Katie and I just wrapped up 19 nights in Hanoi. We visited for the first time almost exactly a year ago, but only for three nights. That previous visit was part of our first trip to Asia and our last vacation ever. At the time, I thought the city was totally crazy but also a lot of fun. It’s a cacophony of sights, sounds, activity, and traffic that’s both entertaining and intimidating. I assumed that a longer stay would allow us to explore at a slower pace, help mitigate some of the sensory overload issues, and be more enjoyable. I was wrong.
Prior to arriving a few weeks ago, I was certain that my previous experience of heightened anxiety and traffic craziness was mostly a function of being in unfamiliar territory. My visit a year prior was my first time in this part of the world after all. So having spent the last 7 months in Thailand, Cambodia, and Malaysia, I fully expected to seamlessly transition to Hanoi. However, that was not really the case. While I have a much greater comfort level walking right in the traffic lane among the cars and scooters, that’s about where it ended. Even with a baseline SE Asia comfort level, I still felt the overall traffic level was insane. And aside from a day or two around Tet, it’s ever-present. It really is just crazier in Hanoi.
Traffic is just one minor thing though. We had multiple issues and a lot of bad timing that contributed to a poor stay overall. First and foremost, it was really cold. If you follow me on Twitter, I made a tongue-in-cheek post right after arriving that joked about how it was a pretty bad day as I had to put on pants for the first time in almost 7 months. That was really only the beginning. We saw multiple days with highs barely reaching 60F (15C). I’m sure that seems laughable to you if you’re suffering through a real winter, but you are probably equipped for it. We simply don’t own warm clothes. Prior to stopping here, the warmest piece of clothing in my backpack was a long sleeved t-shirt.
The apartments here do not have heating or insulation, so the outside temperature matches the temperature inside. As such, there’s really no reprieve from the cold. Our apartment had no heat, no oven, and perpetually overcast skies meant there was almost no sunshine to warm it up either. So we were cold most of the time inside too. I relented and bought a sweatshirt after a couple of days, as my lighter layers were just not keeping me warm enough. I ended up wearing it nearly non-stop for the whole rest of the stay.
The air quality that I was complaining about in Chiang Mai didn’t improve with our change in locations either. Luckily we only experienced a few really bad days with AQI over 200, but the vast majority were still in the unhealthy range (150-200). We did get some rain to keep the air from getting too bad, but of course it’s no fun to go out and explore in the cold rain either. Combined with the dirty air we breathed in Chiang Mai for a month, our respiratory systems were in dire need of a break that never came.
This bad air quality kept us inside more than we wanted to be, but our apartment wasn’t great to hang out in. Despite being on the fourth floor, it felt more like a damp basement. There was almost no natural light at all. Our couch and chairs were pretty uncomfortable. And as I mentioned, it was constantly cold. The shower had lukewarm water at best, so that meant bathing left us freezing and the act of showering now took about two hours. 10 minutes to shower and 1 hour and 50 minutes to regain the lost warmth while shivering under every blanket that we had. We discussed multiple times whether we should just book a hotel room for a night to enjoy a hot shower, but never ended up pulling the trigger.
To top it all off, Katie got sick during our visit too. No, she didn’t come down with the Wuhan Coronavirus, but it was a bad cold. That meant that she was feeling pretty miserable and ended up staying in bed for a few days. Not that the sickness was so bad that it required bed rest, but there wasn’t anywhere else comfortable enough to relax.
The timing of everything was just the worst too. We picked a very cold time to visit. We enjoyed the lead up to Tet and the slightly slower pace provided by the holiday, but then Katie happened to get sick right when businesses were beginning to open up again. Then once she was feeling better, the air quality took a dip and it was no fun to go outside. The result was a good 10 days where we didn’t do much of anything except sit around our apartment trying not to freeze to death.
What We Did (When We Were Able To Go Outside)
Most of our activity in Hanoi was early in our stay and focused around Tet. Aside from that, when we did get a nice day, we spent it at our large local park Công Viên Thống Nhất (Union Park). This sprawling park has a nice lake in the middle and paths throughout. There is a fee for entry, but it’s a laughable $.15 per person. Like everywhere else in the city, the park had festive displays for Tet too. There were hundreds of lanterns strung up and thousands of flowers planted. Living sculptures made of plants representing each animal in the Chinese Zodiac were also really well done.
We also stumbled upon a joint street art project between Vietnam and Korea located here. On the brick facade of an active railway that runs through town are a series of street art scenes. There are about 30 of them total, and the whole street had a nice vibe. Many locals were out getting their picture taken in front of them.
We ate pretty well. There were numerous Bahn Mi sandwiches. Katie posted on our Instagram account a “flip book” of me eating one. We found a favorite restaurant for the Vietnamese classic noodle soup Pho Bo and visited multiple times. We also enjoyed Nem Lui, which is ground pork formed around lemongrass stalks and grilled. It really picks up the lemongrass flavor. It’s served with rice paper to which you add multiple toppings and roll up. It’s a lot of fun to eat.
Where We Stayed
We stayed in a fourth floor walk up that was a bit damp and dark like a basement apartment. Although it was decorated nicely, it lacked any natural light. The best part was the comfortable bed. It was also located on a side street which kept the traffic noise comparatively lower, so that was nice. And it had two bedrooms, so we had space to spread out.
What We Spent
Being holed up inside for a number of days helped keep the costs down. I think we would’ve preferred to spend more money here, but health and weather didn’t cooperate. Day to day expenses felt a little more expensive than Thailand, but it’s still pretty cheap. All together, we spent $1095.64 our 19 days for a total of $57.67/day. When I add in our regular bills like travel insurance and Netflix, our total spending amount for our time in Hanoi becomes $1191.47 or $62.71/day.
I do almost all of our travel planning and I kind of feel like a failure at the moment. The cold temperatures are one thing, but we can always buy clothes. That’s not a big deal. However I never realized that I should have been researching air quality as well. This week after week of unhealthy air has our lungs and throats unhappy. I knew that this nomadic travel life was bound to be a learning experience, but this lesson was definitely unexpected.
While we enjoyed the Tet celebration and ate some really good food, our second trip to Hanoi was not great overall. The combination of cold weather, bad air quality, and us choosing a poor apartment to stay in meant that the negatives outweighed the positives. I also think we really just need to breathe some cleaner air too. We really couldn’t wait to leave and I don’t see us returning to Hanoi anytime soon.