The Pho-nomenal Vietnam – Hanoi Edition

Hello friends! Happy New Year!

I hope you all had the best break and I wish you all the best for 2018! I know it’s been forever since my last post, so as part of my 2018 resolution, I have decided to blog a lot more about trips, food (both cooked and consumed), and life in general. So with that said, I’ve been meaning to share with you all about my time in Vietnam this summer. I’ve been working and re-working on this post for awhile, so I hope you enjoy and it encourages you to go and visit the beautiful country soon!

Let me tell you, getting to Hanoi was a mission in itself. The details of that part of that trip will be discussed in another post, but long story short we came during monsoon season. The weather on that particular day was dreadful and delays turned to cancellations turned to sleeping at the airport. It was crazy and I’ve never really been in that type of situation before – but honestly I think it made the trip even more memorable. We also lost a night at the hotel, but grateful that hotels in Asia are pretty cheap and affordable!

So after spending the night at Guangzhou airport, we were able to get on a flight to Hanoi the next morning. So thankful to be leaving the airport and unto our next adventures! And really this is where our solo adventure begins – we were finished with our volunteering and now we’re really on our own, figuring out how to get to places ourselves, finding our food, etc.

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So we land in Noi Bai International Airport and the first thing we needed to do was figure out the whole visa situation. Before we left, Sam and I researched all the visas that we would need – the ones we can get once we land, the ones we needed to apply before, etc. We also came prepared and brought extra passport photos just incase (definitely suggest all you travellers out there to do the same!). So with the Vietnam visa, we used an online service to get a Visa Approval Letter. So basically what happens is, you pay this online service to get your visa pre-approved before you land. When you get to the airport, you take your Approval Letter, the Entry Applicant Form, and 2 passport photos to the Visa desk area. Then they pretty much make your visa there and all is good to go. Note, we were super sketched at first because the Approval Letter had multiple peoples name along with their passport numbers, but apparently that’s how its done. Super simple, we waited maybe 5-10 minutes, and then we were good to go! The service we used: Vietnam Visa Online Service. Another side note, be prepared with USD because that is what they take for the on arrival Visa payment!

So the first thing we do was get a sim card for our phone. Once you get your luggage and exit the luggage area, there are a bunch of kiosks around where you can grab a sim card. Similarly like in China, they needed our passport in order for us to be able to buy a sim card. Let me tell you, the sim card in Hanoi was ridiculously cheap. I think we paid $5 and got 10 GB or something like that and some minutes too. We always opted to get a plan with minutes when we can so we can call each other/hotel/in case of emergencies. Turned out to be the best idea because we realized that the driver that was supposed to come get us was not there. Turns out, they thought we were coming that night (confusion because of the cancelled flight), but the staff at the hotel were incredibly nice and sent a driver right away to pick us up. Make sure you check with your hotel regarding a driver pick up. I believe most of the hotels there offer a pick-up service for a very reasonable price and I would really suggest using their service. Not only is it reliable and usually more affordable, it is just a lot easier because they know EXACTLY where to take you.

Oh also, while we waited for the driver, we indulged in some comfort food because we thought after being stuck in an airport for 16 hours we so deserve it! IMG_0613.JPG

That caption says everything.

So I’ve decided that I’m going to split the Vietnam blog into two. In this particular post, I’ll be talking about Hanoi – what to do, what to see, what to eat. The next post, I’ll dive into the Halong Bay portion of our time in Vietnam. So stay tuned for both parts of our Vietnamese adventure!

HANOI

Accommodation
I’m going to say we totally lucked out with our hotel. Not only was it conveniently located in the Old Quarter walking distance from everything, the staff were extremely nice and the room itself was great. Not a 5 star hotel by any means, but for about $25CAD a night AND you get breakfast in the morning, it was such an amazing deal.

So we researched and it seemed like a lot of people were recommending staying in the Old Quarter for convenience and they were right. So we looked in Agoda and Trip Advisor and we decided on Hang My Hotel. I really liked where the hotel was located – it was on a more quieter street, but still so conveniently close to everything. There was food everywhere around, a pharmacy (which proved to be of so much help many times), and shops. We were also about 5 minutes away from the Lake which was surrounded by nightlife, so it was amazing.

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So let’s talk about the hotel itself. First, let’s chat about the staff. They are amazing and so helpful. Always ready to help whenever you needed it. We ended up making friends with one of the front desk staff and she was super sweet – she would always give us suggestions on what to do, where to go, etc. I can’t say enough good things about them.

The room itself was decent – bed was a queen and decent, there’s AC and a TV, and a en suite bathroom. The room I would say was smaller compared to a North American style hotel room, but honestly we came back to to hotel only to rest/sleep, so we didn’t really care at all. The bathroom though, y’all need to be prepared. Unlike here in North America where the bathtub/shower area is separated either by a wall/curtain/door or something from the toilet area, there it was all together because its pretty small. So you’re showering right beside the toilet and water is just going everywhere. I have this thing with bathrooms…and honestly I prefer a separation between my shower area and the toilet area so that took some time to adjust to (PS its all over Asia).
Now we specifically chose the same hotel to stay at when we came back for one night after Halong Bay – this way we can leave our bigger luggage at the hotel. That last night, our room I believe got upgraded for unknown reasons (we secretly thought it was because we became buds with the staff). That room was even better – we got a king size bed and an actual bathtub! All in all, the room was good!

Breakfast was also included, yes in the $25 per night price. And the breakfast was actually pretty good – there was a good amount of choices.

Laundry – if you need to do laundry, this is the place where you should do it. You can most definitely go outside of the hotel and get laundry done at some place, but honestly it’s so convenient to just do it at the hotel. It was approximately $2 for 1kg of laundry. TWO DOLLARS. It also came back IRONED AND FOLDED. Sam and I would just combine all our laundry together and it came to about 1kg if not a tiny bit over.
You literally give your bagful of laundry to the front desk and the next day, they have it all ready for you in this plastic bag all ironed and folded.
#sofreakingspoiledthere

Transportation
Easy: you walk. Everywhere. The beauty about staying in the Old Quarter is that everything is walking distance. I think the furthest we walked was 20 minutes and that didn’t even seem that far, because 1) you’re fascinated by everything around you: the street food, the shops, etc. 2) crossing the streets are an adventure in itself because it’s like a real life game of Crossy Road: Extreme Human edition. A video of this madness will be included in the Vietnam vlog that will be edited and posted soon! But walking is great – it just means you’re exercising so you can indulge in more food!

The only area that was a little further away was around the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum, though really it was still walkable. I think at that time, we didn’t really have that much time and it was hot so we opted for another kind of transportation: Motorcycles/Mopeds.  It’s like Vietnam’s go-to uber service because it’s so much easier to weave in and out of traffic using a motorcycle than it is using a car. Though super hesitant at first, I decided to try it. It was really fun though I don’t think I would ever want to be driving the motorcycle (madness I tell you!).
It’s extremely easy to get these motorcycles/mopeds – you can user the Uber or even bigger in asia, Grab, app. Grab came in handy MANY times when we were in Asia, so I would most definitely recommend for you to download it!

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Note: Taxis are also everywhere, but be cautious in terms of what kind of taxi you hail. I’ve heard that some will rip you off because the drivers know you’re a tourist, so just be extra cautious. I would really recommend Grab – it’s just more convenient, because they know where to pick you up, you know how much it is, and you don’t have to try explaining to them where you need to get dropped off because you have to input your drop off point in the app.

Money Exchange
Should you convert money before coming to Vietnam or just convert when you get there? What happens when you run out of Vietnamese Dong?
Questions that I definitely had before heading out. We decided that we wanted to convert some money in Toronto before we left and I would suggest you doing the same thing. I think it gives you a peace of mind, knowing that you have money ready. In some places, even the airport (like in Fuzhou, China), they don’t even take MasterCard or Visa nor do they have a money exchange place. That’s pretty rare though I think, because the airport was pretty small. Nevertheless, I think it’s just safe to have some ready to go and it came in handy when we were buying the sim card at the airport.

There was definitely a money exchange place when you leave the luggage area, so if you don’t end up converting money before coming you can definitely do it at the airport. As mentioned above when talking about the Vietnamese Visa, be sure to bring some USD with you! I took both USD and CAD with me – I found that to be useful too because it helped having CAD/USD to convert to VND and the USD is useful when tours and such only take USD cash (which some do).  There are also money exchange places pretty much scattered throughout Hanoi, so you don’t have to worry about not being able to convert money.

Some useful advice that I think might help those of you that don’t venture out much or you don’t do a lot of money exchange abroad (like me before this trip!):
1) If you are travelling to multiple countries with multiple currencies, you can use the leftover cash you have in a different currency and change it with the currency of the country you are now at/will travel to! We found that we tend to forget that we had cash leftover from the previous country we visited and it was just sitting in our wallet not being used/waiting to be converted to CAD. So we started converting the currencies we were no longer using to ones we would be using!
2) You can use either your debit card OR your credit card to take out cash! I tend to use a lot more of my credit card on trips, just to be safer (don’t want people to be accessing my bank account) so it was great that you can take out money using your credit card rather than your debit. I ended up using that method a lot more during my trip.
3) I should point out that having cash ready is quite important in Asia – I find that because everything is a lot cheaper and most food places you want to try is on the street/tiny little restaurants or stalls, they don’t tend to take credit cards. So make sure you have cash on hand with you!
4) Download a currency converter app. Came in handy many many times, because sometimes you just can’t do math that quickly in your head. Especially if the conversion is harder like 1 Vietnamese Dong = 0.000054 CAD or if you have multiple currencies in your head and its getting confusing.

Things to Do
There’s a bunch of things to do in Hanoi! We spent around 3 nights and 4 days there and we thought it was a good amount of time, though we wouldn’t mind staying a couple of more days! I’ve heard people stay a week or more and didn’t get bored. We didn’t get to do EVERYTHING because we stayed only for a couple of nights there, but I’ll outline the things we did do & what I thought of it.

Note: I was researching before the trip and there are a lot of opportunities to travel to the surrounding areas on a day trip/overnight trip. I would really suggest doing that if you’re going to be around for more than 3 days! You can take a look at Vietnam Guide website for some ideas.

Hoa Lo Prison
I really enjoyed visiting this “museum” and I’m not really a museum type of person. I thought it was really fascinating and just insightful. I learned quite a bit when I was there and being in the actual prison, seeing the actual cells and such gives you perspective of what it was like during that time. The prison was not huge, so I would say you can walk around the entire thing in an hour. It was the first place we visited when we explored and it was about a 10 – 15 minute walk from our hotel!
Cost: 30,000 VND
Link: Hoa Lo Prison
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Hoan Kiam Lake
There are a bunch of cafes, shops, restaurants around the lake – it’s really nice to just walk around or even sit by the lake and people watch. The lake gets even prettier when it lights up at night! On the weekends, we found that the roads around the lakes are actually blocked off so people can walk freely around which is nice. It does get really crowded though! I also bought a bunch of souvenirs and some elephant pants (those very baggy and comfortable elephant patterned pants) at some of the shops by the lake too!
The lake cannot be missed – it’s pretty much in the center of Old Quarter. A lot of people use the lake as a point of reference when we asked for direction.
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Walking Food Tour
I’ll be talking more in depth about the food that we had on the food tour, but this is SO RECOMMENDED! If you’re a foodie like me, this was one of the best experiences we had on the trip. I mean c’mon, you’re walking around town going from one food place, to another…what’s not to love! I believe there are a whole lot of different food tours you could choose from – I’ve put the link to a list of food tours via Trip Advisor (thank you Trip Advisor for being the best travel companion!). Honestly, we never thought of doing one until the lovely people at the hotel reception offered a food tour organized by the hotel. If you’re staying in the same hotel we were, ask the front desk about this! Unfortunately I don’t remember what the price was, but it was definitely reasonable! I think we paid around $25 give or take.
Trust me y’all, it’s worth it. They take you to places you definitely would not have ventured in because its little mom and pop food stalls with no signs or anything. And it’s authentic local food, which makes it even better! Highly, highly recommend!
Link: Hanoi Food Tours

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Cooking Class
This is a MUST DO! I think this is top 3 in things we did in Vietnam. It was such an amazing experience, I don’t even know where to start. First, there is an abundance of different cooking classes in Hanoi – do your research, ask around to see what classes people took. In this post, I’ll be talking about the class we went to and honestly I would really highly recommend them. First, the class sizes are super small. This makes for a better more intimate experience. Second, the chef was extremely nice and knowledgeable. He definitely knew what he was doing – the food tasted amazing after! Third, it is more than just a cooking class.

So first when you get there, they explain to you the agenda of the class. You don’t have to bring anything with you, everything is provided – down to like water and even ponchos when it rained. They first take you to the fresh wet market where you’ll be getting the ingredients for the class. To get to the market, you get to use a cyclo which is basically like a bike where someone does the paddling for you & you get to just sit there and take in your surroundings. Definitely an experience, especially in the busy streets of Hanoi.
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Then at the market, the chef takes you around through the different sections of the market, including the spice, seafood, and fresh veggies and meat. It’s such a great experience going with someone who knows their way around the market and speaks the language. Not only that, he knows the vendors there so we got to try different types of fruits and snack along our market tour.
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It was here where I first tried custard apple fruit and fell in love with it! Then the chef takes you back to the kitchen where you proceed to learn different Vietnamese dishes and also eat what you made after.

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If you look at the website for this particular cooking class vendor/company, they actually have a morning/afternoon option and also different dishes depending on the day. We picked a day where we got the make pho, bun cha, and fresh Vietnamese spring rolls. Trust me when I say that this is HIGHLY recommended, even if you don’t know or not a fan of cooking. The experience going through the market and trying out the different snacks was already great, but to be able to see the cooking process of some of the beloved food items was amazing. Shout out to Chef Jack for being superb!

Make sure you call ahead and reserve a spot! The food that you make will turn out amazing and you get the recipe to tr make it at home. After that experience, I’ve made a goal to try joining a cooking class every time I travel!
Cost: $55USD per person – this includes the market trip, the cyclo ride, the snacks, the ingredients and the meal after.
Link: Duong’s Restaurant

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Weekend Night Market
Night markets are a big thing in Asia and it’s no difference in Hanoi. We came during the weekend, perfect timing to visit the weekend night market! Basically during the weekends (including Friday night), they block off Hang Dao Street and they fill it with stalls and stalls of souvenirs, t-shirts, food, the like. If you’re looking to bring home souvenirs for friends and family, this would be the place to go. So I would suggest booking this into your schedule – you can definitely roam around for a couple of hours while snacking on Vietnamese street food.
Link: Night Market

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Vietnam National Museum of History
Honestly, I’m not really that much of a museum person, but we were exploring and the reviews of this place was pretty good so we decided to check it out. Also, it was starting to drizzle, so we kinda opted to go in. Again, I’m not a museum person and I was really exhausted when I was there so I don’t think I can give a fair representation of how the museum really was. If you’re into history and historical artifacts, this is definitely your cup of tea!
Link: Museum of History
IMG_0662IMG_0669Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum
Confession: I really thought we went into the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum, but we really didn’t. As I was looking for the link below to post for more information, I realize wow we definitely went into the wrong place. Well…not exactly wrong. See if you look at the picture, it is definitely not the same building as the Mausoleum you will see if you google it. It turns out, after researching, the Mausoleum complex is actually pretty big! See, we actually went into the Ho Chi Minh museum, not the actual Mausoleum. Though really, I’m a little bit relieved because I was not that eager to see the embalmed body of Ho Chi Minh.
How did this mix up happen? Well one, the complex is huge and there wasn’t really any signs saying “GO HERE”. We kind of assumed that the museum was it and left. Silly us, we should have definitely researched about it a little more – but for your reference so you don’t miss is like we did, the mausoleum building is shown below. Second, reading online when I was in Vietnam, there was mention of the embalmed body being in Russia to be preserved. Though this is true that the body is sent to Russia a part of the year, it turns out that its sent during September to November time frame.
Really in hindsight…THAT IS WHAT THAT HUGE LINE WAS. As we were exiting the museum we saw a huge line forming and for the life of us could not figure out what it was for (and it was ridiculously hot so we wanted to just leave). So silly. The takeaway is don’t be silly like us and actually go in the Mausoleum. And the museum? It was okay…again not a museum person, but quite interesting to see how beloved this guy was.
Link: Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum

Here is the museum:
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Here is the actual mausoleum:

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Yep…how we missed that big thing, I have no idea.

Old Quarter
You can pretty much spend a majority of your time walking around and exploring the Old Quarter! There’s shops and restaurants everywhere. I have also heard that Hanoi has a pretty good nightlife if that interests you! So take time to just walk around, go into the different shops, and explore!
Link: Old Quarter
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That’s pretty much the bulk of sight seeing we did in Hanoi. There’s still a couple of museum and other sights you could visit, but we just didn’t have time. Again as mentioned, there are opportunities to go on day trips to surrounding areas! Looking through the day trip options, there’s some really awesome places I would definitely visit next time I’m back in Hanoi!

Food
And alas, we have come to my favourite thing to talk about: FOOD. Not that I didn’t like sightseeing of course! So I guess we have to start with my current reigning favourite Vietnamese dish I tried in Hanoi…

Bun Cha
What is bun cha you might ask? It is the greatest thing ever. I still crave it to this day (please see previous blog post). You cannot have it the same here in Toronto…it just doesn’t come as close. The way they prepare it and present it here, and even the noodles they use is completely different.

Bun Cha is this amazing rice noodle (bun) dish served with grilled pork (cha) thats submerged in this pool of amazing fish sauce concoction. First off, the rice noodle is super fresh and it is definitely not vermicelli like the ones they serve here. The texture of the rice noodle is completely different and fits a whole lot better than eating this dish with vermicelli. Second, the pork is not just some grilled pork you would get when you eat a Vietnamese rice dish (which is pretty much what they do in vietnamese restaurants in North America). The pork (which I learned in my cooking class) is lean pork shoulder that you prepare in two ways: 1) thinly sliced and 2) minced and made into a patty/flat sausage-like and then both grilled. Sometimes they even put perilla leaves on the outside of the patty and then grill it.
Thirdly, unlike here where they serve the pork on top of a bed of vermicelli, there they serve the noodles separately in a communal basket and they give you individual little bowls filled with the grilled pork submerged in the fish sauce concoction. You then take some of the rice noodles, dip it in the fish sauce dip (which you can add garlic, thai chillies, herbs to spruce it up), and eat that with the grilled pork. I would also like to say that the fish sauce used in Vietnam is so different than the ones we have in North America. The one here is a lot more pungent to be honest, but that could be my opinion!

I am drooling thinking about this.

BUT I AM NOT DONE. They also put a plate of vietnamese fried spring rolls for you to share AND the rice noodles can be refilled. Ah-ma-zing. You have to try it when you’re in Hanoi, it’s the best thing I ate there. To the point where we came to this same exact place THREE times over the 3 nights and 4 days we were there. It was conveniently located 2 minutes away from our hotel. Highly recommend it!
Cost: 100,000 VND for 2 people including 2 bottled waters
Link: Bun Cha Dac Kim 

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Pho
I think our obsession with bun cha overshadowed our excitement for pho when we were in Hanoi. BUT we still missioned to one of the highly rated pho places in Hanoi – there are pho stalls EVERYWHERE. We also cooked and ate pho during our cooking class. I think it was there where we learned to appreciate how much hard work and time goes into making a good bowl of pho. The broth, which is obviously the most essential part of the dish, takes hours to make. At the class, we did a more time sensitive recipe by adding a whole lot more bones to deepen the flavour of the broth since we only had a couple of hours to make three different dishes.
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The pho at the 10 Ly Quoc Su location was incredible. You don’t add hoisin sauce like you do here – instead you add a little bit of garlic, a little bit of thai chilies, and a little bit of herbs. The flavour of the broth really shines and not muddled by all the seasonings we usually add into our pho. Again, ahmazing.
Cost: 60,000 VND
Link: Pho 10

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Egg Coffee
Yes friends, you are reading correctly. EGG. COFFEE.
Let me tell you, I became OBSESSED with egg coffee when I was there and I would say there is only ONE location that serves the best egg coffee in Hanoi. I can say this because I think we visited a bunch of cafes that serves egg coffee and this place cannot be beat.
The place is always crowded and you have to go through this little alleyway to get to the cafe. Friends, once you try the egg coffee you’ll be addicted. And I don’t even really drink coffee!
Your next question would probably be, what the heck is egg coffee. It’s coffee with this sweet foam on top made by whisked egg yolk. I really enjoyed the cold version of the drink, even though the hot version is also really good. Trust me y’all, you will not regret it.
Cost: Don’t remember, but it was incredibly cheap.
Link: Giang Cafe

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Food Tour
The last thing I want to share with y’all are the food we got to try when we were on the food tour. Every single thing we tried was amazing, local, and super authentic.
First we tried Banh Cuon – it’s the vietnamese version of the stuffed rice noodle roll. The rice noodle roll is super thin and its stuffed with a meat mixture. Instead of putting a soy sauce dressing on top like you would if you’re eating dim sum, you dip it in of course a fish sauce dressing (Nước chấm). If you asked me where the exact location of this place was…I’d look at you with blank stares because I honestly do not know. This one, along with others below are extremely small local places that you probably would just walk past by.

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It’s for that reason that we decided to go on this food tour in the first place, because with the limited time we had and our desire to try authentic Vietnamese food, we thought this would be the best way to kill two birds with one stone!

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Second on our food tour was bun cha and surprise surprise, they took us to the exact bun cha place we visited before. This is because this is the go-to place to get authentic local bun cha.

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Third on the food tour list was a variety of crispy fried dishes – ranging from spring rolls to fried shrimp crackers. Everything was really good that we ended up ordering more spring rolls.

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Then we tried bahn mi and I’m so glad we got to try it on the food tour, because we didn’t have the time to hunt down really good banh mi. Although the banh mi we tried here was good, I couldn’t really compare it to any other ones in Hanoi. I will most definitely put this on my food bucket list next time I go to Hanoi.

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Next, we tried this refreshing fruit salad dish from a street vendor. They put all these largely diced up fruits (honeydew, mangoes, watermelon, avocado, jackfruit which was amazing and more) with crushed ice, condensed milk and coconut milk. It was really delicious, though I would not recommend it if you’re stomach is sensitive at that time or in general. My stomach was definitely not feeling the best after and I had a feeling it wouldn’t when I saw the crushed up ice in the bowl in front of me. But hey, YOLO. It was still really good!

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The last stop on our tour was the egg coffee cafe I mentioned above – this is where I tried egg coffee the first time and fell in love. SO GOOD.

All in all, the food tour was good and we were stuffed by the end of it. Our tour guide was also lovely and answered a lot of questions, especially regarding different food places to try (like where the best pho is at). I would really recommend going on a food tour if you’re visiting Hanoi! I think its a lovely time to meet other people that are on your tour, but you get to try local authentic dishes where you might not have tried before!

Word of caution: If you’re like me and order the rice with grilled meat dishes at Vietnamese restaurants, you would probably go look for a good Com Tam place in Hanoi. Yep, there is none. We tried one place that served it and it was not that great. This is because Hanoi is actually more well known for its pho, whereas Ho Chi Minh City is more known for its Com Tam. Y’all know where I’m headed to the next time I visit Vietnam!

Com Tam

OVERALL
I loved Hanoi. People have asked me many times which place was my favourite during my travels this summer and every single time I say Hanoi. The people, the food, the sights, the environment just all comes together to make one really awesome place to visit.

Thanks for reading and stay tuned for my next post about Halong Bay!

Cheers,
Kim

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