Hanoi Vietnam: The Top Ten Things To Do On Your Visit
Travelling to Hanoi soon?
I have a few friends who are headed to Hanoi shortly and they wanted a few recommendations. Instead of doing my usual email or text, I thought I would make a Top 10 Hanoi list for everyone.
When I first arrived in Hanoi, I didn’t have the best time. In fact, I wanted to leave. When I arrived in the city, I went straight to Hoan Kiem Lake to shoot photos. Something didn’t feel right and I sensed that a group of young men were following me. Everywhere I walked, they were constantly in my peripheral vision. For a while, I decided to sit beside a group of Vietnamese grandmas. I tried to make it look like I was talking to them. They probably thought I was crazy but I didn’t want to get my camera bag stolen. I stayed until the group of men left and then ran into a taxi.
But…I ran into a sketchy taxi. Things weren’t looking up for me. I wanted to leave Hanoi but I thought I’d give myself one more day. The next day I met a nice gay Vietnamese Canadian traveller. He ended up being my guide and my translator and it changed my opinion of Hanoi. I ended up loving it and staying for a week.
Most of my days in Hanoi consisted of wandering around, shooting photos, and eating. One night I did go to a party one night on a gay houseboat nightclub with my new friend and his friends. We danced the night away and then rode around on their scooters. They took me and ate really amazing fish soup in some back alley stall. I never shared that story until recently and found out my friend also partied on the same gay houseboat nightclub.
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Here are a few things I did while exploring Hanoi and recommend:
Hoan Kiem Lake is a lake in the center of Hanoi. It’s very scenic, there’s a temple on the lake and it’s the focal point of the city. I used the lake as a compass and to find my way back to my hotel in the Old Quarter.
Ngoc Son Temple or the Temple of Jade Mountain is the most visited temple in the city. It sits on an island on Hoan Kiem Lake.
Photo credit Flickr
Ngoc Son Temple
2. West Lake or Ho Tay
West Lake is a freshwater lake that is about 17 km long. You will find many of the upscale hotels and beautiful villas surrounding West Lake. I didn’t spend much time around here but would be keen, as it’s becoming the more fashionable area of the city. Lots of new restaurants and boutiques can be found here along with the upscale hotels.
Photo credit: David McKelvey on Flickr
If you’re not staying in the Old Quarter, you must wander around this ultimate maze of shops, restaurants, cafes, bars, and temples. People watching is amazing here. You will get lost in the Old Quarter but that is the best way to explore it.
The Old Quarter has been around since the 13th century and since then, a guild was responsible for each street. The city has somewhat kept that going. When you wander around you’ll notice that each street still specializes in a certain business-like fashion trimmings, bamboo poles, or metal cages. If you get lost just make it back to Hoan Kiem Lake and use that as your compass.
This was obviously metal organizer street
This was a road with different fashion trimmings
Buttons on buttons on buttons
3. Eat Street Food
Eat all of it!!! If you love Vietnamese food you’ll be in heaven here. At first, I have to admit to sticking with banh mi (Vietnamese sandwiches) and pho (noodle soup). Luckily my travel friend opened up my palate to new things like savoury porridge with shredded pork and fish soups. If you don’t like it, remember it’s cheap so you can always order something else. Food in Hanoi was amazing!
Look for bun cha vendors that have pork wrapped in betel leaf. It’s the best!
4. Drink Vietnamese Coffee
I love ca phe sua da or Vietnamese iced coffee. I drank around 2 or 3 a day. Probably not a good idea…I was so wired! Smoking is still allowed inside cafes and restaurants so if you have a strong aversion to smoke, many cafes will be quite smoky.
5. Temple of Literature
The Temple of Literature is a stunning and well-preserved example of Vietnamese architecture. Originally founded in 1070, this temple is dedicated to Confucius and honours the country’s finest scholars. The first university was also established here.
6. Hoa Lo aka the Hilton Hanoi
Hoa Lo was a prison used by the French colonists for political prisoners and then later used by Northern Vietnamese for prisoners of war during the Vietnam War. American POWs also dubbed it the Hanoi Hilton. The prison was demolished in the ’90s but the gatehouse remains as a museum.
7. One Pillar Pagoda
The One Pillar Pagoda is a replica. History states that Emperor Ly Thai Tong built it in 1049. He did not have an heir and in a dream, he met the Goddess of Mercy who gave him a male child. Then he married a peasant girl and had a son and heir by her. The temple was built as gratitude for his male son. The pagoda is designed to resemble a lotus blossom, the symbol of purity, rising out of a sea of sorrow.
I am not sure if I really recommend going inside. I did go but could have easily passed going. Try to see the changing of the guards if you can catch them.
The Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum holds the embalmed remains of Ho Chi Minh. Ho Chi Minh actually wanted to be cremated and his ashes spread around the country but the government gave him the Soviet leader protocol. They embalmed his body and placed it in a clear viewing case in a large building in a massive square. There is no photography inside and lots of guards watching you.
The Ho Chi Minh Museum contains mementos of Ho Chi Minh’s life including photos and documents relating to the overthrow of the French and the rise of communism. No photos allowed inside.
9. French Quarter
The French Quarter is less hectic than its neighbouring Old Quarter. My friend TB and I grabbed some pastries from a French patisserie and wandered around here. If you want to have a nice meal, visit the fancy hotels and have a meal at one of them.
Photo credit Flickr
10. Weekend Night Market
Starting around 7 pm on Friday through Sunday, the streets starting at Hang Dao going north shut down for the night market. I love any and all markets. Vendors set up and sell trinkets like phone covers and gadgets. It may not be what you’re looking for but it’s fun to people watch and snack around the market.
Photo credit Flickr
When I first arrived in Hanoi I got into a wrong taxi. The cab driver didn’t set the meter and because I was in a rush and didn’t pay attention, I just sat and rode along. In the end, the driver asked for a lot of money. Luckily for me, he did not lock the door. I opened it, threw some cash at him, and ran.
The taxicabs you should use in Hanoi are Mai Linh and Vina Sun. Always make sure the driver turns on the meter. Also, watch the meter because some are fixed to charge more. Ask your hotel or accommodations for a business card so drivers can take you back without problems.
Hang Manh Bun Cha
When I was in Hanoi I remember reading about Hang Manh and getting local recommendations. It’s 4 floors of pretty much one dish, bun cha or vermicelli noodles and pork. It’s a favourite dish of mine so of course, I went!
Another place I remember eating (I ate mostly street food) and loved was a Japanese mushroom hot pot restaurant called Ashima. There were tons of different mushrooms to choose from and we even tried black chicken from Sapa. It was a spendier meal compared to what I was paying for Vietnam but so cheap compared to at home prices.
Get Cheap Spa Treatments
While I can’t recommend a particular spa, I did go to a day spa with my gay friends. We got massages and facials and like everywhere in Southeast Asia, it was super cheap.
Be very mindful of your things and belongings
Upon my arrival in Hanoi, I was followed by a group of young men. It seemed as though they were going to rob me. I sat down with a group of old ladies until they got bored of following me. Everywhere can be dangerous and I have even been pickpocketed on the bus in my hometown in Canada. Just be mindful of your belongings. If you are carrying a purse, have it in front of you. Do not carry loads of cash or your passport around with you.
Remember you’re in Asia so the price that a vendor tells you is not set in stone. Do barter to get a better price but don’t be offended in Vietnam if they don’t accept your lower price. They can be tough sometimes and would rather sell at an outrageous price than make the sale ten times over.
This may have changed since I was there in 2011 but most ATM machines in Vietnam only let you withdraw about $100US. My card of choice on my travels is Charles Schwab. The bank does not charge me for using any ATM around the world. So using an ATM several times to take out enough cash did not cost me anything. Many smaller businesses and hotels prefer being paid in cash or they will tack on a surcharge for using a card.
Things I wish I did but didn’t: Vietnamese cooking class
When I was in Vietnam, I did not have time to take a cooking class which I regret. If you love food, try to find a class to sign up for. Your hotel/accommodations should be able to help you.
Day trips from Hanoi:
If you are in Hanoi long enough, I recommend adding on a Ha Long Bay or Tam Coc (Ha Long Bay on land) trip. For both, I did a day tour. For Ha Long Bay, I would recommend doing an overnight on a really upscale boat for Ha Long Bay (I have heard boats with rats on them, etc). Ha Long Bay is too far for a day trip looking back at my experience. If that’s all the time you have, then go for it. Tam Coc is not as far and much more manageable.
Read more here: Tam Coc – A Day Trip From Hanoi
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Leave your Hanoi tips in the comments!!!
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