After a few nights in middle-of-nowhere towns with unbelievable nature, we welcome the bustling streets of the Old Quarter in Hanoi to formally introduce us to Northern Vietnam. Small, winding streets completely encompassed by street vendors and filled with waves of tourists, locals, vigilant taxis, and motorbikes describe most blocks in the Old Quarter. It is alive.
Every corner is dotted with tiny stools and chairs with beer drinkers, food eaters, and cigarette smokers testing, in the case of some foreigners, seriously testing, the stalwartness of the tiny plastic legs. The area is dominated by pedestrians instead of motorbikes – a refreshing change from most of the cities we have experienced in Vietnam. One of the first things Stu and I did when we arrived was get a needed haircut.
Carefully Selecting the Right Barber
Within a few minutes of leaving our hostel deep in the heart of the Old Quarter, we walk past the first barbershop/salon we see and stroll in. As expected, but still shattering my faint hopes, the young, 22-ish man who sits me down to cut my hair speaks zero English. I point to some of the photos on the wall of styles I like and he uses his phone to show me more.
In case you don’t know, nearly every single young (under 35?) male in Vietnam has pretty much the same haircut. The sides and back are completely buzzed to ⅛ of an inch or so, undercutting a long top, much of the time a bowl cut that they gel up. Here are some examples for you:
My barber has this same haircut. Anyways, Stu, with 6 months of experience, previously warned me that every barber will try to give you this haircut, so I specifically point out some of the styles on his phone that have no undercut; somewhat short on the sides with a slight fade to the top. Simple. In addition, I show him photos on my phone of my most recent haircut back home. He nods emphatically saying “yes, yes, yes”. Immediately, he buzzes the lower back of my head and the sides on the lowest setting. He looks at me and says, “ok?” Son of a bitch.
I reassuringly let him know the length is okay as I try to explain what fading or blending is to him. I gesticulate a smooth incline, pointing from my ears to the top of my head. He nods again. As he shortens and cleans up the top of my head and the areas above the undercut he made, I realize he is leaving the undercut. This time, I point to the hair right above the undercut and narrow the gap between my thumb and index finger to indicate shortening it to smooth out the undercut. He nods again and uses the lowest setting on the clipper to raise the undercut another inch and deepen it. I can’t help but laugh.
Tired of fighting it, I succumb to the style. He does actually blend it a tiny bit at the end leaving me with a nice, hybrid Vietnamese/whiteboy haircut. The attractive, young girl running the shop giggles and says I am very handsome as she grabs my chin. That, along with her only asking for $4, allow me to hop out onto the street feeling pretty good. Although, for my next haircut, I think I will be holding out for somebody that speaks English, just in case the common hairstyle in Laos isn’t as sexy.
Enjoying Life in the Old Quarter
There are hundreds of touristy things you can do in Hanoi from seeing temples to visiting museums, but really, the best part is just enjoying the food, people, and ambiance of the Old Quarter. We did visit the Temple of Literature, Hoa Lo Prison, and walked around the famous lake, but none of it was too impressive. We decided to save our money and not visit any more museums or sites and to focus on the important stuff.
We ate everything in Hanoi from fried pigeon and world-class Bun Cha to egg coffee and street skewers. You can see some pictures of the food in Hanoi we tried in this slide deck. Let me tell you, the fried pigeon was actually really good. It didn’t have too much meat and had a lot of bones, but it’s very tasty. We also had the best Pho of the trip in Hanoi. Some of the main dishes we had were Xia Ga, Egg Coffee, Bun Cha, Fried pigeon, Banh Cuon, Pho, and Bun Dau.
Besides the amazing food, the area is also party central for both tourists and locals. Our hostel, along with most other places, was packed with 18-30 yearolds drinking, chain smoking cigarettes, and inhaling balloons full of laughing gas. Surprisingly, you can get laughing gas balloons at most bars. I never knew that was a big thing outside of people doing whip-its in America (inhaling Nitrous Oxide from whip cream cans).
Outside of the bigger hostels, bars, and clubs, there are hundreds of street stands selling Bia Hoi out of kegs and other tiny beer vendors offering a fun spot to watch the Euro Cup games. Bia Hoi is the locally made draft beer that they normally sell for cheap. At our favorite spot, one beer was 5,000 Dong, which is the equivalent of less than $0.25. If you have $5 to spend……you do the math.
Hostels and Hotels in Hanoi
The first four nights we stayed in in the Central Backpackers in Old Quarter hostel. It was only $5/night/bed for the eight bed dorm and the place was great. The actual dorm was probably the worst part, but the beds were comfy and everything was cleaned daily. The wi-fi throughout all eight floors worked great, the lobby area was always packed with people and friendly staff, and the rooftop bar had free beer every night from 7-8 pm. This hostel is great for meeting tons of people and partying in Hanoi. It is always located right in the middle of amazing street vendors, bars, clubs, restaurants, and a market. I would recommend this place to anyone looking to meet people and have a good time.
The final night of our stay in Hanoi we got a private twin room at May De Ville Backpackers Hostel. It was about $8/night/person and still centrally located. The room was very nice, probably the nicest private room we had in Vietnam. We didn’t really meet anyone here and it was more of a recharging night. This is a good place to take a little break from the crazy party hostels.
Overall, Hanoi was my favorite city in Vietnam in terms of people, culture, food, nightlife, etc. It doesn’t have the amazing nature or touristy trips that some of the other places have, but it is a fun place to hang out and enjoy life in another country. If I were to ever live abroad or teach English, this would be at the top of my list for potential cities.
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