You’ve found yourself in the fast-paced city of Hanoi, Vietnam. Motorbikes are flying at you left and right. Now, what are you going to do while you’re here? Maybe you’ve got two days, maybe you’ve got three. You’re ready to pack in the sights, sounds and delectable tastes.
Here’s what David and I got up to (or wish we’d gotten up to!).
1. Sip on Egg Coffee at Café Giang
Blink and you’ll miss this hole in the wall café. Egg coffee, you ask? Sounds gross. Tastes AMAZING. This concoction is akin to liquid tiramisu and it’s a favourite with both tourists and locals – a definite winner. Look for number 39 and head down the alleyway. Beware, if you plan to sit on the second floor, you’ll be sharing your coffee with a crowd of smokers. Cough cough. Or puff puff, depending on your preference!
2. Take a Free Walking Tour
Hanoi Free Walking Tours are… well… free! Book a half day or a full day and learn first-hand from a local about the Old Quarter and the major sights of Hanoi. Why is it free, you might ask? Well, these tourism students are just shy of getting their license. Perhaps they’re not as polished as a paid guide, but we learned a ton. Most importantly, our guide taught us how to cross the roads in heavy traffic. Worth every penny of his tip!
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3. Brush up on your Bargaining
Unless you see a stickered price on the souvenir you’re eyeing up, the price is probably negotiable. Remember your poker face, keep a limit in your head and be prepared to walk away if needed. There are probably ten other stores around the block selling the exact same thing anyways.
4. Take a Walk Around Hoan Kiem Lake
The Lake of the Restored Sword is a gathering place for both tourists and locals – and the odd motorbike. It looks bigger on the map than it actually is, so why not take a leisurely loop around the lake, stop off for a coffee and enjoy the view of the temple. The lake is home to a giant turtle, and legend has it she is almost a thousand years old. Our guide reckoned she was more like 190 years.
5. Hop in a Cyclo
You’ll see these guys in the Old Quarter and around Hoam Kiem Lake in particular. If you fancy a rest for your weary feet and a bit of a novelty, hop in a cyclo (bicycle rickshaw) for a quick spin. Make sure to negotiate your ride first.
6. Marvel at the Madness of Traffic
The roads are crazy. You know it and I know it. Get an aerial view from Highland Coffee. Best time to go is half an hour before sunset. You’ll get some amazing slow-shutter photos of the traffic, a scenic view of the lake and enjoy the beauty of the changing sunset.
7. Feed Your Hunger with Pho
Ah, the national dish. A good bowl of Pho solves any trouble. You can have the dish made vegetarian (although I’d question the broth) or with your choice of meat. Almost every restaurant sells it, but Pho 24 is a pretty decent chain that you can find in multiple locations in the city, including at the top of Hoam Kiem Lake.
8. Make Up Your Own Mind About the Hanoi Hilton
Hoa Lo Prison, better known to Westerners as the Hanoi Hilton, is definitely a polarizing and confusing place. All the signage and displays point to the prison having been a haven for American prisoners of war, so take that in your stride when you visit. Just make sure you read both sides of the story. This place goes to show that just because a museum says one thing, doesn’t mean it’s true.
9. Get Lost in the Old Quarter
The Old Quarter is a hub of energy. Day or night, it never stops, but that means there is always something to keep your interest. Many of the streets are named after the good that they sell. Silver street. Silk street. Bamboo street. Just take a look at the products being sold down a stretch of the road and I’m sure you’ll be able to guess the English translation.
10. Buy a Souvenir That Will Last a Lifetime – Art!
I won’t lie… we were sucked in. In the Old Quarter you will see many galleries packed to the brim with stacks of paintings. For the most part, they are all reproductions, but this is why the price is so reasonable. If you find a piece you love, they’ll take it off the frame, roll it up and place it in a tube for shipping. All in all, our 5ft by 4ft painting cost $150 USD for the piece and $70 to ship. Perhaps we could have bargained more on the piece, but we were in love. Look at the skill that goes into them and be reasonable when you haggle.
11. Take in a Water Puppet Show
While I didn’t see this in Hanoi (maybe 50 miles from Hanoi), it was quite the sight! Their masterful puppetry is timed to traditional music, and the puppets themselves are pieces of art. Where does the water come in? Well, their stage base is made of water, which they highlight with twists and turns, splashing around to great effect. It’s kitschy, but a great cultural experience nonetheless. Than Long Water Puppet Theatre is right off Hoam Kiem Lake.
12. HanoiKids Street Food Tour
If TripAdvisor is anything to go by, many visitors mark HanoiKids tours as the highlight not only their time in Hanoi, but in Vietnam. These kids get involved with tourists as a way to improve their English. How old is a ‘kid’ you ask? They’re usually college-age, many of them hoping to work in the tourism industry when they finish school. While the tour is free, you can of course tip your guide, but note that HanoiKids policy is that tip money doesn’t go to the individual, but back into the club so that they can grow.
13. Learn How Women Do It All at the Women’s Museum
Let’s just say that the Vietnamese Women’s Museum blew my mind. What I didn’t realize going into it was how drastically different many of the minority cultures in Vietnam are. To have both patriarchal and matriarchal societies so close to one another was fascinating. Their marriage and birthing customs are completely different to the way in which I’ve grown up, with many women still not getting ultrasounds of their babies to this day. You will leave with huge respect for Vietnamese women who somehow, against all the odds, manage to do it all. Their men are extremely lucky.
14. Look Up, Way Up, At The Tran Quoc Pagoda
You’ll find this Buddhist temple on a little island off the road separating the West Lake. The scenery is not only stunning, but the peace and quiet is a stark contrast from the bustling traffic in centre of Hanoi. Remember that it’s a temple, so dress modestly.
15. Peddle Boat the West Lake like a … swan?
The West Lake is a little less packed with tourists than Hoam Kiem Lake, I assume based purely on the distance from the Old Quarter. One of the neat things about West Lake is that you can actually get out onto it … in a swan-shaped peddle boat. This isn’t too far from Tran Quoc Pagoda, so you can combine trips.
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16. Explore the Mosaic Wall
We discovered the mosaic wall from our taxi, zipping along the Yen Phu major roadway. It was a patchwork quilt of ceramic tiles creating little scenes, both from history and some seemingly more modern day. To get up close to see this Guinness Book of World Record (for largest ceramic mosaic) sight, wander up Ly Thai To road from the top of Hoam Kiem Lake, only a short walk away.
17. Puku 24 Hour Cafe
If you’re venturing out to Sapa, chances are you’ll be arriving back from an overnight train at the godawful hour of 4:30 in the morning. You can’t check into your hotel, there’s nothing open…or is there? We discovered the glorious Puku Cafe, open 24 hours a day. Is it the best food or coffee? Maybe not, but it’s OPEN! The atmosphere is pretty chill and it had plenty of plug ins for our laptops. The only weird thing was the pumping music at 5 a.m. (made for an interesting Skype call with my Mum), but I suppose the staff need to keep themselves awake somehow or other. It’s maybe a 10 minute walk from the train station, or you can talk one of the 50 million taxis waiting outside the train station.
18. Expand Your Understanding of Vietnamese War History
If you’ve read my blog, you all know that war tourism isn’t my thing. That said, traveling as a couple means compromises, and I don’t regret learning more about it. The Vietnam Military History in Hanoi is filled with artifacts and relics of war. To get the most out of it, I’d recommend either hiring a local guide or to get an audio tour. Without either of these things, many of the signs simply say what the artifact is (which you can see…) and the date it was used. Frighteningly, some of them say how many people they estimate were killed with this weapon. The exterior of the museum is where all the tourist photos happen. US helicopters, crashed planes, tanks and more will help you envision the scale of war.
19. Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum
Whether you love his politics or not, Ho Chi Minh’s influence on Vietnam was extraordinary. While we visited, the Mausoleum was closed for maintenance (which happens annually), so if it’s at the top of your list, plan your dates accordingly.
20. Visit a French Cafe
The best part of the French influence has survived in Hanoi… the food. I love that in Hanoi you can walk around one corner and eat a bowl of Pho, but also treat yourself with a delightful french pastry. Hanoi has definitely adopted the French cafe culture.
Where to Stay in Hanoi?
While we didn’t stay at the Hanoi City Backpackers, it came highly recommended by fellow travellers that had, and the reviews are pretty outstanding for a hostel that can cost as low as $4 USD per night. Located in the Old Quarter, right in the middle of the action.
Madam Moon Guesthouse is located so close to the Hoan Kiem temple and comes with great reviews from visitors. Free wifi and breakfast included makes the $20-25USD a night guesthouse a really great bargain. You’re a little ways from the hustle and bustle of the Old Quarter, but better located for sights like the Mausoleum and the Hoan Kiem tample.
Here’s the thing…. what would cost you a fortune in North America is actually a bargain in Hanoi. We stayed at the Sheraton Hanoi for three nights and made great use of their stunning outdoor pool. The rooms are bit more old fashioned, but definitely a relaxing experience.
In a nutshell, those are just 20 of the infinite amount of things to do in Hanoi. Have you been? What would you recommend?
This post contains affiliate links. If you choose to book one of these accommodations, I will receive a small commission at no extra cost to you. Reviews are honest and thoughtful.