Hanoi is the capital city of Vietnam and is a must for most travellers visiting the country – myself included. But how do you decide what to see when you’ve got limited time? We were in Vietnam as a detour on the way home to England from Australia. With just two and a half days to spend in Hanoi before moving on to our next location, we had to use the time wisely! So, without further ado, here are the 10 things I think you should make time for when visiting Hanoi.
1. Explore Hanoi’s Old Quarter and its crazy streets
Green Means Go, Orange Means Go, Red Means Go
Nowhere and nothing is off limits when it comes to traffic in Hanoi! Bikes regularly mount the pavement whilst families all ride together on one bike, smallest at the front. TV’s, bamboo poles and wooden benches are all transported by motorbike, balanced precariously whilst drivers steer with one hand. Traffic lights might as well not exist (as we saw written on a t-shirt in one shop, ‘Green Means Go, Orange Means Go, Red Means Go’).
Horns are constantly honking, nobody gives way and nobody stops for pedestrians. From an outsiders view it seems like chaos…but it works. Traffic in Vietnam seems completely different and backwards compared to everything I am used to, however it is a huge part of what makes Hanoi such a bustling and entertaining city!
Wind your way through the Old Quarter
Every inch of space is taken up by someone selling something. From fruit to flowers, Vietnamese non la hats and balloons. Pop-up greetings cards, sugared pastries and woven baskets. Smells waft around every corner, a mixture of good and bad. Street food vendors adorn every doorway, full of locals sitting upon tiny red stools. Shops spill out on to the street, as do the lives of the owners and their families. People wash their feet, feed their chickens and play card games, while their children play in the street riding plastic trikes or kicking balls around. Life is very much lived out in public.
Where to buy what?
Streets here have long been used for commercial purposes, and are still named after the items sold on each of them. For example, Hang Gai or ‘Silk Street’ is where you will find decorated silk scarves and other items of clothing. Shoes can be found on Hang Dau street, from knock-off Nike’s to Converse in every colour imaginable. Down one street you will find purely motorbike parts, on another are lanterns. Another street is full of fish swimming around in tanks and another has row upon row of handcrafted bamboo ladders. Each shop is full to the brim of whatever it is selling, and each seller is open to haggling to take the profit over their competitors.
Many of the buildings are tall and narrow, climbing precariously upwards into the sky. This is because of the high cost of land tax in Vietnam. Land is expensive per square metre but there is no tax on height! Instead of building outwards, the locals build upwards to expand their space.
2. Take a walk around Hoan Kiem Lake
Hoan Kiem lake is in the centre of the city. Hanoi is a surprisingly green city once you move away from the Old Quarter, with beautiful gardens surrounding the lake. Tet (Vietnamese New Year) was just around the corner whilst we were there and hundreds of flowers were being planted. The locals take full advantage of these outdoor spaces. You will most likely see groups of people exercising or even dancing around.
Tran Quoc Pagoda sits on the water front and is a peaceful place to escape to, away from the noise and the traffic. Many people come here to burn incense and say prayers, however even if you aren’t spiritual it is a beautiful place to wander around.
3. Cross the Hoc Bridge to explore Ngoc Son Temple
The Hoc Bridge is in the middle of Hoan Kiem Lake – a beautiful bright red wooden bridge reaching from the edge of the lake over to Jade Island, where you can find Ngoc Son Temple. Upon crossing the bridge, you can learn a little about the lake and the origins of its name.
Lake of The Restored Sword
Hoan Kiem means ‘Lake of The Restored Sword’. Legend has it that King Le Thai To defeated the Chinese, with a sword granted to him by the Golden Turtle God. When the war was won and the King was out boating on the lake, a large turtle grabbed the sword and took it back under the water, never to be seen again. King Le Thai To realised that the sword must have been returned to the Golden Turtle God.
For decades the lake was home to several giant turtles, however only one remained when we visited. We are sure we saw Cu Rae come to the surface several times! This turtle was of great significance to the Vietnamese people and was widely considered as being sacred, but unfortunately he died shortly after we left Hanoi. Vietnam went into a period of mourning.
4. Visit the beautiful Temple Of Literature
Van Mieu-Quoc Tu Giam, or The Temple of Literature, is the site of the first University in Vietnam. It is divided up into five courtyards and is a dedication to Confucius, rather than a religious temple. Each courtyard is slightly different, featuring ponds, beautiful gardens full of intricately detailed bonsai trees, and a large gong. Visitors can learn more about its history from the large stones surrounding the edges of the courtyards. The architecture of the temple is also something to behold, with bold reds and carved lettering adorning the rooftops, beams and pillars.
5. Try some of the best street food on the planet
Some of the very best street food we had was when exploring the area around the Temple of Literature. We came across a small stall selling Bun Cha, a traditional noodle dish originally from Hanoi. Thin rice noodles are served with a bowl of ‘dipping sauce’ which is a broth-like substance containing thinly sliced vegetables and/or meat, typically pork. Large bowls of herbs and a small bowl of fresh chillis are also served on the side and we opted for some fried vegetable spring rolls as well – the best spring rolls I have ever tasted! After watching the locals eat for a minute, we figured out that all the ingredients are meant to be added to the broth, so in went the noodles, herbs and chilli to soak up all the flavours. It was delicious, and the best part? All of this food cost 65000 Dong, the equivalent of just under £2 for a meal for two.
Not sure if street food is for you?
If street food isn’t your thing (and if it’s not, honestly you’re really missing out!), then there are plenty of restaurants and cafes to choose from. With pretty damp weather on our first night, we decided on a small restaurant for dinner. Whilst not quite as tasty as eating from a street seller, the food was still delicious. You should expect to pay more for eating in a restaurant, but it’s still incredibly reasonable – our restaurant meal came to the equivalent of around £5 for two meals and a drink each. Besides, we got to sit inside with a view of the crazy rush hour traffic whilst Christmas songs blared out over the speakers (in January). My advice though? Don’t be afraid to try something out of your comfort zone! Street food can be incredible and is the best representation of authentic local dishes.
6. Keep yourself running with a traditional Vietnamese coffee
Fear not, caffeine lovers! Coffee is in abundance in Vietnam, with coffee shops around every corner. A popular traditional choice is coffee with condensed milk, which is incredibly sweet (a little too sweet for me!) and thick, but there is plenty of choice for everyone. Black iced coffee is also popular. Watch out for Kopi Luwak aka civet coffee – the worlds most expensive coffee. More commonly known as weasel coffee, if you don’t know where it comes from then I suggest you read this article. Please don’t purchase or drink it – it has an incredibly cruel production line. Why would you want to drink it when regular Vietnamese coffee is so delicious?
7. See the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum and wander around the French District
Take a walk to Ba Dinh Square to see Ho Chi Minh’s Mausoleum. The embalmed body of Ho Chi Minh, Vietnam’s previous Prime Minister, is housed here. Unfortunately when we visited, the mausoleum wasn’t open, but we did witness the changing of the guard. A vast brutalist style building is fascinating to see in a city where much of the architecture is so non-uniform.
Unless you are interested in the Presidential Palace, avoid large queues and explore around the outside. This beautiful French colonial architecture, built towards the end of the French Indochina period, is just one of the highlights of the area.
8. Enjoy a drink with a view
Look out for City View Cafe, which sits near the top of a large building. City View has a balcony overlooking the lake and one of the busiest intersections of road coming out of the Old Quarter. The cafe can become a little bit of a tourist trap but provides great views across the water. Plus it is a peaceful environment away from the hustle and bustle! It’s a great place to while away the time watching the bikes go by. Don’t forget a cold Hanoi beer and some fresh spring rolls!
9. Be the ultimate tourist and see the streets in a cyclo
Cyclo’s are three-wheeled bicycle-powered taxi’s which are mostly used to cart tourists around. Whilst there are cheaper ways to travel, it is a novel way to see the city, plus less emissions than jumping on a motorbike or in a taxi! Our journey lasted about 45 minutes, while the sun went down over Hanoi. We wove in and out of narrow streets, seeing all the street food stalls begin their busiest trading hours and the bars start to fill with backpackers. Make sure you avoid being ripped off by asking the price before beginning your journey to avoid being ripped off.
10. Haggle and barter at Hanoi’s Night Market
Hanoi has a busy night market, where you will find everything you can find in the Old Quarter during the day, but more of it. The road is closed to traffic, which naturally means bikes still drive up and down the road, just fewer of them! Usual night market suspects can be found here – cheap clothing, souvenirs, hand-made items and sweet treats. Prepare to haggle as you are likely to get charged a tourist rate. Although the prices may seem incredibly cheap to you, make sure you don’t spend more than you should have to. It’s easy to get carried away when prices are low, but do you really need that ‘same same but different’ t-shirt?
There you have it – the ten things I think you should do when visiting Hanoi, Vietnam. Of course, there are plenty of other things to see and do! Have you been to Hanoi? What were your favourite things to do in the city?
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