Hanoi is an enchanting city that never bores. I just love the vibrant atmosphere, especially the Old Quarter. Streets full of people sitting on those tiny plastic stools, eating street food and drinking bia hoi. Now this is Vietnam! So what are the must do’s in Hanoi? Warning: many photos ahead!
Hanoi was chosen as the capital of North Vietnam in 1946 and became the capital of a reunified Vietnam in 1976.
Simply enjoy walking around, give your eyes a living, explore from neighborhood to neighborhood to get a good impression of this city. You can easily spend a week in this metropole with almost 8 million people without getting bored or spending a lot of money.
Despite the fact that Hanoi has been discovered by tourists and backpackers many years ago, Hanoi is still relatively cheap. A bowl of tasty, fresh Pho noodle soup for less than a euro, are they crazy??
Discover the Old Quarter
A ravel of narrow, winding streets with people preparing food, selling veggies, doing the dishes, talking to each other, spending time with friends or family. The Bia Hoi junction is a popular place where lots of young people meet up at night. They all sit down on those tiny, colorful, plastic stools, enjoying some Pho or ‘bia hoi’ (Vietnamese draft beer). But hey, at least it is vehicle free!
In other streets you will have to find your way between the endless flow of scooters and people; often the sidewalks are full of merchandise and parked scooters. The Old Quarter starts at the north shore of the Hoan Kiem Lake. The old house of Ho Chi Minh (Hang Ngang 48), the Quon Chuong Gate, Bah Ma Temple, the Gothic-style Saint Joseph Cathedral, traditional houses, restaurants, people… enough to see! Take a tour like Hanoi by Night Tour to learn more from a local guide.
Eat street food
If you want to get a real taste of Hanoi, try different street food stalls. Any kind of of ‘pho’ (Vietnamese noodle soup) can be eaten at any time of the day, from breakfast to midnight snack. My personal favorite is Pho Ga, Vietnamese noodle soup with chicken. Yum! Pick places where you see a lot of locals and make sure you have got cash on you to pay for food and frinks. The smells and sounds of these places are something you will have to experience yourself.
Instead of using the unpainted chop sticks provided by the street food stalls, bring your own pair of painted chopsticks – a great souvenir!
I would highly recommend to take a guided food tour, such as Food by Foot Tour, Hanoi Street Food Touror Foodie Tour by Night. It is a great way to meet locals, get to know their customs and try new types of food. For those into cooking, seize the opportunity to learn some Vietnamese dishes during this Cooking Class with Market Tour and surprise your friend and family at home with your new skills! Just drop boyfriend or husband off at a local Bia Hoi Bar 😉
Visit the Van Mieu Temple of Literature
Vietnam’s first university, built in 1070 (!!), is definitely worth a visit. The Van Mieu Temple of Literature offers an interesting glimpse into Vietnam’s past and present. The gardens and architecture are signs of Vietnamese respect towards science and literature in general and Confucianism in particular. In the ‘Big house of ceremonies’ there is a statue of Confucius, ‘Master of 10.000 generations’. A must do in Hanoi!
In a country that is so damaged by war, these buildings have survived miraculously. Until 1919 privileged students actually studied here, at first only boys. Nowadays it is beloved by graduates who have a tradition of taking their group photos here. Makes sense with the temple’s history, cultural value and spots like ‘The gate to success’ and ‘Gate of the talent achieved’.
Enjoy a water puppet show
Those interested in a typical local cultural activity, may want to see a traditional water puppet show. Not necessarily an absolute must do in Hanoi to me, but water puppet show is THE stage art of Vietnam, which exists for over a century. So why not? Not looking forward to stand in line with these temperatures? Get your skip the line entrance tickets in advance.
Explore the French Quarter
The French (1887-1954) undeniably left their marks on Hanoi. Scars on the souls of the Vietnamese people, but also in architecture and food. You may have your thoughts about the colonization, the remaining French colonial buildings are worth seeing. The Opera building, Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Historical Museum (Bao tang Lich Su) are well preserved examples.
Nowadays the French Quarter is an upscale area with residential villas of the wealthy, embassies and luxury hotels like the classy Sofitel Legend Metropole, where a lot of famous people stayed. If you cannot afford staying at the best hotel of Hanoi, get at least a strawberry daiquiri. Certainly a must do in Hanoi!
The southeast side of the Hoan Kiem Lake forms a good starting point for further exploration of the French Quarter. Hoan Kiem means ‘lake of the returned sword’, named after a legendary turtle that took the emperor’s sword used to expel the Chinese occupiers. In the middle of Hoan Kiem Lake there is the Turtle Tower.
Get up early and walk (or jog) along the lake to see locals perform Tai Chi in the park around Hoan Kiem Lake.
If you have enough time, walk along the Ngoc Son temple, Danc Nguyet and Tran Ba Ding pavilions, 3 Hang Khay and Hoa Pong Tower. And check out the Hoa Lo Prison, also known as ‘Hanoi Hilton’ among American pilots that were imprisoned here between 1964 and 1973. If only those walls could talk…
Check Ho Chi Min’s Mausoleum
Ho Chi Minh is the most legendary Vietnamese communist leader who was prime minister (1945-1955) and president of North Vietnam (1945-1969). He died in 1969 and his remains are placed a mausoleum, located at the Ba Dinh Square, where Ho Chi Minh declared Vietnam’s independence in 1945. While Ho Chi Minh himself wanted to be cremated after his death, and his ashes scattered all over the country, his body was embalmed and placed in a glass coffin, where he is on display to this day.
The typical square communistic building, which someone irreverently described to me as “ugly yet impressive”, is actually a Sovjet version of a lotus flower. To learn more and visit the mausoleum I would suggest to take a guided tour like this one. There is also the possibility to visit the mausoleum at night. No shorts nor short leaves allowed!
Take a break
During the day, take a break for a coffee, refreshing drink, snack or (light) meal at the north side of Hoan Kiem Lake. Go to Legend Beer, City View Cafe, Avalon Café Lounge or Highlands Coffee for Dinh Tien Hoang crossing view. Or to Cau Go Vietnamese Cuisine Restaurant for lake view. Food wise not the most special, but the view is just something you have to see and taking a break is a must do with these temperatures in Hanoi.
Want to try something different or not cannot choose from the long menu? Order a tea with gin, vodka or rum at City View Café LOL
After surviving Bai Hoi Junction, you may want to go for another beer or two at Bia Hoi Ha Noi. Cheers! A more classy choice would be going to one of the nice rooftop bars and restaurants Hanoi has, such as MK Rooftop Bar Restaurant or Twilight Sky Bar and Restaurant. Rooftop bars are very suitable for drinks and snacks in a relaxed atmosphere with a great view, but a bit pricier so different type of crowd. Try to make reservations in advance.
Later at night, if you want to meet fellow crazy backpackers and dance the night away, try Vietnam Backpackers Hostel (9 Ma May Street). To hit the dance floor around locals, go for example to Dragon Fly Bar Club. In the French Quarter there is Swing Lounge Café for old fashioned kind of dancing and music style.
Shop till you drop
In the Old Quarter, shopping streets tend to be themed, sometimes named after a trade that used to take place there. Some streets have only clothes, others are mainly focused on mobile phone stuf, etc. Good shopping streets include Ta Hien Street (clothes), Hang Da Street (shoes), Chan Cam alley (boutiques), Hang Gai Street (Silk Street), etc. This wonderful half-day shopping tour is a must do in Hanoi for true shopaholics, during which a local will show the hidden gems of Hanoi in terms of shopping.
At the northern edge of the Old Quarter you will find the Duong Xuan market, open daily 06:00-19:00h. The market has been around since 1889 but the current communist style building is from 1996. Inside you will find four floors of shops, offering groceries like seafood, meat and veggies, pets, flowers, clothes, accessories, electronics and local snacks for those who dare: duck blood soup and fried frog! Just outside the market I found the most interesting stuff actually, like fresh fruit and local art.
Wander around Train Street
This video is not mine but it gives a good impression and relevant information to visit Hanoi’s Train Street. A really cool, must do experience in Hanoi. Just be careful!
Must do: hotel in the Old Quarter
Finnegans Hotel is located right in the heart of Hoan Kiem, the Old Quarter of Hanoi. It is just around the corner of all the huzz and buzz. Should you want to get something to eat or dance the night away, all you will need to do is take a few steps and enjoy!
When we were done partying I was so happy we could go back to our nice and quiet hotel, away from the crazy loud party crowd at the Vietnam Backpackers Hostel (9 Ma May Street).
Room prices of Finnegans Hotel start around EUR 25 p/n including breakfast, so very reasonable. Breakfast is good, with several options such as tasty Pho (Vietnamese noodle soup) or more western food items such as fruit and baguettes. Great customer service; the owner of the hotel arranged several things for us, including the train to Sapa.
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How to get to & around Hanoi
We walked miles and miles in Hanoi. Renting a scooter did not feel like a safe option as most scooters require an international driver’s license due to high cc. Without you are uninsured, with all risks involved. When going on a tour, you usually get picked up by a driver with a mini-van or something like that, unless you are doing a pure walking tour.
Hanoi is probably either your starting point or final destination during a Vietnam roundtrip. And likely you will cross Hanoi a few times when traveling to other places in North Vietnam.
- Get a cheap private transfer to/from Hanoi airport to/from Hanoi Old Quarter (30min)
- For flight options and prices check Skyscanner
Take a trip out of Hanoi
Hanoi is a great base to do some further exploring of North Vietnam, my favorite region. If you have enough time of course, as I suggest to stay in Hanoi for at least 3 nights. (Multi) day trips from Hanoi may include for example:
In a future blog post I will tell you more about the trips we have taken from Hanoi. In the meantime, please check here my earlier blog post Photo Essay – Can Cao Market near Sapa, North Vietnam.
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Have you ever been to Vietnam? What is your impression of Hanoi? Which Southeast Asian city is your favorite? Please feel free to leave a comment below.
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