Hanoi is a city absolutely buzzing with energy. The sheer level of apparent chaos can be overwhelming for the uninitiated but it quickly becomes clear there is an order to the mayhem. There will almost certainly be an element of sightseeing to your visit – the Temple of Literature and Ho Chi Minh’s Mausoleum are unmissable – but it will be the Old Quarter at dusk, the taste of streetside pho and the thrill of crossing the road for the first time that live in your memory. This is a place to be experienced rather than seen, and this list will help you accomplish just that.
Vicky and I immediately liked Hanoi the moment we got off the train. An Asian city with European characteristics, Hanoi no doubt has retained much of its French influence. Above all, after two months in China it was great to spend time in a walkable city. Practically all of the main sites are within walking distance from each other and there is tons to do. Here are our recommendations for things to do in Hanoi that will make your trip extra special.
A beautiful lake in the Old Quarters with a lengthy history. There is a small pagoda/museum as well as a bridge with views of the lake and Turtle Tower. They say that the lake is inhabited with very large, old tortoises and if you see one it is good luck. I can confirm that once while we were there one of these turtles briefly emerged from the water (head only) and I caught a glimpse (not pictures though). Needless to say, I was pretty excited.
Trying Local Specialties
I’ll be the first to admit that Vicky and I aren’t very adventurous eaters. Firstly, we’re always a bit wary of getting sick. Secondly, I’m trying to curb the number of animals I eat, not expand them, so I’m not really interested in trying things like snake meat (which is available in the form of a 14 course meal). Lastly, as an environmentalist, I’m always very conscious about eating animals that may be endangered (like whale, in Japan). Still, there are some local specialties that many people can enjoy even if you are not incredibly adventurous:
Soft Serve Cinnamon Ice Cream: This ice cream is delicious and only about 60 cents. It’s very different from the usual supermarket, packaged ice cream we buy.
Weasel Poop Coffee: “Poop” coffee, otherwise known as weasel coffee or Ca Phe Luwac, is made from coffee beans that have been carefully selected and digested by a weasel, then used to make coffee. I don’t really drink coffee but Vicky enjoys it. Our guide took us to a coffee joint in the city and, for $1.50, ordered us a cup of this pretty potent coffee. Later during Vietnam we actually went to one of the weasel farms, which, is actually kind of sad as the weasels are kept in cages and basically fed coffee beans while having their excrement collected…
Worm Paddies: I don’t really do insects but for the most part they don’t break any of the rules for me since there are millions of them. We tried some worm paddies, which, in all honesty, didn’t taste like worms but are mentally difficult to get over – at least for us.
Of course no visit to Hanoi is complete without trying the regional food, pho (very different in the South) bun cha, etc.
Water Puppetry is an age old tradition in Vietnam, dating back nearly 1000 years. In ancient Vietnam, the rural Vietnamese believed that spirits controlled all aspect of their lives, and therefore devised water puppetry as a way to satisfy these spirits. It also happens to be quite entertaining (and cheap). The show is about an hour long and takes place every evening not far from the lake.
Price: $3 – $6 depending on which tickets you get
Temple Of Literature
Built in 1070, this is one of several Confucian temples in Vietnam, and, in 1076 became Vietnam’s first university. Over the years many scholars, government officials, and nobles were educated here. Nowadays, it is a popular place for upcoming college graduates to get their picture taken and the grounds are quite pretty.
The Old Quarter, near Hoan Kiem lake, has the original street layout and architecture of old Hanoi. At the beginning of the 20th century the city consisted of only about 36 streets, most of which are now part of the old quarter. Each street then had merchants and households specialized in a particular trade, such as silk traders, jewellery, etc. The street names nowadays still reflect these specializations, although few of them remain exclusively in their original commerce.
The area is famous for its small artisans and merchants, including many silk shops. Local cuisine specialties as well as several clubs and bars can be found here also. A night market (near Xuân market) in the heart of the district opens for business every Friday, Saturday, and Sunday evening with a variety of clothing, souvenirs and food.
This market spreading from Hang Dao Street to Dong Xuan Market creates a busy and crowded walking street. on weekend evenings, a lot of people come here to stroll or go shopping, which becomes a habit.
As a commercial street, you can find everything concerning clothes and recreation. Clothes, sweets, “o mai” (salted dry fruit), decorations, toys, stationeries, sundry goods are respectively sold on Hang Ngang, Hang Dao, Hang Buom, Hang Duong, Luong Van Can, Hang Ma, Ngo Gach and Hang Ca Streets. All goods and facilities can be found from Dong Xuan Market to Hang Giay Street.
People come here for shopping or just strolling in the crowd to feel the atmosphere of the night market and the habit of Hanoians. Children are excited about going shopping with their family, sitting on their father’s shoulders, holding their mother’s hand, walking in a stream of people, playing with sand pictures and painting statues. It is so romantic to see lovers hand in hand walking on the street, smiling, taking pictures, buying some pieces of clothes at weekends. There are lots of foreign tourists who go sight-seeing or shopping. It is easy for them to find Hanoi or Vietnamese style souvenirs at low prices.
Food stalls often sell “banh beo” (bloating fern-shaped cake), bacon, grilled “nem chua”, sausages, Hai Phong bread, Donner Kebap, cakes, sweet porridge of northern provinces or Hue city. At the end of the night market street, next to Dong Xuan market, there is a night eatery with a wide range of food, such as “lau”, grilled food, “banh khuc” and steamed sticky rice.
Take a cycle ride
For a curious combination of pleasant and alarming, spend half an hour being trundled around the roads of the Old Quarter on a cyclo. The first thing you will realise is that it would be quicker to walk. The second thing you realise is that guardian angels must be real, for there is no other plausible explanation for your surviving every intersection.
Still, it’s an activity well worth your time, if nothing else to help you get your bearings. The riders are usually very friendly and will point out things of interest along the way.
Take a walk through Hanoi’s Old Quarter street markets with a local guide who’s passionate about food, and discover the exotic flavors of Vietnam with fellow food-lovers. Sample fruit, hawker street food and local specialties like pork crepes, and visit Hanoi’s largest covered market, Dong Xuan. With a maximum of 12 participants, you’ll have a personalized experience on this walking tour of Hanoi’s best street food areas.
Your walking tour begins in Hanoi’s largest covered market, Dong Xuan. Breathe in the aromatic scents wafting from street hawker stalls selling everything from exotic fruit to seafood. Led by a local guide, hear stories about the ingredients and history of Hanoi’s food culture and northern Vietnamese specialties.After sampling fruit and street snacks at the market, continue walking to Hanoi’s Old Quarter. Visit a local restaurant to watch the chefs at work, then dine on a famous local dish of pork crepes, called banh cuon. Then take a wander down Hanoi’s atmospheric lanes of houses, shops and street stalls, stopping to sample flame-grilled meat snacks at a local barbeque stall.To add something sweet to the menu, try the local specialty of fresh fruit served in a cup with crushed ice and condensed milk. Your evening walk ends with a visit to one of Hanoi’s best-kept secrets, a tucked-away cafe with amazing views over Hoan Kiem Lake. Here you can try the local favorite, egg coffee, or perhaps a chilled beer. Your tour ends here, so you can either continue exploring on your own, take a taxi or ask your guide for directions and suggestions.