Wander Or Bust: Hanoi, Vietnam
Wander or Bust is an Elite Daily travel series that follows young women all over the globe to record their journeys as they experience the thrill of the far-flung and unknown.
They'll track their budgets, where they stay, where they eat and drink, and where they took that amazing Instagram that got them ~maximum exposure.~ The internet is full of travel advice, but none from women just like you. Read on for the tips no one else gives you, and when in doubt, get on the plane.
Here's Aly Vander Hayden's Wander Or Bust guide to Hanoi, Vietnam.
My Name: Aly Vander Hayden
What I Do: Associate Digital Producer
Where I Live: Brooklyn, New York, USA
Where I Went: Hanoi — and a few other places
How Long I Stayed: 21 days, 20 nights
My Spending Style: Occasionally indulgent. I don't throw money around, but I will definitely splurge on more than a few expensive things on a vacation.
Where I Got My Recommendations:
I knew someone from high school who went to Hanoi a few months before my trip, and she sent me a list of all the places I absolutely had to eat at. Other than that, I read a few articles from the "36 Hours" column from The New York Times, got Lonely Planet’s Discover Vietnam guidebook, binged YouTube videos from Vietnamese-Australian chef Luke Nguyen, and re-watched a ton of Parts Unknown episodes. (Thanks, Anthony Bourdain! The snail soup in Hanoi was killer.)
Exchange Rate At Time Of Travel: $1 USD = ₫ 22,772 VND
What That Looks Like IRL: $50 USD = ₫ 1,138,892 VND
Preferred Payment Method:
I took out about $400 in cash before getting to Vietnam, and I exchanged it at travel agency offices in the cities I visited. I also used my credit card a few times in places that accepted them, but I mostly used cash to avoid extra charges from my bank (Bank of America).
Phone Bill: $0
I turned off my data and roaming and survived off WiFi, which ended up working out because there was free WiFi everywhere in Vietnam.
Mode of Transport: Airplane & Train
I flew from New York to Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. From there, my partner and I took an 18-hour overnight train to Huế. Though I’m really glad we did it and were able to experience traveling like locals, it was definitely the dirtiest and most cringeworthy part of the trip. I’m talking roaches, squat toilets, dirty linens, and nothing to eat but packaged snacks and instant coffee. When we got into Huế, we immediately booked a flight to get from Huế and Hanoi and shredded our second set of train tickets.
Extra Costs: $7
I took Ubers to and from the airport, and with the exchange rate, it was only about $7 total.
Transport Total: $685
Location: It was close to the city center, but far enough away from tourist streets, so it wasn’t too noisy. Both my partner and I are pretty light sleepers, and Vietnam is always buzzing. I almost wish I stayed a little farther away from the downtown area.
Extra Costs: Hair conditioner ($2). I knew I’d be backpacking around the country, so I waited to get bigger bath and beauty products (body lotion, shampoo, conditioner, body wash) until I landed.
Would I Recommend It To Someone Else:
If you’re a heavy sleeper and don’t mind street noise at all hours, you would love staying at this Airbnb. For me, it was a little difficult to get a good night’s sleep. Other than that, there was great AC and tons of kitchen amenities. We also loved the apartment’s cute balcony where we sipped our morning coffee.
Accommodation Total: $250 ($500 total, but split with partner).
Breakfast-Lunch Cost: $10/day
Dinner Cost: $10/day
Average Total Cost: $20/day
Tip Situation: It’s not customary to tip in Vietnam. We did, however, give one of our tour guides a tip because the travel agency said it was encouraged.
We ate out for every meal, and most of them were very light, fresh dishes. In the morning, we’d get a Vietnamese iced coffee (super sweet with condensed milk) and either have some type of phở or a bánh mì. For lunch and dinner, I ate a lot of beef phở, bún thịt nướng (a cold noodle dish), cơm hến (rice with clams), bun oc (snail soup) and tons of rice bowls. In Vietnam, there are a bunch of street food-style stands and just a few restaurants.
Favorite Restaurant: Banh Mi 25
This was my favorite spot for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. It was definitely hyped up by my old friend from high school, and all the guidebooks recommended it. I ate there multiple times during my stay in Hanoi. It’s only a few blocks from the main street that runs through the city center, so it was really easy to get to every day.
Location: 25 Hàng Cá, Hàng Bồ, Hoàn Kiếm, Hà Nội, Vietnam
Price: Less than $1 USD per bahn mi.
The incredible thing about Vietnamese food is, everything is so fresh. The bread, the vegetables, the meat — everything. I always deal with stomach problems (and most of my friends warned me about eating street food), but during the trip, I didn’t get sick at all. It really made me rethink my diet and the amount of processed food I consume in the U.S.
Food Total: About $200.
Nightlife Situation: There are definitely more touristy, “backpacker” areas with clubs and bars, but we avoided them most of the trip. We spent most of our nights at little outdoor food stands, sipping on beer with ice.
What People Wear Out: It’s super casual. I was in a shapeless dress or a skirt with crop top the entire time.
Average Cost Of A Pint: $1.50
Extra Cost To Know About: Not really, unless you plan on taking a taxi or Uber home.
Last Call: I would say 4 a.m., but the latest I stayed out was 2 a.m. (The time change really messed with me.)
Average Total Cost Of A Night Out: $5
Cheapest Bar I'd Actually Go Back To: Beer 2KU
There was a touristy, two-story bar called Beer 2KU, and it had a great rooftop view of the street below. It was super cool and shady, and hanging out on the second floor was a perfect escape from the humidity.
Going Out Total: $50
What I Spent A Lot On That Was Totally Worth It:
A mini trip to Ha Long Bay and Cat Ba Island. We booked a three-day, two-night guided tour through Vega Travel, and we went with about six other tourists. Our tour guide Tiger picked us up at our Airbnb in a passenger van and drove us out to Ha Long Bay, which is about a four-hour journey. The trip began by cruising the bay in a large junk boat, where we stayed overnight.
The first day was full of kayaking, hiking, and swimming. The next day, we visited a cave on one of the islands and then transferred from our boat to Cat Ba Island, where we spent our second night at a hotel near the beach. We hiked some more, tanned on the beach, visited some military outposts from the Vietnam War, and then had an incredible local meal with our group called a “seafood hot pot.” If you go to Hanoi and skip this mini trip, you’ll regret it.
What I Spent A Lot On That Was Totally Not Worth It:
To be totally honest, everything was so cheap that I don’t regret any purchases. I did get swindled into buying some overpriced doughnuts from a street vendor, but they were only like $2.
What I Spent Little Or No Money On That Was Awesome:
While we were on Cat Ba Island, our tour guide got us some local rice wine, which is made from the fermentation of rice starch. The taste almost reminded me of Fernet or some other type of digestif. Our rice wine came in an Aquafina bottle, and we spent the day on the beach just laying out and passing it around. If you get the chance, definitely try some!
Favorite Thing I Did, Regardless Of Cost:
My favorite thing I did was hike to the top of a mountain in Cat Ba National Park through our Vega Travel tour group. We started at the base of the mountain and ascended about 2,000 feet in the air. I’m not the most active person, and the trek had a pretty steep incline with minimal railing support. It was also raining and windy, which was a bit terrifying. In the end, though, it was completely worth it.
Hidden Gem I Found:
Hanoi is filled with tailor shops, and I had researched a few while I was making my trip itinerary. When I saw the shops in person, however, none of them really felt like my style. So when I walked by Co Tailor and got a glimpse at these amazing high-waisted, wide-leg linen pants, I knew I had to get something made.
I got a custom linen dress that cost $38 and was basically a knock-off Reformation piece. I showed the shop owner a few photos of the dress I had screenshot from Reformation’s website, and she was able to make it in three days. The whole process of picking out the fabric, getting measured, and seeing the craftsmanship was like nothing I’d ever done before, and the dress is now one of my favorite pieces in my wardrobe.
The Photo I Took That Got The Most Attention:
Excursions/Extras Total: $195 — on the trip to Ha Long Bay and Cat Ba Island. (It was all-inclusive, and I only had to pay extra for booze.)
General Shopping: $0
Souvenirs: Street vendors had these amazing graphic t-shirts with names of Vietnamese cities. I think I bought three or four of them. There were also a ton of knock-off designer shoes, backpacks, and jackets. My partner got fake, low-top Converse, and they only cost $10.
Souvenirs/Shopping Total: I spent about $60, and it was all on clothes.
Best Vietnam Hack:
Crossing the street in Vietnam is kind of like playing a really terrifying game of Frogger with mopeds. It’s stressful at first, but you pretty much just have to throw yourself into the traffic. Trust me, people will go around you.
If you get the chance to rent a moped, do it. I think Anthony Bourdain said something like, “The only way to see Vietnam is on a scooter.” He’s not wrong.
Advice For Anyone Traveling Alone:
Consider doing at least one guided tour or mini trip. I’m kind of anti-big tour groups, but my mini trip to Ha Long was my favorite part of the entire vacation.
Total Trip Cost: $1,440
Worth It? It was 100 percent worth it. I would have spent more money just living my normal life in New York City than spending three weeks in Vietnam.