Last year, stuck in the office, writing for a travel company but not travelling, it was Vietnam (and Indonesia, but we’ll get to that) that got me dreaming of the road again. Last time I was in South East Asia I met all kinds of people singing Vietnam’s praises – I remember standing on the beach in Ko Phi Phi, four in the morning, with Coomer, listening to one such guy’s stories of remote, idyllic beaches and Vietnamese mothers trying to marry their daughters to him. But alas, I didn’t have a visa for Vietnam on that trip.
This time, armed with visas and fresh out of Laos, we found ourselves on a “sleeper bus”, bound, through lush green karst mountains and rice terraces, for Hanoi.
Hanoi is one of the most fascinating, yet liveable cities I’ve ever spent time in. Being never far from the coast, Vietnam has an element of French sophistication and charm that didn’t necessarily penetrate as deep as Laos or Cambodia. Beneath this is one of Asia’s most interesting cultures. These blends superbly, resulting in stunning visuals, amazing food (from baguettes to snake meat) and crazy nights.
Dropped off in the heart of Hanoi’s Old Quarter (Hoàn Kiếm) with the rest of the backpackers, we got our bearings and made our way to our accommodation through the hive of beeping, speeding motorcycles.
Where to Stay in Hanoi?
We stayed in Hanoi Lucky Guesthouse 2 on Hàng Mã. It was really affordable, super clean (though not without the telltale traces of the unavoidable North Vietnam damp) and with (almost too) friendly staff and even a few (virused up) internet terminals. (Don’t expect Facebook. This is the Socialist Republic of Vietnam afterall.) The only reason I might not recommend this place is that we ended up doing the same 10 to 15 minute walk, to where the action is, over and over. Also, be careful, as there seem to be at least two Lucky Guesthouses, Lucky Hotels, Hostels and so on. Fake hotels are apparently an issue in Vietnam.
The Vietnam Backpackers’ Downtown Hostel might be a bit rowdy (and pricey) for some, but that’s the area you probably want to be closer to.
Hanoi’s 36 Streets
Ask anyone why they loved Vietnam and what their favourite place was and it’s almost always the “36 streets”. Basically, the idea is that, since the 13th century, each street was dedicated to selling one thing, from sugar to silk.
Actually, believe it or not, a lot’s changed since the 13th century and, to me, all the streets seem to sell the same tat. Coffin Street (Lo Su) didn’t have a single coffin in sight and Hat Street seemed to be about the only place in the vicinity where you couldn’t buy a novelty conical rice pickin’ hat.
Even so, the 36 streets are still one of the coolest areas of town, especially if, like me, you like your nightlife. Head for “Beer Hơi Corner” at the crossroads of Tạ Hiện and Lương Ngọc Quyến. This is also the epicentre of the Old Quarter’s nightlife, with the best action, restaurants, bars and party hostels on those and the surrounding streets: Hàng Buồm, Đào Duy Từ and Mã Mây.
The “Cheapest Beer in the World”!
Bia hơi is Vietnamese draft beer. It is freshly brewed every day, an extremely refreshing lager, and costs only 5000 Vietnamese Dong (and sometimes even cheaper in local areas). At the time of writing, that’s 14 pence or 24 US cents, so, at seven glasses of beer, you really can get drunk for a pound!
For those of you who like to think you can handle more than seven beers before the word “drunk” be brought into play, I apologise. For you, this post should be called “how to get drunk for two pounds”. I don’t think there’re many people out there who think 14 beers for two pounds is a bad deal. So you can see why Vietnam earns its reputation for producing “the cheapest beer in the world”.
On our second night at the beer corner we met a crazy German guy called Andre. I asked him, “Who brews it? Do we know?”
“Nope. Nobody knows.”
“So, it’s like…mystery beer?”
“Exactly. Mystery beer.”
In fact, in typical South East Asian style, bia hơi production is completely unregulated, informal and not monitored by…well, anyone. Even the alcohol content is unknown (though it’s typically low; around 3%).
After the bia hơi corner bars closed down (curfew), me, Ruth and Andre dashed off in the piss-pouring rain, knocked at a garage door down the road and continued drinking there. By the by, we met a couple of Canadian girls on their way home from a big night who decided to get in a beer with us…only as soon as it was poured, they had to down it as the cops showed up and got stuck into a shouting match with the owners. Sometimes it’s easy to forget there’s a curfew. We also ended up meeting a couple of Israeli guys who knew Kayla and Marion from our Laos adventures. Small world, is the travelling circuit.
Other Vietnamese Beers
If you don’t fancy drinking the unknown, you don’t have to fork out much more to get a good-quality bottled beer. The Vietmanese love their beer. Compared to Laos’ one brewery, there are seemingly infinite Vietnamese brews. Here are just a few to look out for:
- Bia Hà Nội
- Saigon (Green)
- Saigon (Red)
- Truc Bach
- Bia Huế
For more beers from around the world, see my list of world drinks.
Oh and don’t forget Hanoi is much bigger than the Old Quarter. There’s a French Quarter, West Side and so on, plus plenty of snake restaurants, where you can try drinking “snake whisky”.
The next day, we went in search of some much needed coffee.