My older daughter, Sam, is a photographer. When she announced that a shoot scheduled for April was cancelled, I wasted no time convincing her to go to Hanoi with me.
It’s still spring, I told her, the weather is still fine (daytime temperature still doesn’t go higher than 30C) and it’s a great time to explore the capital of Vietnam. The moment she said “yes”, I booked our flights and accommodations.
The wonders of the internet, right? That wouldn’t have been possible when I was in my 20s.
As fast as the bookings went, I did nothing randomly. I had a checklist for basic requirements. Got good deals on some; had to make compromises on others.
Reasonably-priced airfare means graveyard flights
I’ve always flown with Philippine Airlines (PAL) in the past. When I realized that PAL only offers graveyard flights to and from Hanoi, I started looking at other airlines. Vietnam Airlines and all other reputable airlines are too pricey. Cebu Pacific (always a last resort as far as I’m concerned) has the same schedule as PAL. I booked with PAL. There really was no better choice.
Comfortable accommodations at or near the city center
“Comfortable” means no shared bathrooms, a good-sized room, windows (and balcony, if possible, because I’m claustrophobic) and coffee-making facilities (because I need coffee within ten minutes of waking up).
“At the city center” doesn’t really mean the geographic center. It simply means a location where we will be able to walk to plenty of good eats and interesting places. Because, really, there is no better and faster way to get acquainted with a new place than by walking its streets.
When using Booking.com, learn how to use filters and always opt for “free cancellation”
What are filters? If you’re new to online booking, they are features that you want in your accommodation. Filters include location, the number of beds or bedrooms, the option of having a private bathroom, the availability of WIFI, and so on, and so forth.
By using filters to narrow down my search, I was able to find a hotel smack in the middle of the Old Quarter. The attraction? It’s a few steps from Ma May street which transforms into a street food attraction on weekend nights, or so I’ve read. Nice, huh? The room was spacious at 30 square meters with enough beds for four people, a balcony, coffee making facilities, TV, WIFI, a small fridge and a pretty bathroom with toiletries provided. I could have chosen something smaller with just enough beds for Sam and myself but I wanted the balcony so I went ahead and booked the 30-square-meter room for four.
Then, I discovered that although the filter was ON for “higher floors accessible by lift” at Booking.com, the hotel I booked has no lift at all. How that happened, I don’t know. When listing, property owners are supposed to tick off all features that apply and leave out those that don’t. Lost in translation, perhaps? Unlikely since Booking.com’s language preferences include Vietnamese. Carelessness of the property owner? Probably. Intent to mislead? Hmmmm…
How the hotel managed to get listed as one having “higher floors accessible by lift” was not really my concern. What I was concerned about was what if we were assigned a room on the fourth floor? Considering the amount of walking and sightseeing that Sam and I want to indulge in, the thought of climbing up the stairs when our legs are aching didn’t seem so pretty at all.
So, it was a good thing that my booking included a “free cancellation” option. Yes, I cancelled the booking.
The Airbnb.com option
Unable to find a similar accommodation on Booking.com for the dates that we will be in Hanoi, I decided to check Airbnb.com. Again using filters to view only the accommodations that fit my requirements, I searched and, within minutes, I found a spacious apartment (50 square meters!) that I liked. Nowhere near Ma May street but that was okay because the apartment is somewhere between the two lakes — Hoàn Kiếm Lake and the one inside Công Viên Thống Nhất (Union Park) — whose perimeters I am dying to explore. Not a bad compromise. The price was great too!
The problem was that the latest time for checking in is midnight. Our flight won’t be arriving until after midnight so I had a problem. I messaged the property owner and… well, their rules were set. He said he’d be happy to host us but not for the first night.
The usual route is to find another place that accepts check-in after midnight. I did take that route. But the ones that allowed such late check-in were either (1) in inconvenient locations; (2) too small / cluttered; or (3) too damn expensive.
Booking two accommodations for a single trip is just a minor inconvenience
There really was no better choice. I booked the Airbnb apartment that I liked for the entire trip minus the first night. Then, I went back to Booking.com, found a hotel with “airport shuttle” option and booked it for our first night. Never mind that the hotel was not in a prime location. Never mind that it isn’t spacious enough for comfort. We just need a place to sleep for one night. Half a night, in fact.
The arrangement does present the minor inconvenience of having to transfer to another accommodation after the first night. But, in terms of time wasted, there’s practically none. We’ll be arriving at the hotel well after midnight, we’ll likely sleep late into the morning and, by the time we’ve had breakfast, we’ll be ready to move to the Airbnb apartment. We have the afternoon and evening to explore.
And just how are we going to explore Hanoi? Oh, I booked a few activities.
A schedule that leaves room to breathe
From experience, I know how important it is to space structured activities apart. It just isn’t fun to go on full day tours everyday. It’s tiring. Physically and mentally. In my case, it results in information overload. Too many names of places and structures to remember, too much historical background… My brain just shuts down.
I like to relish.
Relish? You know… Stay in one location long enough to drink in its vibes. If there’s history to be learned there, I want time to digest the information. It’s just too wasteful to blitz through everything.
So, what I did was to book activities every few days. Between these activities, we can just amble around, sit and sip coffee, and watch Hanoi go by.
What activities? Art, art and how to make art.
Unlike Alex who was focused on the food and museums in Saigon, Sam asked for more interactive activities. Could we go to a pottery class? A weaving class? A painting class?
I found a pottery class and a watercolor painting class. The latter was a great find because Sam paints and her medium is watercolor. How I’m going to fare in the painting class, I don’t know. I’m no painter. Goodness, I can’t even draw much beyond stick people. But whatever I manage to produce, I will proudly share with the world.
Weaving class, I found none.
A street food walking tour is optional.
I’m thinking and re-thinking a cruise around Halong Bay.