Hanoi: Not love at first sight, but city that grew on us over time to eventually feel like home!

After reading so many glowing reports on Hanoi we were looking forward to hitting the city after an almost 2000 miles journey from the chaos of Saigon on our bikes. Finally completing our original challenge of riding through Vietnam from one major city to the other it felt like a strange mixture of emotions rolling into Hanoi, sadness, excitement, a huge sense of achievment. However soon our road worn minds and bodies began to become annoyed with the city, empty due to tet and yet full of aggressive locals with no patience or the warmth we had seen in the rest of the country. It was a challenge just to find a safe place for our bikes, something new to us! We hated it if we are being truthful and couldn’t wait to head up north to Sapa and back into the countryside. However on our return, and finishing point of our biking journey we discovered a totally different city, one which now felt like home! Here’s our top Hanoi attractions!

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Our first visit: A jaded end to our amazing adventure through Vietnam

We were in two minds how to feel as we glided through the last few km towards the capital city. We were now seasoned on the bikes, weaving through the traffic and beeping with Vietnamese style abundance. We felt comfortable riding here, it almost felt like a home we loved to hate and hated to love all at the same time. Vietnam had been a tough journey all round, the long days on the bikes really take it out of you. Early mornings and 14hrs riding are some of the most memorable, exhilarating and insane experiences we’ve ever had, and yet they also grind you down too!

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Covered in dust and eating crap by the side of the road, I kind of loved and hated this all at the same time! Life is an adventure after all!

Feeling like Hanoi wasn’t all it was cracked up to be!

We had read so many posts about Hanoi, heard many other travellers along the way wax lyrical about the coffee culture, the wonderful architecture, the atmosphere and the amazing things to do. We rocked up and felt jaded, everything was closed apart from a few overpriced cafes, people were aggressive and lacked the patience and helpfulness we had found in the more rural parts of the country and our fellow backpackers, new to the challenges of this land spoke about “cruising it in two weeks”. We rolled our eyes with a mixture of tired arrogance as we left the building to barter for almost an hour for a place to park the bikes for two nights. That was enough, my rumbling stomach, tired eyes and frankly bored brain couldn’t take any more. Now I am usually a city person, I loved Saigon, but really, after the wilds of rural Vietnam, the endless villages and twisting jungle roads, I couldn’t hack this place and longed for the road once more.

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I began to wonder what people saw in this place, it was drab, quiet and over priced as well as being full of pretentious bastards who appear to have been trapped here for months under the pretence of travelling through Asia! But I guess if it was your first stop in Vietnam it did have much of that stereotypical chaotic charm and triangular hat wearing locals we all fall in love with over here!

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Heading up to Sapa and falling back in love with Vietnam

After a few days I was desperately craving the unforgiving seat of my motorbike, the feeling of leaning into curve after curve and cruising through the ever changing Vietnamese countryside drew me back in. We decided to make a break for it and set off on the two day ride up the Sapa, a mountainous region in the very north of Vietnam famed for its rugged rice terraced and hill tribe villages, just what the doctor ordered.

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Even better was our stop in at the tiny city of Yen Bai and an even more remote little village to stop in a homestay for the last night of Tet. Finally we were back in authentic Vietnam, sleeping in a bamboo stilt house and drinking rice wine with local villagers whilst toasting the new year. I was back in love with this country that kept turning from hot to cold from day to day (literally and emotionally).

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What I realise from seeing how many people write about their unrelenting love for Vietnam is how different their experience must have been. I can see that if you took buses from Saigon to Dalat, then over to Hoi An and then up to Hanoi it looked like a totally different place.

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In truth it was the grimy middle bits most don’t visit that we both loved and hated in equal measure. The bikes carrying dogs to their grim deaths in rusty metal cages, having to survive on cakes and crisps from a corner shop because nowhere offers anything remotely vegetarian or even understands the concept, being covered from head to toe in dust after 18hours of riding only to retire to the only hotel in the town and your damp bug infested room! Then again this was the real Vietnam, the places where we got people waving and shouting hello, kids running alongside the bike, ate with families in their little houses and saw some of the most beautiful, unspoilt and isolated landscape in the region.

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Coming back home and falling in love

Vietnam is to us not a love story in the traditional sense, it didn’t grab us with its chaotic arms and take us under its spell instantly as many experience or we have with other places. Vietnam after 7 weeks began to feel like home, like a special place to us that we love and hate in the same way you feel about your hometown. At times we wanted to escape its oppressive ways, and then we knew we had to stay, stick it out and in doing so were constantly rewarded by diverse and ever changing sights and experiences.

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Heading back to Hanoi a second time everything felt so familiar, the streets we had trodden before and we knew the layout of the city. We stayed again in the backpacker quarter of the city and ended up running into at least 5 or 6 people we had met before on our travels. After having seen all the sights on our previous visit this time we mostly hung out, drank 18p Bia Hoi, snacked on Bahn Mi, met new people, chatted about travelling and worked on the blog. It was comfortable, friendly and familiar…just like home. By this point we had become immune to all the strangeness that Vietnam can throw at you, and honestly Hanoi felt remotely sane and normal compared to the rest of the country. Now we loved it!

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What we loved: Hanoi attractions 

Street food and beer!

The street food in Asia is universally regarded as the best and cheapest in the world, but by the time you hit Vietnam you might just have grown old of noodles and be craving something a little more homely. Never fear, thanks to the French influence on Vietnam they have a taste for baguettes and cheese alongside meat if you so desire. A delicious toasted Bahn Mi will set you back around 15,000 Dong, around £0.50! of course, if pho or noodles take your fancy, or even BBQing your own food over a lantern, then the options are a plenty! Not the first thing you might think of when you consider Hanoi attractions but well worth the time and effort to seek out! The guy next door to “See you at lily’s” does the best in the city!

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Then there is the beer, or should I say Bia! Head out around the streets of the old quarter at night and you will be sure to find some old woman laughing her head off surrounded by an overcrowded pavement full of adults sat on children’s chairs! This is Bia Hoi, which means fresh beer. Locally brewed and served straight from the keg for only 5,000 Dong (around £0.18) a glass! Its a right laugh! This unorthodox inclusion of Hanoi attractions can be found in its best across from Vietnam backpackers (worst hostel in the world!)

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Roaming the old quarter

The most beautiful and interesting area of Hanoi has to be the old French Quarter, crumbling colonial architecture mixed with the grime and chaos of Vietnam make this a unique area and host to many of the top Hanoi attractions. Side streets are alive with locals whose houses pour out onto the street, there are bars, street food carts, fruit sellers in their triangular hats and a mesmerising array of pastel shaded and mould covered building tangled up within the web of power lines. It really needs to be seen to be believed. Wander further though and you will see the change in the buildings, from tiny apartment blocks and warren like back streets to open boulevards and grand old residences. You can see where the rich French folks once lived and where the humble locals ended up!

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Seeing our old pal Ho Chi Minh

From reading our blog you might know we love all things communism, after visiting Lenin in Moscow and Mao in Beijing it only seemed right that we call by and say Hi to Ho! After a shorter queue than expected found ourselves ready to enter his iconic mausoleum. Wearing shorts and flip flops the solemn occasion was surprisingly easy to do and of course, as expected totally surreal and strange on every level possible. The building itself stands out a mile in Hanoi and is of typical brutal communist style! Just how we like it! The whole thing is remarkably like visiting Lenin, even down to the coffin Ho Chi Minh is in! What might seem like a strange thing to be included on the list of Hanoi attractions it really is a rite of passage for any commie!

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Chilling out at the Hoan Kiem Lake

Hanoi can be a crazy place for sure, even by Vietnamese standards. But the city is built around a stunning lake that allows even the most stressed out visitor or local to find a slice of serenity! The lake is pretty big too, head to the side closest to the main shopping area and you will find it a buzzing hub of activity, especially on the weekends. Take a longer walk and visit the pagodas and temples for something a little more relaxing and peaceful!

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This picture has nothing do with the lake, its part of the old bridge designed by Mr Eiffel! A cool and quirky inclusion in our must see Hanoi attractions!

The Ex-Pat community and backpacker hub

Hanoi seems to attract backpackers in spades, many of them seem to also end up staying. Hanoi is just one of those addictive places that draws you in after a while. You’re never quite sure why a you are with places like Pai or Chiang Mai, but here there is something that just grabs you. There is a unique atmosphere in Hanoi created by the gathering of people from all over the world, from all age ranges and backgrounds. A little community within a huge one where there always seemed to be an atmosphere of adventure and possibilities!

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The railway street in Hanoi

Hoa Lo Prison

Wherever you go in Vietnam you are reminded of the horrors if its past, whether that be the fight for independence and the remnants of colonial architecture or bomb craters and tunnels used in the fight against America. All over the country different stories of these eras are told as the different regions fought their own different wars. Up in Hanoi the story develops once again. Initially built to house those intent on a revolution by the French the prison held some of the most legendary communist figures in Vietnamese history. Moving on from then it became a holding area for the captured American prisoners of war, despite Hanoi never being involved in fighting on the ground it was targeted by a campaign of bombing from the air. This was also were John Kerry was famously held after being captured.

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Taking trips outside of the city

Another reason to love Hanoi is its proximity to other great areas within Vietnam to visit. Even if you only managed to see the northern regions of this vast country you would be treated to some varied landscapes and cultures. Ninh Binh to the south allows you to visit some amazing mountains surrounded by rice paddies.

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Ha Long Bay across toward the coast is then legendary karst region flooded by the sea. Here you can kayak through caves, meet monkeys, swim in the sea and cruise through the bay.

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Looking for some more outdoor adventure. Head up north to the wonderful region of Sapa, our favourite area of Vietnam, to see the wild landscape tamed by the hill tribes. Rice terraces perch on impossible mountainsides and the H’Mong people wander the towns and villages in their traditional dress, truly magical.

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Nicola Hilditch-Short

Nic is one half of the Roaming Renegades, a passionate traveller, climber, adventurer, photographer and artist who has a B.A in Fine Art and M.A in Design & Art Direction.