Readers' Submissions

Hanoi At Night

  • Written by Rob
  • June 4th, 2012
  • 11 min read


While much has been written about Ho Chi Minh city on this website, the capital of Vietnam, Hanoi, has not been really covered yet. Perhaps, it’s kind of too far away from Laos, Cambodia and Thailand to be on the route of the South-East Asia traveler / expat, but compared to other cities in South-East Asia, I would say Hanoi is really something different. Of course each capital has its own unique charm, and I’m not going to say that everyone would love Hanoi. I even think that the people who love and hate Hanoi are equal in numbers, but I think that it’s safe to say that everyone should at least have experienced Hanoi before it will become a big Asian mega-city spoiled by globalization and international companies. It still has its own unique charm, and while it is growing at an extremely fast pace, you can truly experience ‘Vietnam’ in this city – at least if you are up to it.

I have lived in Hanoi, and I could write a whole book about each aspect of the city. It is a city which is very hard to fall in love with. You can compare her with a bitchy and picky lady, which, once she loves you, she does it 100% – a typical characteristic of your Northern Vietnamese girl – it’s hard, but definitely worth it. Perhaps one day I will cover each aspect of Hanoi, and perhaps, if Stickman allows, on his website, but for now I would like to focus on one aspect – the nightlife. Just to give you one more hint of what Hanoi is like, after I had lived in Hanoi, I visited Bangkok, and I was amazed how developed and modern the city was, then I went to Malaysia, and Kuala Lumpur was even more developed and modern, but then I visited Singapore, and I just couldn’t believe my eyes. Already longing for Hanoi, a city this modern, couldn’t be fun. Close your eyes, imagine yourself on your motorbike, within Hanoi’s crazy traffic of motorbikes, cars, and buses, which behave like a school of fish, behind you there is your beautiful Vietnamese girlfriend holding you tightly and you drive through the streets of Hanoi at night, with its neon-lights, French architecture, street vendors, lakes, pagodas, and street food to be found on every street corner. I don’t think that something this simple could give me such a great feeling of being alive. This was innocent happiness. I digress…. How about Hanoi’s nightlife? Well to be honest, it will be very disappointing if you are used to Bangkok or even HCMC. I will systematically deal with each aspect of Hanoi’s nightlife.


Bia Hoi and other beers

Perhaps the most special thing about Hanoi is its Bia Hoi stands. Bia Hoi is self-brewed beer, sold at an extremely cheap price (about $US 20 cent?), and it is extremely refreshing and typical Hanoian. While for the beer lovers out there, Bia Hoi might be somewhat mediocre and watery beer, but for a price this cheap at a location like this, right in the centre of city life, I would definitely recommend you to give it a try. Even if sitting on a small stool is not your thing, it’s great for people watching. Loved by expats and locals alike, drinking Bia Hoi will be a great start of your evening. To make it more interesting, you could also eat street food with it, whether it is beef barbecue or roasted squid. It is good stuff and great for socializing. While Tiger Beer and Heineken are widely available, local bottled / draught beers are also sold everywhere. Hanoi Beer, Saigon Beer, 333, Huda, Festival beer, Biere Larue, and so on, all great stuff, some of them even comparable with the famous Beer Lao (but none of them are as good, I would say). A half a liter bottle can be purchased for a dollar or so, even in bars, so it’s cheap getting drunk in Hanoi.


Backpacker bars

While we don't have Khao San Road, there are plenty of backpacker bars in Hanoi. While it has its advantages such as having no aggressive Vietnamese nouveau riche scum, these bars are basically the same throughout South-East Asia. Some backpackers will not even know the difference between Thailand and Vietnam, because they just move around within the backpacker enclaves of each country. Some streets in the Old Quarter, Hanoi’s historical centre, such as Ma May street contain many backpacker bars. Personally I was not a big fan of them, but in a city with a kinda of boring nightlife, they are a real option. One of my own personal favorites were Mao’s Red Lounge and Half man/Half noodle bar.


Your regular expat bars

This is truly a mixed story. Some bars are very beautiful since they are located in old historical buildings – Barbetta for example, other bars are dodgy as hell. Some places are also in rapid decline in terms of quality, thanks to the previous mentioned aggressive Hanoian rich boys. Some good examples are Temple bar and Dragon Fly bar. But even in those bars the beer is cheap (between 1 – 3 US dollars) and you could have a nice time. Nothing to write home about though.


Hanoi night clubs

Horrible, should be avoided at any cost. The music (usually techno) is far too loud, the setting of the club is organized in a way that there is no room to dance, everyone is just sitting or standing beside a table, the drinks are expensive, and it’s very very hard to socialize. The Hanoian people going there are not interested in you, these are the boys and girls living the decadent life. This is pure capitalism. Since nightclubs close relatively early (12 AM/ 1 AM), everyone is getting as pissed as quickly as possible before the club closes. Hard liquor is consumed as if it’s water and during my first night in Hanoi I was involved in a fight with a drunken local. My offence? I helped a girl being harassed by him. Luckily his friends chose my side, since they saw what happened, but it was definitely not a good beginning to my life in Hanoi.


Night clubs in Hotels

In all honesty, I have never visited these places. There is something with places like Hilton or Sheraton which scare me off. Maybe it has something to do with my tight budget or me not being a kind of person who would enjoy those places. So excuse me, I have nothing meaningful to say about these places. What I’ve heard, it is kind of the same as the previous mentioned night clubs, but in these places the high-end prostitutes are also crawling around. If you are interested in spending a few hundred dollars on a high-end, die-hard, professional prostitute, do go there. No GFE here, this is mean business.


Karaoke bars

I hate Karaoke and everything associated with it. I have always visited Karaoke bars with ‘normal’ Vietnamese friends. And you can drink and sing your night away, if that’s your thing. If you go there with men only, almost every karaoke bar will offer you girls to accompany you, and maybe more… Generally you can expect that every Karaoke bar in Hanoi, as well as spa or massage salon will provide you ladies of pleasure, if that’s what you are looking for.


Nightclubs on the fringes of Hanoi

Every nightclub or bar is expected to close at 1 AM. The police can be bribed off, and it is quite funny to see a police raid in a club or bar. Usually the police officers will leave the place with some money and a bottle of expensive whiskey, but sometimes everyone has to go home. Sometimes the doors of the bar or club are locked, the music is turned off, and the lights are turned on, until the police officers leave again. It’s a funny sight. Anyway, the clubs and bars which fall outside Hanoi’s municipal jurisdiction areas, and which are basically in ‘no-man’s land’, can stay open all night, even though they are relatively close to the city centre. One club is Phuc Tan. The setting of the club is very interesting, since it is located besides the Red river, it is open all night, drinks are relatively cheap, you can sit inside or outside. They even sell kebabs, but this place is very very dodgy. This is the kind of place which attracts all the scum of Hanoi, locals, expats and tourists alike, it is full of ugly prostitutes, and you don't want to go there by yourself. This place really has to be seen to be believed. I’m not a big fan of the place, as you might expect, but it’s one of the few places which stay open after 1 AM. Another place was Solace a night club on a boat. But this place seems to be no longer open. It wasn’t a great place anyway, perhaps even worse than Phuc Tan, with the bouncers being regularly involved in mean fights, but for the gay people out there, it was a gay-friendly place.


Special note for the whoremongers

Not many exciting things to be found in Hanoi. The prostitutes are expensive and die-hard pros. They can mostly be found in hotel nightclubs and the other places I have mentioned. You can go more local and go to Karaoke bars or massage salons, but foreigners are often victims of scams (just Google, enough horror stories to be found). You can even go more local, and sleep with a girl for as little as 5 dollar for a short time. But these are third-world settings, you sleep with them on a wooden platform, some of them even do it on your motorbike. And there is something very fishy about these places. I would say that most of those girls are trafficked. A relatively good article about it can be found here. Those places are in the periphery of Hanoi, and you need to know the address to find them. But forget it, those places are run by triads.

It’s best to find a ‘good’ girl in Hanoi. Vietnamese girls, while being more hard to get than Thai, Lao or Khmer girls, are very passionate and open to foreigners. Expats have the feeling that they are more being used by those girls for English language exchange, than their wallets. Which is a good thing I would say.


The people you are most likely to meet

I already dealt with Hanoi’s rich kids. But maybe a small note about the expats to be found in Hanoi. A majority of them come from France and while I have nothing against French people, they are really a separate group. Their level of English is also not that good (some of them even don’t speak English). Most of them work for international firms and are quite well off. Then we have the NGO workers and embassy personnel. They are fine people and usually come from Europe or Northern America. But sometimes a bit uptight if you ask me. Then we have the English teachers, which, I hate to say it, are a bit on the lower-middle social ladder of the expat communities. They are here because it is extremely easy to find a well-paid position here (between $15 – 40 US dollar an hour), but I seriously doubt their teaching qualities. Of course the better quality international language institutes will be stricter on the qualities of their teachers, but Hanoi is full of (often dodgy) language schools. You can just be employed by looking western, but if you are a native English speaking black person, it will be much harder for you to find a job. It is all about image. There is also a big Russian community in Hanoi – the legacy of the Soviet Union, but my contact with them was minimal, and they seemed to be nice people. The Vietnamese to be found in Hanoi’s nightlife are also the Vietnamese NGO people, exposed by western lifestyle, the girlfriends of the expats, and their friends, the couch-surfing.org people, and the Vietnamese wanting to practice their English. A good place to learn Vietnamese and get to know Vietnamese friendly locals is Puku bar. The tourists are varied, but the nightlife is mainly dominated by Australian / European teenagers, getting as pissed as possible. It’s nice if you want to pick up a young western drunk chick, but they are not really my kind of people. I guess, if you are used to the tourists in Bangkok, nothing will surprise you about the tourists you will find in Hanoi.

For more info about Hanoi’s nightlife, this is THE expat website of Hanoi: www.newhanoian.com and to get a glimpse of expat life in Hanoi, this is a very good music video.


Final thoughts

After living in Hanoi for a while, I decided to visit only the Bia Hoi places or just to have an extensive dinner with a lot of liquor with friends. It is more cosy, and less pretentious. Maybe next time I will shed a more positive light on Hanoi, because it is a city definitely worth to be visited. Whether it's the beautiful women, the superb street food, its French legacy or the lack of McDonalds and big shopping malls (to be honest, Hanoi already has a few big shopping malls), it is a place that if you know how to love it, you might never want to go away.


Stickman's thoughts:

Hanoi is definitely on my radar and a visit is imminent, although the nightlife has pretty much zero appeal.