Hanoi was one of my favorite cities I visited on my RTW trip. I admittedly hadn’t entered Vietnam with high expectations – I was simply traveling overland through Southeast Asia and it made sense to go while I was in the area. Not knowing much about what I would find, I wound up completely entranced by Hanoi. It was one of the first places I felt I was experiencing a place totally unique and different to anywhere I had been before. Below are some of the things to do in Hanoi that made me fall head over heels for the city.
Take a walk
One of the most interesting things I found in Hanoi, and throughout Vietnam in general, is the street culture. Everything takes place right out on the sidewalks from shopping to dining to pedicures. While it can feel strange and overwhelming at first, I loved this openness – the sense that what you see is what you get. Simply taking a brief walk anywhere in Hanoi will show you so much of what daily life is like. Every corner you turn will reveal something new, whether it’s a shop packed to the gills with ornaments or a railway squeezed into an alley. And that doesn’t even begin to touch on crossing the street. Traffic, mainly composed of motorbikes, doesn’t stop for pedestrians. You have to take it inch by inch, letting the vehicles weave around you. It’s part threading a needle, part high stakes Frogger. There’s something of an art to walking around Hanoi, and it’s definitely a thrill. I think I now understand why people enjoy roller coasters.
Eat street food
The cornerstone of Vietnam street culture is the food. Every path you take is sure to be sprinkled with stalls dishing out pho, banh mi, or any number of tasty treats. This gentleman serves up fried bananas and sweet potatoes near the corner of Hang Ga and Bat Dan. If you’re worried about health and safety, you don’t need to be. Street food is actually great in that it affords you the opportunity to see the cooking spaces. When in doubt, look for locals. If you come across a busy stall, that means it’s safe and good quality. Dao Duy Tu has a particularly good concentration of popular street food stops. If you’re not keen to go it alone, you can join a street food tour and have a local show you the best places to eat in the Old Quarter.
Hang out by Hoan Kiem Lake
Central to the Old Quarter of Hanoi is Hoan Kiem Lake. It’s useful for getting your bearings around town, the setting for a few attractions like Ngoc Son Temple and the water puppet theatre mentioned below, and most of all, a popular local hangout. Day or night, you’ll see tons of people taking a walk or simply sitting by the lake, and you’d be remiss not to slow down for an afternoon or evening to join them. Grab a milk tea and people watch.
Watch Water Puppet Theatre
Right next to Hoan Kiem Lake is the Thang Long Water Puppet Theatre. Water puppets are a really unique style of performing art in Vietnam, and you’ll see many similar shows throughout the country, but Thang Long is one of the best, having been in operation since 1969. Traditional Cheo music accompanies puppetry telling various folkloric tales of old Vietnam with the occasional firecracker spark. With the puppeteers firmly out of sight and the puppets gliding and splashing throughout the water, the result is pretty impressive. The show is just an hour long, and there are several performances every day. Still, it’s best to swing by the box office in the morning as performances do sell out.
Take a rickshaw to the Temple of Literature
Contrary to its name, the Temple of Literature is not actually a temple but rather a university, founded in the 11th century and dedicated to the teachings of Confucius. Surprised to see a Chinese scholar in Vietnam? You shouldn’t be. Vietnam has a long colonial history having spent 1000 years under China’s rule, and has also been controlled by Japan and France. The Temple of Literature is far enough from the Old Quarter that it’s worth hiring a rickshaw, which is a bit of an experience in and of itself. While I enjoyed walking around Hanoi too much to do it frequently, being in a rickshaw once was a new way to see the city and it was the first time I felt comfortable haggling a bit. Once I was inside, I realized the trip was 100% worth it. Walking into the Temple of Literature is like crossing the threshold of another world. Hanoi can be so busy and loud and despite being smack in the middle of the city, the Temple of Literature is completely silent and peaceful. Everyone seems to sense this presence worthy of reverence and in the East, that clearly still counts for something. I have been to so many attractions in the Western world where visitors are asked not to speak out of respect for a sacred location or artifact – the Sistine Chapel comes to mind in particular – and the air is still full of whispers and camera shutters snapping. Here, nobody had to ask. There were so signs posted. And yet, everyone there was compelled to let that hush fall and simply take everything in.
Day trip to Ha Long Bay
Hanoi is a great base for exploring other areas of north Vietnam. The rice paddy-lined hills of Sapa are a popular destination for trekking and homestays, and I hope to visit there on a future trip, but with time for just one major excursion, I opted to go to Ha Long Bay instead. I had actually never heard of Halong Bay prior to visiting Vietnam, but it is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and one of the country’s greatest natural attractions. Limestone karst islands tower over emerald green waters, grand caverns sprinkled throughout. The name Ha Long refers to a Vietnamese myth in which a dragon spat jewels onto the water to protect the country from invasion. There is no end to the tour operators in Hanoi who can arrange a junk boat cruise on the bay for you. Most people recommend taking an overnight trip, and if you have the time, I can see how that would be a fantastic choice. If you’re able to go independently to Cat Ba island, that’s also a great way to see the area. But if you have limited time and want to squeeze it into a single day trip, that is absolutely possible and I plan on outlining how to visit Ha Long Bay in one day in a future post.
Staying in the Old Quarter was the best way to fit in these main things to do in Hanoi, and I’m sure there’s a lot more to the city I haven’t seen. Have you been to Vietnam? What were your favorite things to do in Hanoi?
Tell me in the comments!