Nola Cafe Review, Hanoi, Vietnam

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Anyone that knows me will be aware that I am a huge coffee addict. I love going to cafes and taking the time to meet a friend or spend an hour by myself enjoying a coffee and slowing down. Having a coffee feels indulgent but not excessive, it adds structure to an empty day or reflection in a busy one, it picks you up, it calms you down, it’s a chance to be social or to get lost in your own thoughts and wherever you are in the world, no matter how different the place is, a coffee shop is a coffee shop and that’s a comforting thought.

I’m writing up a list of reviews on my favourite coffee shops that I’ve been to around the world for a new section on my blog so here’s the first one: a review of quirky Vietnamese Nola Cafe in Hanoi. Hope you guys enjoy reading about these cafes as much as I did visiting them.

Nola Cafe Hanoi

Nola Cafe Hanoi

Nola Cafe, Hanoi

I didn’t realise how big of a thing coffee was in Vietnam before I went but this South East Asian country is the ultimate destination for coffee lovers with no end of intriguing and alternative coffees and an endless choice of quirky cafes to drink them in.

In a city as wonderfully chaotic as Hanoi, coffee shops are the one place you can go to escape from the madness and I don’t think I found another place on my trip that was as serene and tranquil as Cafe Nola. Hiding in plain sight with an entrance through a narrow alleyway in the heart of Hanoi’s Old Quarter,  I would have easily missed Cafe Nola if I hadn’t been looking for it.

The Location

Nola Cafe is located at 89 Pho Ma May, Hang Buom near the Hoan Kiem lake. It’s probably best to plug the address in Google Maps as it’s tricky to find.

I’d read about this cafe in my Lonely Planet guidebook that I’d been religiously carting round the country with me so I assumed that the cafe would be full of guidebook loving travellers but I was the only person there.

The Decor

If like me, you’re partial to posting a few Instagram’s then the arty decor of this cafe will win you over. Undoubtedly, getting up to the actual seating area of the cafe was a bit of a workout as I had to climb a steep, narrow flight of stairs to get there but once I did it opened up into a beautiful, wild overgrown garden and outdoor seating area covered with multi coloured patterned umbrellas, little lanterns and dotted with mismatched furniture.

Despite it’s location in the centre of the city, all of the noises integral to the city like beeping motorbike horns were silenced and all I could hear were the sounds of birds chirping.  As someone on their first solo backpacking trip, this little sanctuary was just the mental escape that I needed for an hour or two from the fast paced city.

The Menu

Cafe Nola offers food as well as drinks on its menu however it caters for tourists and food prices are higher than you’d pay in most restaurants and the food is less authentic so I’d recommend coming here just for coffee. Its drink selection is very westernised serving all the usual coffees that I’d have at home like a Flat White, Long black and cappuccino’s as well as smoothies and cocktails. I went for a black coffee and an iced sweet jasmine tea.

I preferred traditional Vietnamese coffees: they’re much more interesting, (you can read more about them on my coffee guide) but this cafe is more about the aesthetics (Let’s be honest, a cafe tucked up and alleyway with colourful umbrellas as a ceiling is always going to be aimed at photo seeking travellers, right?)

The Prices

Prices are high by Vietnamese standards but low in comparison to the UK with coffees averaging £2 and food around £3-£4 a dish.

Useful Things You Need To Know Before Travelling In Vietnam

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Vietnam was a country that had been on my bucket list forever so when I decided to add in as part of my backpacking South East Asia Itinerary I couldn’t be more excited. I knew very little about the country or the culture when I turned up in Hanoi as part of my first solo backpacking trip.  Perhaps this was a little naive but I was just so damn excited to get out there and explore I didn’t really leave time for planning.

As a solo female backpacker I found Vietnam to be a safe, sociable and relatively easy country to travel in and the food was out of this world good. My biggest concern was the traffic- Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh are an absolute nightmare to even cross the road!

If you’ve got the time then I’d say don’t overly plan an itinerary for Vietnam as its much better to take each day as it comes. ( A typhoon in Central Vietnam totally changed my plans forcing me to fly from Hue to Ho Chi Minh City then back up later on).

Either way if you are planning on travelling to Vietnam here are a few things to bear in mind first. 

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The visa situation

Ok so first of all if you are visiting longer than 15 days then you need a visa. You need to pre-book your visa before you’ve arrived. There’s a lot of conflicting information online about what you need and how much you need to pay. Basically the thing you’re after is an approval letter. If you book an e visa, it’s the same, just a letter.

I went with http://www.evisa.com.vn which is recommended by Lonely Planet. They are legitimate and can process and email you your letter in 1-2 working days for 20 USD or 30 USD if you need it urgently, which is what I did the last-minute. You can apply from home or in another country if you’re somewhere else before. I applied while in Thailand. To apply you just need to send a photo of your passport and a photo of a passport size photo of yourself. If you’re backpacking in Asia you should always have passport photos on you.

If time is short and you’re only staying 15 days and you’re from one of the eligible countries like the UK, you do not need to get an e-visa. However YOU NEED PROOF OF ONWARD TRAVEL. A lot of backpackers heading to another country after will not have a flight booked out of Vietnam. You will not be able to get on your flight without this. They will make you book one at the airport and this can be expensive.

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Choosing where to stay: hostels or hotels? 

I’m not a fan of the whole, arrive in a place, have no idea where you’re staying and walk around for hours with your backpack trying to find somewhere. It is A: Either going to be very hot or B-Going to be raining,  so save yourself hassle and prebook the night before. Always book just one night at first, incase the place is awful. It’s also often cheaper to extend a night in person rather than booking it all at once online.

In Asia but specifically Vietnam, you get a lot for your money accommodation wise. If you’re up for hostels, you’re looking at no more than £6 a night. I always book mine on Booking.com and now get special discounts because of it. Always filter by distance from city centre, ( You want to be in the city centre. 4.7 k outside anywhere is annoying), best reviewed, lowest price and free breakfast. With the amount of value hostels competing, there is no need to ever pay for breakfast, saving you money.IMG_2354

Getting around

Vietnam is a massive country. Loads of people go on epic motorbiking adventures and they will tell you there is no point going to Vietnam unless you have one. There is.

The easiest way to get around in Vietnam are sleeper buses. These two-story buses pretty much have routes across the whole country and are much cheaper than the train. They have vertical beds in them and you can actually sleep, so long journeys are actually quite bearable. Do not book these online. The prices will be in US dollars and that is expensive. You can book in person but it’s best to do it via your hostel or a travel agent. They do add a small commission fee but it is  usually worth saving the hassle of negotiating with a Vietnamese ticket seller. Pre book your bus at least a day in advance.

For any journeys over 10 hours, I would advise you fly if possible. If you are near a main airport then this is cheap. For example Hanoi or Ho Chi Minh. Danang (Hoi An) to Ho Chi Minh is a good example. It’s a 17 hour sleeper bus or a one hour flight costing just £20. You can book via a travel agent but it’s usually easier and just as cheap on Skyscanner.

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Money

The money situation is very confusion. Inflation in Vietnam is ridiculous. £1 GBP is 30,000 dong so 300,000 = 10 GBP and 3000,000 is around 100 GBP. This is always good as a base to work from. Download the free XE currency converter app. It works without wi-fi and will be a lifesaver while you get to grips with the currency. Always double-check your change, it’s common to be shortchanged and organise your money in chronological order in your purse. There are no coins in Vietnam so your purse can get pretty full.

You can get Vietnamese dong outside of the country but the exchange rate is much better if you change your money once you get there.  US dollars are always good to bring as these are widely changed.  There are caps on how much you can withdraw so don’t freak out if the first ATM won’t let you. Some banks, generally bigger ones, let you draw out 5 million, others only 2. There is always a high fee for withdrawing. This is unfortunately unavoidable.

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Amazing vegetarian Cao Lau (A Hoi An speciality)

 

Eating and drinking

Vietnamese food is unsung hero of Asian cuisine. Everything in Vietnam tastes amazing and it should never have to cost you more than 100 thousand dong (£3.30). As per usual, eat from street vendors for cheap food, restaurants for a little more.  Try the regional specialties in each area. Northern, Central and Southern food varies a lot. Try Bun Cha up North, White Rose dumplings in the middle and Ban Mi in the South.

The thing that surprised me most in Vietnam is their coffee culture. You can spend 50 thousand dong on a coffee in fancy places but generally the best places are little cafes on street corners without menus that the locals frequent. Here you can usually get an iced milk coffee, served with free green tea for 15 thousand dong.

Read more about this here if you’re interested: How To Order Coffee In Vietnam
Alcoholic drinks are cheaper than at home but not cheap in comparison to Vietnamese prices. Beer will only set you back 30 thousand, (1 GBP), but apart from that, the less alcohol  you drink, the less you spend. In most cities, the authorities crack down on nightlife after midnight so most bars shut or go ‘underground’ anyway.

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I hope you found this post useful. Any more questions about backpacking in Vietnam? I’d love to help

Quit your job and go to Hanoi

IMG_1762IMG_1380IMG_1372 First morning in Vietnam and I’m up way before my alarm. I’m exhausted from my late flight in the night before but my excitement to see a country I’ve been desperate to visit is far greater than my need for sleep.

My hostel is calm and peaceful. I’m one of the first ones up and I enjoy a quiet breakfast and coffee and then I head out just after 7:30 with no idea what awaits me out in Hanoi.

From the moment I step outside, Hanoi has captivated me. It’s frantic, chaotic, mesmerising, and above all it smells so good that it makes me regret eating my breakfast at the hostel.

Hanoi’s Old Quarter is a labyrinth of winding roads and narrow paths and straight away I’m lost. Crossing the road is ordeal in itself with hundreds of scooters beeping and coming towards me in all directions but when I eventually realise they’ll never stop and take a step out, I’m reassured by how they navigate past me quite swiftly. Think I’m getting the hang of this.

Locals and tourists mix here very freely. In fact tourists themselves are hard to spot, and I didn’t notice any until I started looking. Little street cafes are dotted all over the place with people perched on the roadside enjoying stealing hot piles of Pho noodles and other enticing foods. People selling fruit and other snacks walk in front of me, effortless dragging their carts amongst the crazy traffic and all I can think is, ‘wow, they actually wear those hats?!’

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IMG_1376First stop on my self guided tour of the city is Hoan Kiem Lake. The waterfront is peaceful and serene here and makes a nice break from the intensity of the chaos.

I can’t help but hunt out a Lonely Planet recommendation: Cafe Pho Co, famous for its Vietnamese egg coffee. I’m walking around in circles to find it until I consult my book again and read that the entrance is hidden and accessed through a silk shop. Sure enough, I find the shop and outside there is a tiny sign with the cafe’s name on. “Coffee?” I ask the shop owner pointing through, she looks at me and just nods.
This takes me to a little alleyway and suddenly I emerge into the quaintest little coffee shop I’ve ever been in. The waitress hands me a menu and I go with the recommendation: caphe trung da for one. I head up the multiple spiral staircases to the top floor which culminates in a spectacular view of the lake. My egg coffee arrives. It’s sweet, with a consistency of a sticky meringue, unlike anything I have ever had before and it’s absolutely delicious.

On the way back to meet a friend for lunch I loop around past the Don Xuan Market. It’s a struggle to stay aware of the traffic as this place is a sensory overload. Narrow alleyways of cheap Vietnamese eats and beer are starting to fill up for lunch. Sellers have their merchandise sprawled out on the streets from flowers to snakes, buckets of live eels and crabs and there’s hardly a tourist in sight.IMG_1379

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Back at the hostel, me and my friend ask for a recommendation on where to eat. Reception said I had to go to the little place directly opposite for their bun cha. I hadn’t even noticed the place. It was unassuming, looked a little bit of a dive with plastic tables and limited seating but we followed the advice and headed over. We were hustled in and before I’d even uttered a word, dishes of herbs and noodles were being placed in front of us.

A local girl opposite told us that, bun cha, the only dish on the menu was Hanoi’s speciality. The main dish, a steaming bowl of barbecued pork served in a deep bowl with an oyster sauce broth is the main component. She showed us how we take a couple of bunches of vermicelli noodles from the plate, drop them in, add in a couple of chilli’s and spring rolls, then for the bean spouts and herbs. Voila a perfect bowl of bun cha and I’m only £1.50 out of pocket.

Feeling very full we head off to the famous puppet theatre. A little gem of Hanoi, the traditional water puppet theatre is an hour long story of Vietnamese history told by handmade puppets and with a live orchestra. It’s so quaint that it can’t be missed.

I collapse at the end of the day, exhausted but complete enchanted by Hanoi. My brain hurts from trying to get to grips with the incompressible currency, my eyes hurt from being so alert for so many hours and my legs are killing from walking but I’d be ready to head back out again in a second.
Hanoi feels different. It’s exotic and crazy, it’s fun and intriguing, it’s chaotic yet in places very serene and it’s complete impossible not to fall in love with.

 

Where to stay: I stayed in Hanoi Centre Hostel which was really good. It’s around £4 a night and is only a few months old. Very central and clean with an amazing free breakfast. I booked all my tours though them and they’ll look after your luggage for you while you’re on trips.

Eating and drinking: Really the best places to eat and grab a local beer are the really unassuming looking places with little tables and chairs on the pavements. These are everywhere, just be adventurous and dive in. If you’re looking for more of a sit down restaraunt away from the hustle and bustle try Quan Bia Minh. It has good views from the balcony and  a varied Vietnamese menu at good prices. Cafe pho co is a must for egg coffee and try an iced tea or a Vietnamese condensed milk coffee at Nola cafe, a quirky place and a little sanctuary of calm in the craziness of the city.