Hanoi has all the most enticing elements found in any great Asian capital city. One footstep into the city’s Old Quarter and visitors will be greeted by an enthralling barrage on the senses. The crumbling architectural echoes of Hanoi’s imperial history, the hum of a thousand motorbikes weaving through the ancient alleyways and the intriguing sweet and savoury scents of what must be amongst the greatest street food scenes on the planet. Ancient gateways, intricate pagodas and tranquil temples are found throughout the otherwise hectic streets of Hanoi. Contrasts inexplicably compliment one another, with peaceful lakes sat opposite manic markets and modern malls lying next to eateries older than time. It is an adventurous dive into the deep end that will never be forgotten.
Hanoi’s Best Spots
Like many of its Southeast Asian counterparts, Hanoi’s history is deep and rich – capital of Imperial Vietnam, conquered by the French during the 19th century and a focal point of the Vietnam War towards the tail end of the 20th century. Ancient architectural marvels and visible battle scars can be seen across the capital, alongside modern developments that represent the fast pace at which Vietnam is developing as a country. Some neighbourhoods carry strong inferences to Vietnam’s ancient dynasties, others are saturated with imposing architecture of its communist era and some are so modern and homogenized that they could almost be European. Whether you wish to dive headfirst into a swarm of activity in the Old Quarter or stroll along one of the capital’s ethereal lakesides, Hanoi can suit the needs of anyone that ventures into its manic and mystical streets.
The Old Quarter
Undoubtedly Hanoi’s most popular spot, in terms of both attractions and accommodation. The Old Quarter perfectly embodies the merge of history and modernity that is so prevalent in modern day Vietnam. There is always something to be seen on the streets of this city, thanks to the narrow streets brimming with overlapping garish signs all vying for the most obvious spot and the free flowing fleets of bicycles that move as naturally as running water, circumventing obstacles – including pedestrians – as though they aren’t even there. All of this occurs in the setting of an ancient city that is home to both Vietnamese and French architecture and some of the more eclectic stores you are ever likely to come across, from shops dedicated to selling bamboo ladders to pirate copy DVDs to assorted bicycle parts.
Wandering through the Old Quarter’s labyrinthine streets, travellers will encounter the spicy scent and sizzling sounds of its numerous street food vendors working hard at creating some of the most delectable street food that money can buy. In a country renowned for its street eats, Hanoi is frequently considered the best place to find said treats. To the southern end of the Old Quarter is Hoan Kiem Lake, a beautiful urban body of water bordered by pleasant overhanging trees that makes for some of Hanoi’s greatest scenery when gazing out towards the lake’s Turtle Tower. Visitors can also walk over a small bridge to the island-based Ngoc Son Temple, home to an embalmed giant turtle – the lake’s most famous former resident.
Few activities in Hanoi are more pleasantly immersive than taking a seat on a plastic stool and ordering bia hoi after bia hoi as you watch the sun setting and the daily routines of Vietnamese life unfold in front of your eyes. Bia hoi, which directly translates as “fresh beer”, is a type of light pilsner brewed fresh every day that can only be found in Vietnam.
Situated to the north of the Old Quarter, Ba Dinh is quieter than its southern neighbour and home to some of Hanoi’s most impressive historical attractions, including the final resting place of Vietnam’s famous leader, Ho Chi Minh, whose eerie preserved body can be seen on display in the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum. The district is home to a number of green spaces and tranquil bodies of water that inspire relaxation in comparison to the hectic streets of the Old Quarter.
One of the biggest tourist draws of this area is the utterly peaceful Temple of Literature, a charming temple complex whose immaculately designed gardens and quintessentially oriental structures are amongst the most picturesque in Vietnam. The imposing ochre structures of the Imperial Citadel of Thang Long and the Presidential Palace are a symbol of Ba Dinh’s political significance, whilst a number of local eateries and bars make sure that it also retains the humble attitude that resonates through Vietnam.
When visiting the surreal Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum, make sure that you are respectfully dressed – with shoulders and knees covered – as security at the mausoleum is strict and it only takes a minor excuse for the guards to deny you entry. Access to “Uncle Ho’s” embalmed body is closed on Mondays and Fridays.
More upmarket and catered towards a westernised crowd, the neighbourhood of Tay Ho has become a haven for expats, with boutique shops and hip cafes fast becoming the norm in this lakeside neighbourhood. Whilst the Vietnamese staples such as pho and banh mi can be bought from roadside vendors here, there is a greater focus on restaurants that serve up Vietnamese-inspired dishes, drawing on local influences to create meals aimed at Hanoi’s more middle-class audience.
The vast Lake Ho Tay, or West Lake, after which the district was named, is one of its primary attractions. Wandering along the lake’s extensive shoreline will lead you past peaceful pockets of greenery, waterfront restaurants, colonial French style architecture and serene temples, including the idyllic Tran Quoc Pagoda whose 1,400 year old tiered roofs take on a mystic aura when lit up at night. It is an excellent section of the city to explore if you want to take the day at a much slower pace.
To see the district from a different perspective rent a boat or pedalo and voyage out onto Lake Ho Tay’s vast expanse of water. Those with a keen interest in the Vietnam War may also wish to visit Truc Bach Lake directly to the east – famous as the site where notable US politician and military officer John McCain’s plane was shot down. A monument has been erected next to the lake to commemorate this.
A surreal slice of France in the heart of Vietnam’s capital. At times travellers may feel as though they are wandering through the streets of Paris rather than Hanoi. Fragments of the French rule that ceased in the 1950s remain in the form of its grandiose architecture, most notably the Hanoi Opera House, which was based on the colossal columns and intricate domes of its Parisian counterpart and considered one the city’s most beautiful buildings.
Other places of note include the breathtaking gothic behemoth of St Joseph’s Cathedral, a surreal sight rising from the ramshackle of typical Southeast Asian streets that surround its giant visage. Hoa Lo Prison is also a popular stop off. Built by the French to detain Vietnamese revolutionaries, it was later used as a place to keep American prisoners of war during the Vietnam War. Those that wish to experience a more thorough inspection of the country’s past should visit the National Museum of Vietnamese History, an impressive building that houses a number of national artefacts dating back to the Bronze Age.
Anyone with a penchant for the finer things in life may well wish to visit Cho Hom Market to browse the extensive collection of fabrics found on the upper floors. It is common practice to buy fabric from here, take it to one of the local tailors that Vietnam has become famous for and ask them to create personalised clothing of any description for you. The ground floor of the market is home to an extensive collection of fresh food stalls which can be fun to browse.
Food & Drink in Hanoi
It is almost impossible to know where to begin in what is unequivocally a contender for the greatest street food city in Asia. Every street is home to some form of eatery serving up steaming bowls of deliciously spiced goodness that can draw in hungry travellers from streets away through their alluring scent alone. A simple walk from A to B will inevitably lead you past an array of dishes being cooked streetside that, even if they can’t be identified, are sure to grab your gaze and entice your tastebuds. Each and every dish has a distinguishable burst of succulent flavour that is guaranteed to have you heading back for seconds and thirds. Here are some of the more iconic Vietnamese dishes that we advise, nay insist, you seek out in Hanoi:
Almost certainly Vietnam’s most renowned dish, having gained global popularity in recent years. These delectable bowls of noodles and meat in a subtly flavoured broth have gained popularity with good reason. Widely available across the entire city and made fresh in front of your eyes. Delicious.
You won’t have any trouble spotting the sizzling sight of banh xeo pancakes across the capital when on the go. Made using a rice powder and turmeric mixture, these pancakes are typically filled with beansprouts, fresh herbs and prawns. The subtle crunch that each mouthful provides is sure to bring you back for more.
Banh cuon may look somewhat strange but few flavours in Vietnam can compete with these delicate steamed rice rolls. Banh cuon is made by wrapping minced pork, shrimp and mushrooms in a freshly prepared rice sheet. This is then topped with crispy onions and served with a dipping sauce. A northern delicacy, make sure to get your fill whilst in Hanoi.
A reminder of the French culture that was once apparent throughout the nation, banh mi is the Vietnamese take on a sandwich. Soft, freshly baked rolls with a crisp crust are stuffed to the brim with pickled vegetables, tender meat (typically pork) and the freshest herbs. The dish is considered a southern delicacy but you can find this ideal lunch snack across Hanoi.
A dish that is explicitly considered to have originated in Hanoi, bun cha is a succulently spiced grilled pork patty typically served with white rice noodles and a side salad of fresh green leaves. An undeniably delicious dish that is sure to fill you up. Extremely good for those who have had one too many bia hois the night before.
Another iconic Vietnamese dish that can be found all over Vietnam’s capital, goi cuon is a fresh spring roll filled with pork, prawn and a selection of herbs that give each bite a satisfying crunch. These spring rolls can be eaten hot or cold and are always served undeniably fresh.
Draught beer that cannot be found elsewhere on the planet, bia hoi is an extremely light pilsner style lager that is usually enjoyed whilst sat on a tiny plastic stool in some nook or cranny of Hanoi’s Old Quarter. The beer is always brewed fresh for the day that it is served, ensuring incredible refreshment after a day in the sweaty Vietnamese heat.
In a country that is renowned for its coffee, being second only to Brazil in terms of international coffee production, it should come as no surprise that the capital is dotted with countless coffee houses and spots to sip on a caphe den (a slow dripped traditional coffee) or caphe sua (Vietnamese iced coffee made with condensed milk) as the world wanders by.
Getting around Hanoi
Hanoi is one of those cities with the charming benefit of all the main sites being within walking distance from the centre, meaning no real need to use public transport. That said, walking across a road in Hanoi is a skill that can take time to master. An almost total lack of traffic lights and crossing spots in Hanoi means that there is only one way to cross a road streaming with fleets of motorbikes and bicycles – just walk. As counterintuitive as it may seem, the only way to cross the road in Hanoi is to walk at a steady pace and let the traffic avoid you!
If you opt to hire a bicycle or motorbike in Hanoi, which is often a popular choice amongst travellers, be wary of the driving rules – or lack thereof. It takes an element of bravery to take on the traffic in Hanoi. Helmets are an absolute must!
Alternative things to do in and around Hanoi
Hanoi is a crazed maze of winding historic streets dotted with a number of cultural influences and vivid echoes of its varied past, both ancient and modern. Not only this, but surrounding the city’s borders are some of north Vietnam’s greatest attractions, including the iconic Halong Bay, as well as some hidden gems that have miraculously avoided the rush of tourism that has affected so much of Southeast Asia.
Becoming mesmerised by a traditional water puppet show
Deriving from traditional puppet shows that were originally performed in the flooded rice fields of northern Vietnam during the 11th century, the show is performed on a stage of waist deep water with musicians playing live music at the side. A curtain lies at the back of the “stage” where the puppeteers operate their puppets from. The water means that the puppets appear as though floating on the water’s surface, giving the impression that there aren’t any strings controlling the figures.
Traditional stories are told through this medium as they have been for centuries, but the venues have progressed from simple rice field stages to entire theatres, such as the Thang Long Theatre next to Hanoi’s Hoan Kiem Lake, which are dedicated to performing the ancient art. It is a quintessentially Vietnamese experience that should not be missed.
Exploring the hidden Perfume Pagoda
Directly to the south of Hanoi lies one of Vietnam’s most atmospheric temple complexes in the form of the Perfume Pagoda. Surrounded by a dense thicket of jungle on all sides and only accessible via the Yen River, it is remote to say the least. Approaching the temples aboard traditional rowing boats builds the impression that a world undiscovered by society lies around the river’s bend. The absence of typical Vietnamese traffic also adds to the spiritual serenity of the surrounding area’s forested slopes and tranquil waters.
The moss covered steps and worn temples facades, which are thought to be centuries old, combine with the wilderness of the jungle backdrop to evoke simultaneous impressions of tranquility and adventurousness. Whilst the pagoda can be busy at times, given its popularity as a pilgrimage site, the crowds are unlikely to include too many tourists. Stroll amongst the foliage-strewn structures and breath in the cultural significance and lost-world aura that resonates through the site.
Biking between the marvels of Ninh Binh
95km to the south of Hanoi is Ninh Binh, capital of the eponymous region in which it sits, a region that represents Vietnamese culture at its rawest and most quintessential. Lying on a bed of mazing, jungle-coated limestone monolith valleys, which rise from the ground like emerald teeth, are waterways flanked by the iconic oriental visage of lush rice fields. Travellers can delve deep into caves and climb steep slopes for aerial views of this region which can only be accessed by boat – a feature that gives it an untainted atmosphere. Floating down the river between the verdant giants and carpet-like rice fields is an experience that is powerful in its tranquility.
The natural spectacles of Ninh Binh offer postcard-perfect, quintessentially Vietnamese scenery but the region is also home to impressive man made sites. This includes Bai Dinh, the largest pagoda in Southeast Asia, and Bich Dong, a jungle-shrouded pagoda built directly into the side of a limestone karst. Another must see in the area is the Phat Diem Cathedral, which blends the catholic faith with the curved rafters and pagoda-like peaks typical of Vietnamese architecture – an obscure yet majestic merging of cultures that is seldom seen elsewhere. Ninh Binh can be seen in a day trip but an overnight stay is necessary to fully appreciate its wondrous treasures. If possible, exploring the area on motorbike is ideal, given the distance between each of the main sights.
Observing the unique spectacle of “Train Street”
Hanoi is home to one of the world’s most surreal streets in the form of Ngo 224 Le Duan, known colloquially amongst tourists as “Train Street”. The narrow alley has all the characteristics expected of a street in Hanoi – cafes, small shops and rows upon rows of parked motorcycles lining its flanks – but what sets Ngo 224 Le Duan apart is the train track running directly through its centre.
On the face of it this may seem like a relatively mundane facet, however once travellers witness a train travel down the street, missing buildings by mere inches, its bizarre nature becomes clearer. As the train approaches the cramped street, residents take down washing, shift furniture indoors and take cover in nearby doorways with surprising aplomb. Not only is it an intriguing spectacle to witness, but it is also a testament to the unfazeable adaptability of the Vietnamese people.
Appreciating a different perspective on history at the Vietnamese Women’s Museum
An extremely interesting museum in Hanoi that often gets overlooked. The Women’s Museum is, as the name suggests, an experience dedicated to women’s roles within the history of Vietnamese society. Covering most segments of Vietnamese society, from those who humbly worked in rural rice fields to hardworking street vendors to successful business leaders. The museum is full of intriguing narratives, straight from the subjects that are the source of its content.
Perhaps the museum’s most interesting section concerns the way in which Vietnam’s women have played the “unsung heroes” role during the nation’s various wars, embodying the sturdy determination that is present throughout the nation’s population. The museum provides a refreshing viewpoint on the history of a nation whose tumultuous past is world-renowned.