Hanoi, Vietnam is a city that has no equal. Not because it’s superlatively lavish. Nor is it due to any specific tourist attraction – as Hanoi is best as a base to see things an hour or two from the city. Hanoi just happens to be one of the most unique cities in all of Southeast Asia.
The streets of Hanoi are so crowded with motorbikes it makes Bangkok feel like a calm day in Central Park. Crossing even the smallest street is an exercise in faith in your fellow humans that your camp counselors could never have prepared you for no matter how many trust falls you’ve done. But amidst the hustle and bustle of the city, a certain calm permeates the people. Unlike most Asian countries, no one is really thrilled to see white people. You regain a certain sense of anonymity in the city, as well as most other places in Vietnam.
Walking into a city like this can be intimidating, especially if you’ve spent the rest of your time in the friendly safe havens like Thailand, Laos and Cambodia. But I encourage you to visit if you have the chance. It will change your view on the region in general and provide a little diversity to your trip.
When there, it’s always nice to have an escape, where you can get back to the familiar backpacker community. The Hanoi Backpackers Hostel is perfect for this. Situated on a tiny back road – think Khao San Road in Bangkok boiled down to a handful of hostels and one convenience store – the hostel has 2 buildings and plenty of beds for $7 a night, or private rooms for a bit more. Call ahead as they do fill up pretty quickly.
The staff is friendly and the kitchen provides free breakfast. There’s a movie room called the Annex with couches and bean bag chairs for when you’re wiped out from a day of walking and museum hopping. You can also set up trips to any of the nearby destinations. Although the trips are a bit more expensive than going to an independent office, you will have a guide from the hostel with you in addition to a Vietnamese guide. You’re also guaranteed to have a group of fellow backpackers with you. Booking through an independent company leaves you with a random group that may not turn out well. I tried both, and although I am usually as frugal as possible while traveling, I advise every traveler headed to Hanoi to stick with the hostel’s trips.