Photo: Maxime Guilbot
1. Get hit by a motorbike while crossing the road.
At any given time during the day, there are millions of motorbikes zigzagging through Hanoi’s streets. Traffic laws aren’t rules, they’re suggestions. The president of the Asia Injury Prevention Fund has gone so far as to call the traffic situation in Hanoi “an absolute crisis.”
Being a pedestrian in Hanoi is an activity that takes courage and finesse. When crossing the street, step with confidence, and don’t dilly-dally back and forth. Most drivers are used to moving around pedestrians, but if you hesitate or move backwards, your chances of getting hit go up.
You’ll also most likely find yourself on the back of a xe om, or a motorbike taxi. Besides walking, which is a terrible ordeal in the 100+ degree humid summers, xe oms are the cheapest and easiest way to get around the city. Although it’s now mandatory for all drivers to wear helmets (unlike in neighboring Southeast Asian countries), passengers don’t have to. That said, your driver should provide you one. Hold on and be prepared for a wild ride.
2. Rent a motorbike or motorcycle if you’re not experienced.
Considering all the reasons above, don’t do it. It ain’t gonna end pretty.
3. Stay put in “Beer Corner” and the backpacker ghetto.
Hanoi’s backpacker district is located just south of Hoan Kiem Lake in the city center. Beer Corner is at the heart of the area and is an intersection of open-air “bars” (i.e., short plastic stools on the curb that sell inexpensive beer). As tempting as it is to hang out in a small area of Hanoi full of cheap restaurants, cheap booze, and half-naked tanned tourists, it’s not really why you came to Hanoi, now is it?
Instead, try the Old Quarter and the French Quarter. There’s a mix of tree-lined boulevards that feel surprisingly European and tiny narrow streets lined with French colonial buildings sitting on top of modern storefronts that sell anything and everything. Escape some of the tourist mayhem on the southern end of West Lake, where you’ll find more local-filled restaurants, cafes, and markets selling local foods. There are also lots of great bars, which often feature live music, in the Tay Ho district on the northeastern inlet of West Lake.
4. Travel to Hanoi or north of Hanoi in December, January, or February with only tank tops, shorts, and flip-flops.
You may not have expected to need a down jacket on your trip to Vietnam, but the temperature in Hanoi can get to the low 50s °F in the winter months. Considering the average humidity of 80%, the cold and wet will bite down on you hard if you aren’t prepared.
5. Get stuck in town during the Tet holidays.
Tet, or Vietnamese New Year, is the biggest holiday in Vietnam. Check your calendar before you leave because the dates change every year, but it usually falls in January or February. It’s like Christmas in the West — there are big celebrations leading up to it, and then on New Year’s Eve and for about a week afterwards, everything shuts down.
Xe oms and taxis are scarce. And because most Vietnamese families will be traveling to spend the holidays with their families outside of Hanoi, buses, trains, and flights will be impossible to book last minute, and will be at least triple the ordinary price. The Hanoi roads, normally a cacophony of dizzying traffic and street vendors, will be quiet. Talk about setting yourself up for the ultimate holiday blues.
If you’ll be in the country during the holidays, plan ahead of time. Ideally, you’ll make contact with a generous couchsurfing host who might welcome you into their family home for the New Year’s celebrations. Expect the best food you’ll eat on your trip in Vietnam, all painstakingly prepared for weeks by the matriarch and daughters of the family, lots of rice wine, a trip to the family pagoda, and more generosity and love than you think you deserve.
After New Year’s Day, take a flight to Mui Ne or Phu Quoc Island and do what the rest of us orphan Christmas travelers do — sun on the beach and drink lots of cheap cocktails for the next week.
6. Spend more than $3 on a beer.
Beer is cheap. Even if you’re staying at a fancy hotel, hit the streets and local bars for your booze. Bia Hanoi (Hanoi’s local beer) should cost $1-2. Fresh beer, bia hoi, which is brewed daily, can cost as little 20 cents. It can’t be missed.
Don’t freak out if your beer comes with ice in it. It’s the way it’s consumed here, and in the hot season, you’ll appreciate it.
7. Only eat at restaurants with English menus.
Hanoi is a city of food. Really, really good food. Vietnamese fare is some of freshest, healthiest, and beautifully simple food in the world. Unfortunately, restaurants geared toward tourists mostly manage to screw all this up in an effort to appeal to the stereotypical Western tongue. If you’ve been in Southeast Asia, you’ve probably been to restaurants that have 178 choices on the menu and offer everything from “traditional” food to burritos and English-style fish and chips.
Traditional Vietnamese eateries aren’t about offering customers a hundred different mediocre choices, but rather serving one or two that are damn-near perfection. In Hanoi, certain neighborhoods specialize in certain types of food. If you’re looking for the best pho bo options (rice noodle soup topped with thin slices of rare beef and fresh herbs, often dubbed Vietnam’s national dish), head to Bat Dan Street. Leave your sanitation requisites behind and get your hands on the best BBQ chicken you’ve ever had on Nguyen Thai Hoc, aptly nicknamed “Chicken Street.” Order the pieces of chicken you most fancy, along with sticky rice, pickled vegetables, and, of course, a Bia Hanoi.
8. Let getting ripped off or being constantly hassled by hawkers ruin your day.
Hanoi is full of people trying to sell you things. Gum, cigarettes, photocopied books, purses, pink furry stuffed animals — you name it and someone will sell it to you.
Take this scenario. You’re sitting at a roadside coffeeshop downing a ca phe sua (espresso with a dollop of sweetened condensed milk), and someone approaches you with a basket full of knockoff Ray-Bans. If you want that sweet pair of neon pink sunnies, barter as much as you can stomach. But I guarantee you’ll meet a girl in your hostel the next day who got hers for half the price you paid. If you want none of that business, politely and confidently say, “Da khong, com on,” (pronounced yaa kong, kam un and meaning “no thank you”), and hopefully the hawker will be so impressed that you attempted the Vietnamese language, he or she will leave.
More than likely, though, they’ll continue selling to you, or coldly stare at you while you awkwardly ignore them, until they get bored and move on. The truth is this: Getting hassled or ripped off can’t be avoided in Hanoi. Normally you’ll overpay by a couple of dollars, which in the scheme of things matters very little. Keep your sense of humor — it’s all part of the adventure.
9. Take the wrong taxi or fail to negotiate a price beforehand.
Always take Mai Linh taxis if you can. They’re metered and are generally the most trusted brand by foreigners and locals alike. There are lots of them around the city, but if you can’t manage to grab one, negotiate a price with a taxi driver beforehand. You may end up paying a little more than you would using Mai Linh, but you’ll avoid the stacked meter scheme that lots of dodgy taxis employ.
Beware of Mai Linh impersonators, and if you do get ripped off, refer back to the last sentence of #8.