Why is it that I’ve been to Vietnam three times when I haven’t even visited some of its neighbors even once? Because it is perfect, that’s why. It is one of my favorite countries in Southeast Asia, maybe even my very favorite, which is such a bold statement that I hesitate to even put it out there. So, what do I love so much about Vietnam? Well, everything, truthfully. Vietnam offers destinations for everyone – wildly chaotic cities full of culture and history, quiet, rural villages where rice fields disappear endlessly into the horizon, mountains for hiking, beaches for relaxing, and landscapes so unique they’ve been UNESCO-listed for preservation. The fact that all of that fits inside what I consider to be a relatively small country is impressive, for sure, but even better is that all of it can be seen for a fraction of the price you’d pay in say, the USA. For a budget traveler like myself, being able to spend less and do more is always the goal, and that’s easily attainable in Vietnam. Then, of course, there’s the usual things that make a place attractive – the food, the people you meet, and the ease with which you can travel and navigate between places. Vietnam nails it in all these arenas, too.
Hanoi, Vietnam’s capital, was my second big city to visit in Vietnam. The first was Ho Chi Minh in the late 90’s, which was so long ago that most people were still calling it Saigon, so I won’t attempt to compare the two until I’ve been back again. Hanoi has the reputation of being somewhat of an acquired taste, and I can see why. At first glance, Hanoi feels downright crazy. Motorbikes packing the roads, their blaring horns harmonizing into a shrill musical score. Dirty water being thrown out into the streets from shops and restaurants, sometimes directly onto your feet. Unidentified and often unpleasant smells mingling with the scent of cooking food. Determined shopkeepers demanding repeatedly for you to look at their goods. The sensory overload that hits while walking Hanoi’s streets is unsettling for almost everyone on their first visit. Factor in the death-defying risk that is crossing the street, and it’s easy to want to hightail it back to the safety of your hotel room. But give it a day. Hanoi will grow on you, just as it has on many travelers before.
I recommend at least two full days for a visit to Hanoi – one to get adjusted and another to make you want to stay longer or come back again. All of the major sights in Hanoi can be seen over a long weekend, but part of the appeal of Hanoi is its convenient location to nearby destinations commonly visited on overnight tours, so if you plan to head out of the city at all, you’ll need a few more days. We stayed in the Hanoi area for 6 nights – 4 in Hanoi and 2 elsewhere – and it was the perfect amount of time for a first visit. If it’s also your first visit, here’s how I recommend you spend your time!