How I Survived a Week in Hanoi by Myself

I love traveling solo. It’s a great way to explore a city because you don’t have to worry about anyone else but yourself. And because I am a curious cat, traveling this way is a fulfilling way to quench my thirst for adventure and at the same time, reflect on my life.

Hanoi is my latest destination. I chose the Vietnam capital because I wanted to immerse myself in culture after several trips to the highly-urbanized Hong Kong (curiously, I went to Hong Kong three days after I got back from Hanoi for an assignment to Ocean Park). I also heard that Hanoi has incredible architecture, which is a treat for a fan such as myself.

Whenever I travel solo, I book a hostel to cut costs and potentially meet people. I like hostels because they’re more charming and personal than hotel chains. I get to meet like-minded people, too. For Hanoi, I booked a room for privacy. A room for one night is P1,000 so I grabbed the chance. And besides, I can still meet the other guests in the common area.

I arrived past midnight. I arranged for an airport pickup from my hostel because the Noi Bai International Airport is far and the public bus system is closed. I could have taken a cab, but I’ve read enough warnings not to trust them as they will overcharge. Hanoi is clearly not a night city as all the roads we passed were devoid of people. I did get a glimpse of their architecture, which was mostly neo-classical, a remnant from their French colonization. Such beauty, much wow.

There was nothing else to do so I took a hot shower and watched TV in bed.

Hanoi is a city best explored on foot, and that’s what I did. I am proud to say that I only stepped foot in a vehicle four times: twice going to and from the airport, and twice going to and from a shop that passed through a highway.

I think it’s best to explore the city on foot because that’s how you appreciate it. When you walk at a leisurely pace, you get to see life unfold. You get to see the vendors peddling their wares, holes in the wall with people spilling out enjoying their pho, and the beautiful buildings that make up the city. You can also stop anytime you want for that perfect Instagram shot.

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Because of their shared history with the French, colonial structures are everywhere, even in run-down neighborhoods. Their favorite color is egg yolk yellow with dark-leaf shutters, and they are both majestic and Instagrammable. My favorite structures are the Hanoi Grand Opera and the Sofitel Legend Metropole. Also impressive is Ho Chi Minh’s mausoleum, an imposing structure done in a Brutalist style.

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Another reason why I enjoyed walking in Hanoi is so that I can discover good food. Hanoi’s food scene is the blink-and-you’ll-miss -it type. Most of the food I’ve had were served in humble stalls literally beside the road, with little tables and low seats. It was a struggle for six feet tall me, but it was worth the effort because I had really good pho, banh mi, and barbecue there. I still think about the spring rolls I had at the restaurant at the end of my hostel’s street, and my favorite meal: the bun cha, a grilled pork soup served with vermicelli noodles and vegetables. I ate at Bun Cha Huong Lien, where Anthony Bourdain took US president Barack Obama. I ate there twice.

The language barrier was tough, but I simply signaled “one,” which they understood as one dish. I never know what they’re going to serve me, but I assumed it was going to be their bestseller.

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You shouldn’t visit Hanoi if you want thrills. It doesn’t have Disneyland, Fifth Avenue, or the Eiffel Tower. It’s a city for soaking in the culture and introspection. Most of my days were spent hopping from one museum to the next. My favorites were the Vietnam Museum of Revolution and the Hanoi Police Museum. The former shows the timeline of struggle in Vietnam’s history, which is a bloody yet engrossing affair, while the latter, which I discovered by accident, is a new and groovy-looking museum that details the fascinating history of their police force. Both featured propaganda art prominently, an art-form I recently fell in love with.

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I also spent a lot of time along the tranquil waters of Hoan Kiem Lake, a center for social activity in Hanoi. People go there to jog, hang out with friends, or go on dates. I spent a few hours there by myself, quietly contemplating life. The Huc Bridge was especially beautiful at night.

The rest of the time, I was in my room, happily ensconsed in my bed watching movies. I had a drink at the rooftop bar, but it wasn’t my scene. As I told my friends who asked why I didn’t interact with the other guests or why I didn’t explore the rest of Vietnam, I was there to rest after resigning from my day job and I needed as little stimulation as possible.

When I got back in Manila, I felt renewed and refreshed. Even if I spent an entire week walking, I was inspired by what I saw, felt, and ate. That’s the thing about traveling solo. You are more a local than a tourist because you experience the city, not its tourist attractions (at least for me, because I believe tourist attractions are best enjoyed with a group). As I mentioned in my blog, I found everything I was looking for in Hanoi, including myself.

Have you been to Hanoi? Tell us about your trip below!

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