Old Quarter

  • Accommodation: Since my mom met up with us in Hanoi we just stayed with her at her hotel, the Hilton Hanoi. However, I’ve heard that the old quarter (downtown) location of the Hanoi Backpackers Hostel is a fun place to stay for budget travelers.
  • Restaurants:
    1. Nam Phuong – An upscale, traditional Vietnamese restaurant. The food was very good and the service was excellent, but it was quite expensive for Vietnamese standards ($50 for 3 people).
    2. Bud’s Ice Cream – Good place if you’re craving ice cream or iced coffee. Located next door to Nam Phuong, near the Opera House.
    3. Quan An Ngon – Wonderful food, reasonable prices and a great atmosphere. It’s a very popular restaurant among locals and tourists so it’s usually very crowded. It’s located not too far from the Hilton Hanoi.

Hanoi acted as our base for our various excursions in Northern Vietnam. The first time we were in Hanoi was just for a couple of hours; we flew from HCMC to Hanoi and then took an overnight train to Sapa from the Hanoi train station that same evening.

When we arrived in Hanoi from HCMC we took Jetstar’s cheap shuttle service from the airport to the city center, it was less than $2/person (35,000 dong/person). To find the shuttle just exit the terminal, cross the street to the island in the middle and walk all the way to the right. Vietnam Airways mini-vans are first and then the orange Jetstar buses are further down. Also, don’t let the Vietnam Airways vans trick you into taking their service, keep walking until you see the Jetstar buses. The airport is quite far from the old quarter, it took about 1 hour to get to the center of town. We’re still not exactly sure where it dropped us off, but we think it was on Tran Quang Khai because it was a large thoroughfare and it was close to the French Quarter.

Since we had a few hours to kill before our train at 9:10pm we walked around trying to find a place to have an early dinner. Surprisingly we had difficulty finding a place that was serving food, not just coffee. We were getting tired from walking around with our big packs so we decided to get something to eat at “Bud’s ice cream of San Francisco.” We got a kick out of the name, mostly because we had never even heard of Bud’s and they made it out to be some sort of California iconic ice cream brand. The sign said it was established in 1932 and it was rated by Time to be “one of the best ice cream parlors.” If Bud’s isn’t real than this was quite an elaborate fabrication, going so far as to give itself a fake review too! Rosie googled it later and it turns out that there was a Bud’s in San Francisco in the 30s or 40s but it doesn’t exist anymore and they basically just license the name for use in foreign countries, especially in Asia. Very odd! We ordered pizzas because it was the only real food on the menu, and not surprisingly they tasted like cardboard. The ice cream and coffees looked quite good though. At least we didn’t have to resort to dipping into our dwindling stash of cliff bars.

Bud’s Ice Cream

Afterwards we took a taxi to the train station, which was basically just a bunch of railroad tracks with a weird outdoor waiting area. There are a few train stations in Hanoi, and trains for Sapa depart from Station B on Tran Quy Cap Street. The “train station” did, however, have free wifi! It’s amazing that amount of free wifi in Asia, even in the most unexpected of places. A representative from Vietnam Impressive met us at the train station to give us our tickets. The boarding process is extremely confusing and they never make an announcement to tell you the train has arrived. For more info see the Sapa section.

Waiting at the Hanoi train station

On the way back from Sapa, we took an 11 hour day train back to Hanoi. The train got in around 9pm and then we took a taxi to the Hilton. For all of our griping about the Hilton being so overpriced we most definitely were enjoying the hot showers and amazing buffet breakfasts!

As it turned out my mom came down with the flu, so she had to push her flight back one day. So the next day Rosie and I decided to just chill and regroup. We hadn’t done laundry since Kuala Lumpur (gross!) so we definitely wanted to wash our things. We decided to head to the backpacker quarter because we knew there would be cheap laundry services there. Sure enough we found one in the backpackers alley near St Joseph’s Cathedral. It cost $12 for all of our stuff vs $200 that the Hilton was going to charge us! We also spent a couple of hours at an internet café trying to determine our plan for Thailand. We had to factor in the logistics of my mom and younger sister’s schedules, plus we would be in Thailand during the Songkran holiday (Thai New Year). We finally decided to skip the Full Moon Party on Koh Phangan and just head straight to Koh Lanta from Bangkok. We figured out the rest of our Thai itinerary later in the trip.

Hoan Kiem Lake

The next morning my mom arrived but she was pretty jet-lagged, so we decided to take it easy. It was nice to just relax and have no plans after 6 weeks of nonstop moving (although it’s not like our lives had been exactly difficult!) We walked around Hoan Kiem Lake, the Old Quarter and the French Quarter, and just took in the sights. I particularly liked the Old Quarter with it’s narrow streets and old shops. In the afternoon we went to the Temple of Literature; it’s a Confucian temple that hosts Vietnam’s first national university. It was interesting although I’m not sure I would go out of my way to see it again. We also booked our trip for Ha Long Bay for the following day and we were really hoping for nice weather. The past few days had been rainy and apparently the boats don’t go out if the conditions aren’t good (if possible, try to visit Halong Bay during the dry season from Spring to Fall if you want hot, sunny weather).

Hanoi Opera House

For dinner that night we went to Nam Phuong, a restaurant recommended by the Hilton. I think it’s considered a very upscale restaurant in Hanoi. The food was really good, but it was overpriced (in my opinion) given that we’ve had better meals for a fraction of the price (it was $50 for 3 people). The concierge at the Hilton made a reservation for us and he kept referring to my mom as “old lady” when he was talking to her. He kept saying things like, “Old lady, what time do you want to go to dinner?”. Obviously something was lost in translation and he wasn’t trying to be offensive but my mom was like, “Did he seriously just refer to me as an old lady?”

After our Halong Bay excursion we returned to Hanoi for another night before heading to Siem Reap the following day. We got back to Hanoi in the afternoon and decided to walk around and get coffee at a Highlands Coffee shop at the top of Hoan Kiem Lake. It was located on the third or fourth floor and it had a big outdoor balcony that provided great views for people watching. Below was a big traffic roundabout with thousands of motorbikes and cars weaving in and out of each other, despite the lack of any traffic signals. Everybody seemed to know what they were doing without getting into an accident. There was even a guy standing in the middle of all this traffic who decided it was a great place to sell pinwheels. I don’t think he had many customers, but I’m impressed that he was brave enough to stand in the middle of all that commotion!

Hanoi traffic

That night we ate dinner at a place called Quan An Ngon, which was my favorite restaurant in Hanoi. It was in an old yellow colonial house that had very pretty lights strung around an outdoor patio. The food was delicious! We also ordered spring rolls, stir-fried seafood noodles, fried rice, shrimp in a lemon-grass sauce and banh xeo. Of course we had no idea what we were doing with the pancakes so the waitress was kind enough to roll them for us. And the best part was that it was relatively inexpensive – all that food plus beers was a little over 500,000 dong for 3 people.

Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum

The next morning we woke up and got our last buffet breakfast at the hotel, so Rosie and I took it upon ourselves to load up on food. Afterwards we walked to the Ho Chi Minh masoleum, but we missed the viewing hours. Rosie has seen Mao in Beijing and I’ve seen Lenin in Moscow, so we weren’t dying to see another embalmed communist leader anyways. Even if you don’t make it inside to see HCM, it’s still worth it to walk around that area as it’s culturally fascinating.

In the afternoon we left for the airport to head to Siem Reap on Vietnam Airways.