Top 10 budget-friendly things to do in Hanoi

I hadn’t planned on spending 10 days in Hanoi. The original idea had been to make our way leisurely up the coast of Vietnam and spend a couple of days here before flying home. But a pesky monsoon hit us hard in Ho Chi Minh and, being shameless sun-seekers, we decided to jump on a flight to the sunnier end of the country. This turned out to be a great decision (and not only because of the weather). From the unmissable views of serene Halong Bay to the chaotic, labyrinth-like lanes of the old quarter, there is so much to see and do in happening Hanoi. Here’s a list of the top things not to miss in this culturally rich capital, and they’re all budget friendly!.

1. Cruise your way through towering limestone islands in a junk boat.

93Halong Bay had to be top of the list didn’t it really? It is a UNESCO world heritage site after all. Almost 2000 rainforest-topped islands make up this breathtaking place. These little limestone islands were formed by dragons according to legend and Ha Long literally translates from ancient vietnamese as descending dragon.

There are a lot of different boat trips to choose from so take a bit of time to shop around and try to pick one that’s relevant to your age range and interests. (You don’t want to find yourself on a banana-boat booze cruise with a rowdy group of pimply 18 year olds, unless that’s your thing of course.) We opted for a 3 day, 2 night tour that included one night on the boat and one on pretty Cat Ba island. The itineraries tend to be very similar, mostly involving kayaking, floating villages and stop-offs at various picturesque islands to find the best photo ops.  Our tour included on-board cooking lessons, cycling around Cat Ba island, cave exploring and kayaking trips into deep, hidden lagoons. No matter which tour you choose, you’re in for an unforgettable experience.

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Time to top up the tan between islands
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On the way to some bat caves in the middle of dense rainforest we bumped into these ladies, who shared their tasty sugar cane with us

 

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Almost walked face first into this guy…
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Exploring caves in the jungle on Cat Ba island
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Interesting hotel name…

2. Pet a furry friend at Hanoi’s very own cat cafe.

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I had heard through the backpacker grapevine that Hanoi had its very own cat cafe, but when I asked around I was met with blank looks. But after finding a vague address online and wandering around the city for hours we eventually found the Ailu cat house. To call it a cafe is generous, they don’t actually have a coffee machine or serve any food. But what they lack in beverage options, they make up for in cats. A lot of cats. The general idea: come in, sit down, wait for a cat to sit on you, relax! It’s meant to be pretty therapeutic apparently. If you’re a cat person anyway.

We spent an unnecessary amount of time here that afternoon, but it’s hard to leave when you’ve got a cute, little furry thing snoring peacefully on your lap…

 

3. Tickle your tastebuds with a walking food tour of the Old Quarter

(That’s you walking by the way, not the food. Though in Vietnam you can never be sure…)

There’s more to vietnamese food than just phở! The variety of dishes on offer here is huge, but for a truly authentic taste of Hanoi you’ll need avoid the lure of touristy restaurants. Your guide will take you to all the secret places that you’d have a hard time discovering on your own; down a side alley, through a non-descript store front, up several flights of rickety stairs into a hidden restaurant. Be prepared to try such delicacies as deep-fried duck tongue and Hanoi’s famous egg coffee. (So much nicer than it sounds.) Awesome travel offer a great food tour that takes you to 8 different places around the old quarter for around £10. The trip involves a lot of walking and takes around 3 hours. Make sure you go on an empty stomach, you’ll be absolutely stuffed by the end of the evening!

 

4. After tasting it, try making it in an authentic cooking class.

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If you’re into the culinary side of things a cooking class is a great way to spend an evening. Blue Butterfly Cooking Class is one of the most popular choices, with the class beginning in the markets with your guide, who introduces you to the different spices and herbs before purchasing the fresh produce to bring back to the kitchen.

At the restaurant you’ll be shown how to make traditional dishes such as pork spring rolls and banana flower salad. Afterwards you’ll sit down and eat everything you’ve just cooked! At around £44 this is a bit on the pricey side, but it was my favourite experience in Hanoi and worth every penny!

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There is a slight chance you’ll set yourself on fire

5. Take a stroll through the tranquil Temple of Literature, Vietnam’s oldest university

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If history and architecture is your thing, you’ll love this temple/university. With the tranquil atmosphere and heady scent of incense in the air, it’s an escape from the hectic city surrounding it. Established as Vietnam’s very first university in 1076, this small temple complex is full of beautiful old architecture and shrines honouring Vietnam’s finest scholars. Entrance used to be reserved for those of noble birth only, but don’t worry, they let anyone in nowadays 😉

Look out for the bushes shaped like animals of the zodiac and the cute miniatures of Confucius and his students scattered around the well-pruned foliage. The temple is not just popular among tourists; often you’ll see recently gradated students in traditional dress having their photographs taken in front of the central pool, known as the ‘Well of Heavenly Clarity’. Admission costs only 30 000VD.

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6. Discover the ancient legend of Hoàn Kiếm, ‘Lake of the restored sword’

Hoàn Kiếm lake, the physical and symbolical centre of the city. You can’t miss this huge body of water at the heart of the city, its banks are popular with locals who enjoy a bit of tai chi at 6am and if you’re lucky you might spot a turtle popping up for a breath of air. Legend goes that in the 15th century  Emperor Ly Thai To was given a magical sword by the Golden Turtle God which helped him defeat the Chinese. After the victory, a large turtle swam up to the emperors boat and reclaimed the sword, disappearing into the depths of the lake to return it to it’s divine owner.

You can learn more about the legend at Ngoc Son Temple,( Temple of the Jade Mountain) which sits on a tiny island accessed by an ornate red bridge. It’s only 30,000VND to go inside, where you’ll find many locals come to worship and burn bank notes in a furnace as offerings. (Don’t risk burning yourself, the notes are fake…)

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Group of friends playing a checkers style game in the temple grounds

7. Gawp at the traffic mayhem from a safe distance at the City View Cafe

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Crossing the street anywhere in Hanoi is pretty daunting, but this intersection by the old quarter is something else. It’s chaos. There are no lines on the road, no roundabout, no rules of who goes first. It’s every man for himself, you snooze you lose. Our food tour guide tried to teach us how to cross the road without getting squashed with his 3 golden rules:

  • Don’t stop! One you’ve started to cross just keep going, don’t hesitate, slow down or worst of all stop. The traffic will (hopefully) move around you.
  • Don’t make eye contact with drivers
  • Buses rule the road! A bus will not stop if you are in the way, if you see one coming, run…

If you can’t face crossing the road, watch the madness from above instead. You can’t miss the City View Cafe building overlooking the intersection next to the lake. Head all the way up to the top floor and grab a spot overlooking the chaos below with a cold drink.

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8. Take in the french colonial architecture and shop til you drop in the labyrinthine old quarter .

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Grab a bag of delicious, deep fried pastry ball things from a street vendor, search for the best phở in Hanoi or haggle over the price of a pointy hat that you’ll have to wear on the plane on the way home and which will probably end up in the attic…

 

9. Discover Hanoi’s secret nightlife

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Hanoi has notoriously strict laws regarding bars and clubs and most places will be closed by midnight. A ‘night out’ in the city will usually consist of sipping bia hoi perched on a plastic stool down a bustling lane in the old quarter. But after one evening doing just that, we met a group of Israeli guys who were heading to one of Hanoi’s ‘underground’ clubs.

A 10 minute taxi ride from downtown brings us to the Hero Club, an industrial style nightclub with pulsing music, cage dancers and of course, a selection of fresh fruit on the tables. However we had only been inside for 5 minutes when the music turned off abruptly and the staff starting ushering everyone to  the rear exit away from the police out front… we’d have to try our luck another night!

 

10. Cool off in the rooftop pool at the Apricot Hotel

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It’s hard to find a swimming pool in the city. There are only a handful scattered about, mainly on the rooftops of the fancier hotels that are definitely not backpacker-budget friendly. But many hotels will let you use their pools for a fee, such as the ridiculously fancy Apricot Hotel. Just look at those chandeliers in the lobby…

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The hotel charges around £10 to use the pool. However, if you’re really low on funds and feeling sneaky, it’s easy to come back free of charge another day. Just act natural and jump in the elevator!

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Ancient temples, pickpocketing monkeys and a taste of luxury in dreamy Ubud

Despite being a big believer in shoestring travel and hostel life, (I spent the best part of 8 months in a sweaty communal dorm room and loved every minute,) every so often you crave a little luxury. Nothing too fancy. Maybe just a place where you don’t have to race everyone to the kitchen at 7am to get the last scrapings of free jam to put on your toast. Or somewhere I didn’t have to sleep on the bottom bunk with dead cockroaches smushed into the side of the mattress and a pissed Irish guy passed out on top of me. (On the top bunk that is, not actually on top of me. Usually.)

South East Asia is top of the list for backpackers looking for an exotic adventure on the cheap, the usual itinerary being the easy-to-navigate loop around Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam and Laos. But as any Aussie will tell you, your SE Asia trip wouldn’t be complete without visiting Bali. Not only is the country breathtakingly beautiful, it’s also a great budget destination for thrifty travellers looking for 5 star surroundings on a 1 star budget. Many standard hostels offer dorm beds for less than a fiver a night and if you’re travelling as a couple, a double room between 2 costs about the same. Since arriving in Bali I’d barely made a dent in my budget, choosing tasty street food over restaurants and staying in great value accommodation. (Click to discover some great Bali hostel options in Kuta and the Gili islands.)

Whatever Aussies may tell you, there’s more to this country than Kuta and it’s Magaluf’esque strip of party bars and cheap booze. Bali’s real beauty lays inland, away from the beaches. Winding jungle roads past crumbling Hindu temples will take you to the dreamy, cultural town of Ubud. The Puri Saran Agung palace dominates the main street, where traditional dances are held every evening. Down narrow lanes bustling markets are filled to the brim with exotic goodies; silver jewellery, pretty trinkets, colourful throws and countless spices. Make sure you grab a bag of the ultimate Balinese souvenir, some Kopi Luwak coffee. Considered a delicacy, this coffee is made from beans that have been swallowed, partially digested and then pooped out by a small animal called a civet, similar to a weasel. Sounds disgusting, but this is one of the most expensive coffees in the world.

Just outside of Ubud centre we check into the Sankara resort, a luxurious, spa style hotel tucked away in the midst of rice paddies and sprawling jungle. When we checked online at Booking.com the rooms in this hotel appeared very much outside our budget but after calling the hotel directly we were quoted half the price. Don’t be fooled by online prices! Often contacting a place directly or just walking in without a booking is the best way to get a cheap deal on an otherwise expensive room.

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View from the room after a 5.30am wake up call for yoga under that pointy roof over there…

The hotel offers free activities, such as a guided walk around the neighbouring village. We have to edge around a few growling dogs who, we are informed casually by our guide, may or may not have rabies… We pass a dark, arena style area where the local villagers pay to watch cockfighting and our guide shows us some of the caged birds that are used to fight, huge birds with vicious looking claws and beaks. These birds can sell for millions of rupiah, just to be forced to fight to the death for people’s amusement. Poor things. On the way back we pass two men carrying a live pig tied to a pole, ready to be slaughtered and cooked. They’re not too concerned about animal welfare around here! The village is a stark contrast to the luxury lodgings just up the road and despite the strange customs and relative poverty, the locals seem happy and friendly, greeting us and our guide with smiles and waves. Balinese are very religious people, and as we head back to the hotel our guide tells us about the dvarapala, fearsome statues of warrior like creatures that guard temples and homes.

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A short scooter ride from the hotel takes us to the Sacred Monkey Forest. This is a beautiful, open sanctuary filled with crumbling shrines and lush jungle where wild monkeys roam free and are fed unlimited bananas by eager tourists. It’s a pretty surreal experience if you’re not used to being surrounded by hungry monkeys. These guys aren’t shy. They’ll try to mug you (literally, they will go through your pockets and try to open your bags!) and will happily scramble on top of you and perch on your head for a banana. (Cute if it’s one of the little ones, terrifying if you’ve got a big, alpha male charging at you.) And don’t try and fool them by being stingy either. Holding out an empty banana peel will result in a very annoyed monkey. As one of the wardens says, laughing as a monkey bares its teeth and takes a swipe at me, they don’t like to be tricked!

About a 20 minute scooter ride out of the town are the Tegalalang rice terraces, a giant, sloping valley of staggered rows upon rows of green rice paddies. Small walkways weave around the terraces, up and down like a crazy maze. Be prepared for a lot of steps and quite a long climb to get to the top, in the midday heat it can be a struggle. You’ll need to take some change too, as there are a couple of ‘donation points’ along the way (if ‘donation’ means compulsory payment or you’re not getting past…) Also, try not to slip into the actual paddy as you take photos, these things are like quicksand and you will lose a flipflop….

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Panoramic view over the rice terraces

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Tourist snap

On the road back to the hotel we spot a sign for ‘Ketut Liyer’s House’ pointing down a side road. Ketut is the real life medicine man from ‘Eat, Pray, Love’ and his house is where the famous scene with Julia Roberts was filmed. (See you later, alligator!) Though it’s late in the day we decide to pop in and are greeted by Ketut’s son who tells us that unfortunately Ketut is too tired for visitors. He is, after all, 100 years old. We take a look around the house grounds which have been made into a pretty guesthouse and take a few pictures in the same spot Julia sat.

It’s easy to lose track of time in Ubud. You’ll find yourself completely taken in by the serenity of the surrounding jungle, the mysticism of the ancient temples and the cultural hub at it’s centre. You may find that you never want to leave. And that’s OK. Relax, you’re on Ubud time!

 

Ubud Travel Guide

Where to stay:

Sankara Resort and Spa. It’s not hard to see why this stunning hotel has 5 star reviews, check it out here on trip advisor (but remember, book directly for the best prices!): https://www.tripadvisor.co.uk/Hotel_Review-g297701-d5279694-Reviews-Sankara_Resort-Ubud_Bali.html

What to do:

Sacred Monkey Forest Sanctuary, Entry: 20,000 IDR Buy your bananas inside, but don’t be stingy!

Tegalalang Rice Terraces, Free Entry but there are compulsory ‘donation points’ along the way if you want to go higher up

Cultural Arts and Dance performances at the palace, 80,000 IDR, tickets are sold outside the palace

Visit Ketut Liyer, the medicine man, For a fee you can have a chat with Ketut and have him read your palm, if he’s awake! This guy is seriously old and may not be around much longer to entertain tourists…

Visit the markets dotted around the town, make sure you take home a penis keyring and a bag of Kopi Luwak!

Book a few nights in a luxury hotel, go on, treat yourself

Take a scooter and explore! The winding roads are beautiful and will take you past deep ravines filled with temples, shrines and vines for swinging monkeys! Immerse yourself in the jungle, just remember your mosquito repellent!

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Because who wouldn’t want a colourful penis  bottle opener?
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Get delicious, fresh coconuts at the market

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