An Impulsive, Solo Trip to Hanoi

May 2015 - Hanoi, Vietnam

I was mesmerised by the chaotic scenery before my eyes, the wonderful wrongness of it, the unfamiliar fonts, the foreign words uttered around me, the peculiarity of it all..I have arrived at the heart of Hanoi.

Have you ever done something spontaneous in your life? I like taking calculated decisions in everything I do most especially in travel planning. You can never (more or less) go wrong when you prepare for everything (i.e. itineraries). But from my most recent trip to Hanoi, I realised that an impetuous trip is as much more exciting than a planned one.

I had four days off before I start with my new job and was contemplating on whether or not to stay in Singapore. I was already convinced to just stay when an email alert popped in my screen - Tiger Air Seat Sale! I quickly scanned for the destinations, picked Hanoi as one of the places I have been dying to go to, entered my details and unhesitatingly hit "Book!" As quickly as I hit that button, I arranged my accommodation, woke up early the next day, unemployed and boarded a plane to Hanoi.

There is that fleeting moment of agitation but more of exhilaration having to travel alone and that I am a young woman who is very vulnerable. But I have never considered these as factors to hinder my desire to travel, and I believe no one should. You can only be as safe within the confines of your own personal space. 
Aerial view of Hanoi from my window-seat plane ride.
After three hours of flying, I was welcomed by the sultry summer weather of Hanoi and immediately got lost in the crowd of locals and foreigners. I impatiently searched for my name amongst the anxiously waiting drivers holding up the signs of their guests' names. After almost half an hour of battling the heat, language barrier and inconvenience, I finally found my name and my driver.

During the ride of approximately 30 minutes, I tried to chat with my driver but unfortunately he can't speak English, (which I later found out most of the locals can't as well) so we had numerous exchange of smiles, mumbles and nods throughout the ride to "communicate". I took this quiet time to just stare at the car window, like a wide-eyed kid seeing a city for the first time.


The Old Quarter

After passing through some beautiful bridges built by the French, entering into the Old Quarter, where my hotel is located, was a whole new world. It has innumerable little streets with shops everywhere, the locals wearing their native hats selling their produce of the day, almost everyone on their bikes rapidly winding through the city, getting on with their normal day. I was surprised how much they can carry into their bikes - huge boxes, wooden door, LPG canister, name it- they can carry it! I was mesmerised by the chaotic scenery before my eyes, the wonderful wrongness, the unfamiliar fonts, the foreign words uttered around me, the peculiarity of it all. I have arrived at the heart of Hanoi.


Just another ordinary day in Hanoi.

After checking in, I didn't waste time to explore. The good thing about an impulsive travel is the effortlessness of it - no itineraries to follow, no time to check, just free and easy! I didn't have any plans of what I will do when I arrive which made the trip all the more thrilling. It was like unwrapping a surprise gift right before my eyes, not the slightest clue of what is there to see. With only a map as my guide, my camera hanging around my neck looking like a full-pledged tourist, I ventured out to the busy streets of Hanoi.


Tucked in one of the little alleys and could be easily missed out, 
this has been my home for 2 nights. (Cost USD 17 per night).

Even though I had a very short amount of time to do a thorough research, I feel like I made the right choice to stay at this part of Hanoi. The best way to see a place for the first time is to walk it and the Old Quarter gives you that option. 




Everything was within walking distance - places of interest, heaps of restaurants to choose from, shops, night markets, etc.  I can't even remember having to use the map I had in my pocket. I was getting lost in the right direction.




Hanoi in a Day

Hanoi on its own is such an exciting place to explore. The city holds an eminent fusion of different cultures having endured long years of invasions and wars. You can easily spot the strong influence of it mostly from the architecture of their structures. Nevertheless their own culture is still prominently manifested.

Just only a stone throw's away from my hotel is St. Joseph's Cathedral, with its close proximity, I can hear the church bell every hour from my room. It is the oldest church in Hanoi, built by the French, thus having some resemblance or comparison with the Notre Dame in Paris. I quickly took a few snap shots and decided to utter a short prayer of gratitude. It was very peaceful inside with little light streaming in through its stained-glass windows.




Inside the St. Joseph's Cathedral


Within just a few meters, I found the Water Puppet Theatre which I read about on Tripadvisor. I checked the time of the next performance and since they do performances every hour, I just decided to come back.




With one hour to kill, I didn't need to worry where to go, I easily spotted the Hoan Kiem Lake and decided to stroll around it. It reminded me of a mini version of Singapore's Chinese Garden.


Free area of the lake.

There is not much to see inside the paid area of the lake but a temple. (Cost USD 2)
Hoan Kiem Lake at night

As some light showers started, I headed back to the theatre to get my ticket (Cost USD 5) only to find out it easily gets full! Seated at the front row, I have watched an entire hour of performance in Vietnamese, no translations at all but only a leaflet handed out at the entrance that explains the acts in English. Even though I didn't understand a thing of what they were singing, it was an unusual way of learning about Vietnamese history and culture. 




Vietnamese puppeteers


How to Cross the Streets in Hanoi

Crossing the streets in Hanoi was very comical for me. I had to literally do cha-cha moves! I didn't feel safe at all walking thru the designated pedestrian lanes. The motorbikes in particular will not stop but rather go around you, which makes a simple task of crossing the street like an impossible mission. Later on I observed and followed how the locals do it and after a while I caught myself bravely crossing like a pro. The tip is to not stop and hesitate, just keep walking, they will eventually slow down as they approach you.


An ordinary sight in Hanoi - a local guy crossing the street surrounded by motorcyclists.


Vietnamese Food

Having caught food poisoning in my recent trip to El Nido, I was very careful on where and what to eat in Hanoi. I have chosen to eat at restaurants and sadly had to avoid the street foods which they are very famous for. 

A variety of sweetened breads on sticks. 

Dining set up in Hanoi is mostly seated at low stools.

Vietnamese cuisine is absolutely exquisite. As I have mentioned in previous blogs, I am not really a foodie when traveling and would gladly settle for cup noodles if need be, but Vietnamese food has piqued my appetite. I have seen dozens of food stalls every corner I turn to and for that I am sure no traveler would ever have to be hungry in this city which smells like good food everywhere. And what's even more fun eating out in Vietnam is that everything is so cheap!

*Currency Tip: Vietnam is accepting USD and most of the prices they display are in USD too. Be sure to bring VND with you and pay everything by their own currency. This will save you more money. For easier reference on this blog, I have put the costs in USD.

   
A definite must try! Winning a Trip Advisor badge, Banh-Mee is like Vietnamese subway.
Cost: USD 2

    
Table for one? Yes only one!
Perks of traveling solo is you get to eat wherever, whenever you want.
Beef Pho Noodles and Beef Wraps at Cafe Notre-Dame
Cost: USD 4


On my first night, rain poured so heavily that I was thinking of just staying in the hotel and just order food. But no heavy rain would keep my itchy feet from exploring. With only a rain coat to shelter me from the furious downpour, I walked and continued exploring the Old Quarter in search for a place to eat. I spotted KFC and was so tempted to go in because of the annoying weather and the difficulty of having to cross the streets but decided against it as I am wasting a very rare opportunity to dine in Vietnam! After I tired my feet out and famished myself, I spotted the City View Cafe which has a balcony. Perfect way to have an overlooking view of the city at night!



View from City View Cafe

This was indeed a good company while overlooking the city at night.

What I like most about traveling solo is you get to meet a lot of nice people from all over the world, which turns your trip more memorable and make you realise you are never alone after all. 

Having drinks with Shelley from Australia at City View Cafe.


Halong Bay

A trip to Hanoi wouldn't be complete without visiting the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Halong Bay. I had to arrange this tour with my hotel host and decided to go with Alova Cruise. There are many tour operators for Halong Bay and most of them are offering very low prices which are very tempting to go with, especially for budget travelers. It is advisable to read reviews from TripAdvisor before you decide which tour operator to go to. I have been advised and read as well that you should pay at least USD 50 to get a good service and I wasn't at all disappointed with what I have paid for. I paid USD 50 (discounted from the hotel) which includes hotel pick up and drop off, entrance fees, two bottles of water, seafood lunch, bamboo boat ride/kayaking and accompanied by a very informative English speaking tour guide. 


Our ride to Halong Bay


I wouldn't recommend to do Halong Bay for just a day, it was just not enough. The travel time from the city itself will take 3 1/2 hours so it will eat up a lot of your time. From an early pick with two stop overs for short breaks along the way, this was pretty much a squeezed-in trip in a day. Nevertheless, I have still thoroughly enjoyed the cruise. 

During the ride, our tour guide, Peter, was very informative and gave us a brief history of not only Hanoi but the whole Vietnam as well. One of the things I like about having tour guides is that you get a local insight of the culture and history of the country. They will mostly give you tips or stories you won't read on any travel guide books.

We had the perfect weather that day, clear sky with stretches of thin clouds. Standing at the bow of the ship, admiring its beauty as we come close to the massive rock formations, was such an overwhelming sight to see. If it was not for the ripples of water, you would have thought it was a still photograph or painting on an open air museum.


#26 on my list - Visit Halong Bay. Done!

First Stop: Bamboo boat or Kayaking options available to explore Halong Bay.

Another tip when traveling solo, sign up for tours! It's another way to socialise and meet fellow travelers. For this tour, I was accompanied by mostly couples and a family. Unlike my solo trip to Phuket before, I wasn't the lone female traveler among the group and met two other solo female travelers. 

Bamboo Boat ride with fellow solo female traveler, Claire from California.


After the bamboo boat ride we carried on cruising along Halong Bay, seeing more of the rock formations. According to our tour guide, to see Halong Bay entirely would take two weeks! So we were only seeing a tiny portion of it for a day's trip!

Trong Mai Islet or known as the Fighting Cocks Rocks. Up close, it does resemble to its name.

The second and last stop was the Tien Cung Cave. A bit modernised to my taste as they have placed a lot of colourful lights on it which illuminates the cave. It was a good add-on effect for tourists but somehow diminished the naturalness of the cave.

The cave is well maintained and they leave the lights switched on all day to keep the bats off.


It was good to see some natural light streaming in.
I would assume that the itinerary for the day tour will be the same for every tour operators. The day went by just like that and we had to head back to Hanoi City. It is doable for a day's trip but if I had more time to stay, I would opt for an overnight cruise instead.

Night Market and Shopping

After a long day's trip to Halong Bay, I was already feeling exhausted but then I realised it was my last night in Hanoi and I still feel like the need to see more of it. So after having an authentic home cooked dinner graciously prepared for me by my hotel hosts, I decided to check out their Night Market. This is open on Fridays and weekends. 



It reminded me of Hong Kong's night market, only this is a smaller, less congested version of it. Shopping in Hanoi is an absolute heavenly feel, everything is just so cheap! I felt bad because on my mind I have to bargain. Shopping for some souvenir gifts for friends, I kept on bargaining, only to realise what I was bargaining for is not even more than S$ 2! 

Beautiful hand crafted bookmarks at USD 1.

Perhaps my good finds in Hanoi would have to be this book shop located just behind my hotel who sells "copies" of books (Pirated version of books). I got so excited and started pulling out books which are selling for as low as USD 3! A regular book in Singapore costs around S$ 18 (USD 13) and above. Good thing the lady who manages the book shop pointed out to me which ones were "clear copies" so I was able to buy the good copies.

A wide variety of books.
They also sell second hand books, perhaps those left by other travelers. I ended up choosing these two books below, one being recommended by the lady which is a story about the Vietnam war. The copies were really surprisingly good! Maybe I should make it a habit to check out local book shops whenever I travel. It would make a good collection to buy books from different countries.

Souvenirs from Hanoi

This has been yet another travel adventure I will always look back to. It's been a long time since I last traveled solo and the very first time I did it spontaneously! I am the type of traveler who plans everything ahead but this time, I appreciated the comforts of having no itineraries to follow and to do it alone was even more inspiring.

I would reiterate the reasons I have written on my other blog Solo Flight why I strongly encourage my friends to travel solo. To be honest, I never really felt like I was alone, I was traveling with my self and not by myself. I enjoyed my own company and we had fun.

"Travel far enough, you meet yourself." - David Mitchell




***More of my Solo Traveling Adventures... 

35 comments:

  1. Enjoyed reading your blog, Carla!
    More please :)

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    Replies
    1. Thank you!!! yep, more to write, more to come! :)

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    2. Hi qarla..nice blog..I'm planning to visit Vietnam for a week this December..can you please let me know whether it is good to visit in December and suggest an area in Hanoi to stay ,which is easy to commute.

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  2. Replies
    1. Solo Travel is one of the best life experiences I've had. It made me realise that I can actually enjoy my own company while discovering the place I am at. It gave me freedom and flexibilty when it comes to decision making. It's not what a lot of people would try because they are afraid or they find it lonely. It's actually not. It's an empowering experience where you'll definitely take a lot from.

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  3. hi qarla, i'm planning to visit ha noi and halong bay next year. do you have recommended local tour guide?

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    1. Hello Djaharani! You can try Alova Cruise - this is what I've used to go to Halong Bay.
      As for Hanoi itself, I didn't use any tour guide. I suggest you stay in the Old quarter. You can walk around and see a lot of things.

      have fun! :)

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  4. Hanoi is a beautiful place for spending holidays. All the picture you shared with us was beautiful and perfectly clicked. Really awesome pictures. I hope you enjoyed a lot there.

    Holidays in Vietnam

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    1. Thank you James! yes I did enjoy a lot and hoping to come back too!

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  5. Hi Qarla, is it really safe to travel alone in Hanoi? (Especially im not good at street directions)
    Im planning to go there this coming CNY but yet feeling afraid to travel alone..but reading your blogs seems uplifting and pushes me to go..

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    1. Hello! yes it is absolutely safe to travel there. I'm bad at street directions too but the locals are all friendly and will help you. It's easy to navigate there too, you would enjoy just walking around. Go for it! you won't regret it. Hanoi is beautiful. :)

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    2. Any suggestion or activity to try aside for the cruise? Im planning to spend 6days there. Ok..i'l push for it on CNY..thanks!^_^

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  6. If you are taking the cruise, do it for at least 2 days because the day tour won't be enough.

    I had only had 3 days when I was there so didn't really get a chance to check out other things (apart from what I have written here) like the Hoan Kiem Lake, St. Joseph's Church and the water puppet show. :)

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  7. I stumbled upon this while planning for my solo trip to Hanoi. Your write up has been truly a gem! :) here's wishing that we'll be granted with more opp to travel the world!

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    1. Thank you! I am glad my blog has helped you in some ways! I hope you enjoy Hanoi as much as I did! :)

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  8. Thank you Qarla C, nice post accompany with some beautiful photos. Keep sharing.

    halong bay cruise

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thank you! Vietnam is indeed an amazing country!

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  9. Thank you for sharing, Hanoi and generally northern Vietnam are showing another face of Vietnam. This country is amazing. Thank you for sharing your blog post.

    vietnam tour packages

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  10. This is really a wonderful blog. I am glad to see this. All the photos were amazing and nicely clicked. Thanks for sharing your experience and photos with us. keep posting like this.

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  11. HI Narendra Reddy, December will be Winter time in Hanoi, could get a chance of snow at Sapa too. This may not be a bad time to visit as long as you don't mind the cold weather.
    Suggest you stay at the Old Quarter area, I didnt need to commute when I was there as everything was withing walking distance. Hope you have a great time in Hanoi!

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  12. Great information! For everyone who need to know about price of Transfer from Hanoi airport to Halong Bay, please contact with GoAsiaDayTrip - the most trusted airport transfer and day tour company in Southeast Asia.

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  13. Your trip is really interesting. I love the way you choose to explore our city. Living here since I were born, but the busy life has made me forget about the beauty aspects of Ha Noi. And the smell of foods everywhere haha. The old quarter is the most interesting area of Ha Noi at night. But I tend to believe you find the beauty of any place you go :). For us, the best of Ha Noi reveal on the first day in Lunar New year, when may be one third of Ha Noi go back to the country side, and most of the rest are sleeping after a long night of celebrating. At that moment Ha Noi becomes clear and quiet, like the old days :). Anyway, after reading your post, I will pay more attentions on things on the way home from work :).
    Ha Long Bay is absolutely a good choice. From Ha Noi you can also go to Sapa, a beauty mountain town, although it further and difficult to go. Other cities worth to visinyt in Vietnam including Ho Chi Minh City - the largest, Da Nang, Hue - the ancient palace, Hoi An - the old trading port since 15th, Nha Trang - the beach front city. If anyone need more info about Vietnamese destination then visit our website at http://itsvietnam.com. We are Vietnamese travel agency. Good luck on your next journey.

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    1. Thank you for taking the time to read my blog! I really love your country and hope to visit again sometime!

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  14. When I search for blogs writing about Hanoi, I accidentally found yours. When I read this post, I see that you're really into your solo trip there. If you come back next time, let's spend more time exploring more historic sites in Hanoi like the Temple of Literature, the Imperial Citadel of Thang Long, Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum, and other destinations nearby Hanoi such as Ba Vi National Park, Duong Lam Accient Village, Bat Trang Ceremic Village. You'll see how people conduct their life. And one more thing, you may try more local food. A free food tour can surely satisfy your appetite. Thanks greatly for your sharing and for choosing our country!

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    1. Thank you so much for the tips and taking time to read my blog! Vietnam has always been a favorite destination of mine! I will definitely come back and spend longer time. You have a beautiful country, thanks again for the tips :)

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  15. I have found your blog today searching information as I would like to visit Hanoi. It is very interesting ¡¡¡ thank you ¡¡¡ best regards.

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    1. thank you! i hope you'll enjoy your time in Hanoi!

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  16. It is great when you write about our Hanoi, I hope one day can take you to explore Vietnam. Good luck and see you again

    Travel Agent in Vietnam

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  17. Great information! For everyone who need to know about vietnam free tours, please contact with GoAsiaDayTrip. They're most trusted travel company in Southeast Asia.

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  18. Tq for the info. Im going there this August..

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    1. You are welcome! Thanks for reading. I hope you enjoy Hanoi as much as I did!:)

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  19. Hi! May I know what is the name of the hotel you stayed in? Would you recommend staying in Airbnbs and also, apart from walking, did you take any other modes of transportation to get around?

    Thank you for answering my questions! :D

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  20. Qarla C9 July 2018 at 18:39
    Hello! apologies for the late response!

    I have stayed at Hanoi Home Hotel https://www.airbnb.com.sg/rooms/762735
    I definitely would recommend staying at Airbnb's ! But if you are a bit hesitant, hotel rates around Hanoi isn't that bad.

    I didn't take any mode of transpo around the Old Quarter as the location of my accommodation is within walking distance to almost everything I need to see/go to so it was pretty convenient. You can rent a motorbike if you want to explore farther. I recommend you find an accommodation around the Old Quarter.

    Hope this helps! :)

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  21. How are the costs of things in the Old Quarter...? Your post is awesome, and relieved a lot of anxiety of my upcoming impulsive solo trip :) Im planning a 9 day stay, and i think the Old Quarter would be a great starting point! I bought my flight ticket to Hanoi, just a matter of figuring out where to stay. Thanks!

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    1. Hi, it's relatively cheap in the Old Quarter in terms of food and drinks. As you can see in my post, I've had a full meal for USD 2! I'd like to think anywhere in Vietnam is cheap :)

      For Accomodation - you can checkout Hanoi Home Hotel https://www.airbnb.com.sg/rooms/762735

      I hope you'll have a lovely trip and enjoy your 9 day trip to Hanoi !

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