10 THINGS TO KNOW BEFORE YOU BEGIN YOUR HANOI BUDGET TRAVEL
I had barely settled in Manila when a friend threw an invitation to visit Hanoi. Just the kind of words I wanted to hear. Hanoi had been on my list forever but it was going to become real soon. But God had other plans. My visa got stuck and I could not travel with my friend. I had to take a rain-check, only to return to my promise 5 months later.
After 5 months the day finally arrived when I was in Hanoi. I landed in the wee hours when the entire city was sleeping except for the Quang Ba Flower Market. It was an explosion of colours, fragrances, and beauty. Flowers of every type being sold from stalls, two-wheelers, and hawkers. Quang Ba Flower market gave me a glimpse into how important flowers are in people’s daily life here. Visiting this market was quite an experience. I was told by my driver that the best time to visit this market is during Tết or Vietnamese New Year, which is celebrated on the same day as Chinese New Year.
The next 5 days which I spent in Hanoi were days when I realized howsoever meticulously you might plan your trip, the best moments come unannounced. So if you are the kind who spends a lot of time procrastinating, I would urge you to ditch procrastination because Hanoi is best discovered when left to serendipity except for knowing few key things.
Related: Confused where to visit first in Vietnam. Read Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City
10 TIPS FOR HANOI BUDGET TRAVEL:
Getting a Vietnamese Visa is a cakewalk. Either you can get a visa before you travel (which is more expensive and takes around 2-3 days for processing) or you can get Visa on arrival (pre-approved visa). But before traveling ensure you have an approval letter to check in at the departure airport and to pick up the visa when you arrive. Your waiting time at the airport can vary between 10 minutes to 90 minutes depending on the rush. I used Vietnam Visa Easy to get my approval letter.
A friend of mine who works with an airline gave me an insider tip about booking tickets – neither book flights too soon nor leave them for the last moment. It is a myth that booking your flights six months in advance will get you the best deal (unless it’s a sale). Best time to book flights is 3-4 weeks before travel. Also, off season can get you great flight deals. June to September will fetch you the best deals but it gets very hot and humid in the rainy season.
One of the reasons for visiting Vietnam was its currency. You can do a lot without spending much. But Vietnamese currency confused the hell out of me. 22,000 Vietnamese dong is equal to one U.S. dollar. However, the good thing is U.S. dollars are widely accepted. Even in a smaller town like Sapa. So don’t bother to carry too much of the Vietnamese Dong. Also, ATMs are everywhere. Credit cards are accepted in major outlets.
I went in November when it was very pleasant to walk around. If possible avoid June-August as that is the time for intolerable heat and humidity. March-May offers a pleasant shower-splashed spring and December- February is cold and humid.
Before arriving in Hanoi I was shit scared of traveling alone because of the reputation that precedes the capital. Travel scams are aplenty and Taxis are one of the most ranted about. Thankfully I didn’t have to go through the ordeal.
- Taxis: I found Hanoi Taxis to be cheap and pretty decent. A ride from Noi Bai airport to the city cost around VND 350,000 (US$17) and a 10-minute ride in-city around VND 30,000. Just a word of caution. Never use any of the taxis parked outside the major tourist attractions or popular restaurants as many of them will either have rigged meters or take you on a longer journey than necessary. Most reputable cab companies are Hanoi Taxi, Taxi CP, and Mai Linh Taxi.
- Buses are cheaper and a good way to explore the city but please be prepared for the language barrier. Also, you have to pay a small “luggage fee to accommodate your luggage.
- Scooter Taxis: The best way to explore Hanoi is through Scooter taxis. Don’t forget to wear a helmet and drive safe. Vietnam has the highest number of road accident deaths.
While strolling through the by-lanes of Hanoi I wanted to customize my food but I ended up eating what was displayed. Reason. Communication barrier. Unlike the Philippines or even Thailand, Vietnam has a huge language barrier. Most locals understand and speak a few phrases in English, but don’t count on it. While English can get you through the markets and Hanoi, do hire a local English speaking guide for outstation trips to Halong Bay, Mai Chau or Sapa. If you plan to go offbeat then buy a local SIM, easily available at all retail outlets. Google maps, Google translator, and mobile apps to locate restaurants and sightseeing would come handy during your Hanoi budget travel
7) EATING AND DRINKING
Hanoi is a wonderland of cheap eats and drinks, offering an endless variety of soups, fresh rolls, vegetable salads, noodle soups, hotpot and sandwiches paired with plenty of fresh herbs — and fresh beer, too. All at a very reasonable price. You could spend a week eating your way through the hectic, motorbike-clogged streets of Hanoi’s Old Quarter and never eat the same meal twice. And guess what. There are plenty of vegetarian and vegan options too. I tried lot of roadside stalls but my top 5 vegetarian places would be
- An Phuc for mock meat experience
- Loving Hut for the fresh season inspired vegetarian dishes
- Bo De for economical meal that changes every day
- Phat Truong Tho for the spiritual environment
- Truc Lam Trai for authentic Vietnamese dishes
Food is incomplete without a drink. And it is sone pe suhaga if it happens to be the cheapest fresh beer in the world – ‘bia hoi’ or draft beer. It costs just 8,000 Vietnamese Dong or under 40 US cents a glass. Best to arrive at 5 p.m. as it runs out around 8 p.m.
After trying the ‘bia hoi’ I wanted to taste the world famous Vietnamese coffee. Hanoi has coffee options from Starbucks to local cafes. I strongly recommend Café Pho Co, a café hidden behind a home hidden behind a souvenir shop, and one of the best places to get a view of Hoan Kiem Lake.
Related: Street Food in Vietnam
And if you are looking for a great place to stay, check out the Nexy Hostel, Hanoi.
I detest shopping but Hanoi converted a non-shopper into a shopper. The hard-to-imagine cheap prices would tempt anyone. I was no exception. A small stroll through the market ended up on a shopping spree. Hanoi’s Old Quarter is lined up with various fashion stores, souvenir stalls, and trinket sellers. It’s a great place to buy your backpacker items. Very cheap prices at a decent quality. But if want to escape the hustle and bustle of Hanoian streets and prefer an air-conditioned mall then head to the Vincom City Towers where you’ll find luxury brands, replicas, good eateries, multiplex and a gaming arena.
Whenever I travel to a new place I always try to get out of the concrete jungle as soon as possible to be with nature but Hanoi turned out to be an exception. A city of Parisian charm and grace with an Asian edge, Hanoi is an enthralling blend of East and West, rustic and polished, traditional and contemporary. I started my exploration by visiting the Hoan Kiem Lake and the Ngoc Son Temple, then down to the French Quarter and the Hanoi Hilton, then to Temple of Literature, then up to the Vietnam Army Museum, and finally to the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum and Nha Tho Cathedral.
One thing that shouldn’t be missed is the night market in the Old Quarter, from 7 p.m. on Fridays and Saturday which is more about strolling around aimlessly than shopping. However, do keep your address handy. When I left Old Quarters during the day it was a shopping arcade but when I returned it had magically transformed into a bustling food market. The lanes looked totally different. In fact, I got lost and after roaming for an hour I finally found my destination. I loved Long Bien Bridge. An awesome spectacle bolted together by history. The red colour lighting and reflection in the Hoan Kiem Lake was making it look very surreal.
Being an impulsive and self-explorer I don’t like taking tours but I took one because of an innovative concept from a student-run NGO: Hanoi Kids Tours. The idea is for tourists to get a flavor of the city by being shown around by local children. HanoiKids was set up in 2006 and is a student-run organisation offering free city tours in Hanoi. The programme provides students with the opportunity to practice their English and provides visitors with a great value guide to Hanoi.
10) OUT OF THE CITY TRIPS
I had heard a lot of travel scams about Vietnam so I had pre-booked my trips through a travel agent. He was extremely nice and accommodating. Thanks to him, I had the most amazing 3D2N Halong Bay Paradise Cruise experience. My guide was very knowledgeable and very receptive to customer feedback. He kept us entertained throughout the journey. The food and the services on the cruise were top notches like a 5 star. I did a lot of activities like caving, kayaking, swimming, visiting the pearl farm, visiting the fishing and floating villages, taking Vietnamese cooking class among other things. Besides Halong Bay, one can visit the Perfume Pagoda, Sapa or Mai Chau.
Hope these 10 tips for Hanoi budget travel puts your procrastination on hold and motivate you to book your trip soon.