Hanoi is a shock to the senses. Motorcycles shoot past in every direction, people are sitting on tiny plastic stools on the street, enjoying a bowl of pho or a bahn mi, shop vendors are calling you over to look at their wares and you can’t turn a corner without missing someone offering a body massage of some sort. It’s noisy, it’s busy and it’s pretty cool!I actually didn’t like Hanoi when I first arrived as it was all a bit too much to take! But I left growing to like Vietnam’s vibrant capital city, appreciating the strangely organised chaos on the streets. From the charm of the old French quarter to the tangled web of streets in the Old Quarter, there’s so much to do and see here. It’s also a pretty affordable place to stay and eat so great for budget travelers.
Hanoi is one of the 5 ‘Hs’ in Vietnam (the other places including Halong Bay, Hue, Hoi An and Hoi Chi Minh City) and usually the starting or ending point for most people as they travel from the North to South or vice versa.
Here are some of the things that you must see/do when in Hanoi:
Hoan Kiem Lake and Ngoc Son Temple (entrance fee 30,000 dong) – Hoan Kiem Lake is the epicenter of Hanoi and a peaceful escape from the hectic city. Weekends are the best time to visit as all the roads surrounding the lake are pedestrianized. The lake surrounds Ngoc Son Temple, a pagoda situated on a small island, which can be reached by a beautiful red wooden bridge (the ‘Rising Sun’ Bridge).Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum (entrance fee 40,000 dong) – to learn about the history of Vietnam, it is worth going to the Ho Chi Minh mausoleum, a very popular attraction in Hanoi with queues spanning across multiple blocks. It’s the resting place for Vietnam’s iconic leader, Ho Chi Minh’s embalmed body. There are also some other sights in the complex, including a museum and the One Pillar Pagoda. The museum had a couple of floors (one was mainly historical/political and was all in Vietnamese so impossible to understand as a tourist but the upper floor was pretty interesting). NB: Going extra early in the morning is advisable. It was quite tricky to find out opening and closing times so it’s best to ask your hotel once you get there. Remember to dress respectfully (avoid shorts/ short skirts /sleeveless tops etc) as they are quite strict and will not let you in.Train Street – train street is an interesting and unique place in Hanoi. Every day a train goes through a cramped street, inches away from the buildings that sit alongside the train track. The most interesting part is the way cafes are set up along the track and, whenever the train comes along, they pack up a few minutes in advance, waiting in anticipation. I sadly didn’t get to see a train go through myself as the timing we were given was inaccurate. I can however live vicariously through those who have seen the train and posted videos!Temple of Literature (entrance fee 30,000 dong)- the Temple of Literature was one of my favourite sights in Hanoi. Originally built as a university in 1070, inspired by Confucius, the building is very well preserved and a great example of traditional Vietnamese architecture.Women’s Museum (entrance fee 30,000 dong) – this museum is a tribute to the Women of Vietnam across the ages, focusing on family, history and fashion. It’s very insightful on Vietnamese culture and definitely worth a visit if you have time.Hoa Lo prison (entrance fee 30,000 dong) – nicknamed the ‘Hanoi Hilton’ by US prisoners of war during the Vietnam War, the museum focuses on the Vietnamese struggle for independence from France. There are also displays focusing on the American pilots who were incarcerated at Hoa Lo, including Senator John McCain.West lake and the Tran Quoc Pagoda -West lake is Hanoi’s largest freshwater lake. It is surrounded by a number of temples, including the Tran Quoc Pagoda.Water puppet show (ticket price 150,000 dong) – I would highly recommend catching a show at the Thang Long Water Puppet Theatre in Hanoi. Using poles to support the puppets, they move across the water with ease, controlled by puppeteers hidden behind a screen. Most of the shows recount Vietnamese folk tales and legends with accompanying live music in the background. This is a great activity for kids too.National Museum of Vietnamese History (entrance fee 40,000 dong) – lots of artefacts dating from pre-historic to the 19th century can be found here. The museum building is in the French colonial style with a nice garden. It’s quite a small museum but an interesting one nonetheless! The Hanoi Opera House, a copy of the Paris Opera House, is also close by. Grab a coffee or snack at the famous Sofitel Metropole which is in the vicinity too.Ancient Memorial House (entrance fee 10,000 dong) – this is one of the few old Vietnamese houses left in Hanoi – if you’re planning to go to Hoi An, you can probably skip this as Hoi An has so many more to see. If not, then it’s worth a visit.Trips from Hanoi – Hanoi is a great base to explore the North of Vietnam, including Sapa and Halong Bay. I did a 2 day, 1 night Halong Bay cruise (click here on my detailed post) and would highly recommend it!Shopping – Vietnam is a great place for affordable shopping and for gifts. There are numerous silk shops and tailoring is very popular so you could get yourself something custom made in no time. I’d recommend going to the massive Night Market, open on weekends. Make sure you bargain!Body massage – After a few days in Hanoi, you’ll want to have a relaxing massage. They are pretty affordable here. We went for a comprehensive 2 hour Vietnamese massage (£35 pp) at the Oriental Spa as it was recommended to us by our hotel. It was great and very relaxing. A herbal tea to start with and a delicious smoothie at the end of the massage was the cherry on top of the cake!
Food and drink
I love Vietnamese food and Hanoi didn’t disappoint with options for all budgets.
You have to try a Hanoi specialty, the famous egg coffee at Cafe Giang. It’s a very small, cramped cafe but so worth it for the experience.Cong Caphe was another favourite for iced coconut coffee and Coconut Juice for fresh fruit juice!For a more modern foodie experience, head to Green Tangerine where they serve French-Vietnamese fusion food. The decor is pretty cool too.For lunch/brunch, try Lifted – the cheese toastie was to die for!Cha Ca Thang Long to try the famous Cha Ca fish – it’s the only thing on the menu and it’s delicious.For dinner and views, head to Avalon – food was excellent and you get a nice view of the lake. There are a number of other restaurants in the same building too so definitely worth checking out.I’d also heard a lot about buns from King Roti but sadly didn’t have time to try them out.
Where to stay
Hanoi has some excellent hotels at very affordable prices. I stayed at the O’Gallery Majestic which is a boutique hotel very close to the old quarter. I would highly recommend this place – staff were excellent, rooms were beautiful, breakfast was amazing. Can’t say enough good things about this hotel!In general, if you don’t want to stay in the really hectic parts of the town (the old town), I’d recommend checking out the french quarter which is a bit calmer from what I could tell!
Crossing the road is an art here – it is pretty scary in the beginning but you’ll soon get used to it. I’d recommend keeping an eye out for any locals crossing the road and just follow them – worked every time!
Taxi scams are common in Vietnam so be extra vigilant. I’d recommend getting your hotel to book a transfer for you from the airport if you can. There are also metered taxis which you should ask your hotel to call for you. If you have a data plan, download the app Grabb which is the Uber of South Asia. I didn’t however use it and just walked most places.
The Vietnam Dong is the currency here – the notes can have very high denominations (e.g. 500.000) so just be careful when you’re giving anyone money as it’s very easy to give the wrong notes, some of which look quite similar except for the difference in the number of zeros! (£1=29,000 dong)
Hope you found this post helpful. Let me know if you have any top tips for Hanoi too!