Hanoi is Ugly, and You Should Go There
Hanoi is the capital of Vietnam and has a population of about 7.5 million. It doesn’t have a glittering business district with modern skyscrapers. It doesn’t have a charming old city with photo-worthy architecture. It has a couple lakes, but they mostly lack picturesqueness. All my photos from Hanoi have a grayish, smoggy quality about them, and with good reason: Hanoi is polluted, crowded, and simply put, ugly.
But it’s also one of my favorite cities I’ve ever been to, and I think any traveler who’s enjoyed other parts of Asia should absolutely make it a priority to visit this buzzing, vibrant metropolis.
Hanoi has a vibe that’s hard to beat. It’s warm and friendly, welcoming and community-oriented, inclusive and incredibly fun. I’m not the most extroverted person, but in Hanoi I talked to everyone (occasionally with the help of Google Translate): the giggly, sweet sisters who gave me a pedicure, the British couple sitting next to me in a bar, the shopkeeper who sold me a pair of Converse, the Canadian backpacker who pulled up a stool next to mine at a pho stand, the Brazilian girl wandering around the lake at the same time I was (who ended up having the same name as me!)… and the list goes on.
There are cities that seem to foster community and friendship, an innate quality about the physical place somehow encouraging people to be more open, curious, and friendly. I’ve heard Rio is one of them. I’d say Mexico City is another. But for me, Hanoi tops the list.
Maybe it’s because the city is crowded: spaces are small, streets are narrow, tables and shops and motorbikes and people are all jammed right up against each other—so you’ve kinda got no choice but to make friends.
But something else I noticed (and loved) about Hanoi was that it doesn’t seem to separate tourists and locals like many cities do. You see as many Vietnamese in the old city (where all the backpackers hang out) as you do Australians and Europeans.
When you go to Hanoi, these are my basic but essential activity suggestions. None of them involve sightseeing, but you’ll probably walk away with a few new friends, or at the very least some good conversations and nice memories.
1. Drink bia hoi at a pop-up street bar
Bia hoi is a light draft beer that’s brewed daily and is popular in northern Vietnam. Pull up a tiny plastic stool around a tiny plastic table and buy a cold, frothy glass of it for about 60 cents, then sit there and take in the sights, sounds, and smells of Hanoi nightlife. Who doesn’t love drinking al fresco?
2. Check out the shops on Hang Gai street
These shops are built for tourists, and I normally hate things built for tourists, but I have to admit I had a total blast exploring Hang Gai and the surrounding blocks. I intended to just spend an hour there, and ended up getting completely sucked in and spending a whole day going from shop to shop, examining the wares, talking to other tourists and shopkeepers, and taking plenty of breaks for bubble tea and pho. Along with Vietnamese handicrafts and trinkets, you’ll find tons of North Face, Converse, SuperDry, and other popular brand-name stuff in these shops. You can buy jackets, backpacks, shoes, and other outdoor gear for a fraction of US prices.
3. Eat street pho
Hanoi has tons of pho shops, and most of them are too tiny to fit any tables inside, so you eat at little plastic tables on the sidewalk. A giant bowl of pho costs about $1, and it’s really, really good. This is also a great way to chat with other travelers or locals, or you can watch the city whirl on around you as you eat.
4. Walk around Hoan Kiem lake
This lake is right in the middle of old Hanoi, near the backpacker district and the shopping streets. It’s not very big, so you can walk around the whole thing in less than 20 minutes. You’ll see young Vietnamese couples smooching, elderly Vietnamese doing lakeside calisthenics, office workers on their lunch break, and probably other tourists too. It’s a nice way to get a feel for the city and mingle with the locals.
5. Visit the Temple of Literature
This temple was originally built as a university over 900 years ago, and it’s dedicated to Confucius. The gardens around the temple are very well-maintained, and inside there are five different courtyards between pagodas and ponds. There are also statues of an ostrich standing on top of a tortoise, and you can rub the ostrich’s belly for good luck. The day I was there, there were multiple groups of students taking graduation photos. They had on matching clothes and they kept trying to sync on throwing their caps or bouquets of flowers in the air for photos.
Even though Hanoi isn’t the most beautiful city, it’s definitely worth spending a couple days in, and if you do you’re likely to discover beauty in unexpected places.