By typical standards for tourists, my quick jaunt from Saigon to go backpacking in Hanoi was a bust.
But sometimes that’s a good thing.
After five weeks on a quiet island (Koh Lanta, Thailand) surrounded only by frogs, my cat, and thieves, the urban chaos of big cities in Vietnam should have made me want to curl up and suck my thumb. Instead, the madness proved intensely exhilarating.
Here are a few personal observations about backpacking in Hanoi, Vietnam, to better prepare any first-timers:
About Backpacking in Hanoi
I had good intentions of backpacking in Hanoi on my first trip to Vietnam in 2010, but a very testy tropical storm had other plans and turned me away at Hue with flooded roads and railway. Flying was the only option, and I didn’t want to skip the good stuff between Vietnam’s two big cities.
This time I flew up from Saigon, determined to see the very core of Vietnam no matter what. You can’t really say that you’ve seen Vietnam until you’ve felt the strain and edgy beauty of Hanoi.
Vietnam’s capital city is a place where signs for fast food chains have thankfully yet to blossom. I loved the vibe in Saigon (aka, Ho Chi Minh City), but the KFC signs can be a bit of a bummer. Instead, a large lake and greenspace occupy the center of Hanoi. And unlike other urban cesspools with littered, dangerous greenspaces, Hanoi actually pulls it off. I never once felt like I was going to be stabbed.
Dragonflies hover contently above the water at sunset as fish feed below them.
But don’t start thinking that Hanoi is soft. Beyond the lake, cold, gray, government concrete runs as far as the eye can see in every direction. Pleasantly wide, tree-lined streets funnel into the narrow maze of the Old Quarter where humans, animals, motorbikes, and machines compete for every inch of space and sanity.
Sure, I enjoyed Saigon for the pace, Hoi An for the romance, Hue for the bullet holes, and Mui Ne for the sand — but Hanoi is where the soul of Vietnam resides.
It was time to get under the skin of this ancient city.
On Shopping in Hanoi
Trying to find something you need at any given time while backpacking in Hanoi is a peculiar affair. Unlike Saigon, there are very few mini-marts. And streets are largely carved up into districts for particular items. The arrangement is only convenient for deliverymen and a lucky few in need of one thing at a time.
Need a pair of shoes? Go to the shoe district. Need a comb? You’ll find that in the hair-salon district. Shops, side by side, sell the same genre of product — most often not the product you need.
Hanoi must be a dream for deliverymen, but it can be an absolute hell for us spoiled Americans accustomed to giant department stores where everything is under one roof. You’ll have to walk six city blocks here if you want to pick up a magazine to go along with your groceries.
And to make matters worse, you have to rely on roving street peddlers for anything not organized into the shopping districts. When you want to buy some fruit, all you’ll find are women selling brooms. Or spatulas. Or some other equally worthless object with a low vitamin C content.
On Crossing the Street in Hanoi
The prospect of crossing a clogged street in Hanoi without power armor and a flamethrower is terrifying. But it has recently become one of my favorite things to do.
In fact, I started looking forward to each instance when I could push past a paralyzed group of travelers stranded on the edge of a busy street. Aghast at the prospect of putting their lives on the line just to gain ground, they wait for a pause in traffic that never comes. They also film me crossing in bold strides.
The problem is, they don’t understand the Model. The edges of a vortex are the most dangerous. The only way to survive and thrive in chaos is to push right through the center — enter the heart. It’s not that you find some calm in the center, like the eye of a storm, it’s more that you become a part of the madness. The Model accepts you as a contribution, an expansion.
The outsiders are fair game, but the Model would never harm one of its own. As long as you play by the rules, you’ll be just fine. Never, ever try to run across. Don’t panic or move erratically. The drivers know what to do. Enjoy the hot breath of passing motorbikes on your legs. The street rumbling beneath your feet with horsepower. Just bowl right through that intersection one foot at a time, wave at the spectators who think they’re filming your impending demise, and keep on going.
On the Coffee in Hanoi
There are at least 200 sidewalk cafes on my street alone here in Hanoi. But don’t expect muzak, hipsters on MacBook Airs, or pumpkin lattes. What you get for $1 or less is a plastic stool and an unpretentious, brutally powerful cup of coffee served in a dirty drinking glass.
Coffee in Hanoi is a pure, beautiful thing. It hasn’t yet been spoiled by add-ons, corporate logos, insulated cups for sale, Wi-Fi, and all the other needless distractions. The coffee was one of my favorite parts of backpacking in Hanoi.
Hanoi’s coffee is blacker than a baby-gobbling politician’s soul — and even meaner. It can make hair grow on a gorilla’s bum, if you could find one bold enough to drink this stuff.
While the Vietnamese cut their coffee 50/50 with milk to make it potable, I prefer it to ooze straight from the press with the same viscosity as burned scooter oil. Regardless, the Vietnamese drink this stuff from early morning until late at night. How they sleep, or even survive for that matter, is beyond me.
The women who deal with this dangerous substance do so cautiously. They wear gloves and run like hell after delivering it to your table. Who knows when a foreigner unaccustomed to such a beverage could go berserk? They watch nervously from a safe distance as I sip it down.
At first, all seems well after drinking the coffee in Hanoi. A warm euphoria seeps over your body. Clarity of the mind and an enhancement of the senses follow. But just as you’re starting to feel like you could beat Le Quang Liem, the Vietnamese World Blitz Chess Champion, at his own game, something eerie happens.
Your right eye begins twitching uncontrollably. You try to ignore it, tell yourself that maybe it’s just allergies. But just when you think things are under control again, the fingers on your left hand begin inexplicably playing air guitar against your will. New veins surface on your forehead. Internal organs cry out for help.
That’s when it’s time to exit gracefully while you still can, before people really start to stare. Pay as quickly as you can, act like nothing is wrong, then stagger down the street blowing heart valves all over the sidewalk.
On Famous Generals
Instead of rain this time, my ill-timed weekend of backpacking in Hanoi fell prey to a national mourning period, the epicenter of which is the capital city. A famous Vietnamese general credited with ridding Vietnam of both the French and Americans passed away at the ripe old age of 102. The bastard must have been hard to kill.
Because of the general’s passing, all bars and entertainment venues closed down. For the first time in a long time, the water puppets here stopped dancing. Even Vietnamese movie channels were taken off the air for the weekend.
So I missed Halong Bay. And the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum was closed. And I didn’t find a place to sample snake blood. But not all was lost. With a bulk of the typical must-see touristy distractions removed, I was blessed with more time to actually see Hanoi.
On Shoe Shines in Hanoi
It never occurred to me that you could shine flip-flops, however, doing so must be technically possible. I can’t sit for 10 minutes in the park without at least three entrepreneurs offering to shine my worn flip-flops.
No thank you, sir, I walked at least 200 miles in these flip-flops this year to get them looking this delightfully ratty.
A vagabond with shiny, unworn shoes is not to be trusted.
On Booking Halong Bay While Backpacking in Hanoi
The number one, must-see attraction near Hanoi is Halong Bay. The photos are undeniably beautiful. Every hotel, hostel, shop, street sweeper, and old lady is trying at all times to sell you a boat tour to Halong Bay.
Prices vary widely, as do boats and the intricacy of scams. You can do your research, but the reality is that you never really know with which company you are going. In the low season, customers are consolidated onto boats — usually a downgrade — and fewer boats go out.
I went to a famous, Western-owned hostel to book my trip to Halong Bay, hoping there would be less chance of being bitten by rats or getting robbed while aboard. Just as I was about to commit $120 for the excursion, a group returned and saved me the money.
They were wearing sombreros.
And Thailand Full Moon Party T-shirts. Apparently, the only boat running in the off season was a backpacker party boat. UNESCO World Heritage Sites must be better appreciated when you’re hammered? On this cruise, you spend most of the time doing keg stands, soccer chants, and flexing your biceps to bikini-clad girls young and dumb enough to still be attracted to future-wife-beating primates.
I’m sure such a cruise could be fun in some circumstances. But watching these gap-year travelers puke over the railing for two days wasn’t what I had in mind. And unlike the Full Moon Party in Thailand, which I’ve enjoyed three times now, you can’t just walk away any time that you like.
There would be no escape from the USS Douchebag once under way.
So, like many must-sees around Vietnam, I left it. Maybe I’m the only tourist in history to go backpacking in Hanoi and bypass Halong Bay. That’s OK. Instead, I chose to spend the extra three days walking the lengths of Hanoi while drinking up motorbike exhaust and the essence of Vietnam.
On Budget Hotels in Hanoi
Budget hotels in Hanoi are tall and slender. Road frontage means higher taxes, so it’s up and up. With only three rooms on each floor, my hotel rises as a thin sliver to seven floors. And my room is perched on the top, like a comfy little observation nest.
It’s an old building. And while there’s a perfectly functioning elevator, I decided on a whim the first day that I would only take the stairs. Call it training for climbing in the Himalayas one day.
Despite best intentions, by day three I was shouting for people to hold the elevator, crawling on hands and knees through the lobby. My quivering legs no longer function. At least now maybe I’ll get wheeled aboard my plane to Saigon tomorrow.
On Snakes and Drinking Their Blood
On one of my many wanderings through the labyrinth of Hanoi’s dark heart, I happened upon a dimly lit cantina/restaurant of sorts. It was the type of place where filthy ceiling fans turn slowly, gummed up by decades of nicotine. Darkened jars containing serpents in varying states of decay adorned the counter.
I recognized it immediately as a place to try snake bile, blood, and other drinks not usually found at your neighborhood Applebee’s happy hour.
But this wasn’t one of the places that cater to tourists. Three men sat inside — the only old men I saw in Hanoi — grim expressions only growing dimmer when I stuck my foreign face inside. In fact, they were blatantly hateful. It was obvious they were too weary to deal with my curiosity, let alone any type of interaction.
I took the cue, but too bad. I remember travel friends telling me about their snake-blood shots. I also remember watching Anthony Bourdain swallow the beating heart cut out of a still-living snake. Unfortunately (or fortunately for the snakes), this place hadn’t seen a fresh serpent in a long time. The snakes in the jars had probably been brewing since the war with the French. I bowed out.
It’s rarely a good idea to piss off men who deal with snake parts for a living.
On Leaving Vietnam
I’m returning to Bangkok’s Khao San Road tomorrow. Like every other place I visit, I soften the goodbye by promising to come back. Halong Bay, trekking in Sapa, snake blood, and driving a motorbike from north to south are all some pretty damned good reasons to return.
And thanks to the folks at Vietnam Motorbikes for randomly taking me in one night when I was walking down the street. Along with feeding and watering me, they put a bug into my head about driving across this country next year on a Honda Win.
Greg is a full-time vagabonding writer and adventurer who escaped the corporate world. Now he helps others begin a life of travel.