Hanoi is a city of nearly 7 million people, but it still feels like a village. Of all the cities we have visited in Vietnam, Hanoi surprised us the most with its charm and laid-back vibe.
We spent the most time in the Hang Ma neighborhood, just north of Hoan Kiem lake -where, legend has it, a thousand-year old turtle still dwells.
While the history of this neighborhood stretches back 2,000 years to the time of Chinese rule, the area’s reputation started slightly earlier. Starting around the 11th century A.D, guilds of skilled craftsmen moved to this area of the city where once had only been swamp and stilt houses. Each of this neighborhood’s crowded and narrow winding streets was designated for a different craft: silver for Hang Bac street, for example, or Hang Gai street for silks and Lan Ong for herbs and spices.
Now, few of the original craft shops survive, but the distinct flavor still remains. We slept at Hanoi Family Homestay on Hang Vai street, a road that in the past was known for its guilds and communal houses creating all sorts of dyed textiles, but which now houses mostly guesthouses and gift shops.
Hanoi Family Homestay is a destination in of itself. The host, Huong (known as Perfume to her Western guests) and her two cute children greet you every morning with a large breakfast (Western or Vietnamese, depending on your taste) and conversation. Huong is truly interested in getting to know every one of her guests and she is incredibly helpful with any directions or touring information.
In the evening the family hosts a large Vietnamese dinner as well, which you as a guest are free to share with them. Because of the popularity of the guesthouse, random ex-pats and local friends of the family from around the city often show up to these dinners just to chat, so interesting conversation is pretty much guaranteed.
On top of this, Huong and her husband also run a touring company that takes visitors around Hanoi, to Ha Long Bay to the east or Sapa to the north, or even to off-the-beaten-path destinations west of Hanoi (like Hoa Lu and Tam Coc). We highly recommend you experience one of these tours yourself. They are personalized and small-group with a lot of time to explore.
We hope to come back to Hanoi again very soon, and we’ll definitely stay at Hanoi Family Homestay again when we do. In the meantime, we’ll have to make do with our memories of this beautiful neighborhood and the friendly people we met.