You have a friend in Hanoi. You just don’t know it. Yet.
The concept of “Hanoi Kids” is that local college students get to practice their English and you get a free tour of some of Hanoi’s top attractions, paying only the minimal admission fees, cab fares and any refreshments. Members of the English club must undergo rigorous screening before serving as tour guides. Among the tests: they must be able to tell a joke in English, and get a laugh. Here’s a video from the English-language channel of Vietnam’s state broadcaster, VTV. The reporter, Chi Ngo, decided to tell the story after reading about my positive experience as a visitor.
My review of “Hanoi Kids” is one of my all-time most helpful posts on Trip Advisor. More than 10 years after its founding in 2006, the group is well deserving of its “Certificate of Excellence.” If you are planning to visit Hanoi, be sure to reserve this experience several weeks or even months in advance on the website. You provide some basic information about the dates of your visit and where you will be staying. Then, there will be an exchange of emails as you make a plan to meet the guide. The tour will be tailored to your interests, whether it’s street food, shopping, culture or history. Any “tip” you choose to give the guide goes directly back into the organization and they accept donations online as well.
Stranger Danger: Sadly, the website also warns that several copycats have sprung up. They are scams by fake organizations using similar names. To avoid a problem book ONLY on the official website www.hanoikids.org at the website link provided above.
Tour with a Hanoi “Kid”
My guide was a grad student in business and economics. He met me right on time at my hotel. He admitted to being a bit of a nerd, but he expertly ushered me through the two places on my sightseeing list that were open on a Sunday afternoon.
The Ho Chi Minh Complex provided fascinating insight into the humble, bare-bones lifestyle of “Uncle Ho.” It’s certainly a different perspective for US veterans who may once have envisioned having the Viet Cong leader in their gunsights.
I recommend touring the war-related sites on your own. For today’s young generation in Hanoi, the war is just another page from the history books. As the mother of a grad student about the same age, I found I had a lot of common ground with my guide as we discussed our families and goals for the future.
A visit to the Temple of Literature is a testament to the high esteem in which Vietnamese regard education. The many shrines at perhaps the world’s oldest university were piled high with offerings from students seeking good fortune for their all-important exams. My tour in June allowed me to witness joyful groups of graduates, posing for selfies and celebrating their success.
The tour finished up with an egg coffee at a tucked-away local hangout. There was some minor cultural awkwardness because I’m an older woman, and younger guys are taught to be very formal and respectful, but I found it charming. The brilliant concept of Hanoi Kids should be copied in every major city where students want to practice their English. Win-Win!
Visiting Uncle Ho
In order to visit the Ho Chi Minh mausoleum, you must plan your visit during the limited hours when it is open. Don’t be intimidated by the long line that snakes around the complex for several blocks. It moves along quickly — less than 45 minutes on a Saturday morning. Put your phones and cameras away as you near the mausoleum itself, they’re not allowed. It was an experience to be among the Vietnamese families paying their respects.
Hanoi by Motorbike
To give you a better idea of the must-sees for your Hanoi Kids tour, I’d like to share some of the sights I enjoyed courtesy of the Vietnam Television reporters who were in my media training classes. Despite maintaining a full workload during the demanding course, they took their personal time to show me around their city. We traveled — like most Hanoi residents — by motorbike.
Zipping around the streets and enjoying the lakeside breezes on a cool evening is an unbelievable feeling of freedom. However, I don’t recommend that you try to negotiate the crazy traffic yourself or take a chance on the motorcycle guys who may stop foreigners on the street to offer a ride. If you’re lucky enough to make a friend you can trust and they offer a seat on the back — climb on! (They should also offer you a legally required helmet.) Motorbike is not an option with a Hanoi Kids tour. Your guide will either help you take the bus, or deal with the translations as you take a taxi.
Life in Vietnam seems to revolve around good food. And the emphasis is on the authenticity of the food, not fancy surroundings. Your might enjoy your most memorable meal while sitting at a sidewalk table in a plastic chair. I’m always nervous about trying random street foods, unless I have a local friend with me to vouch for the place. Food tasting is an option for your tour with Hanoi Kids.
You’ll see many street vendors selling delicious fresh fruit. My TV students did a story on the lives of these women. They are mostly farm wives selling produce to help their families make ends meet.
Vietnamese food can be challenging for a vegetarian, even one who eats fish and dairy products like me. My students took me to an excellent vegetarian restaurant, Bo De Tam, in the outlying Dong Da neighborhood near the TV station. Lotus salad, fried eggplant and taro was only the first course, followed by a huge hot pot! Spring rolls are always an option, especially when you can roll them yourself.
There are also plenty of fancier choices. The breakfast buffet at the Melia Hotel offered everything from pho to chocolate croissants. I was taken to several buffets that offered the cuisine of the entire country from north to south.
After all that food, you might feel like taking a mid-day nap. It’s a tradition in Vietnam, to the point of many workplaces having special nap rooms for their employees. Others just nap under their desks.
If you want a break from Asian food, head for the square in front of Hanoi’s Roman Catholic Cathedral. Two restaurants, La Place and Marilyn, offer a varied menu of Asian and Western tastes. Climb up to the second floor dining rooms for a view of the church.
Stranger Danger: A couple of well-meaning friends tried to trick me into eating… dog. Sadly, it’s a part of the culture, although I’d like to think it’s becoming less and less acceptable. If you are a meat eater, ask questions and be aware of exactly what is on your plate.
My son’s tour with Hanoi kids included bargaining in the market for Ho Chi Minh t-shirts. With my TV students, I was able to visit a custom tailoring store to choose fabric for my very own ao dai, made to my exact measure. I love the flattering lines of Vietnam’s national dress with the slits on the side, and it seemed reasonable to me to pair it with leggings as well as the traditional flowing pants.
Thang Long Water Puppets
As a thoughtful parting gift, Vietnamese friends gave me tickets to perhaps the most famous show of its kind, sharing the music and puppetry of their country. A lot of the “legends” portrayed will be new to Western visitors, but the live music will keep your toes tapping as the water puppets do their thing.
The only annoyance was audience members constantly holding up their phones and tablets, sometimes blocking the view for those who just wanted to enjoy an evening of local history and culture. But go anyway and try to pick a seat that will give you an unobstructed view. The website in English will help you plan your visit. I also enjoyed a much less elaborate water puppet performance en route to cruising Bai Tu Long Bay. Check out the post here.
A guidebook can give you a list of must-see attractions in Hanoi, but it’s the friendly people who make it memorable. Joining some of my Hanoi friends for a last coffee by Hoan Kiem Lake, my only regret was that I couldn’t stay a little longer.