In Hanoi, life is lived on the streets. Vendors of all sorts hawk food, prayer flags, conical hats, and more from their street corner perches. Storefronts exist but seem to be a waste of space. Commerce and community happen on the sidewalks. This uniquely sets Hanoi apart from the equally energetic and fast-passed cities of Saigon and Da Nang. Vietnam’s capital city quickly stole my heart for my favorite city in the country. Hanoi also happens to be the Vietnamese city that is the most mindful towards environmental and social sustainability. Here’s how to be a responsible traveler in Hanoi.
Looking for a sustainable place to stay in Hanoi? Book any of the Essence hotels which have fantastic environmental and social sustainability programs: Essence d’Orient Hotel & Spa, Essence Hanoi Hotel & Spa, or Essence Palace Hotel & Spa.
A FOOD TOUR THAT GIVES BACK
Backstreet Academy is one of my favorite responsible tour marketplaces and luckily they have over 50 community-based experiences in Hanoi–there’s literally something for everyone. I was invited to hand select a few tours that fit my fancy, so of course, the first thing I did was head out on a food tour.
If you’ve been reading Miss Filatelista for a while you know my favorite thing to do when arriving at a new city is to take a food tour or cooking class. This helps me get a pulse on the local cuisine, the inside info on where to dine, and how to pronounce the phrases I need to know to ensure that my food is vegan.
MT is the Vietnam country manager for Backstreet Academy and just so happens to be based in Hanoi and a self-declared foodie. At first, I was worried when she said she was a foodie, as most foodies frown upon vegans, but she was down for the challenge to show me the best of local dishes in her city adjusted to fit a plant-based diet.
The Backstreet Academy Street Food Gastronomy Doing it Like a Local tour can be altered for vegans. Hanoi has unlimited street food in the Old Quarter that won’t cost you more than a few bucks, but can be hard to navigate as a plant-based eater. Luckily, MT took me around to all the best spots. We ate traditional noodle soups, fried spring rolls, and more. While the dishes weren’t extraordinary as there were a lot of different uses of the same ingredients–tofu, rice, and herbs, I did learn some new tricks to make the dishes extra tasty. For instance, infusing soy sauce with a squeeze of kumquat can completely transform the taste of a dish, for the better!
My favorite dish we tried was banh cuon nong (Google Maps). Skilled Vietnamese ladies pour rice flour that’s been steamed with water over an oven and spin it around to make the dough for banh cuon nong. The dish is called hot rolling cake. The steamed rice paper is filled with fried shallots and served with crunchy mint. There are plenty of places to try this dish around Hanoi but make sure to go to the one I’ve marked on Google Maps as they make food for the cancer hospital every Thursday on a donation basis.
The most interesting part of my food tour with MT was learning about the tradition of eating dog meat in Vietnam. As a vegan, I try very hard not to be judgemental about anyone’s meat consumption. I see all animals the same, so I find it just as upsetting that someone eats a cow as I do a dog. However, MT answered my curious questions about this typical food source.
MT tells me that dog was reserved for special holidays but that it often doesn’t sit well with peoples stomach. Most people get a fever when they eat dog, which is why it’s common to eat in the winter. It’s also bad luck to eat dog during a new moon. MT gave up dog meat after her childhood dog was taken by poachers and once she realized how many civilians were being killed when they tried to protect their dogs from being stolen. I do not encourage anyone to partake in eating dog, or snake, while in Hanoi. If tourism encourages these traditions to flourish we won’t be able to protect these animals.
Of course, we saved room for dessert on our tour. I got to try an array of dishes made of, you guessed it, rice! It’s wild the variety of ways this staple can be prepared. Vietnamese desserts are a bit squishy for my liking.
What I was thrilled to finally try was lotus! MT couldn’t believe I didn’t know what these massive green plants were, nevertheless that I had no idea it was edible. Inside each pod is a seed bean which isn’t all that different than a chickpea.
TOAST THE TOWN WITH A COCKTAIL OR TWO
After all that street food, and a well-deserved nap, there’s only one thing left to do–dive deep into Hanoi’s bustling nightlife. MT took me out for drinks along with Where Goes Rose at some local favorite watering holes for the Backstreet Academy Vietnamese Cocktail Tour–the first and only cocktail tour in Hanoi!
Our first stop of the evening was at the speakeasy-themed Polite & Co. Walking into this chic bar was like a time warp back to the 1920s, minus the prohibition! The booze flows freely here, and in uber creative ways. They’ve been serving concoctions here for over 20 years. Each craft cocktail is linked to a country as a part of their around the world in 25 cocktails menu.
Naturally MT pointed us in the direction of some of the Vietnamese specialty drinks, and they did not disappoint. Rose had a dessert-like drink meant to taste like ice cream, Kem Trang Tien, and my gin drink, Street Vendor, was served in a traditional woven basket and topped off with a tiny conical hat. Trust us, they tasted just as good as they looked!
Our second and last stop of the nite was Ne Bar which is known for its award-winning pho cocktail. Yes, that’s right, pho, the savory soup of Vietnam.
Let me tell you, it made a dynamite cocktail, literally as it was a bit spicy with some freshly cut chili! Oh yes, there are handsome bartenders and fire involved in the crafting of this cocktail.
I actually enjoyed it so much I wanted a second but Rose convinced me to order a rose cocktail in her honor and then I naturally convinced her to have a fish sauce cocktail in my honor, due to the lack of fish sauce I’d consumed in Vietnam, being a vegan and all.
Continue your bar hop by having an infused gin and tonic at Mad Botanist.
CREATE YOUR OWN BESPOKE SILVER JEWELRY
I didn’t just eat and drink with Backstreet Academy, I also got to partake in the conservation efforts rooted in tourism to preserve traditional Vietnamese crafts. First up was trying my hand out as a blacksmith at the Traditional Silversmith Workshop. Being a lover of jewelry I was really excited about this experience but I had no idea how moved I’d be once I arrived at Dinh Cong village near Hanoi.
The blacksmith house is supported by the government today but the family or artisans have had a rocky past with the national politicians. Since the end of the Indochine era, the artisans have had to fight to keep their handmade silver craft alive and have been suppressed numerous times through bans on trade and metal work.
Before the war, this community of artisans would also produce gold, which was worn by women, as silver was usually reserved for men. Beyond jewelry, they’d also use silver to create home decor, items for religious alters, buttons, and furniture adornments. There was never a lot of money to be made in the silver craft, but there was the joy of hand creating such exquisite pieces of art.
After 1954, the communist regime banned the private trade of silver and gold. The artisans couldn’t create their craft anymore and most were required to fight in the war. The communist government controlled the trading of silver goods with socialist countries from 1959-1964 but production halted from 1972 to 1975 during the reunification of Vietnam. During this time, the artisans who weren’t fighting the war would continue to work on their craft, but using copper, as that material wasn’t technically banned.
Mr. Chung is the leader of the group and a third-generation silversmith. He is stunned to learn that I’m American and says I’m the first person from the States to ever visit his workshop. Instead of feeling out of placed and hated, as I sometimes do in Vietnam and for good reason, he makes me feel welcome. He’s quick to tell MT to tell me that he doesn’t hate Americans and that the past is the past and everyone during the war was just doing what they thought was best for their country. It’s easy to tell he harbors no hate or fear, something I wish we could help veterans at home achieves.
He recalls that in 1975 they were allowed to start having an independent silver trade again and that the economy was fully open by 1985. He fought in the war and is nearly blind in one eye from an explosion he survived. He feared that he’d never be able to work with silver again. He longed to work with hands and relied on muscle memory to craft silver butterfly pins and majestic dragons.
Today, Mr. Chung is 77 and teaches young boys from at-risk areas how to work with silver in order to empower them to pursue a career in the craft and keep the traditional art alive. He’s also launched tourism experiences so he can share the history of silver with travelers.
During my visit, I handmade my own silver lotus pendant with the help of Mr. Chung’s son, who is positioned to take over the cooperative. It seems silly to speak about how much I enjoyed the process of handcrafting my own pendant after learning about the trials and tribulations of the artisans at the silver village, so I’ll leave you with a photo. I can’t recommend this experience enough, there is no more meaningful souvenir to be found in Hanoi.
MAKE YOUR VERY OWN STAMP
The first tour on Backstreet Academy that caught my attention was the Wooden Stamp Crafting Workshop. If you didn’t already know, Miss Filatelista is a play on words as Filatelista means postage stamp collector in Spanish and I’m collecting passport stamps. So, it only seems fitting that I’d get to make my own stamp! This is actually something I’ve wanted to do for a long time–ceate a stamp that can be used as a calling card in lieu of wasteful business cards.
Nestled on a corner in the Hanoi Old Quarter Mr. Hung, the stamp making artisan, has set up shop on the sidewalk. Mr. Hung has been practicing his craft for over 30 years and is well-known as the best in the business. During the hour or so I spent with him he had several local and foreign customers come by to pick up or drop off orders–all seemed very pleased with his handiwork.
Seal making, like many other facets of Vietnamese lifestyle, came over from China over 1,000 years ago. Back then seals were reserved for royalty, wealthy, and Confucious scholars who used the stamps to marks the books and items that belonged to them. There even used to be an entire street in the Hanoi Old Quarter dedicated to wooden stamp making. Today, the craft is being kept alive by artisans like Hung who offer tourists the chance to create their own custom stamp–most opt to make one of their own faces!
But not me, I had a challenge for Mr.Hung with tiny lines and letters. Usually, the Backstreet Academy traveler makes their own stamps with Mr.Hung showing them how but I opted to destroy some wood while Mr.Chung made my stamp to perfection. After all, I intended to use this in business so it needed to be perfect! My woodworking skills are limited to a class I took back in middle school.
MY HANOI BACKSTREET ACADEMY WISH LIST
There are so many other Backstreet Academy tours that I didn’t have the chance to join but hopefully will get to experience when I’m back in Vietnam in February. On my wish list is the Macrame Workshop, Vietnamese Vegetarian Cooking Class, Coffee Tour, Discover Rare Tropical Fruits Tour, and the DIY Makeup Class.
GO ON A SOCIAL ENTERPRISE WALK
While I was in Hanoi one of my favorite components for sustainable tourism, Impact Travel Alliance, hosted a walking tour of the best social enterprises in town. As this tour isn’t always readily available I’ll detail our stops so you can follow our paths but I also recommend you join one of the free walking tours with Hanoi Kids, who co-led this experience along with In Steppe.
We met up with our local university student guides from Hanoi Kids at Circle Coffee Bar. The cafe only sells fair trade coffee and is located down a discreet alley which makes way to a picturesque open-air cafe that’s seriously Instagram-worthy.
Social enterprises in Vietnam are becoming more popular and in Hanoi, there is a street where many of the fair trade and ethically made products are sold, Nha Chung. Here you can shop for ethically made products at Chula Fashion.
We visited Collective Memory, which used to be next door but has since moved locations to 12 Nha Chung St. The locally owned shop is a hodgepodge of carefully curated items crafted exclusively by the Vietnamese. The boutique itself tells the story of Vietnam through its goods that have been gathered from over 30 local designers and village artisans. You can expect to find local essential oils meant to transport memory of destination through scent, edible souvenirs to take to your loved ones, and coconut oil from a societal enterprise that helps young farmers.
As we stroll through the Old Quarter of Hanoi our tour leaders point out other social enterprises such as Oriberry which serves fair trade coffee and offers a 5% discount if you bring your own mug or ride in on a bicycle! I returned another day to try their brew and it was fantastic, although it isn’t a very cozy place for digital nomads to work for a morning.
We finally arrived at the train street, which I’d managed to avoid for my first few days in Hanoi. If you’ve been a long-time reader of Miss Filatelista you already know that I have a fear of trains that’s stuck with me since childhood. Only the prospect of learning about an ethical business could make me face my fears so I trudged forward with the encouragement of my sweet friend Emily of Wander–Lush.
Tucked away on the train street is a tiny hole-in-the-wall shop that’s working to preserve the tradition of papermaking in Vietnam. The art is so lost in the modern world that it isn’t a craft I’d even given much thought to until I walked into the Zo Project.
At the boutique, travelers can learn about the process of making raw Dó paper and even purchase their own paper supplies such as cards, envelopes, booklets, journals, and more. The paper goods are made at a community in a nearby province where workers strip bark from a mulberry tree to use as a raw material. Isn’t it just divine?
Our social enterprise program ends at KOTO, the training cafe that’s name is an acronym for know one, teach one. This philosophy has been used to transforms the lives of disadvantaged and at-risk youth in Vietnam through a 24-month qualified hospitality training program. Over the last 20 years, the nonprofit has transformed to a sandwich shop to a grassroots institution that’s assisted over 1,000 students aged 16-22 have passed through the program and gone on to work in hotels, restaurants, and bars.
Not only is this eatery entirely ethical, as 100% of proceeds are peddled back into the program, but the food is also astonishing! I loved my pomelo salad and passion fruit mojito. KOTO also operates a cooking class where you can learn how to make all their most famous dishes.
GO SIGHTSEEING WITH A LOCAL
Guru Walk offers free walking tours in various cities around the globe led by the locals who love their cities. I lucked out by getting Huong as my guide for the Hanoi City Tour. She’s just as curious about culture and history as I am and was able to answer all the strange questions that pop into my mind as I learn about a place.
We first popped into the Den Ba Kieu temple after I expressed curiosity about the beautiful red, gold, and wooden building. Huong explained that this coloring has deep significance. The red is lucky and keeps away evil and gold symbolizes wealth. These are the colors that can be seen throughout many Vietnamese temples.
Across the way is the Hoan Kiem Lake where the Ngoc Son Temple floats on an island. To reach the temple you must pass through 3 gates that have various representations such as prosperity and happiness. My favorite aspect of the temple is the 17th century 10-meter tower, known as the pen tower. It was placed here to honor the Chinese writing system as before the Chinese arrived in Vietnam there was no written language. The pen tower is good luck for university students, and I think its safe to say good luck for journalists too.
Also on Hoan Kiem Lake is the Turtle Tower which has a fascinating legend.
As we’re walking through the Old Quarter of Hanoi I noticed three odd buildings stacked up next to each other and ask Huong if she knows why they look so different. Of course, she does! She seems delighted that I’ve taken interest in her city and noticed small things like a variety in architecture. She explains that the styles are from three different eras. The oldest house from the Imperial era is the one with tiny windows so that no one could see inside, the other is French colonial and Vietnam modern day. Today, they’re each regular family tubular homes with tiny shops in the front to keep taxes low.
Have you had a responsible travel experience in Vietnam? Tell us about it in the comments!
I was a guest on the Backstreet Academy and Impact Travel Alliance tours. All opinions and photos are my own. This post contains affiliate links. Please read the Miss Filatelista disclosure policy for more information.