Spending a week in Hanoi
Hanoi - the capitol of Vietnam - it's a great place for us to spend 6 nights and just relax without any real plans. It wasn't our initial plan, as we had a quick night booked in Hanoi before we headed out for a few days in Sapa, and we had 2 nights booked on the return. We booked 1 night, then 2 nights and left the majority of our luggage in Hanoi when we took the overnight train to Sapa and spent our short time there. We had then planned to take a quick trip to a small town about two hours southwest of Hanoi for a home stay in a minority village, but the more we looked into the details on booking it, the more we were inclined to just skip it and spend the time in the city.
The hotel we had initially booked was nice enough, but the ever expanding bar street area meant that we initially had a balcony room overlooking a street that had people out partying until after midnight. The music quiets down around 1am, but it's still a nuisance if you're trying to sleep. When we returned we asked for a room in the back, they were able to accommodate us, but you can still hear the street noise. It made us feel bad for the locals that you can see still living in the old homes along the street, in the last 5 years their quiet neighborhood has drastically changed. We switched to a new hotel a few blocks away, and much quieter, once we had decided not to make the overnight trip out of the city.
Hanoi, like we've seen in everyplace we have returned to visit in southeast Asia, has changed immensely in 8 years. The quiet corner where people used to spread out plastic seats and drink cheap beers has expanded to a bar street that actually is around 6 streets in a 4-5 block area. It's packed, and on the weekends the streets are blocked off and turned into a pedestrian walking zone - this we learned as we had to leave the hotel on Saturday evening to catch the overnight train to Sapa, we had to walk two blocks just to get to a taxi.
The beers are still cheap, the pricing has risen from 2,000 to 5,000 Dong ($0.22 USD), and there are corners where you can sit on the cheap plastic chairs and drink and enjoy great food. We had bowls of Pho delivered to us one night, and we enjoyed several Banh Mi's over our stay.
One of the best would be the duck meat banh mi that was served from Banh Mi 14, operating outside of the Yogurt Bar.
The standard highlights we skipped this time around, we walked through the old town, wandered around the lake and past the opera house, but in the heat of Hanoi in May we found it easier to just find a spot in the shade to relax and hope to catch a breeze to try and cool off.
Air conditioning exists, but most places seem to feel its hot enough to turn it on yet (they're incorrect, it's hot and uncomfortably muggy out), but in the evening you can find places that are somewhat comfortable. I'd recommend Peachy Craft Beer Pub, we spent an evening there out on the balcony watching the world move past on the busy street while fans worked at full power making sure that you could enjoy sitting outside.
Besides the mindless strolling around the city and complaints about the heat - the other times we had been here were in October and December when it's comfortable - one thing that we did go out of our way to visit was a housing complex that's about 40 minutes outside of the old city center of Hanoi. This was something we had seen on other websites, most notably wander-lush, and we would say that it's a must visit if you've got a spare day or two in your Hanoi itinerary and are interested in the failed excesses of urban sprawl. This is a massive housing project that was started and then just stopped, we will annoy you with a lot of photos, but the amount of work that was done and almost completed is amazing. A few of the homes are lived in, the majority are about 50% complete, some look as if they could be moved into tomorrow, others have trees growing inside. It's about a 40 minute ride and a $8 USD taxi ride from the old quarter, but it's like going into a different world. It's eerily quiet and yet peaceful as you walk around the fake lake in the center of the complex.
We wandered around the area, into some of the unfinished buildings, and just tried to comprehend the expense and how the whole thing failed - the workers just being told to go home, the families that had invested on a future house, at what point in the project the losses reached the point where the inventors pulled the plug.
From the Lideco housing complex, we were worried about finding a taxi back but within minutes back on the main road we found one, we headed back to the old quarter where we could be back inside of the noise and commotion of a busy city.
Hanoi is a great city to visit and wander, it still holds some of that old world charm as it's moving itself forward and reinventing itself. The changes that have happened in the 8 years since we had last been here left us saying that it will not be another 8 years before we return...