And the textural fun of the bubbles is just an added bonus. You walk in and are greeted by the friendly faces at Ding Tea, a take-away style beverage company located throughout southeast Asia. You place the order, wait for the beverage to be sealed, and then head back to the hostel for some much needed time in the air-conditioning.
The joint rejuvenation of the tea and cool room gives you everything you need to get energized for another walk and some lunch. Looking to keep to your daily budget, you head to one of the many döner kebab stands in Hanoi. Developed in Turkey and spread throughout Europe and Asia, these kebabs can be had for 25,000 Vietnamese dong ($1.15) per person if you like vegetarian-style, and 30,000 ($1.38) to add meat. Now that’s a good deal! If that’s not enough and you’re craving hot soup (on an already hot day), head to a street stall or small restaurant selling Vietnam’s famous noodle dish: pho. Pho, pronunced “fuh,” is the Vietnam’s version of chicken noodle soup with rice noodles and herbs served up in a hot chicken or beef broth.
After lunch you return to the hostel while the food settles, and then get changed to head out for a mid-to-late afternoon run (depending on how much you want to sweat). A couple miles of dodging traffic will lead you to West Lake, where you can run the loop of 12-miles mostly undisturbed by traffic. And what better way to earn the meal and beverages you have coming later…
You return at least five pounds lighter than when you went out, but quickly consume enough water to put that weight right back on! A shower and a little down-time will get your stomach prepared for a delicious dinner at Xoi Yen. You walk down the street and make your way to the corner where the magic happens. During the busiest times, there are so many people ordering and employees taking orders that it’s hard to even get a word in. But if you head over a little earlier or later then the standard dinner time (between 6-7 pm) you will miss the rush and receive your food within a few short minutes! The menu includes yellow sticky rice with an assortment of toppings. Eggs, mung bean paste (mmhmm!) and any other meat toppings you may prefer. Don’t even worry about your budget because this totally fulfilling meal is 21,000 ($.96) dong per person. Not even a dollar!
While we’re on the subject of things that are less than a dollar, you head down the streets of the Old Quarter for the nightcap: hanging out with locals and other travelers at one of the many stands selling bia hơi. A locally brewed beer that is delivered daily, this beverage is known as the cheapest beer in the world. The alcohol content is less than most beers (at just 3%), but you can’t tell from the great lager flavor! And the moment you’ve been waiting for: the price per glass is 5,000 ($.23) dong. Remember that time you paid $10 for a beer at a bar in (insert major US city) the states? All along you could have been putting away 40 glasses of bia hơi in Hanoi for the same price! After a few hours of chatting up some new friends from around the world, the police clear the streets and it’s time for bed. Not a bad day!
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