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Vietnam’s capital, Hanoi is a hustle and hubris of many things – from the tricky traffic to the old world charm of the colonial buildings, there is much to love (and a little to loathe) here.
A rich heritage and culture with Southeast Asian, French and Chinese influences, we have been to Hanoi a couple of times now, and enjoyed our second trip much better, as we were already accustomed to the way of life here. Everything goes, so here are our top things to do in Hanoi:
1. Walk around Hoan Kiem Lake
The very first thing we did in Hanoi, a walk around Hoan Kiem Lake is a little calm away from all the traffic and craziness of the city. Peaceful and quiet, the lake surrounds Ngoc Son Temple, a pagoda sitting in the centre on a small island. Also look out for the Turtle Tower (Tháp Rùa) in the centre of the lake.
We prefer to visit early in the morning, to join in all the joggers and Thai Chi enthusiasts. We also discovered on our most recent trip that the roads directly around Hoan Kiem Lake are also closed to traffic on Saturday nights, making it a much more enjoyable walking experience (just watch out for the kiddies sitting in and racing around in giant remote control cars).
2. Explore the Old Quarter
Our best advice for the Old Quarter? Just embrace it and walk around, soaking up all the sights, smells and sounds. Eat amazing food from the street food vendors, be captivated by the colonial architecture or go to one of the many rooftop bars and cafes and simply watch the world go by.
If you don’t fancy walking, hail one of the many cyclo drivers roaming the Old Quarter streets, but remember to agree a price up front (they’ll also expect a tip at the end). This is also the best area to get your souvenirs, and each neighbourhood has its own speciality wares. When we visited, there was one particular street just dedicated to Christmas toys and decorations.
3. Visit Hanoi Train Street / Rail Street
One of the most unique ‘attractions’ you’ll likely ever encounter in Hanoi (if not Vietnam), Hanoi Train Street is so-called because it is home to a train line that runs right between a very tight section of houses and shops.
Several times a day trains run through this cramped corner of Hanoi – the rail operators stop traffic using a remote controlled barrier to close the main roads nearby (watching the mopeds trying to evade or get around this is a sight in itself). Get yourselves a prime position by heading to one of the cafe balconies overlooking the railtrack (generally in people’s homes) – prices are good and the beers are ice cold!
Hanoi train times as of December 2018:
Monday – Friday: 19.05, 19.15, 19.40
Saturday – Sunday: 7.45, 8.50, 9.25, 11.35, 15.20, 16.20, 17.30, 18.20
4. Check out the Hanoi Street Art / Trompe-l’œil Murals of Hanoi
Although there are lots of fine examples of street art dotted all over Hanoi, we’d recommend you visit a rather special avenue of art entitled Trompe-l’œil that is home to huge 3D street art murals created as a joint project by painters from Vietnam and Korea.
When we visited, I (Neil) was grabbed by an old Asian couple and asked to pose with them in all their pictures with the murals for a good five minutes – maybe I am now famous somewhere?
Stay connected in Vietnam!
Having data on your phone whilst travelling is almost essential these days – from planning your route around the city, booking a Grab taxi or for staying connected with friends and family back home.
5. Temple of Literature
Hanoi’s most picturesque place of worship (in our humble opinion) and one of our cultural highlights of Vietnam – the Temple of Literature was built as a place of study in 1070, dedicated to all things Confucious. It is extremely well preserved and housed over a massive site in a pretty park setting, home to several temples, towers (and the ubiquitous gift-shops).
Look closely at your change and you might even see that the Temple of Literature currently features on the back of the 10,000 Dong / VND note (surprisingly only the equivalent of 35p / 0.50 USD).
6. Try Hanoi Local Food
Hanoi is renowned for having some of the best street food in the world, so it’s the law you must try some local dishes during your trip here. We could easily spend 2 days in Hanoi eating our way around the city’s street food stalls!
Pho is the most well known Hanoi dish and is a fragrant soup with rice noodles, fresh herbs and either chicken or beef. You will find so many street vendors selling this dish so take a seat on one of the plastic stools on the sidewalk, order a bowl of pho and a beer and enjoy!
Our favourite foodie spots in Hanoi
There are so many great places to eat in Hanoi – here are a few of our suggestions:
Banh Mi 25 for some of the best Vietnamese baguettes you’ll ever try in Vietnam.
Bun Cha Ta for sampling the fresh and delicious local dish Bun Cha (a Vietnamese grilled pork and noodle dish).
Banh Cuon Gia Truyen for the best Banh Cuon in the city (steamed rice pancakes stuffed with pork mince and pungent black mushrooms and topped with crunchy fried shallots, lime and Vietnamese herbs).
An acquired taste, even for the most seasoned of coffee drinkers, the Hanoi special brew coffee (called ‘ca phe trung’) generally consists of ground coffee, sugar, sweetened condensed milk and egg yolk – the yolks perch on the top like a frothy meringue layer. Many rave about the unique taste but it just wasn’t for us – maybe it is the marmite of the coffee world?! Instead, we much preferred the coconut coffee replacing the standard sweetened condensed milk with a smoother coconut milk (Cà Phê Dừa).
7. Hanoi Cooking Classes
Cooking classes in Vietnam can be so much fun and you get to learn how to create all your favourite local dishes from scratch (plus you get to eat everything you make afterwards!). Check out some of the cooking class experiences that Klook offer.
8. Hanoi Beer Corner
A lively backpacker institution, Hanoi’s Beer corner is located at the intersection of Ta Hien and Luong Ngoc Quyen and is brimming with bars, dying for you to spend your tourist Dong. A little overwhelming but with a great atmosphere – the first challenge is to find an empty table – then you are then approached by several servers, all competing for your attention and each trying to sell you their own particular brand of beer.
So for example, a Tuborg waitress will insist that no local beers are left, just Tuborg. If you want a particular beer, be persistent or try to get the attention of a server not wearing a branded uniform!
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9. Hanoi Water Puppet Theatre Show
A cursory mention as this traditional water puppet show in Vietnam features on many ‘must-see’ attractions for Hanoi, but quite frankly, we were bored beyond belief after the first few minutes (someone behind us also fell asleep pretty quickly and snored through most of the performance).
More repetitive than riveting, the main saving grace is that it is pretty cheap to see these pluvial performers so we’d recommend this mainly as a rainy day activity.
10. Imperial Citadel of Thang Long
A UNESCO World Heritage Site (aren’t they all?) and also known as the Hanoi Citadel, this site originally dates back to 1010 but has since been rebuilt.
One of our highlights of our Vietnam itinerary was the Đoan Môn, the main gate to the palatial complex of Later Lê Emperors – weirdly, on the day we visited the complex was playing host to a beauty pageant for little girls.
The nearby Hanoi Flag Tower (41 metres in height) which can be seen for miles around also used to be a part of the Hanoi Imperial Citadel.
11. Ho Chi Minh’s Mausoleum
The final resting place of former leader Ho Chi Minh (embalmed and on display on certain days – just check the body isn’t in Russia for its annual spring clean – SERIOUSLY!)
Ba Dinh Square in front of the mausoleum has a daily changing of the guards display (likely for the benefit of tourists) – this was also the historic spot where President Ho declared the independence of Vietnam in Sep 1945.
The queues to get into the mausoleum can be huge (go early) and you are not allowed to take any form of cameras or phones in – also ensure you dress appropriately and wear suitable covered clothing.
12. Saint Joseph Cathedral
Located in Hanoi’s Old Quarter and built by the French in colonial times (in the 1880s), this beautiful example of Gothic Revival architecture is described as the Notre Dame of Hanoi (although obviously without the charred roof!).
Free to visit, we entered a few days before Christmas 2018 and found ourselves part of a TV concert that was being filmed, with choirs and cameras dotted all around the cathedral.
13. Hanoi Night Walking Market
Held in the Hanoi Old Quarter every Friday, Saturday and Sunday from 7pm onwards, this is a lively way to start your weekend and bag a bargain – haggling is all part of the process. Although a lot of the stalls sell similar wares (e.g. beer t-shirts and fake designer goods are everywhere), there are a few independent, craft stalls with some unique items to search out.
The main tranche of Hanoi night market stalls run north from Hang Dao Street all the way to Dong Xuan Market – there are also numerous street performers. Although the streets are meant to be closed to traffic, moped drivers still continue to drive through the markets – make sure you keep a tight hold on your bag, or put your backpack on your front.
After the highs of Hanoi, there are also a couple of lows that might be of interest:
Scams – be a little wary whilst walking around Hanoi as there are a few people trying to scam you. Although we weren’t robbed here like we were in Da Nang, there were a couple of times when we knew something amiss was going on, from when someone grabbed us and tried to get us to look at and pick-up something up on the street we’d dropped (we hadn’t) to cafes who insist on taking payment upfront for menu items they don’t deliver – be vigilant. We also completed a (very bad) food tour which we then realised afterwards that the company were trading off the name of a very similarly named highly rated tour company.
Traffic – a little obvious but Hanoi was the place where we encountered the most traffic and dodged the most mopeds. The best advice we can give is always look both ways, walk like you own the road and never hesitate.
Money – the desire to part tourists with their money feels relentless in Hanoi – you can’t walk a single street without someone running up to trying to sell you something. Tipping is also expected for even the littlest thing – if you don’t tip, you may be followed down the street so always ensure you have some change available.
Dog Meat – whilst walking near the city wall murals, we encountered a whole street of traders cooking and selling meat which we didn’t recognise at first. Upon closer inspection, we realised they were dogs on spit roasts – we aren’t judging and we didn’t see this in any of the main markets (we think) so this is just to be aware of, if likely to cause upset.
Day trips from Hanoi
Hanoi is a great place to base yourself if you want to explore some places outside of the city for the day. Trekking in Sapa or an overnight stay on a Halong Bay cruise are both Vietnam must do’s. Many tour operators run group trips from Hanoi, here are some examples from GetYourGuide and Klook:
Vietnam Group Tours
We have visited Hanoi twice in the past 3 years, with our first time being on a small group tour with G Adventures who we would highly recommend. We booked onto a 10 day Classic Vietnam tour which started in Hanoi and headed south finishing in Ho Chi Minh City (there are options to extend the trip further into Cambodia). This particular G Adventures tour is suitable for people of all ages!
Where to stay in Hanoi: accommodation recommendations
We stayed at Hanoi Garden Hotel and loved it (we paid £84 for 3 nights in December 2018). The staff were amazing, the hotel is in a great central location, rooms are charmingly decorated and they offer a nice breakfast. Would highly recommend!
Here are some other highly rated accommodation options in Hanoi:
On a budget?
These backpacker hostels are highly rated online and some even have swimming pools!
Here are some super nice places if you really want to treat yourself on your Hanoi trip!
How to get to Hanoi
Hanoi’s main airport is Noi Bai International Airport which serves many major airlines including several budget ones (Air Asia, VietJet, Jetstar, Bamboo, Scoot etc).
Getting from the airport into Hanoi
Hanoi Airport is about a 40 minute drive to Hanoi’s Old Quarter. In our opinion the easiest way to reach your accommodation (especially for late night arrivals) is to arrange a private pick up in advance with your hotel/hostel. Buses and mini busses are also available and are extremely cheap, but can take a long time to get to your final destination. Airport taxi’s are readily available but be careful as these are expensive and there are many scammers lurking by the arrivals hall.
Hanoi’s main train station is located not far from the city at 120 Le Duan Street. You can purchase train tickets to take you all the way south to Ho Chi Minh City, or north to Sapa and even internationally to Beijing, China. Purchase your tickets at least a day in advance.
Hanoi has several modern bus stations serving many places in the north and northwest regions. At My Dinh bus station you can find buses that take you to Sapa and Ha Long Bay.
Search for the best bus and train fares to and from Hanoi with 12Go Asia.
How to get around Hanoi
There are 3 main ways to get around Hanoi – by foot, taxi or cyclo (rickshaw).
Hanoi’s Old Quarter is pretty compact so can easily be explored by foot – however the traffic is INSANE, and you will need to quickly learn how to cross the road with confidence, or you will get very frustrated.
Hanoi’s local taxis all have meters, but not all drivers like to use them so make sure you use a reputable company such as Taxi Group and ABC. The taxi fares should cost between 10,000VND to 15,000VND for the first two kilometers, then about 8,000VND per kilometre afterwards.
We would recommend using Grab taxis (the Asian equivalent of Uber) – they are widely used by both tourists and locals, and the fares are really cheap (plus the full price of the journey is displayed on your app before you hit ‘book’). Download the Grab app here and use the code GRABCKTRAVELS to earn a free ride when you sign up.
Cyclo are Hanoi’s bicycle rickshaws and are perfect for exploring short distances at leisure within Hanoi’s city center. The cost of hiring a cycle should be about 100,000VDN for an hour (about $5) and haggling is expected. Make sure the price is agreed before you start the journey. Tipping is expected on top of the agreed price and make sure you have the correct change ready.
Other South East Asia blog posts
- The best street foods to try in Hoi An
- Top things to do in Hoi An on a rainy day
- The ultimate guide to Hoi An
- Lady Buddha in Da Nang
- Things to do in Siem Reap, Cambodia
- Be aware in Marble Mountains – how I was robbed in Da Nang, Vietnam
- New Year’s Eve in Hoi An
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