Embracing the vibrant soul of Hanoi

Vietnam is a treasure trove of experiences, and Hanoi is the heartbeat of it all.

Can you even imagine a trip to Vietnam without setting foot in Hanoi? As an avid Asian traveler, checking off all the Southeast Asian countries from my bucket list has been a lifelong dream. Finally, the stars aligned, and our Vietnam journey began, starting from the vibrant streets of Saigon to the tranquil beauty of Da Nang and Hoi An.

But it was in Hanoi, amid the whirlwind of sights, shopping, and food tasting, that our adventure truly came alive in a more local kind of way.

During our two weeks in Vietnam, the weather played its part, and on our few days in Hanoi we were gifted with sunny days the entire time, which was very unlikely especially in December (the northern region of Vietnam does have a winter season, with temperatures dropping to as low as 10°C). Sure, it’s a bit cooler up in Hanoi, but after sweating it out down south, a little chill is more than welcome.

Halong Bay

Touching down in Hanoi, nestled at the heart of Vietnam, promised an authentic immersion into the local way of life. While the city may not keep its doors open as late as its southern counterparts, it compensates with an abundance of fantastic attractions. Vietnam’s unique vibe is evident in every corner—from the irresistible shopping steals to the mouthwatering street food feasts that made us feel like royalty on a budget.

Every city has its perks and beauty to boast about, and Hanoi, with mesmerizing lights and bustling streets, sets the stage for an unforgettable adventure. We quickly learned that if you’re only in town for a few days, it’s best to hire a driver to take you around. While Grab and other local transportation options are available, nothing beats the convenience of having a dedicated driver to explore the city’s nooks and crannies. There are so many things to see and do in Hanoi but limited time to do it, so better be wise with your time and money. Priorities are a must!

Now, let’s talk about our Hanoi adventure. It’s the epitome of an authentic Vietnam experience, from the moment you land to every shopping stall in the street. It offers endless attractions to explore and experiences to savor. But here’s the kicker: this city calls it a night earlier compared to the lively southern cities. This calls for an early start as even the night parties begin in the afternoon.

Tran Quoc pagoda

If shopping, food, and spa massages are at the top of your to-do list, then staying in the center is highly recommended. The hotel accommodations are top-notch, ensuring a comfortable stay amid the hustle and bustle outside. Street food and the unique shopping of quality and unique shoes, clothes, and bags are to die for in the center Hanoi. Vietnam is cheaper than what I expected and even cheaper than the Philippines. My husband got a 1-hour and a half body massage and foot spa for 300,000 dong in a proper spa establishment, which equals to about $10 of P600.

One of my personal highlights was indulging in renowned Vietnamese coffee, particularly the exquisite coconut coffee. We were apprehensive at first about condensed milk on coffee, but it didn’t fail us at all. The fusion of flavors and the rich aroma were the perfect companions as we explored the cultural treasures of Hanoi. It became surprisingly our go-to drink while in Vietnam, and we ended up learning how to make it and bought home a lot of Vietnamese coffee to make back home. Vietnamese Pho is a must-try and its aroma is exquisite. As a big sinigang-bulalo-and-loglog baby, it was fun for me to try different soups abroad.

Let’s not forget about the iconic Train Street (Trân Phù).  In the middle of the chaotic streets of Old Quarter is a truly one-of-a-kind railroad, a popular attraction where a high-speed train track runs through a narrow residential area, allowing visitors to witness trains passing through very close to houses and shops. It’s a sight to behold and a reminder of the city’s rich history and vibrant culture. I’ve seen the Train Street slathered across my Instagram feed but it operates just like most other streets in the Vietnamese capital—with the difference being the massive train track in place of a paved road.

Train Street in the Old Quarter
Traditional Vietnamese food

It’s also an exciting experience to eat along the popular lane of restaurants and coffee shops by the train tracks. I was worried Train Street would be really hard to find, but it’s not. Locals know that tourists are all interested in taking that iconic video of the train passing along, so they will approach you in the streets and guide you to where you can get the best shots. Use your Filipinos haggling skills against the pushiness of street vendors and know when to negotiate. I know, it’s a real skill. From vendors to riders, to even drivers—they will push their way in, but just be strong and stick to the price agreed.

A must place to visit is, of course, Ha Long Bay! We blocked a full day for a cruise in Ha Long Bay (you can’t visit without booking a boat). Cruises offer an itinerary of up to eight hours, which takes you to the most famous route, including Sung Sot Cave, the biggest cave in Halong; a speedboat and bamboo basket coconut boat trip to Luon cave; and Titop island, an island of dreams with a beach shaped like a crescent moon.

Locals warned us before our Ha Long Bay trip that the sun can be elusive on the islands. But luck was on our side, and we were treated to breathtaking sunsets during our escapade in Ha Long Bay, each moment adding to our Vietnam experience. Witnessing that memorable shot of the sunset from the popular Skull Island Kong movie sealed it as one of the most beautiful sunsets we’ve seen in Southeast Asia.

Halong Bay is breathtaking in its own right, but I admit it was truly disappointing not to be able to swim in the waters since the place reminded me so much of Coron Island, Philippines.

Last but not least, I couldn’t leave Hanoi without visiting the popular Incense Village. Just an hour’s drive from the city center lies the Quang Phu Cau (Incense Village), offering the perfect way to cap off our journey. Honestly, I had anticipated the air to be filled with the scent of incense everywhere, so I was surprised when it wasn’t.

Nonetheless, the vibrant colors of the incense captivated all visitors, and the way they were artistically displayed was mesmerizing.  Observing the locals craft incense from scratch and purchasing it in bulk to light was a truly enlightening experience, providing a deeper insight into their culture.

And let me tell you, being mistaken for a local was the ultimate compliment! Filipinas can pass as Vietnamese and I can certainly play the part. As we bid farewell to Hanoi, it felt like saying goodbye to an old friend, one that welcomed us with open arms and left an indelible mark on our hearts.

Vietnam is a treasure trove of experiences, and Hanoi is the heartbeat of it all.

The new lifestyle.