7 things to do in Hanoi

Hanoi - escapology.eu-11After my Myanmar adventure, I flew into Hanoi for about a month of traveling Vietnam. My plan was to cross the country all the way from the North down to the South and into the Mekong Delta. I have to admit that I had mixed feelings about Vietnam. On the one hand I was excited to explore a new country, sample the famous Vietnamese cuisine and embark on a promising motorbike adventure along the Chinese border. On the other hand I was a little skeptical after hearing stories about crime, people constantly being overcharged and certain places already spoilt by mass tourism.  But I wanted to see for myself and tried to keep a positive attitude. After a day in Hanoi, I met up with Angel from Canada who I had met in Bagan, Myanmar.  We arranged to team up and travel together for a bit with Hanoi being our starting point. Hanoi may not have the tropical charm of Saigon but makes up for it with some of the best street food in Asia, a lot of culture and history and a likable type of gruffness and authenticity. Here are my personal highlights which you should definitely check out:

1| Old Quarter

No Hanoi trip would be complete without spending some time in its Old Quarter and luckily our hotel was right next to it. The quarter features the original street layout and architecture of old Hanoi and is the only remaining merchants’ quarter in the whole of Vietnam. It was founded in the Tran Dynasty (1225-1400) and back then consisted of only 36 streets. Each one of these was home of one of the guilds and bore the name of their craft which is still the case today. Hang Bac (Silver Street) was home to the silversmiths, in Hang Lan Ong (Herb Street) you can buy all sorts of herbal medicinal products and Hang Ca (Fish Street) is the home of the fish mongers. Although these names no longer necessarily represent what is sold there it is still the best place in Hanoi to buy anything from souvenirs and fake designer label goods to traditional medicines and Buddhist artifacts. Even if you’re not shopping, it is superb place to immerse yourself into the daily Vietnamese life.

Getting a haircut in Hanoi

Getting an outdoor haircut in Hanoi

Chinese checkers in Hanoi

Chinese checkers on the streets of Old Town Hanoi

2| Hoan Kiem Lake

Named after an ancient legend, Hoan Kiem Lake (lake of the restored sword) is the epicenter of old Hanoi and serves as sort of a focal point for its public life. In the early mornings you can watch locals practicing Tai Chi on its shores, it’s a popular spot for young couples to spend time in each other’s arms on one of the park benches and at night it makes for a great panorama. The small Ngoc Son Temple is located on a little island at the northern end of the lake. During daytime it can be accesses via a an old red wooden bridge, the Bridge of the Rising Sun. The pleasant surroundings of the lake make for a nice break after having toured the Old Quarter.

Hoan Kiem Lake by night

Hoan Kiem Lake by night

The entrance of Ngoc Son Temple

The entrance of Ngoc Son Temple

The Bridge of the Rising Sun  Hanoi

The Bridge of the Rising Sun

3| Temple of Literature and University of Vietnam

About 2km west of Ho Kiem Lake you will find Hanoi’s Temple of Literature. It was built in 1070 and was dedicated to Confucius whose influence is still an important part of Vietnamese culture. The temple honors Vietnam’s finest scholars and men of literary accomplishment. A few years later Vietnam’s first university was founded here.
The temple is a great place to wander around, unwind and explore the many pavilions, pagodas, courtyards and gardens.  If it’s not too crowded, the temple makes for a good sanctuary from the traffic outside.

Inside the temple hall Hanoi

Inside the temple hall

A bonsai and a miniature scene of Confucius' life

A bonsai and a miniature scene of Confucius’ life

Inscents and dragons inside the temple's courtyard Hanoi

Inscents and dragons inside the temple’s courtyard

Traditional water puppets on display

Traditional water puppets on display

4| Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum

The place where Ho Chi Minh’s preserved body, or affectionately referred to as “Uncle Ho”, is kept. The Mausoleum is an impressive Russian style building always guarded by two soldiers dresses in white. You can actually go inside to pay your respect but lines are supposed to be long and you have to adhere to an elaborate set of rules as you enter. In the end we are talking about Vietnam’s holiest of holies. Unfortunately we were not able to go inside since the mausoleum was closed during our stay (as it usually is during October and November).

The mighty Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum

The mighty Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum

Vietnamese pride Hanoi

Vietnamese pride

5| Hoa Lo Prison Museum

The Hoa Lo prison was built by the French in 1896 and was used to incarcerate “anti-colonial revolutionaries”. After the French were ousted in 1954 and during the Vietnam war, it was mainly shot down American pilots who were detained in the prison. It was then when it received its new name: The Hanoi Hilton. An interesting artifact is the flight suit of former senator and 2008 presidential candidate John McCain and photographs of his capture by Hanoi locals.

6| Eat Phở

Hanoi is considered by many to be one of the world’s greatest food capitals and a street-eater’s paradise with plenty of options for those who want to eat like a local. Vietnam’s and especially Hanoi’s signature dish is Phở, a soup consisting of broth, rice noodles, meat and herbs. The dish comes with plenty of garnishes like onions, basil, bean sprouts and lime wedges. There are two varieties of Phở: Phở Ga which is made with chicken and Phở Bo which is made with beef.  It’s fresh, light and is traditionally served as breakfast food.  A good place can be found a few meters from the well-known travel agency Ethnic Travel. Very small, very local, very cheap and very tasty.

A nice bowl of hot Pho Bo in Hanoi

A nice bowl of hot Pho Bo in Hanoi

Ready to eat! Hanoi

Ready to eat!

7| Drink Bia hơi

Bia hơi is a specialty of the North and probably the cheapest beer in the world. The light beer is brewed daily, matured for a short period of time and then delivered to the many bars around Hanoi. These popular street corner places are referred to as beer stations and that’s what they are. You sit down on small plastic stools, order a beer accompanied by peanuts and that’s it. Locals love it and if you pick one of the non-touristy places outside the Old Town, it’s a truly authentic experience. Since the beer is brewed daily, quality varies from day to day. I actually liked it. Downing a few after a long day wandering around a city was nice and the good best thing about it is that it’s so cheap. One glass for about 3.000 VND to 5.000 VND which is equivalent to about 15 USc to 25 USc.

Not the real Bia Hoi but also good.

Not the real Bia Hoi but also good.

Last thoughts…
Hanoi was a great start for my Vietnam trip. It takes a bit getting used to it with the crazy people and the constant hustle and bustle in the Old Quarter. But then it’s a great place to immerse into the Vietnamese culture and daily life. There is a lot to do and see, by day and by night and the food, especially the street food is amazing. I think after Thailand, this was the second best I tried during my entire trip. I can recommend staying at the Little Hanoi Hostel 1 on Hang Ga street. Good value and the friendliest and most helpful staff ever.

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Categories: Culture, Travel Tips, Vietnam | Tags: , , , , , , , , | 29 Comments

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29 thoughts on “7 things to do in Hanoi

  1. Hope you found the prison museum more easily than we did 🙂 we found Vietnam to be very different from the ‘tourist’ experience you get elsewhere – but there were the odd certain frustrations at times like the fact that even at a seemingly abandoned beauty spot people will pop up out of the ground to sell you something you don’t want! But in general it still has a spirit we haven’t experienced elsewhere.

    • Hi Laura, welcome and thanks for stopping by. You are right, Vietnam can be very frustrating. In the end it got to me and I wasn’t to sad to leave again. I think the people have a very obscure concept of tourism where it is all about how to extract the most money from them. No matter what it takes. The constant haggling for everything little thing is just tiring after a while. And yeah, at the end of my Vietnam trip, in Saigon, all of my camera gear got stolen. But still, if you know where to go, you can find beautiful places which will make for great experiences. The upcoming report about a motorbike tour along the Chinese border was one of those. When were you in Vietnam and which places did you like best? Cheers, Philipp

      • We travelled from Hanoi down the country to Ho Chi Minh with a group (wanted an ‘easy experience’ for our first time in Asia!) – I liked the north so much better because it seemed to have much more of an identity.

        I can see what you mean about their idea of tourism – but perhaps that’s something we need to understand as a cultural difference? Or maybe it will just ease off if there was a better infrastructure for the people of Vietnam? I remember going to Turkey on a package holiday about 15 years ago nearly and being shocked and put off by how much begging and hard sell tactics there was – but as we made friends with some Turkish people they made us realise that poverty can be so bad that’s the only way some people can get by without the safety net of the state. When you think of it like that’s it’s hard to blame them….. but it still can be frustrating! It’s the same in Africa.

        Vietnam is a beautiful country though filled with wonderful people. It’s on out ‘to do again’ list – even the random waterpark at Vinpearl (another example of random tourism!)

  2. I went to all those sites while visiting Vietnam a few years back. I also took lots of very similar pictures, I think I even have one of the same lady! Glad you are enjoying it- make sure to try juice out of a bag 😉

    • Nice, maybe you will recognize a few other places in the next weeks when I will publish my reports about my Vietnam trip. How long did you stay in Vietnam when you went and what did you like best? Oh yeah, and I tried the juice in a bag. So convenient too. Cheers, Philipp

      • We were in Vietnam for about 2 weeks total. Visited Sapa, Halong Bay, Saigon and Hanoi. I think I enjoyed Sapa the most! How about you?

      • I didn’t go to Sapa since a lot of people told us that it is very touristy nowadays. Instead we went further up North and did a motorbike along the Chinese border. We started in Ha Giang, stopped in Dong Van for their famous market and then back to Ha Giang. That was by far the best. Only a handful of tourists, so many tribes people and the most beautiful scenery. Halong Bay was rather disappointing I have to say but yeah, it is one of those things you have to do when in Vietnam I guess. I also liked Dalat a lot and Danang.

  3. I LOVE Hanoi and the food is incredible. I could have quite easily stayed a lot longer eating my way around the street stalls ;o) I headed on down to Hoi An, which is famous for it’s cay lau noodles.
    Thought you might like to see my post on Hanoi here http://chilliandmint.com/2013/06/21/bun-cha-vietnams-culinary-jewel/ and Hoi An here http://chilliandmint.com/2013/05/13/cau-lau-hoi-an-special-noodles-with-marinated-pork/ If you are staying in Hoi An I really recommend going on a day course at Van’s cookery school called The Green Bamboo. It’s at her home – via the market in the morning – and you learn a huge amount in a day. Details are on my Hoi An blog post. Enjoy. Best Torie

    • Hi Chilli, the food indeed was amazing. I checked out your posts and I really liked the recipes and all of your food photography. Something I never really got into so far but I really want to improve it. I think I will definitely try the Pho recipe since it became one of my favorite dishes there. I could it for breakfast, lunch and dinner … so good. And here in Germany it is almost impossible to get. So thanks for that. Greetings, Philipp

  4. PS: great photos as always. Brings back happy memories of Hanoi.

    • Hi Chili, thanks for stopping by again.Yeah Hanoi was great I have to say. And that despite the fact that a lot of people were complaining about it and the North in general. I never understoof since we had a great time there. Cheers, Philipp

  5. Glad you enjoyed the trip – I live here and love it and find it a shame that some people are so negative. It is such a quirky place and one sees new things every day. There is a great food stall near where you will have stayed called Banh Cuon (rice flour pancakes rolled up with pork and mushroom inside) – did you try it? Delicious!

    • Hey there, thanks for visiting my blog. Are you Vietnamese or how come you live in Hanoi? Sounds very exciting. Unfortunately I missed that place you mentioned. I mainly focused on the Pho and some other noodle dishes.

      • Hi, no I’m not Vietnamese (I’m half British and half American) but I’ve been living here for 2.5 years!

    • Hi Jura, good for you. It must be cool to live in the heart of South East Asia. Any plans of returning back home soon? I myself would love going back to Asia again. So much more to see and explore ….

  6. jaz

    Wow! Your pictures are stunning. I went to Vietnam a few months ago and it’s always a discovery to see pictures taken from a different perspective. I thought I’d share with you a Vlog I just discovered on tips to Hanoi: http://youtu.be/pl44uxeriGw
    You both give complementary great insights.
    Thanks!

    • Thanks Jaz, I will sure check it out. How long did you stay in Vietnam and which parts did you like best? I like the North best, the far North that is. My next article will cover that leg of my trip. Couldn’t write recently since I am in Vancouver for a short vacation. Thanks for your comment here. Cheers, Philipp

  7. crazyguyinthailand

    Nice trip. I’m going first time to Vietnam next month 🙂

    • Have a great trip and enjoy to the fullest. If you need any tips or advice, just let me know. Always glad to help …. Philipp

      • crazyguyinthailand

        Thanx Philipp. yes one questions its a very short trip for me 5 days and I’m starting in the South HCMC. should I see the the north as well or another time?cuz I have to come back to JCMC to fly back to BKK 🙂

  8. Very clear answer here. Not enough time if your trip is 5 days only..and especially if you have return to HCMC. It would even be too short if you’d fly out of Hanoi. The distance is great and even if you fly, it takes up too much time. So my suggestion is chill a couple of days in HCMC doing some tours, then hit the Mekong Delta and return to HCMC to fly back. If you don’t want to see the Delta, you could go North to hit the beach at Mui Ne instead. But I would prefer the Delta. It is closer and more interesting. Let me know what you decide on and enjoy that trip. Even though it is short, you will have a good time there. But honestly be cautious in HCMC. I got my camera stolen and heard similar stories from personal friends and other travelers. Crime got a little bit out of hand there so be that extra bit careful. Cheers, Philipp

  9. I love your photos! Feels like I’m right there in Hanoi. I’m flying there in two months’ time, going on my first solo trip. Honestly getting a bit paranoid with all the scams I’ve been reading about – is it really that bad? 😦 How is it compared to Bangkok or Siem Reap?

    • Hi Meryl, thanks for the compliment and happy that you liked the pictures. I would not worry about it too much. Just be careful, have an eye on your stuff and leave valuables at your hostel and you will be fine. I found Saigon way worse than Hanoi. We actually did not have any bad experiences there despite maybe the regular overcharging here and there. But yeah, that will happen everywhere and not a big deal. Just be smart and careful and you will be totally fine. Enjoy your stay there, I am sure you will have a great time. How long will you stay and where else will you go then? Sounds like a nice trip.

      • Staying in Hanoi for 5 days, might take a side trip to Halong and/or Sapa if budget permits!

        PS. Backtracked through your blog and read that you’ve been to my home country, the Philippines. Always a pleasure reading other people’s travel stories about our islands. 🙂

    • Hi Meryl, yeah the Philippines were really, really nice. Probably one of the best countries I visited. I so wanna go back there because there is still so much more to explore. Are you from Manila? If you time and money, try to head up North as I found Halong Bay rather disappointing… Let me know what you decided on and how you liked it? Any other places you will go to in Vietnam? Cheers and Ingat, Philipp

      • Yes, I’m from Manila. You should go back when you have the time! Vigan in the Ilocos region is pretty good, and it’s very photographic. Batanes, the northernmost island, has rolling hills overlooking the ocean and old stone houses.

        I would love to go to Hue and Hoi An, probably take a sleeper train if I get brave enough!

    • Yeah, I would really like to go back …. I loved it, honestly. And Batanes Islands are at up at the top of my list. But I heard it is fairly expensive to get there. But yeah, a lot of people how nice it is there and how different from anywhere else in the Philippines.
      Don’t worry about the sleeper train…. it’s really convenient and actually the comfort is ok. Especially if you are not tall as I am, hehe. Greetings, Philipp

  10. Well bia hop is a part of Hanoi, but there are 25 microbreweries here which you should see next time.. great beer, check out the list at http://www.beervn.com

    • Hehe, sounds almost too good. I will sure check it out next time and sample some of those local brews. Cheers!

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