A favorite country among backpackers, Vietnam is one of the top ASEAN countries I’ve been wanting to visit ever since. I’ve heard so much great stories about its colorful culture, hospitable people, and of course, their delicious food! Join me as I tour its capital Hanoi, a small city filled with big surprises.
If you’re looking for a place where your money could go far, Hanoi is the place to be. This budget friendly city makes it attractive not just to backpackers but also for seasonal travelers. After browsing things to do in Hanoi through Tripadvisor, thousands of travelers recommend taking a free city tour by HanoiKids. I know! It’s hard to find free things these days. Any money (tips) accepted by a student guide will proceed to their non profit organisation. All you’ve got to do is book in advance through their official website HanoiKids to secure a fun and free city tour. I booked a full day tour for me and my brother two months before our scheduled trip.
It’s a great activity to get yourself introduced to the city especially if it’s your first time in Vietnam. That’s why I booked it on our very first day in Hanoi. Here’s what to expect…
1. AN EXCELLENT TOUR GUIDE
Tours usually start at 9:00am. Our assigned tour guide was a lovely Vietnamese college student. Her name is Yun. It was very kind of her to wait for us at the hotel lobby while we enjoy our delicious Pho for breakfast. Before heading out of the hotel, she first oriented us about our itinerary. Everything sounded excellent. I couldn’t wait to start! After a long day of walking and eating our way through around Hanoi, she dropped us back at our hotel. Our tour guide was everything I could ask for. She’s super nice, knowledgeable, professional and fluent in English. We spoke to each other just like old friends trying to catch up. She also knows when we need to pause for a quick rest since the weather was slightly humid that day. Although it is not guaranteed that you will also have Yun as your assigned tour guide, you can try requesting her as your guide when booking to ensure a lovely city tour in Hanoi.
First attraction was the Ho Chi Minh Complex. Inside the complex stands Ho Chi Minh’s mausoleum, a museum, his many homes with different purposes, the three vehicles he used, and a park for relaxation. Ho Chi Minh was the one who initiated the independence movement to gain freedom from the different colonizers of Vietnam. He then became the democratic country’s first president and prime minister. The surrounding trees and different kinds of plants gave us enough shade and fresh air. Walking inside the presidential palace allowed me to feel what it’s like hundreds of years ago. Life was simple.
Next was the Temple of Literature. From HCMC, the temple takes around 10 minutes walk. The attraction was smaller compared to Ho Chi Minh Complex. We witnessed some graduating students wearing their traditional silk dress. Compared to the temples in Siem Reap and Bangkok, temples in Hanoi are not that strict when it comes to clothing. Some tourists were wearing shorts and tank tops. After roaming around the Temple of Literature we went to have lunch. After a filling Vietnamese lunch, we continued our city tour by walking around the Old Quarter.
The Old Quarter is the most distinctive attraction in Hanoi in my opinion. It is what defines Hanoi. One whole street is dedicated to a certain product, making it easy for shoppers to navigate around. Cafe’s, restaurants and all kinds of shop can be found here, from budget-splurge. It’s the perfect mix of old and new.
Hoan Kiem Lake is also just located nearby Old Quarter. The only serene place (aside from our hotel room) in the midst of a busy city. You can just have a seat in one of the benches, eat Vietnam flavoured ice cream and watch the sun set. The lake has an interesting story but I’ll leave that to your tour guide. It is also here where you would find pre-nuptial photo shoots everywhere.
Our last stop was the beautiful St. Joseph’s Cathedral. I believe it’s the only catholic church in Hanoi since most of the people are communist. We weren’t able to enter the church since it was closed. Quite weird since we went there on a Sunday.
3. AUTHENTIC VIETNAMESE LUNCH
After visiting the huge Ho Chin Minh Complex and Temple of Literature on a humid day, my body was craving to take in gallons of water and sit somewhere cool. I live in a tropical country but Vietnam tends to be hotter. Gladly, Yun suggested we have lunch. Yes, please. We told her that we wanted to try authentic Vietnamese cuisine since all we’ve tried was the Pho during breakfast at the hotel. She hailed a cab and we went to Bun Cha Dac Kim, a small restaurant located in Old Quarter that serves Bun Cha. We had a table on the third floor and Yun ordered for us. Few minutes later, Bun Cha was served. The meal consist of salad, grilled pork and noodles. She even taught us on how to eat it. IT WAS SO DELICIOUS. Price paid? USD10 set meal for three. That was the first time I said, I love Hanoi. We also planned to have egg coffee after the city tour but after our last attraction, we had no energy left to battle the busy streets and the humidity was starting to make us feel uncomfortable.
I live in a country where tipping is not mandatory. I only leave tip if there’s a small change from the total bill. So I didn’t know how much to tip especially for someone who just spent her whole day walking and telling us the history of every attraction we visited. While I hand a small amount to Yun as a sign of appreciation, she told me that whatever they receive will go to their organisation as a donation. I asked her politely to accept the small amount as a donation. This actually made me feel slightly awkward, I wish there was another way. In the end, it’s still up to you if you’d like to tip or donate. If you want to tip or donate but can’t make up your mind on how much, just give an amount that you’re comfortable giving.
The real question, is it really free?
My answer – All transportation, entrance fees if applicable, and food expenses will be shouldered by you. In exchange, student guides are able to practice and improve their English proficiency. I would say the private guide is free of charge. This tour can be done 100% free if visiting attractions without entrance fees. In case of Hanoi, most of the famous attractions requires a minimal amount of entrance fee. Free or not, I strongly recommend taking this tour since you really get to know Hanoi. After all, any experience encountered is definitely something money can’t buy.
- Bring your camera, Hanoi is a photographer’s haven.
- Research about the weather during your visit and prepare for it.
- Money exchange usually accepts USD, AUD, CAD, GBP and EUROS. Other currencies cannot be exchanged even in their largest bank. Better bring these currencies instead of your local money.
- Hanoi is a small city and you’ll do a lot of walking. Wear comfortable shoes.
- Try coconut juice and other Vietnamese drinks and desserts along the streets instead of your usual bottle of water.