What You Should Expect on Your First Trip to Hanoi

busy hanoi intersection

Hanoi is a lot of traveler’s favorite place to visit in Vietnam. I even met people who showed up and then blew off the rest of the country just to stay in Hanoi. I was looking forward to this city more than any other in Vietnam.

I’m usually not let down when I get to a city that I highly anticipate going to, and I did end up eventually liking Hanoi.  But just like chopping a pill in half to make it easier to take, it took a minute. Perhaps that was because of all the undrinkable water there.

I can also say that I never really regret traveling anywhere because I think each new destination teaches me something new. Even if I don’t have the best time, it always forces me to learn something about myself I didn’t know before. It also always feels good whenever a specific city or country comes up in conversation that I can say i’ve been there.

If you’re traveling Vietnam, check out these helpful posts:

  • Read about the best cruise in Halong Bay here.
  • Check out my posts on what to do and where you should eat in Hoi An.
  • Read here for the top things to do in Ho Chi Minh City on your first trip.
  • Check out my list of the best restaurants in Ho Chi Minh City here.

So if I ended up liking Hanoi, then what’s this post all about? Maybe it’s about me being overly trusting to other people’s travel advice. All of those people who raved about everything the city had to offer. Or maybe it’s because I’m stubborn and I wanted to love Hanoi as much as I thought I would.

Or maybe I want to make sure you have the chance to love it as much as you possibly can, without any shock or confusion.

Here are the things you should expect on your first trip to Hanoi.

It’s pure chaos

Pure and simple chaos – specifically in the old quarter. There is no way to explain the lack of organization that surrounds this popular area of Vietnam’s capital. This could potentially add to the charm of the city, and perhaps to many it does. To me, it was a bit stressful.

The chaos coincides with the rapidly growing population. There is no limit to motorbikes, buses, pedestrians, and carts being pulled by women in straw hats. Motorbikes are parked on sidewalks, leaving the minimal amount of space to walk an obstacle course. This often forces you into the road to dodge oncoming traffic.

With the growing issues of pollution of infrastructure, this is an issue that is being addressed by the country and should get better as they ban motorbikes from the city and add better public transportation.

Overcrowded Streets

One of the most popular things to do in Hanoi is to rent a motorbike to get yourself around town. Even Anthony Bourdain claims it’s the thing to do. When I first arrived and saw the streets of Hanoi, my jaw dropped at the thought of driving on them. Just walking was a challenge.

For anyone who hasn’t driven a motorbike before, like myself, this is downright impossible. It’s just not something that we do in the US, so I had no previous experience. But I can’t imagine that it’s safe for any person, no matter how familiar you are at maneuvering a motorbike around town. Which is obvious when you look at the thousands of people killed every year in motorbike accidents.

There are no street signs or street lights at all in the old quarter. I didn’t see even one. The four way stops are just a web of bikes and cars and pedestrians, holding their breath and trekking along. Looking both ways doesn’t even help because once you turn your head, another wave of bikes start coming.

I think I almost got whiplash trying to rotate my neck back and forth to see when it was my turn to go. Even after using extreme caution, I still came as close as I’ve ever been to getting ran over. I’m used to cabs not caring at all in New York, and the streets of Hanoi STILL shocked me.

Watching out for scams

Like most tourist heavy places, you have to be aware of scams in Hanoi. I was lucky not to have a repeat of my experience in Bangkok and fall victim to any. Just like most big cities you should be aware of pickpockets, but in Hanoi you should also be wary of motorbike theft. Some other popular scams include motorbike rental scams, shoe shine scams and the fruit basket ladies.

It’s extremely easy to be taken advantage of as a Western traveler in Southeast Asia because it is very clear by looking at you that you’re not from there. You don’t even have to say or do anything to clearly mark yourself as an outsider. It’s an unfortunate part about traveling to underdeveloped or poor nations.

If this is your first stop in Southeast Asia, make sure you’re fully versed on popular scams, book all tours and accommodations through reputable sites and always know how you’re getting to and from the airport or train station.

Taking an overnight bus

I didn’t get scammed IN Hanoi, but I did book an overnight bus to Hoi An from my hostel, which had a good reputation (Republik Backpackers hostel). When I got to Hoi An though, my friend and I were directed from the bus to guys on motorbikes and then driven to our hostel where they demanded an excessive amount of money.

This is a common scam in Vietnam so avoid getting on any motorbike taxis if you can. I also think the hostel should have warned me about this as it seemed to be happening to everyone that got off the bus.

Taking all this into consideration, you should still absolutely visit Hanoi. There is beauty in it’s chaos. There is exhilaration in its danger.

For a country with such a long history of war, it is still recovering from the wounds. Corruption is there, but so is adventure. I think being prepared for a country like Vietnam is half the battle to loving it – so read a lot and research a lot. Then go explore!

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