For a city hosting 7.5 million inhabitants, Vietnam’s capital has somehow harnessed the bizarre energy of a small town, just on a much larger scale. That may seem contradictory, but when you visit Hanoi you will understand. Your senses will be blasted from every angle, through a rapidly-moving and constantly changing concrete jungle abutting narrow centuries-old streets, where scooters blitz through the and old men swallow glass after glass of Bia Hoi. But as you spend more time, the charm of this astounding metropolis will become evident. Hanoi will bear its unique soul to you in a way that will make you want to stay and discover yet more. Here is a Hanoi travel guide that aims to help you break down the initial confusing barriers, and provide you with a list of the ten best things to do on your first visit here.
1. Amble in the Old Quarter
There are plenty of well-established tourist attractions in Hanoi. However, to truly experience the wonders of this city, you must first throw yourself in the deep end. Hanoi’s Old Quarter is a wonderful cacophony of motorbike engines, street vendors, public announcements, and Vietnamese chatter. This area will provide the perfect first stop on any Hanoi tour. There are specific places to see in the Old Quarter; so strap on your comfiest walking shoes and embrace the chaos of this ancient district. Abandon Google maps and wander. The locals are friendly and the stunning urban scenery is unforgettable.
2. Street Food Tours
Getting completely lost in the Old Quarter tends to make travellers hungry. Lucky for you, this may be the best place in the world for street food tasting! There are several ways you can do this. One option is simply following your nose and seeing where you end up. However, street food tours can be easily organised online or through your accommodation. These walking tours, usually led by professional local guides, allow you to experience all of the amazing food the city is famous for. In particular, be sure to try bun cha, pho, banh cuon, and a banh mi or two! Avoid the “Authentic Vietnam Food” signs and ask a local for advice; you will not regret the awkward game of food-based charades.
3. Coffee Tasting
Not many people associate Vietnam with incredible coffee, but thanks to a colonial French influence, the coffee scene in Hanoi is thriving. The city is awash with delightful coffee shops, both traditional and contemporary. In traditional cafés, try typical ca phe den da (iced black coffee), or nau da (iced coffee with condensed milk). Hanoi is also known for a more bizarre concoction: egg coffee. This was first created in Café Giang in the Old Quarter, where you can still visit today. The custard-like caffeine injection is an ideal way to reinvigorate yourself after a tiring food tour!
Hanoi’s history is as complex and fascinating as its present day life. Fortunately, there are plenty of museums throughout the city to help you understand it all. For history enthusiasts, Hoa Lo Prison, also known as “The Hanoi Hilton”, provides a fascinating insight into Vietnam’s tumultuous past, from French occupation to the American war. Just be sure to take some of the “facts” about its history with a pinch of salt. For those interested in modern day Vietnam, the Women’s Museum and Museum of Ethnology both offer an intriguing glimpse of the country today. There is no better way to appreciate the city than to understand the lives of the incredible women fuelling its constant growth, or to learn about the 54 different ethnic groups spanning the country. Visits to these museums are all reasonably priced, costing 80,000vnd ($3.40) at the very most.
5. Retail Therapy
A stroll through the night markets in the north of the Old Quarter is the perfect way to spend your Saturday night in Hanoi. From spices to trinkets to hiking equipment, these markets have it all. If you would prefer to shop during the day, head to Dong Xuan Market for a rather sweaty retail experience. Learn the numbers one through ten and get ready to haggle!
6. Lake Hunting
Surprisingly, there are many beautiful lakes peppered throughout Hanoi. If you are in the city centre at the weekend, head to Hoan Kiem Lake. Immaculately maintained, it is one of Hanoi’s most famous attractions, and is pedestrianised at the weekend. However, if you wish to escape the tourist traps, hop on a rented bike, find a lake on the map and head there. You will usually find vendors selling drinks by the shore, where you can spend a blissful evening watching locals fishing. If you find yourself in Ba Dinh district, you might even find the remains of B52 bomber in the water.
Gorgeous temples smatter the Hanoi landscape. These sites of worship are visually spectacular and culturally fascinating. Some of the most well-known sites include the Temple of Literature and Bach Ma Temple, busiest during the lunar New Year festival (Tet), with worshippers and celebrating locals.
8. Bia Hoi
Meaning “fresh beer”, Bia Hoi is the lifeblood of the Hanoi social scene. Cheap and delicious, a glass of this 5,000vnd ($0.20) brew is best enjoyed in a quiet local spot outside of the city centre. It can be found on almost every street, just search for the “Bia Hoi Hanoi” signs, usually in orange and red writing. There is no better way to interact with the locals than to share a delicious bia hoi with them.
9. Meet the Locals
Meeting local people in a foreign country can be intimidating; you don'y know which way it will go! In Hanoi, the locals make it incredibly easy for you. If you sit by one of the many lakes in the city, you will likely be approached by someone. Some may, admittedly, be trying to sell you something or clean your shoes. Often, however, they simply want to speak to a foreigner, maybe to practice their English. Embrace this opportunity; you can learn more about the city from a local than from any guidebook!
Hanoi’s nightlife is more laid back than most other South East Asian cities. Although busy and loud, a night out in the Old Quarter can be a surprisingly chilled experience. All of the bars and pubs you will need can be found on Ma May Street. With cheap beer and delicious street food, you will find it difficult to leave, until “sleepy” Hanoi’s curfew shuts it down, that is. Although locals also visit Ma May, it can be overrun with backpackers. If you would prefer a more laid-back night, head to one of the many bars and clubs at Tay Ho, a renowned expat district in Hanoi.
Wandering around Hanoi, it is difficult not to find something to do. The city is packed full of interesting attractions and unique entertainment. The locals are friendly and for those travelling from abroad, the exchange rate can be incredibly favourable. Although the city is generally safe, petty crime is not uncommon. To avoid pickpockets and touts (and cultural insensitivity), do not flaunt the 5,000,000vnd you have in your wallet. Other than that, if you embrace the madness and follow the advice above, you are sure to join the long list of tourists dying to return to Hanoi.
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