VIETNAM TRAVEL GUIDE / Hanoi essentials best things to do !

Picture from guidefrancophone

Because I’ve heard too many travelers say they don’t like Hanoi, I’ve made it my mission to write as much as possible so that you can enjoy the city as it should be if you ever come to stay. It is a city I fell in love with and even if I have to admit that there are not hundreds of tourist attractions in the heart of the city, there are some! Moreover, Hanoi is a great base to discover the north of Vietnam.

Here are 10 things to do to discover the richness and the different facets of Hanoi:

1. Stroll in the Old Quarter of Hanoi
2. Visit the history museums and the Ho Chi Minh mausoleum
3. Visit the temples and pagodas of Hanoi
4. Discover the unusual train street of Hanoi
5. Eat in the street like the locals
6. Visit Vietnamese cafes
7. Rent a scooter and experience the traffic in Hanoi
8. Experience the Hanoi nightlife
9. Discover Hanoi from above
10. Visit Halong Bay and the countryside around Hanoi

1. Walk around the Old Quarter – and get lost

This is the very first thing you should do, and it might be the only thing you would do if you were to stay only 24 hours in Hanoi.

The Old Quarter is a bit like the heart of Hanoi (but not the lungs, given the rush hour traffic). At any time of the day or night, you will find animation, and you will be carried away by the agitated atmosphere of the streets of Hanoi. And whatever paths and alleys you take, you will get lost at least once (if you have a sense of direction)!

During the day, have a coffee at the secret Ca Phe Pho Co (“Old City Coffee”), to be found at the end of a corridor between two stores overlooking Hang Gai Street. Go up to the top floor and enjoy the lake view from the terrace. Then go back down and cross the bridge to the Ngoc Son temple islet in the middle of the lake.

In the evening, walk around the lake and enjoy the bands playing near the fountain, while enjoying a water ice purchased from the small kiosk on the lakefront. Watch as balloon and light-up trinket vendors cross the road amidst the motorcycles as if nothing had happened. Listen to the laughter of children playing. Finally, if you have never seen an Asian market for tourists, walk up Hang Dao Street where the Hanoi Night Market is located.

If you prefer to avoid the crowds, walk to the cathedral instead, and get lost in the small adjacent streets. On the way, take the time to taste a bun cha or a banh mi, or a banh goi (the Vietnamese version of empanadas, one of my favorite “cakes”!). For the cute coffee lovers, I can’t help but recommend my favorite coffee shop, hidden behind the cathedral, Eden Coffee.

If you want to get away from the lake, two options: in the north, get lost in the typical alleys before arriving at Dong Xuan market, a huge covered market where you will discover the frenetic life of the local merchants. Be careful not to spill anything on your way through the small alleys of the market. You will also stroll through “themed” streets, such as the street of lights, the street of kitchen utensils, the street of bedding, the street of religious material… very interesting for those who are not familiar with the organization of Asian wholesale shops! Eat with the locals in the small alley Cau Dong, near the street of confectionery.

Or towards the south, head more towards the French Quarter (around the Opera House). There you will discover a completely different architecture that little by little, may lead you to the railroad tracks that cross a narrow street, an increasingly popular attraction in Hanoi, called the “train street”. In this area, try the best ice cream in the city at Kem Trang Tien. Their biggest hit is the mung bean ice cream stick (“green bean”). If jazz is your cup of tea, plan to spend a nice evening at Binh Minh Jazz Club (not especially cheap drinks, but when the music is good…)

2. Visit the history museums and the Ho Chi Minh mausoleum

Visit Ho Chi Minh’s imposing mausoleum, after watching the guards in their shiny uniforms pacing along the esplanade. Beware: the mausoleum closes early, preferably before 4:30 pm. The Ho Chi Minh museum is located close to the mausoleum, after crossing the temple adjacent to the Môt Côt pagoda.

Hanoi has many museums and if you are interested in Vietnamese history and society, these are essential stops. I won’t dwell on a topic that is covered at length by travel guides, but among the most popular and appreciated museums in Hanoi are the Vietnam Women’s Museum and Hòa Lò Prison in particular.

3. Visit temples and pagodas in Hanoi

For temple and pagoda enthusiasts, Hanoi also has something to satisfy you, although it is clearly not the same outpouring as Thailand, Taiwan or Japan in terms of religious buildings. Most temples and pagodas have a discreet atmosphere. You never see a monk and you don’t notice any religious signs apart from the carved porticoes or the square multicolored flags that signal the proximity of a temple.

Religion in Vietnam is quite complex, as it is an interesting historical melting pot. Traditional animist beliefs still coexist with Buddhism, Taoism and Confucianism inherited from the Chinese influence, but also with Christianity arrived with the Jesuits. In Hanoi, you will visit Buddhist or Taoist temples, but also temples dedicated to certain kings, where other deities are celebrated at the same time (as for example in the Temple of Literature).

4. Discover the unusual train street of Hanoi

It has become one of the main attractions of Hanoi: in a narrow alley in the heart of the Old Quarter, the train that connects the capital to the center of the country runs.

5. Eat on the street like the locals

You can’t ignore food when you come to Vietnam, and Hanoi won’t disappoint you if you know where to look. The best experience you can have in terms of taste discoveries is in the capital’s backstreets and bouis-bouis.

If you’re staying in the Old Quarter, make sure you choose the right places to eat so you don’t get screwed. You know the golden rules when you look for food: avoid the touristy corners and the addresses of the guides, prefer to eat in the markets and in the stands where you see locals.

Don’t confine yourself to bun cha, which, although delicious, is far from revealing the extent of Hanoi’s gastronomic wealth. Go further than banh mi, by tasting other fried dishes such as banh goi or banh tom. Try other noodle soups than pho, such as crab or sea snail soup. In short, go on an adventure!

6. Drink a vietnamese coffee 

Coffee culture is very important in Vietnam, and especially in Hanoi. The city is full of hidden cafes, local or westernized, independent or not. There is really something for everyone. There is probably one coffee shop for every 100 inhabitants in this city (I just estimated this number)! Choose the small local cafes, or hidden cafes, over the big chains. There are so many little treasures in Hanoi that it would be a shame to end up at Starbucks or Highland Coffee when you can enjoy the couch of a Kafeville or the terrace of a To Chim Xanh.

You absolutely must try the Vietnamese filter coffee, which produces a thick black coffee that coffee lovers will most certainly appreciate. Your coffee will be brought to you with the traditional filter placed on your glass. Once your coffee is fully filtered, place the filter aside on the saucer lid provided.

If you want to buy Vietnam’s special coffee, made from coffee beans found in the droppings of the civet or weasel, you will find many stalls in the Old Quarter. Be aware that locals rarely drink this coffee, and that it can be quite expensive (up to 10$ a pack). Remember to negotiate if you buy several packs, but the Old Quarter merchants are tough on business (and rarely pleasant when you start trying to get the price down).

7. Rent a scooter and experience the traffic in Hanoi

I hesitated a bit before writing this recommendation because while you’ll be having a 100% Hanoian experience, I’m not so sure it meets all the safety standards. Finally, this doesn’t stop anyone from renting a scooter – the best way to get around the city. And anyway, whether you rent a motorcycle or not, you will certainly not be able to avoid the staggering traffic density during rush hour.

8. Experience Hanoi nightlife

Hanoi is very active in terms of nightlife – less so than Ho Chi Minh, which never sleeps – there are countless clubs, bars and karaoke bars to have a good time in the evening. Start by drinking beers in a bia hoi (a typical eating and drinking place) before moving on to the Old Quarter (Ta Hien) bar street.

If, however, you are not a fan of techno or Vietnamese pop, you can always stroll at night in the Old Quarter to test the animation in the street! If you’re looking for late night dining, head to Tong Duy Tan and Ngo Cam Chi streets, where restaurants are open 24/7.

9. See Hanoi from above

One of my favorite things to do to get a sense of how crowded Hanoi is: one of the most impressive panoramic views of the city is from the top of Lotte Tower in Ba Dinh district (this tower is the 2nd highest in the city). The rooftop bar of this tower offers a spectacular view of all Hanoi. Ideal for a breathtaking night out.

I love the bar at the top of the Lotte Tower because I was really impressed by the night view the first time I was taken there… but I have a strong preference for another tower, much lower but a stone’s throw away from the West Lake, which offers an absolutely ideal viewpoint to admire the sunset on a clear day. I grant you that this happens quite rarely in Hanoi, unfortunately – but if one day you are lucky enough to have a nice day and are looking to sip a cocktail with a view on the lake, don’t hesitate anymore and climb to 6 Degrees (Tay Ho)!

10. Visit Halong Bay and the countryside around Hanoi

As I told you at the beginning, Hanoi is a great base to visit northern Vietnam. Of course, you’ll want to explore Halong Bay: most hotels and travel agencies in the Old Quarter will offer a one or two night cruise on the bay to enjoy the impressive karst formations.

Below are the main tourist places to visit from Hanoi, from the closest to the farthest. While again, all travel agencies in the capital will inform you and sell you tours (or at least minibus rides) it is also possible to visit all these places on your own. You will just need more time and organization – it depends on how you want to travel.

Accounts to follow on Instagram

@hanoicapital: an account that follows life in Hanoi day by day
@hanoiphofb: the community of Hanoi fans, all over the world!
@somewhereinhanoi: photo stories from around the city
@hanoi.inlove : photos of Hanoi, for Hanoi lovers !
@hanoi_stagram : to know Hanoi from A to Z through a community of Hanoian photographers
@humansofhanoi : inspired by the well known Humans of NY, this account tells the lives of Hanoi