Experiencing the Old Quarter of Hanoi – for the Second Time

Pho: A staple in the Old Quarter of Hanoi
Fruit vendor in the Old Quarters of Hanoi
Fruit vendor in the Old Quarters of Hanoi

Four years ago I made my first visit to Hanoi as a solo traveler – only to discovery one of the most culturally distinct cities in South East Asia. Sure sections of the city had seen their fair share of development, but the Old Quarter still retained its unique charm.  After my first visit, I always wondered how the city would change over time with globalization and increased foreign investment – especially from their northern neighbor.

When I stepped off my flight for the second time at Nội Bài International Airport, I couldn’t wait to draw connections between what I saw back in 2009 and what would soon be the present. The twenty eight kilometer ride from the airport to Hanoi immediately provided time for me think about the initial memories I conjured up during my first trip.  Weaving motorcycles, ringing horns and tiny street-side restaurants and guesthouses consistently came to mind. Tiny Vietnamese women walking along the streets of the Old Quarter carrying ridiculously heavy loads of fresh produce seemed like the norm. Would all of these past experiences now be inconsistent with present daily life?  The answer, fortunately, was a definite no.

As I whisked by iconic Hoan Kiem Lake in search of a guest house/hotel in the Old Quarter of the city, motos were still weaving, puppet shows were still being advertised and the smell of mint was still detectable near the tiny corner stalls serving pho. My initial observations led me to believe that the Old Quarter of Hanoi was still the same-same Old Quarter.  Admittedly, I did forget where some of the old restaurants were that I sampled during my first visit.  This was partially due to the fact that the small, busy streets look so similar to one another. I took this as an open invitation to sample some different stalls and restaurants offering delicious, traditional Vietnamese cuisine. The first place that I sampled had this adorable, elderly Vietnamese woman serving.  Although her English was minimal at best, she did continuously warn me to watch my camera as I ate. I felt very little risk at the time, but I guess she didn’t want my meal to be ruined by an unexpected disappearance of some sort. Her Vietnamese staple dish turned out to be quite affordable at 35, 000 VDN (approximately $1.70 US).

Vietnamese vendor in Hanoi
Vietnamese Vendor in the Old Quarter of Hanoi
Big balcony at Aulac Hanoi Hotel at $15-US
Big balcony at Aulac Hanoi Hotel at $15-US

The accommodation in Hanoi’s Old Quarter also seemed to be very reasonable in comparison to my first visit. Back in 2009, I negotiated at a few guesthouses and managed to secure a room (with two double beds, television, en suite bathroom, private balcony and a personal desktop computer) for $12 US per night. I thought then and I think now that this was the best accommodation deal I have acquired throughout all of my travels. On my second trip, I didn’t stumble upon any magnificent deals, but the locals were still up for negotiating. Vietnam has a very broad range of what I call “tiny hotels.” They do of course have many guesthouses like Thailand and Cambodia, but they seem to prefer the hotel name since it sounds slightly more reputable. These tiny hotels are typically very narrow (taking up a token amount of street frontage) but quite tall – often up to 5 stories. Therefore, they manage to jam up to 10 or 12 rooms into each one. This time around I opted to stay at the Aulac Hanoi Hotel. The owner was very pleasant and lenient in terms of check-in and check-out times so that suited my planned trip to Halong Bay quite well. My negotiation with him lasted for about five minutes and we agreed that a two night stay for $15 US per night was a fair price.  Not bad for a super clean room with a great balcony and all the other fixings. Even breakfast was included!

Once my luggage was unpacked and I was settled in it was time to explore the Old Quarter and get immersed into the local Vietnamese culture. I knew that I was going to head to spectacular Halong Bay in a couple of days so I wanted to maximize my time observing the streets and the locals serving Vietnamese delicacies. There is something truly appealing about sitting on the unstable, miniature, plastic chairs that cover the street corners in the Old Quarter.  My suggestion is to grab a bowl of pho at a street-side vendor, bring along your camera and either take videos or photos of the truly fascinating street life.  If you want to add a bit of excitement to your day, ask a local to go for a spin on a moto to get a first-hand view of the driving calamity commonly found on the roads. Once the sun starts to set you may want to replace the pho with Hanoi Beer.

Vietnamese women still love their traditional bicycle.
Vietnamese women still love their traditional bicycle.

Now that my second trip to Hanoi has finished, I still feel like it is such an authentic place to visit. Excellent food at an affordable price, a surplus of accommodation choices and vibrant street-life continue to solidify the Old Quarter of Hanoi as a prime tourist destination in Vietnam and South East Asia for that matter.

Vietnamese family riding together on a single motorcycle
Vietnamese family riding together on a single motorcycle

Travel Checklist: Do you have everything you need?

Here are some additional tips for your upcoming trip to Hanoi:

Hoan Kiem Lake
Hoan Kiem Lake: the main landmark for Hanoi’s Old Quarter

1. With traffic expect to spend up to an hour (or even more) to and from the Old Quarter to the Nội Bài International Airport.

2. When you are leaving Hanoi en route to the Nội Bài International Airport remember to ask if your hotel has a company driver.  You can take a minibus to the airport for roughly 5 US per person, but it may be cheaper and much more convenient to share a car with your travel mates.  The Aulac Hanoi Hotel agreed to drive four of us to the airport for $12 US total, which saved us $8 US in seconds just by asking. If you purchased a tour etc. at your hotel, there should be room for negotiating.

3. When you arrive in the Old Quarter of the city don’t expect to see many American food outlets. Therefore, if local Vietnamese street food isn’t your thing walk towards Hoan Kiem Lake to see some more western friendly restaurants.

4. Be cautious when you try to cross the roads in Hanoi.  Similar to Ho Chi Minh, the saying “pedestrians get the right of way” definitely doesn’t apply.

5. Day trips and overnight trips to world famous Halong Bay are extremely easy to arrange in Hanoi.  There is a surplus of guesthouses, hotels and travel agencies selling various packages.  Always check out at least three different places before you purchase a ticket. I inquired at 4 or 5 places and the prices varied by $20 US for the very same tour.

Where did I stay in Hanoi?

I have been to Hanoi a few times now. During my most recent trip I decided to stay at Aulac Hanoi Hotel. It wasn’t overly fancy or anything, but it was indeed affordable and right in the heart of Hanoi’s Old Quarter.

Finding the Cheapest Rooms in Hanoi, Vietnam

Hanoi has many cheap rooms up for grabs and some solid upper options as well.  Try using agoda.com  or hotelscombined.com to find the widest selection at the best prices. I have created links below to their respective properties in Hanoi to save you some time:

Rooms in Hanoi – www.agoda.com

Compare Room Prices in Hanoi – www.hotelscombined.com

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