Sandwiched between backpackers and locals on a crowded public bus, I instantly knew Vietnam would be a lot different than the modern comforts we’d left behind in Hong Kong.
The bus was our cheapest option to get from the airport to Hanoi’s Old Quarter, a neighborhood that beats to the spike in tourism seen across the country.
The 1-hour ride only cost us $1.
I was caught in a whirlwind of honking scooters and speeding cars as soon as I stepped off the bus. Guil had warned me about how busy the traffic was here, but nothing could’ve prepared me for what came next.
Somehow we were supposed to cross the large avenue without a crosswalk or traffic light, simply inching our way forward while motorbikes zigzagged around us.
The adrenaline of that first street-crossing left me overwhelmed yet excited. So far my experiences in Asia have been made up of moments that capture all of my senses. The heat dripped from my forehead and the smell of street food filled the air around me as my eyes focused on the vehicles zooming past me.
I’m happy to report I’ve almost mastered the skill after spending two weeks in the country, which brings me to our first item. Aside from the main tourist sites in Hanoi, like the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum and the Temple of Literature, here are seven things you can’t miss when visiting Vietnam’s capital city.
Watch the locals, not the backpackers.
Watch how they calmly step onto the road and continue to the other side at a steady pace. Not too fast. Not too slow.
You have to trust the wits of the drivers around you. (Not an easy task at first!) Trust that the traffic will snake around you. It will.
One of the best experiences we had in Hanoi was hanging out with a local college student.
We spent hours walking around the Old Quarter learning about her day-to-day as a teenager growing up in Hanoi.
Cam, who is studying economics, shared with us her dreams of studying abroad in Australia and Japan. Although she’s worried about the cost of housing in both places.
She told us her mom works for the government, which meant she would eventually follow the same path. While the salary is low, the employment is steady, she said.
When we asked her where she’d like to travel to next, she responded the U.S.
“Where in the U.S.?” we asked
“Las Vegas,” she responded. “I want to see the Trump Tower. I heard it’s made of gold! And eat at the Heart Attack restaurant. They serve the most caloric burger in the world.”
We couldn’t believe her response — it was too funny! I may have to add that burger to my bucket list.
Our meeting was set up by an organization called HanoiKids, which offers free walking tours led by local students so they can practice their English. You pick where you want to go and what you want to do. You simply cover the tour guide’s entrance fees or meal costs if you choose to visit tourist attractions or dine in a restaurant.
Guil felt a bit squeamish during our first few days in the city. He had just recovered from a stomach bug he caught in South America. He approached the food cautiously and stayed clear of the numerous street-food stalls that crowd the Old Quarter’s sidewalks.
Truth is you should find yourself a spot on one of the plastic benches next to the woman deep-frying pork on the side of the road to taste the true local flavors of Hanoi.
You must try bun cha, bahn mi and pho.
For bun cha, head over to Bun Cha 34 or New Day Restaurant. For bahn mi, we hit up Bahn Mi 25. Check out Pho 10 for pho (while we didn’t have the chance to eat here, it was always packed).
Don’t forget to try Hanoi’s iced-coffee delicacies! You can find sweet, creamy egg coffee at Giang Cafe, and the cooling, ice cream-like coconut coffee at Cong Caphe.
Make sure to visit Hanoi on a weekend if you enjoy shopping. The weekend night market runs from Friday to Sunday, taking up one of the main streets within the Old Quarter.
There you’ll find the latest trends as well as local food, electronics and all sorts of souvenirs.
It’s a great place to brush up on your bargaining skills. If they ask for 200,000 Vietnamese Dong, offer 100,000! Don’t be afraid to negotiate that number down to whatever you feel comfortable paying. Remember that it’s OK to walk away. There are dozens of vendors selling the same thing!
The practice will pay off in the rest of Asia.
There’s a residential street that’s home to both locals and railroad tracks. Homes line the narrow alley on either side, and at its center, you’ll find a long path of train tracks.
Deemed “Train Street” by visitors, this is one slice of Hanoi you don’t want to miss.
In the morning there were locals cooking meals in the middle of the train tracks. Later that afternoon we were lucky enough to see the train pass inches from their front doors.
We glued ourselves to someone’s front porch: The passage is so narrow that if you reached your arm out you could touch the moving train.
You should show up around 3 p.m. to catch the train. We waited around for about 30 minutes until we heard it chugging along in the distance.
Everyone walks around Hoan Kiem Lake at the center of Hanoi’s historical district. You’ll see visitors trying to capture the perfect photo as locals enjoy ice cream on nearby benches.
The street around the lake is closed off for pedestrians on Saturdays and Sundays, and this is where you can truly witness local life in action.
Families flood the street. Friends eat and laugh at restaurants lining the lake. Live music plays in the background as kids chase one another and play with colorful airplanes made of foam.
When the sun goes down, the street really comes alive.
We met an Irish father and son who told us Hanoi was supposedly home to Vietnam’s best pizza restaurant.
Pizza in Vietnam? How good can it be? We were skeptical.
I’m here to tell you the pizza at Pizza 4P’s is one of the best pizzas I’ve ever had in my life! Better than the pizza I had in Italy. Better than the pizza I had in Chicago. Almost better than the pizza I had in New York.
Order the three-cheese pizza, a light, airy, cheese-dripping goodness served with a side of honey. We had it twice during our stay. Twice!
Make a reservation or just show up, if you don’t mind waiting a bit. I know it sounds crazy to choose pizza over bun cha, but it’s worth it! We’ll definitely come back here if we return to Hanoi.
Carla and Guil are a Brazilian/American couple who broke the ultimate routine: They quit their jobs to travel the world. Find them backpacking around Europe, South America and Asia.