Our last few days in Vietnam were spent in Hanoi. We had high hopes for enjoying Hanoi as we loved Saigon when we arrived in Vietnam and were hoping for more of the same big city hectic-ness!
As we both love cycling we decided to hire bikes to help us get around the city. We set out to first circumnavigate West Lake. West Lake is the biggest lake in the area of Hanoi where we were staying so we were eager to tackle it’s 17km shore. Around the lake we enjoyed seeing a very different side to Veitnam than we had seen previously. The neighborhoods we cycled through were really calm, clean and posh looking – ah, so this is where the rich people live!
After we completed West Lake we moved on to Hoan Kiem lake. Legend has it that a local God gave the then Emperor Le Loi his sword to help the revolt against Ming China. After the victory the Emperor was boating in the lake one day in 1428 when out popped a Golden Turtle God who asked for the sword back. The Emperor returned the sword and ever since the lake has been called Hoan Kiem – “Lake of the Returned Sword”.
There doesn’t seem to be many Turtle Gods about these days but Hoan Kiem lake is bustling with local life. Tai Chi, hacky sack, romantic walks, dancing, Segway karting – it all happens by the lake. There are also a number of tourist sights near the lake which are especially easy to get to by bike.
To end our day cycling we joined the Hanoi Critical Mass. Critical Mass is a cycling event held in cities all over the world on the last Friday of the month where cyclists meet up for a slow cycle together around the city. It was only a small group (it rained the hour before start which apparently puts people off) but it was cool cycling around with friendly locals and chatting to them about their lives. Afterwards some of them took us for ice-cream too – result.
The city also has a real affection for President Obama following his visit in May 2016. We firstly went to the Obama bar where you can get “Obama beer” (Hanoi beer), “Obama Salad” (salad) etc but apart from having his name on everything in the menu there is no connection with Obama. We then found a restaurant which boasted of hosting Obama for a meal and showed a photo of said meal in the menu. However, the photo clearly showed a different restaurant. On quizzing the owner on this he hoped to prove his claim to fame by showing us a picture taken on his camera phone of Obama. Now yes, it was a photo of Obama, but it was clearly a photo of the photo of Obama in the menu (complete with a sheen from the plastic cover). So after some googling we found the real place Obama went – Bun Cha Huong Lien. For less than £4.50 ($6) we got two of their famous Bun Cha, fatty grilled pork in noodle soup, a meat side dish and two beers. And it was the best meal we had throughout the whole of Vietnam. Thank you Obama and thank you for being a cheapskate.
Cycling is always a great way to connect with an unfamiliar city and we felt like we got to know Hanoi quite well from our little adventure. The streets were fairly crazy at times but the city itself was friendly, vibrant and had a touch of class. We were sorry to have to say goodbye to Vietnam from here, considering Hanoi’ce it was, but were excited to be moving on to Hong Kong!
Sleep: We stayed in Box Hostel in a twin (one bunk bed) room. It was tiny but clean and in the heart of the action so definitely worth considering. It did lack any sort of backpackers community so if you are on your own you may prefer somewhere more lively.
Eat: You’ve got to go to the proper Obama restaurant – Bun Cha Huong Lien. Only one main dish on the menu but it’s awesome! No veggie option though (from what we could see). Also, the locals go mad for Trang Tien ice-cream which worth a try.
Do: Hiring bikes (80,000VND each for 24 hours) is a great way to see the city sights and it’s a fairly safe city to cycle in (a lot calmer than Saigon). Your hostel/hotel should help you with this. We also went to Hoa Lo Prison where US pilots were imprisoned during the war – it’s not a must do but if you have time it’s worth a visit.
Moving on: We were heading to the Noi Bai (Hanoi International) airport and decided to get the local bus there. The bus station is near the old quarter (with some roadside stops on the main road nearer the old quarter) and bus 17 takes you right to the airport in little over an hour for 9,000VND ($0.40, £0.30) – much more reasonable than a 300,000VND taxi. The bus runs every 20 minutes from 5am to 10pm. The final stop is the airport terminal 1, to get to terminal 2 (international flights) there is a free shuttle bus which takes less than 5 minutes. This route can obviously be done in reverse if you need to get to Old Quarter Hanoi from the airport.