I recently took a short trip to Hanoi. But what some may not know is that I actually used to live in Hanoi, Vietnam before I moved to Singapore.
Returning back to the city, I really felt like not much had changed, and I slotted myself right back in. But, I was conscious that to some, Vietnam might be a total culture shock; food is unusual, streets are manic and English is not widely spoken.
For these reasons, I thought it would be a great idea to share some of my tips, as an ex-expat in Hanoi and now as a tourist.
This may be the number one most difficult thing to adjust to in Vietnam. Traffic lights are seldom seen or used, most people drive motorcycles and to an outsider it may seem like total chaos. But, this is actually not the case. There are several unwritten rules when driving (and being a pedestrian) in Hanoi, and if you know these tips it may save you a lot of stress and hassle.
Even though there doesn’t seem to be any rules, it is simple. Like a river, or a colony of ants, the traffic in Hanoi moves constantly and slowly. There are no jerking movements, no need to suddenly break, and so long as everyone consistently flows around each other, it works. So, how does this affect you as a pedestrian? Well, if you panic whilst crossing the road, you disrupt the system. Do not expect people to move, or stop, for you. Walk slowly, at the same pace and in the same direction across the road. You will find that vehicles will work their way around you. This is why it is very important not to run, not to change your direction, or to get scared and stop half way through. Maintain your pace (and your confidence!) and crossing the road will seem like a breeze.
When I lived in Vietnam, the money seemed easy, especially because at the time it was easy to convert in my head to USD and from there into GBP. Now, going back as a tourist, it’s very difficult to convert in my head to SGD (one Singapore dollar is about 17,000 Vietnamese dong). Not only that, a lot of the paper notes are similar in colour, so it is easy to get them mixed up. My tips for dealing with the money would be as such; whilst it’s tricky to always convert, be mindful of how much things should cost in VND. For example, street food, like a bowl of pho, should cost anything from 25000 VND to about 60000 VND (60k for a really large portion, or at a famous street stall). Of course at restaurants, this will be more, maybe in the 100000 – 200000 VND range, and beers tend to be very cheap wherever, costing maybe 20000 VND. (Actually, I used to drink at places where the beer was 7000 VND (about 40 cents) but that is at a really local spot). You can see that Vietnam is really a very affordable place to visit.
My second most important money tip would be, do not pay in USD. Many blogs, tour groups and travel companies will tell you to pay using USD. And they’re not wrong, you can- maybe stores in the Old Quarter will accept dollars, but you are going to be massively ripped off with the exchange rate. Cash is still King in Vietnam; not everywhere will accept card, but using American dollars is a sure fire way to lose money.
Vietnamese is my favourite cuisine of all time. There is such a range of healthy, fresh and delicious food, and it’s always at a very affordable price. I would say that street food is always better than restaurants!
If you’re staying around the Old Quarter, there are some great famous spots you can try out, such as Bun Cha Nem at 6 Ngo Tram Street, Bun Cha Huong Lien 2 Obama (the one that Obama and Anthony Bourdain ate at), Banh Mi 25 & Pho 10 Ly Quoc Su.
My favourite dishes are:
- Pho bo tai lan- flash fried steak noodle soup
- Bun cha- pork patties and belly in a fish sauce broth with fresh herbs and rice noodles, sometimes with spring rolls as an add on!
- Bun bo hue- a spicy soup noodle dish originating from the old capital of Hue
- Ca phe trung- Vietnamese egg coffee
- Banh bao- a giant bao with spring roll-like filling, and two quail eggs!
- Pho dat biet- ‘house special’ beef pho, with many different cuts of beef
If you’re not so adventurous, and want some safer options, you can try:
- Pho ga- chicken noodle soup
- Nem nuong- spring rolls
- Pho xao- wok fried noodles (bo means it’s with beef)
- Banh mi – French baguette sandwich (trung is with egg, pa te is with a pork pate and xuc xich is with sausage)
Culture & Language
To be honest, even when living in Hanoi, I struggled with language. If you try and learn Vietnamese online, best of luck, the Vietnamese that they teach you on the apps is South Vietnamese- not what they speak in Hanoi!
In all actuality, even though many locals don’t speak English, they are more than happy to help, or try to understand what you are trying to say. So long as you are polite and don’t get frustrated, you’ll be fine. And also, saying ‘me oi’ is a good way to get people’s attention.
I hope these tips will help those planning on going on a short trip to Hanoi- maybe it’s your first time, or maybe you don’t want to feel like a tourist anymore!