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One Week in Hanoi: Seeing the Sights

7 days soaking up the sights and sounds of the vibrant and historic center of Hanoi — basing ourselves out of a French Quarter flat with the boys.

Arrival at Noi Bai International Airport

Our 45-minute flight from Vientiane to Hanoi went smoothly, and I would have given the entire experience an enthusiastic two thumbs up if it hadn’t been for the absolutely hideous immigration wait we encountered upon arrival.

It felt akin to LAX the night before Thanksgiving, and would have been a much, much worse experience if we hadn’t applied for our e-visas ahead of time, and if a kindly Vietnamese-American couple hadn’t ushered us up to the front of one of the immigration lines after it became very evident that Noe (who had missed his nap due to the flight timing) had reached his limit a while ago.

Major airports in Thailand have sanity-saving priority lines for people traveling with small children, and often for the pregnant, elderly, and disabled as well. Hanoi’s Noi Bai airport…not so much. Even worse, unlike most big hubs we transit through, they didn’t even have separate lines for Vietnamese nationals and foreigners!!! There were two diplomatic/crew windows and the rest were “All Passengers.”

Exactly an hour after we entered the immigration hall, we received our stamps. An hour wouldn’t have been a huge deal back in the day, but with a toddler who hasn’t napped, it is a very big deal. Not something I look forward to repeating any time soon, but when traveling with kids, you have to take the good with the bad (and the ugly).

Next, it was luggage, cash (Dong), SIM card, and taxi into the city — all of which were a breeze.

Keep an eye out for our upcoming step-by-step guide to navigating Noi Bai airport and getting to the Old Quarter. We’ll also be posting a couple of guides on traveling to Hanoi with kids, as well as helpful tips on visiting Hanoi with or without little ones.

Also, if you haven’t already, be sure to read our previous post on what brings us to Hanoi this time around, as well as our post on our first visit to this unique and historic city.

•  •  •

Arriving at our first-ever AirBNB, in the heart of Hanoi’s French Quarter.

Treading Into New Territory

No matter how long we’ve been traveling or how many places we’ve been, there’s always room for trying out new ways of traveling.

Some travelers like to stay in international hotels. Others prefer homestays with local families. We’re hostel and guesthouse people, ourselves. In the past, we’ve generally preferred budget accommodation with a chance to meet international and local travelers. Occasionally, we do homestays and hotels as well. Yet, after two decades and countless stays around the world, there’s one lodging option neither of us has ever tried: Airbnb…you may have heard of it?

Last year during our time in Kuala Lumpur, I talked a bit about why we hadn’t tried Airbnb. However, with two little ones and the way we like to travel, AirBNB has become an increasingly attractive option for us. In Hanoi, the price and location were right, so we decided to give it a shot — and we couldn’t be happier!

Read all about our experience in Going Native in Hanoi: Our First Airbnb.

Another first this trip will be using a ride share app. Uber’s the big one in the U.S. In Southeast Asia, its Grab. We’ve had friends arrange Ubers/Grabs for us but never used the app ourselves. This trip we intend on taking it for a test drive.

Don't Miss These Unforgettable Hanoi Area Experiences!

Will it be the best thing since the invention of the tuk tuk? Or do we get taken for a ride? Stay tuned to find out!

•  •  •

Hanoi Weekend Walking Street

On the weekends in Hanoi, they shut down the entire ring road around Hoan Kiem lake (and then some), which is definitely a new development since 2012 (and one that we welcomed very much).

No cars, and more importantly, NO MOTORBIKES!!!

One of the most indelible memories from our time here seven years ago was how much of a headache it was to cross Dinh Tien Hoang, the wide avenue that separates the eastern shore of the lake with the Old Quarter and French Quarter.

Now, on Saturdays and Sundays, it’s a beautiful, amazing, magnificent…walking street.

The best part?

Monday was a holiday (the Hung Kings day…I kid you not), which meant — BONUS WALKING STREET DAY.

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So, what’s with the dozens of Power Wheels? They are available for parents to rent (50,000 Dong / US$2.00 for 30 minutes). A section of the walking street is divided off and dedicated solely for these pint sized vehicles.

But these aren’t just Power Wheels. Oh no. They also come with the option of using a remote control! Parents essentially put their kid in a huge RC car and take them for a joy ride.

I knew I had to get Noe in one of these. It was only a question of when.

 

Hanoi vs. Vientiane

Right about now is when I feel compelled to offer up some sort of comparison between Vietnam’s vibrant capital, Hanoi, and our current home, Vientiane, the capital of Laos.

True, less than 500 miles separate Vientiane and Hanoi. And, there is a lot of cross-pollination between the two cultures (though one gets a sense that Laos has appropriated much more Vietnamese culture than the other way around).

Honestly, the two Southeast Asian capitals are hard to compare. Hanoi is an ancient, historic, and cosmopolitan quasi-megacity of 8 million people that has been reimagined and transformed since the end of the Vietnam war. It is the capital of one of Asia’s ferocious Tiger Economies, and just a stunning and immensely interesting city to behold at every turn.

Vientiane, on the other hand, has a population of 700,000, a couple of pre-20th-century structures, and no heavy industry to speak of. But then again, Hanoi can’t possibly compete with Vientiane in the chillaxation department. A cold beer on the Mekong in dry season is hard to top on a Sunday afternoon, though Hanoi’s Bia Hoi and Bun Cha are awfully tough competitors.

Still, it’s always a head trip to get on a plane in Vientiane and fly for an hour to suddenly find yourself on what seems like another planet.

Hanoi’s obviously got a lot going for it. But there are downsides. For one, there a ton of tourists here from all over the world, which can make some corners feel more like Disneyland than Southeast Asia. The locals are ready and eager to take advantage of the influx too.

While touts in Hanoi are nothing compared to Bangkok, we got a lot of women trying to entice our little Noe with treats and toys, hoping that the child would take the bait, and the parents would be extorted into forking out money. Fortunately, Noe didn’t put up too much of a fight when we declined said goodie, but I can imagine many a parent might not get off so easily.

Nowhere in Hanoi is this more of an issue in the Old Quarter. Regardless, we still enjoyed meandering through the winding alleyways and didn’t find the touts overbearing.

 

Hanoi with a Toddler and Infant

It rained during our first couple of days in Hanoi, which we initially saw as a pretty major bummer, especially leaving sunny Vientiane.

Later in the week as the skies cleared (to the point that they clear in Hanoi), the temperatures climbed and things got steamy…really steamy — not ideal when you are carrying 40 lbs. of baby and backpack. Only then did we really start to miss our rainy days in Hanoi.

If I’m going to be soaked, I’d rather be soaked by rain than sweat…

Our intention for the week was to base ourselves out of a centrally-located flat and just sort of explore the old part of town without any fixed itinerary.

Since returning to Laos with our second kid in January, we’ve been doing a lot more laying low and a whole lot less traveling out of town. We found ourselves on the move so much in the first several months of Noe’s life that it’s been nice to have a slower pace this time around with Riley. In fact, Hanoi will be the first time we’ve spent the night away from Vientiane since returning with Riley over three months ago — a new record for us!

Prior to arriving in Hanoi, we talked about possible day trips or even returning to Lao Cai or heading up the mountains closer to the city. In the end, however, we decided to hunker down in the city, and don’t regret our decision. It was a nice balance of sightseeing, exercise, play, and rest, which is exactly what we had hoped for.

 

We came across the amazing bargain of a guesthouse we stayed at in 2012. Seems our Hanoi Lucky Guesthouse became Sweet Family Guesthouse, which no longer appears to be in business.

Noe did a lot of walking during our week. It’s a good thing he loves walking — though his little legs do get tired.

In Vientiane, motorbikes don’t generally faze him — he knows to stay away from moving vehicles in general, and does so reliably. Yet, upon landing in Hanoi, some sort of switch flipped in his brain and he suddenly became absolutely terrified of motorbikes — and rightfully so…Hanoi’s four million motorbikes are nothing to mess around with.

This, of course, meant that daddy carried Noe more than he may have expected — across every street crossing, and along every sidewalk where motorbikes were parked. Noe’s quite the independent little guy, and not the most cuddly toddler, so I actually didn’t mind the extra time babying him. My arms on the other hand…

 

We made the decision early on NOT to bring a stroller. Having visited Hanoi before, we knew what to expect.

Sure, the French Quarter’s wide sidewalks are perfect for strollers…but the whole of Old Quarter is most certainly not. We knew we’d be spending much of our time in that part of town, so carriers made more sense.

We brought our two trusty Ergo 360 carriers. One of us carried Noe on our back, while the other carried Riley on the front and our daypack on the back. Every day, we stocked our daypack with essentials such as diapers (and diaper stuff), water, snacks, umbrellas, Lori’s breastfeeding cape, bib, burp cloth, sun hats for the kids, and my camera when it rained.

Did our backs ache the entire week after our trip? Hell yes! But it was a small price to pay for the flexibility and mobility carrying both kids (and a day pack) afforded us. We simply could not have negotiated places like Train Street, Pub Street, Temple of the Jade Mountain, the Military History Museum, and most of Old Quarter [safely and efficiently] with a stroller of any size.

 

Noe loved the freedom of the walking streets, and we loved being able to let Noe “free range” a lot more than usual throughout our visit. There just aren’t a lot of nice outdoor public spaces for a toddler to run around in Vientiane, unfortunately. I guess that’s why they have what seems like a hundred indoor Kid Cafes.

Afternoon cat nap in Hanoi.

 

Hanoi by Night

You may not know it but Hanoi might just be the unofficial coffee capital of Southeast Asia. There are more coffee shops here per capita than anywhere I’ve ever been. Most specialize in Vietnam’s famously sweet and strong concoction (half a can of sweetened condensed milk and a half dozen shots of espresso…or so it seems).

Banana shirt, anyone?

 

Hanoi’s iconic Red Bridge is just as magnificent as we remember, especially when it’s lit up at night.

We don’t find ourselves out past dark a lot these days, but in Hanoi, we had a few refreshingly late nights with the kids. And yes, they seemed to survive fully intact, and no worse for the wear.

 

One of our late[er] evenings was spent walking around Hoan Kiem lake, and I must say I prefer the walk much more at night — owing not only to the cooler temperatures, but all the lit up structures.

Plus, it’s just nice to see locals together relaxing and chatting against a beautiful backdrop, evoking much of what we love (and miss!) about Latin America. Laotians, particularly in Vientiane, don’t seem to care much for gathering to relax in public spaces, unless it involves Zumba or shopping — neither of which are terribly relaxing in Vientiane.

 

 

 

A couple of nights into our time in Hanoi, Riley had a bad night. And when I say bad, I mean, he slept a combined two hours the entire night.

We suspect he’s been teething, and has all the signs to show for it (except the TEETH!!!). This particular night, however, the pain seemed to be too much. He just couldn’t get settled. We broke down and gave him some Baby Tylenol and eventually he fell asleep on my chest. But we paid for that night for the next couple of days, getting by on copious amounts of Vietnamese coffee.

Fortunately, Noe didn’t seem to have any problems adjusting to his big bed in a strange place. And yes, he got a room all to himself! Why else do you think we broke down and finally decided to try AirBNB!?

•  •  •

Saving Lori’s Footwear [Again!]

About midway through our stay, Lori’s Chacos began to give out…again.

Exactly a year ago when we were in Borneo, both soles delaminated from the footpad, so we had to find a shoe repair person, and stat. Fortunately, we were in Southeast Asia where these sorts of repairs can be done on the cheap and nearly anywhere.

Fast forward one year and same issue, but in Hanoi. Mind you, this should in no way reflect on the quality of the sandal, but rather on Lori’s stubbornness to just let them go and get some new sandals. They are, after all, over ten years old…

On our way to breakfast, Lori showed me her sandals and it was evident they were not going to make it through the day. After breakfast, we knew we’d need to prioritize finding a shoe repair person.

Just then — literally as we’re talking about this — we round a corner and come upon this guy:

I’m not sure what surprised me more, the serendipity of happening upon this guy right when we needed him most…or, Lori’s reaction, which was something along the lines of, “No…it’s okay…they can wait…”

Um…Lori…we’re getting ready for a full day out with two small children, both your sandals are disintegrating, and there’s a dude sitting right here with a sign in English that says “Shoes Repair.” Am I missing something?

Ten minutes later, Lori was back on her feet with sandals as good as new. He did an awesome job and even applied shoe polish to the sole. We’ll see if they make it another year. I think they just might…

 

Trains, Planes, and Motorbikes

When trying to find things we hadn’t seen or done in 2012, Lori happened upon Train Street, which very much existed in 2012, but somehow did not exist to tourists. Fast-forward 6.5 years, and it’s kind of a thing. A very unique, and slightly controversial thing.

Essentially, it’s this neighborhood where multiple times a day, both passenger and freight trains barrel through within inches of the homes on each side.

We stopped by to get the scoop (and the schedule), had a beer, and made a plan to come back when the train came through. Much more on our experience in the very near future!

 

Later that day, Noe didn’t appear to be his usual self. “Noe a little sick, daddy. Noe a little sick,” he told us in the most pathetic voice imaginable. We had one more stop of the afternoon — one that we knew Noe wouldn’t want to miss (heck, we even dressed him in his airplane shirt for the occasion) — so we powered through, just a bit longer.

We’re not generally big fans of military museums (heck, Laos has plenty in Vientiane if we really wanted to brush up on our regional war history), but the Vietnam Military History Museum had two things that we thought Noe might like: Climbing the Hanoi Flag Tower (above), and…

AIRPLANES!!!

Okay, so it’s essentially one aging, decrepit Soviet prop plane and a bunch of pieces of enemy (i.e. American) aircraft on display — but hey, it’s the closest thing we got in the region to a Museum of Flight. And of course, it’s all the same to Noe. He doesn’t need to know the story behind this… (and thankfully, didn’t care)…

…or his connection to this…

“Look, mommy! HELICOPTER!!!”

 

 

Afterwards, we attempted to do a quick walk through the adjacent 11th century Thang Long Imperial Citadel, but were turned away because they were closing up for the day.

We didn’t think much about it then but were disappointed later when we learned that the Citadel is Hanoi’s sole UNESCO World Heritage Site. We love our UNESCO sites, and it would have been fun to tour a new one after something of a dry spell since visiting Bruges in 2016. But that’s one of the things I love about this city. Two week-long visits and we haven’t even come close to seeing all the highlights.

 

We passed Ga Ha Noi (Hanoi Central train station) on our way back to our flat. Lori and I took an overnight train from here to Lao Cai in 2012, but more people probably know it as the French-colonial rail station that was bombed during the War, then rebuilt in the 1970s. As most folks would agree, nothing good ever came out of rebuilding a historic structure in the 1970s…in Vietnam or anywhere else, for that matter.

We grabbed a couple of bahn mi and headed back to the flat. Noe felt warm, and sure enough, when we took his temperature he had a low-grade fever. Crap.

Two down, two to go.

Fortunately, Noe got a good night’s sleep and was back to his usual self in the morning. The fever seemed to be nothing more than a fluke (sympathy fever for Riley’s teething, perhaps?). Riley had a better night as well, which meant Lori and I got a decent night’s sleep too, which is kind of what you hope for from time to time when you’re on “vacation.”

•  •  •

Hanoi’s iconic St. Joseph’s Cathedral and pedicabs.

 

 

Thang Long Water Puppet Theater

We couldn’t return to Hanoi and NOT go take the boys to the water puppet theater! They’ve made some nice improvements over the years to the backdrop, the puppets, and even adding smoke and pyrotechnics!

Noe was enthralled the entire time. Riley made baby sounds. Lori and I took turns trying to keep Riley’s juvenile outbursts to a minimum.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Lotte Center

We made two trips up to sizable Ho Tai (West Lake) — first during a failed attempt at eating and drinking at two places that no longer existed; second, to head up to the 65th floor of the Lotte Center in hopes of taking in the view and enjoying a drink.

After spending way too much time at the Lotte Supermarket in the basement (living in Laos, we have a thing for modern supermarkets whenever we can find one), we first thought it might be a good idea to check out the Observation Deck. Thing is, Lori and I DO NOT pay for views, particularly if no food or drink is involved. Plus, the Observation Deck wasn’t even on the top floor of the tower!

So what’s on the top floor, you ask? Top of Hanoi lounge, of course! Perfect!!!

We walked clear around the building to the front entrance and proceeded to the elevators. Problem was, you needed a keycard to get through the turnstiles. Hmm…this couldn’t possibly be the way to the lounge. And sure enough, it wasn’t.

We left the main lobby and went around the right side to the hotel entrance where we found a set of public elevators and hurried inside. As we ascended, I was reading up on the hours of Top of Hanoi and noticed it said “No Children Under 12”.

Wha…? I couldn’t have read that right. In Southeast Asia? Well…I NEVER! And why 12??? Surely, they can’t be serious.

I suggested we might want to turn back, but Lori had other ideas. “If we wear both kids, maybe they won’t notice.”

Won’t notice?

“…or won’t care!”

There you go, Lori.

We took the elevator to the highest floor, walked up some stairs, got on another elevator, and finally walked up a ramp to a stunning rooftop lounge and full bar — hoping they’d either take our kid carriers for backpacks, or…wouldn’t care.

But someone cared…

…enough to call ahead and make sure we were intercepted by the hostess the second we got there.

“Our apologies, but no children under…”

Yeah, yeah, yeah. We wouldn’t want to tarnish your Crazy Rich Asian-over-12 party, now would we…

Stuff you never think about in Laos or Thailand (and no one else thinks of, for that matter).

It was then suggested we go down to the 45th floor (or something like that) because there’s a lobby there with windows. And that’s what we did…

What was supposed to be an impressive view of modern Hanoi actually turned out to be pretty depressing — and not just because we were kicked out of a hi-so establishment moments earlier.

Here, we got a birds-eye view of Hanoi’s notorious smog, but also the large swaths of vibrant and established neighborhoods quickly being wiped off the face of the map in favor of soulless mega towers, reminiscent of inner-city America in the 1960s, but on a much larger scale (and much faster pace).

Suffice it to say we didn’t stay long.

•  •  •

Red Bridge & Temple of the Jade Mountain

On our final day in Hanoi, we had some unfinished business to attend to. Our flight didn’t leave until after 4pm, and it was bloody hot, so we decided to keep things easy with only one objective: visit Temple of the Jade Mountain on an island in Hoan Kiem Lake.

 

 

It’s a picturesque little temple, crowds were minimal, and here it was Saturday already, and the road around the lake was closed to traffic, adding to the overall feeling of peace and solitude.

But in the extreme mid-morning heat and humidity, it was hard to enjoy any of it. We were all a sweaty mess, and all Noe wanted to see (over and over again) was the massive floor fan in the main hall of the temple.

We spent the remaining 20 minutes of our time in Central Hanoi enjoying the ice-cool air conditioning in the fashionista mecca of Hanoi, Trang Tien Shopping Center, before heading to the airport at around 1pm.

That does it for this post, but don’t worry — we’ve got a whole lot more from Hanoi coming your way, including more on:

  • Our French Quarter flat / Airbnb experience
  • Eating our way through Hanoi
  • Wacky Weekend Walking Street
  • Crazy Hanoi Train Street
  • Old Quarter and French Quarter
  • Using Vietnam GrabCar
  • Hanoi Beer culture
  • Hanoi with Kids: 10 Unforgettable Experiences
  • Hanoi Airport to Old Quarter: A Step-by-Step Guide
  • And…Our Top Tips for Visiting with an Infant or Toddler!

20 April 2019

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6 thoughts on “One Week in Hanoi: Seeing the Sights”

  1. One of my favorite posts ever!! Love the photos and all the shots of the boys and Lori!! Might finally be changing my mind about seeing the Asian countries–Vietnam in particular. Thanks for sharing. Favorite shot: Noe walking by himself; picture of his back with arms swinging–

    • SE Asia is a great area to visit! Noe was loving the freedom of running in the street and chasing the big bubbles that his “amigos” were blowing. Lots of giggles and laughter for us all 🙂

    • I’ve broached the topic numerous times over the years. I think deep down she likes the challenge and uncertainty of never knowing if this day will be her sandals’ last. But I agree that she’s definitely overdue for a replacement.

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