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.
Why I Won’t Be Visiting Hanoi Again
This post refers to my experience in Hanoi and only Hanoi. Before commenting, please keep in mind that nowhere have I said this refers to an entire country – I haven’t visited enough places in Vietnam to say that.
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. After all, 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 locals.
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 often eat food cooked in strange conditions in the middle of nowhere in Mexico and love it, I definitely 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 usually outside. 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. Did I get unlucky? Maybe…
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 got sick abroad. Never.
Every time I went out to eat I felt unwelcome by vendors trying to charge me double what they were charging the locals. They asked me to give them 50, but right in front of me, they asked a local man for 5. I know that everyone wants to make money off tourists, but why not humor the tourists and do it discretely?
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 the 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 is 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. Interesting.
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 they laugh about scamming you in Vietnamese right in front of you. Scam me, but humor me and laugh about it later.
The problem with scams in Hanoi isn’t just scamming tourists. I’ll pay more and get mad, but I’ll go back home and make up for the money I lost. However, Hanoi locals are scamming fellow Vietnamese people which I described in a separate post.
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 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.
Vietnam has only a 5% return rate. In comparison, other Southeast Asian destinations like Thailand, have over 55% (Source: The Economist). Hanoi 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, especially since I know there are many beautiful spots around the country. 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.
P.S. Keep in mind that if you want to send me an angry email saying that Hanoi was awesome, save us both some time. One person might like the destination, other will not. Also, since 2014 some things have changed in Hanoi and quite frankly the city became cleaner for sure.