EXPLORE THE OLD QUARTER
The first thing on your agenda after dropping your bags at your hotel should be to explore the historic Old Quarter, preferably on foot. Granted, this is easier said than done since the sidewalks in Hanoi are nothing more than parking lots for motorbikes, but it’s essential if you want to get comfortable with the chaos sooner rather than later. Most hotels in Hanoi are located in the Old Quarter and many of the city’s sights are, too, so this is likely where you’ll be spending a good portion of your trip. Best to get your bearings early on.
Besides hotels, restaurants, and sights, the Old Quarter is also the prime shopping district. If you’re looking for those now rather iconic ‘I’ve been backpacking through Asia’ pants, this is where you’ll find them. For like the equivalent of $2 USD. Everything here is so delightfully cheap by western standards that even if you don’t like to shop, you’ll still probably find yourself shopping. And haggling is the name of the game, so prepare yourself.
WALK AROUND HOAN KIEM LAKE
Meaning Lake of the Restored Sword, Hoan Kiem Lake is at the center of Hanoi city life, at least figuratively anyway. Located in the Old Quarter, Hoan Kiem Lake is where people gather in Hanoi to rest, eat lunch, play, or simply take a walk around the perimeter of the lake. Ngoc Son Temple, an 18th century Buddhist temple, sits on a tiny island in the lake reachable via the bright red bridge connecting the island to the northern shore of the lake.
After visiting the lake twice while we were in Hanoi, we realized this is where young Vietnamese students have learned to come to practice their English with tourists. Any time we sat down, we were approached by people for a chat. For me it was exciting, even when the conversations were painfully slow and repetitive, because I’m always thrilled to talk to people when we travel, but if you came to the lake to rest, it could be a little exhausting. In that case, just pretend you don’t speak English. Kidding!
SHOP HANOI’S NIGHT MARKET
The night market in Hanoi is only open on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday nights. It’s all the same stuff you’ll find during the day, though, so don’t despair if you’re not in Hanoi over a weekend. If there’s nothing there you can’t buy in the daytime, why go to the night market at all? Because the atmosphere is better. The streets are quieter. There’s less insistence from shopkeepers that you look through their wares. And, in my experience, you can often get better deals. It’s just a more pleasant shopping experience in general. Plus, there’s food – loads of choices cooked fresh right in front of you while you shop. (More on eating in Hanoi below.)
VISIT THE TEMPLE OF LITERATURE
Ngoc Son Temple may be Hanoi’s most visited temple, but its prettiest is definitely the Temple of Literature. A quiet, green oasis, the Temple of Literature blooms in stark contrast with the concrete city surrounding it. With many landscaped courtyards, gardens, and pavilions, this place is definitely one for the photography-inclined!
Built as a temple to Confucius in 1070, the Temple of Literature was centered more on academia than religion. A place of study for the wealthy, The Temple of Literature was Vietnam’s first national university, and many monuments still remain on the grounds dedicated to the scholars who graduated here. I recommend arriving as early as you can because the temple is a popular sight and can get very busy even just a couple hours after opening.
TAKE A TOUR OF HOA LO PRISON
Infamously known as the Hanoi Hilton, Hoa Lo Prison is one of those tourist attractions I often debate back and forth whether I really want to visit before finally deciding that I’d be more disappointed if I didn’t go than if I did. And it was exactly what I thought it would be – blatantly obvious Vietnamese propaganda. That being said, if you take everything written inside what is now a museum with a grain of salt, it can be a pretty interesting experience to see where the French held Vietnamese political prisoners from the late 1800’s until 1954 and where American POWs were kept during the Vietnam War.
Ah, the most important point on the list, and pretty much my favorite thing about visiting anywhere – food. Eating may be one of life’s necessities, but in Vietnam it’s one of its greatest pleasures, too. There are so many foods to try here, and like everything else, it’s all incredibly cheap. A few things you must try – bun cha (BBQ pork and noodles), pho xao (stir fried noodles with beef), bun nem (spring rolls), banh mi (Vietnam’s version of a sandwich), and of course, everyone’s favorite – pho (beef noodle soup).
Despite my infatuation with food when we travel, I’m not so great at remembering to take photos of what I eat or writing down exactly where it was I ate it. I do, however, remember where it was I ate the best pho of my life and it was at a little place on Bat Dan Street. I swear I will never forget that meal, and not just because it tasted out of this world. Our food at Pho Bat Dan was served to us piping hot outside on communal picnic tables as we sat in flimsy plastic chairs elbow to elbow with strangers. Unusual, maybe, but a part of the charm of eating in Hanoi, nonetheless. Besides these outdoor cafe-style places that you will see all over the Old Quarter, another place to get delicious and cheap food is from the street vendors. They move from place to place, but you won’t have any trouble finding them.
A note on food safety: If you get sick from eating in Hanoi (or anywhere for that matter), it’s more likely to be due to eating foods you’re not accustomed to rather than a case of food poisoning or parasites. Regardless, there are obvious steps you can take to prevent the latter including avoiding tap water or uncooked things that have been washed in tap water, such as salad, and never eating anything that looks like it’s been sitting out for awhile. Generally, if you eat from busy places and order a hot meal, you should be good to go. If you’re really worried about it, I recommend this post from Jodi (Legal Nomads) who I believe used to live in Vietnam.
MAKE A PIT STOP AT BIA HOI CORNER
Beer drinkers, you’re going to want to pay attention to this one. There is literally a place where beer costs less than a gumball from a machine (wait, do those things even still exist?) and it’s right here at the intersection of Ta Hien and Luong Ngoc Quyen. Known as Bia Hoi Corner, the “pubs” around this intersection in the Old Quarter serve freshly-made local beer, without preservatives, for just 20 cents (5,000 VND) a pop.
But what if you don’t drink beer, should you still stop by? YES! I don’t drink beer either, but loved the atmosphere at Bia Hoi Corner. This is one of the best places to come if you want to meet other travelers, expats, and locals. Everyone sits on little plastic stools on the edges of the streets (that eventually become impassable for cars as the night goes on) and it’s easy to strike up conversations and meet people. I can’t speak for the late night hours, but before 9pm, the environment is kid-friendly and all sorts of non-alcoholic drinks and street food are available in addition to cheap beer.
TAKE AN OVERNIGHT TRIP OUTSIDE HANOI
So, it feels a little strange saying that one of the things you should do in Hanoi is leave Hanoi, but it’s true. There are so many day trips and overnight trips available to take from Hanoi. Walk down any street in the Old Quarter and you’ll be able to spot travel agencies with lists hanging in the windows of all the places you can go. Not knowing exactly how easy it would be to book side trips in Hanoi, we had booked one of our overnight trips online prior to arriving in Hanoi. This is definitely not the way to do it. The cheapest way to book an overnight trip out of Hanoi is to book it in Hanoi itself. The list price for the exact same trip we had bought online was quite a bit cheaper from travel agencies in Hanoi, and just like everything else, that price can be haggled down. (FYI: Travel agencies compete with each other, so use that to your advantage when haggling!)
One of the most obvious places to take an overnight trip from Hanoi is Ha Long Bay. A UNESCO world heritage site, Ha Long Bay is one of the most popular tourist destinations in all of Vietnam. There are day trips that go there, too, but given the driving distance is four hours each way, you’d be mad not to stay overnight. Plus, waking up to see the sunrise above the rocks and islands in the bay is a once in a lifetime sort of thing you won’t want to miss. A variety of overnight junk boat tours are available in a range of budgets. The activities available are mostly the same for all tours, so the difference in price usually comes down to how luxurious the boat and meals provided on the trip are.
Another great option for an overnight tour, especially if you don’t plan to go all the way up north to Sapa, is a visit to Mai Chau, a rural area around four hours’ drive west of Hanoi. In Mai Chau, rice fields grow in valleys at the base of mountains, roads are made of dirt and gravel, and people live in beautiful stilt houses made of bamboo and timber. To call this place charming would be doing it a terrible disservice. It’s so much more than that. While you can stay in private bungalows, we chose the option of sleeping in one of the stilt houses in a common room with other travelers. And it was one of the coolest, most unique things I’ve done in four years of travel.