For all the insider tips, local secrets and travel hacks the internet has been able to reveal to the average internet-savvy traveler, there really is nothing quite as powerful as spending time with an actual local to get a real foothold on a new city. Hanoi Free Local Tours is a fantastic organization which provides this very opportunity with any visitor to Hanoi willing to take a chance. Of course, I understand that it's easy to jump to paranoid conclusions at the word 'free' in this context but before you make assumptions let me explain, because this is actually the real deal. I came to Hanoi travelling solo, so I was eager to plug into the local culture. When I found this organization, I was skeptical as well, but willing to take a chance. Here's how it works, as my tourguide explained it to me:
Free Local Tours is able to operate completely free as a mutually beneficial service. All of the tourguides are volunteer students and locals looking to enhance their english by engaging with foreign visitors through the tour service. The benefit for us is that we get to see a unique, LOCAL side of Hanoi with our very own guide, from city landmarks, to the hidden away street food hotspots you definitely wont find in Lonely Planet or Trip Advisor.
My guide was May, who was splendid company: knowledgeable, passionate and a genuine soul. We spent the entire day together, and as it turned out I was the only visitor on the tour, so it was just the two of us. We visited a historical site, a Buddhist temple, tried some amazing local food, all of which she was able to supplement with her insights as a Hanoi local. May and I became fast friends. We got to learn a tremendous amount about each other's cultures. And at one point she even let me do a lap around sword lake on her electric bike (don't worry I volunteered to drive, this is by no means a requirement of the tour :) ) At night, we took a taxi outside of town to her brother's restaurant where we talked, laughed, and enjoyed more great food. At the end of the night we were two good friends from different parts of the world parting ways in an amazing city. If you can be open minded to trying new things, meeting new people, and really GOING WITH THE FLOW, Hanoi Free Tours is a perfect option for acclimating to the hustle and bustle of this fantastic city.
I also want to mention that May was explicit about the tour as a 'pay what you want' type of itinerary (with nothing going to the tourguide, if you try to tip they WILL refuse the money as is the policy of the organization.) If you want to hit the museums and temples that cost money, you're welcome to. If you want to stick to a truly no-money kind of experience and just walk around the city, you can do that too. There is truly no pressure, and you only do what you're comfortable with.
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