For a long time, I had dreamed of visiting Hanoi and Vietnam in general. In 2012, I even had my visa and plane tickets ready, but I had to cancel my trip at the last second. This is why I couldn’t skip Vietnam on my trip to Asia in 2014.
I only had a little bit more than a week in Vietnam, which was definitely not enough to see everything. This is why I chose to explore only the northern part of the country. I spent a few days in Hanoi, cruised around Halong Bay, and hiked in Sapa. While I obviously can’t speak for the entire country, since I haven’t been to Saigon or Da Nang, this is what I experienced in Hanoi (I had a horrible experience in Sapa is a topic for another post).
Why I Won’t Be Visiting Hanoi Again
As the trip was approaching, I started hearing and reading horrible things about Vietnam, especially the Northern parts. Other travel bloggers were either in love with the country (That Backpacker, Legal Nomads), or listing it as definitely not their favorite destinations (Nomadic Matt, Chasing the Unknown, Alex in Wanderland).
I was prepared for the possibility of getting scammed. Scams happen everywhere and this alone wouldn’t destroy my opinion about the entire place since the ratio could be one bad person to ten good people. But it turned out that no matter how prepared I was, there will always be a way that you can get screwed over when visiting Hanoi by many, many people.
Food in Hanoi
I grew up on Vietnamese food. After the war in Vietnam, a lot of refugees went to Poland and opened small Vietnamese diners. The food was cheap and tasty, so my family was going there at least once a week.
When I finally went to Vietnam, I couldn’t have been more disappointed with the food. After living in underdeveloped countries, I learned to love street food and I understand what cooking conditions might be. I didn’t expect Michelin star dining in Hanoi.
I expected what I read about Vietnam: street food is prepared on the spot and consumed while sitting on small blue plastic chairs. But I didn’t expect to see my food being prepared next to a kid taking a shit into a plastic bag, or my plate being rinsed next to a pile of garbage!
I felt like if I stepped into a puddle, I wouldn’t be so sure if I didn’t step in somebody’s pee.
No matter what I ordered in Hanoi, it was super dirty and served on a dirty plate. I was constantly sick after eating anything. And trust me, apart from a horrible food poisoning in Sri Lanka I never get sick abroad. Ever.
Every time I went out to eat I felt unwelcome by vendors trying to charge me double what they were charging the locals.
I asked some friends who have been to Hanoi for a recommendation and they pointed us to a place called Quán Bún Chả Hàng Mành where I went for dinner. I got a “bun cha,” a cold Vietnamese soup with pork served with vermicelli and crab rolls. Everything would have been fine if I didn’t feel the sand or dirt in my teeth after eating some salad.
After 9 PM almost every street vendor was closed, so one night I ended up going to a Western-style restaurant instead. While my friend ordered a sandwich, I ordered a crepe with ham, cheese, and mushrooms.
I asked the waiter (who spoke English surprisingly well) if it was a filled crepe and he assured me that it was filled with Western cheese because Vietnamese people don’t eat milk products. ‘Fine’ I thought.
After 20 minutes I received my dish: ripped crepes with a pile of ham dipped in some sort of cream, everything very cold, obviously. ‘Where are the cheese and mushrooms?’ I asked. ‘Inside, it’s inside’ said the chef, insisting that everything was fine.
When I showed him that they were clearly not there, he went back to the kitchen and brought me 2 raw mushrooms in a little bowl of milk decorated with a thin stripe of cheese. Really…?
Scams in Hanoi
As a white person in Hanoi, you’re being scammed pretty much all the time. It’s just that sometimes you might not know it, or you don’t want to admit that you know it. The worst part of it is that when you actually do pay attention to the behavior of the locals, you’ll notice that after they charge you three times as much as the others. Plus, they’ll laugh about it in Vietnamese in front of you.
The city of Hanoi
In spite of my horrible culinary experiences, I wanted to give this city a try. I wanted to discover Hanoi and find something that I could enjoy. I can’t say I didn’t enjoy drinking my black coffee (tip: never order coffee with milk in Vietnam, because you’ll receive it with very sweet condensed milk) while watching the locals skillfully maneuver their scooters under the webs of electric cables.
However, the city itself didn’t have anything that would make me want to go back. The famous lake in the center doesn’t look nice at all, not because it’s green, but because it looks abandoned. I went to every museum in the city in only a day. And during the rest of my time there I felt like I was just wandering around.
I’m not surprised that Vietnam has only a 5% return rate. In comparison, other Southeast Asian destinations like Thailand, have over 55% (Source: The Economist). Vietnamese people simply fail to understand that by scamming the visitors left and right, and laughing about it in their faces, their tourism won’t increase.
During my time in Asia, I met a lot of travelers who shared my views on Vietnam and in the end, I left earlier than expected.
I’m not saying you shouldn’t visit Vietnam, I would just skip Hanoi. I loved Halong Bay and as long you don’t book your tour with a company in downtown Hanoi, you’ll have a great time. I also didn’t go to Saigon which I heard has a much more friendly atmosphere.