Hanoi is the second largest city in Vietnam and is the cultural hub of the country. Hanoi is known for its centuries old architecture with a profound influence from the Chinese during the thousand year occupation of the area and most recently the French who colonized Vietnam for 100 years. I spent the first few days of my trip around Vietnam in Hanoi exploring its sights and sounds.
Personally, I didn’t find Hanoi to be the prettiest city but there is a palpable SE Asian charm the city holds that is hard to explain. The city is absolutely chaotic and home to some of the worst traffic I’ve seen. Even after traveling to almost 100 countries worldwide, the hecticness of Hanoi even got to me after a few days. For this, I actually preferred Ho Chi Minh City, Hanoi’s shiny modern cousin!
The problem I think arises from the fact that the streets and sidewalks are too small for the population of the country. The French influence likely wanted to create a typical European old town within Hanoi but they didn’t account for the population growth. The sidewalks are nowadays scooter parking which means there is no where to really walk except for the small make shift lane between the sidewalk and the road.
Nevertheless, if things ever get too hectic for you, simply use Grab to call a taxi or scooter taxi for a very cheap price to escape the chaos.
As the bustling capital of Vietnam, Hanoi is a city that’s packed with history, culture, and stunning natural landscapes. Whether you’re a seasoned traveler or a first-time visitor, there’s something for everyone to see and experience here.
Best time of year to visit Hanoi
The best time to visit Hanoi, Vietnam, depends on your personal preferences and what type of weather you prefer. Hanoi has a tropical monsoon climate with distinct seasons: hot and humid summers, and cooler, drier winters. The two main seasons to consider are:
- Autumn (September to November): This is widely regarded as the best time to visit Hanoi. The weather during this period is pleasant, with mild temperatures, lower humidity, and little rainfall. The city is adorned with beautiful colors as the foliage changes, making it a great time for sightseeing and outdoor activities.
- Spring (March to April): Another good time to visit Hanoi is during the spring season. The weather remains mild, and the city is covered in blooming flowers, creating a picturesque atmosphere. March and April are particularly charming, with the city celebrating Tet (Lunar New Year) festivities in early spring.
Avoiding the extremes of summer and winter is recommended. Summer (May to August) can be hot and humid, with occasional heavy rain and the possibility of typhoons. Winter (December to February) can be chilly and damp, although temperatures rarely drop below freezing.
Where to stay in Hanoi
Hanoi is a big city but the areas that most tourists stay is quite small. The best area to stay in Hanoi is around the old quarter and around the Hoan Kiem Lake. This way, you can walk around to all the main sights the city has to offer. For further away destinations, a grab will get you there quickly and very cheaply.
As with everything in Vietnam, expect prices to be quite cheap. Accommodations in Hanoi can be had for well under $100 USD without issue.
Budget accommodations in Hanoi – Under $40 USD a night
Mid-end Accommodations in Hanoi – Between $40 and $100 a night
High End Accommodations – Over $100 USD a night
Visit Hoan Kiem Lake
Another must-see attraction is the Hoan Kiem Lake, which sits at the heart of the city and is surrounded by beautiful parks and gardens. You can take a leisurely stroll around the lake, visit the Ngoc Son Temple, or simply sit by the water and watch the world go by.
For those who love the performing arts, the Hanoi Opera House is a must-see. This elegant building is a stunning example of French colonial architecture and hosts a range of cultural events throughout the year.
For a glimpse into Vietnam’s rich history and culture, the Temple of Literature is a stunning example of traditional Vietnamese architecture and is also the country’s first university. It’s a peaceful oasis in the midst of the bustling city and a great place to learn more about the country’s past.
And no visit to Hanoi would be complete without a visit to the Thang Long Water Puppet Theatre, which offers a unique and entertaining way to learn about traditional Vietnamese culture. The puppet shows take place on a water stage and feature live music, singing, and storytelling.
Walk through the Old quarter of Hanoi
Hanoi’s Old Quarter is an enchanting labyrinth of bustling streets, traditional architecture, and a tapestry of sights, sounds, and scents that epitomizes the soul of the city. As one of the most well-preserved historic districts in Vietnam, the Old Quarter is a living museum that transports visitors back in time while exuding a lively and vibrant atmosphere.
Dating back over a thousand years, the Old Quarter is the heart of Hanoi’s commercial and cultural life. Each street is named after the specific goods that were once sold there, a historical feature that still holds true in many areas today. The narrow streets are lined with ancient tube houses, their narrow facades concealing surprisingly deep interiors, and are adorned with colorful shutters and decorative motifs, showcasing the city’s unique architectural heritage.
Wandering through the Old Quarter is an adventure in itself. The streets are bustling with motorbikes, bicycles, street vendors, and locals going about their daily routines. The energy is infectious, and the chaotic traffic flow is a marvel to behold. Amidst the commotion, the Old Quarter offers a treasure trove of shops, selling everything from traditional crafts, silk clothing, and lacquerware to contemporary goods and souvenirs.
Train market of Hanoi
Similar to the Amphawa Train market of Thailand, Hanoi is home to its own train track that runs through the city. In a specific stretch in the old quarter, there is a collection of different cafes and bars where you can soak in the views and lights.
The train tracks are still in use and there are daily trains that run through these tracks, particularly at night. Grab a seat at one of the beautiful cafes in this road and watch the train coming within centimeters of you!
Eating Pho in Hanoi
Pho is the national treasure of Vietnam and easily one of the most recognizable dishes from Vietnam around the word. Pho originates from Hanoi and is eaten all over at all times of the day. Hanoi style pho offers your typical thin rice noodles in a light but delicious beef broth. The soup is then topped off with fresh cut beef and various herbs including cilantro, onions, and lime. It’s absolutely delicious and it’s a must try for anyone visiting Hanoi.
Pho is a beloved staple of Vietnam and you will be able to find some of the freshest and most delicious noodles in the world here for a very reasonable price. A bowl of pho should cost somewhere between 40,000 and 60,000 VND depending on the shop you visit. The bowls are quite filling for the average person but you can always pay more to add extra meat or noodles. Make sure to add the fried dough sticks on the side and dip it in that sweat broth for the full experience!
Compared to its southern neighbors in Saigon, the pho in Hanoi is noticeably lighter and more refreshing in my opinion. Both variations are incredible but you’ll be focused on the lighter version here.
For the best pho in Hanoi, make sure to visit these stops
- Pho 10 Ly Quoc Su
- Pho Gia Truyen Bat Dan
- Pho Khoi “The Bald”
Eat Bun Cha in Hanoi
Bun Cha is one of the best things to eat in Hanoi and was popularized around the world by Anthony Bourdain’s famous dinner with Obama in 2016 that was a part of his Parts Unknown TV show.
Bun Cha is simply grilled pork over charcoal, pork meatballs over charcoal, with rice noodles in a clear fish sauce. It’s served with a variety of different herbs, vegetables, and chilis. The combination is delicious and I ended up eating Bun Cha multiple times during my stay in Hanoi.
The famous Bun Cha restaurant that Bourdain ate at is called Bún Chả Hương Liên. It’s one of many Bun Cha restaurants in Hanoi and one of the best. The price is only 65k VND (about $2.5) per dish.
Try the Famous Egg Coffee in Hanoi
Egg coffee is a staple and must try coffee in Hanoi. The baristas here will whip thoroughly egg yolks and mix in coffee with sugar. The resulting drink is something of a slightly sweet cappuccino. Egg coffee is an absolute institution in Hanoi and while I was highly skeptical of it in the beginning, I’m a huge fan.
Egg coffee was first introduced in the 1940s during the French War of independence. There was a milk shortage in the city and a very creative barista decided to get create and whip eggs as a substitute for milk. The resulting product was beloved by people and has become an icon of the city to this day.
The best place to try an egg coffee is without a doubt at Cafe Dinh. Grab a coffee and sit on the balcony overlooking the lake.
Don’t eat at restaurants with high ratings
Whatever you do in Hanoi, do not eat at the restaurants with high reviews on TripAdvisor and Google Maps. These restaurants are not bad by any means but they are also nothing exceptional. They farm the reviews by asking their customers very nicely to leave reviews on TripAdvisor and Google Maps after they’re done eating. In return, you’ll find ratings like 4.8 or 4.7 on Google Maps and think that it’s a must visit.
When you arrive, you’ll find that the food is serviceable but is nothing special. The prices are also 3-4x the price you’d find on the street at much tastier establishments. The telltale sign of this is of course the extremely high percentage of Western tourists at these restaurants. Sometimes, there would not even be a single Asian person in the entire restaurant so you know you’re not getting the real stuff. Some examples of these restaurants are Met Restaurant and Hong Hoai’s Restaurant. Again, nothing bad about the food but you’re paying 3-4x the price for a “less hectic Western friendly” setting which kind of goes against the whole point of Vietnam anyway!
Visit the Hoa Lo Prison Museum
Visit the Hoa Lo Prison Museum: The Hoa Lo Prison Museum, also known as the “Hanoi Hilton,” offers a glimpse into Vietnam’s history of struggle for independence. Originally built by the French colonialists to incarcerate political prisoners, the museum provides a thought-provoking experience as you explore the exhibits documenting the harsh conditions and the stories of the incarcerated. Learn about the prison’s role during the Vietnam War when American prisoners of war were held there.
Shop at the Dong Xuan Market
Shop at Dong Xuan Market: Dong Xuan Market is Hanoi’s largest covered market, offering a vibrant shopping experience. This multi-story market is filled with stalls selling a wide array of products, including clothing, accessories, souvenirs, household items, and fresh produce. Explore the market’s bustling alleys, and immerse yourself in the lively atmosphere as you browse through the diverse range of goods on offer. Bargaining is common practice here, so feel free to negotiate prices to secure a good deal.
This market is absolutely massive and might be overwhelming for the average traveler so go into it knowing you can just walk right back out!
Discover the Thang Long Imperial Citadel of Hanoi
Discover the Thang Long Imperial Citadel: The Thang Long Imperial Citadel, recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, offers a glimpse into Hanoi’s rich history. It was the political and cultural center of Vietnam for over a thousand years. Explore the archaeological site, which features ancient palaces, temples, and artifacts, providing insights into the country’s dynastic past. The recently excavated ruins and informative exhibits offer a fascinating journey through Vietnam’s imperial era.
Relax at the West Lake of Hanoi
West Lake, or Ho Tay, is the largest freshwater lake in Hanoi, offering a serene escape from the city’s hustle and bustle. Take a leisurely stroll along the lakeside promenade, rent a bike to explore the area, or enjoy a boat ride on the tranquil waters. Visit Tran Quoc Pagoda, situated on a small island in the lake, which is a significant Buddhist site known for its beautiful architecture and peaceful ambiance.
Hanoi Opera House
The Hanoi Opera House is a grand architectural masterpiece and a cultural hub in the city. Admire the elegant French colonial design and take in the ambiance of this prestigious venue, which hosts opera, ballet, classical music performances, and other cultural events. Even if you don’t catch a show, exploring the exterior of the opera house and enjoying its grandeur is a worthwhile experience.
Day Trip to Ninh Binh and Mua Caves from Hanoi
The day started early as our group set out from Hanoi to make the two-hour journey to Ninh Binh, a beautiful province located in northern Vietnam. As we approached the area, the scenery became more and more breathtaking. The limestone karsts rising from the fields, the emerald green paddies, and the winding rivers created a landscape that was unlike anything I had seen before.
We arrived at Tam Coc, a scenic area known for its river boat tours. We boarded a traditional wooden rowing boat, and soon we were making our way down the Ngo Dong River, which winds through Tam Coc. The river was lined by rice paddies and towering limestone mountains, and it felt like we were floating through a postcard.
The boat ride was incredibly peaceful, and our boatman expertly maneuvered through the water, using his feet to propel the boat forward. Along the way, he pointed out various points of interest, including local villages and rice paddies.
After the boat ride, we made our way to the Mua Caves. The climb to the top of the hill was steep, but the view from the top was absolutely breathtaking. From the summit, we had a panoramic view of the surrounding countryside, with lush green fields and towering limestone mountains as far as the eye could see.
The caves themselves were also impressive. As we descended into the caves, we were struck by the cool, damp air that enveloped us. The natural formations inside the cave were intricate and beautiful, and we spent some time exploring the different chambers and admiring the stalactites and stalagmites.
After visiting the caves, we stopped for lunch at a local restaurant, where we enjoyed a delicious meal of traditional Vietnamese dishes. We tried fresh spring rolls, pho, and various meat and vegetable dishes, all of which were delicious and satisfying.
Take a day trip or multi-day trip to Halong Bay
A trip to Vietnam almost always conjures up images of the beautiful limestone peaks of Halong Bay. Thankfully, if you’re visiting Hanoi, you’re in luck as they are a mere 2 hours away. I did a 3 day 2 night cruise through Halong Bay during my trip and while I thought Halong Bay was a bit overrated, I would still highly recommend those visiting to at least see it. It’s become so over commercialized over the years that I felt like it felt like you were on a tourist assembly line being passed around.
From Hanoi, you can easily go on a day trip or an overnight trip to Halong Bay which is enough in my opinion. If you want something more authentic without the huge crowds, I would opt for a trip through Bai Tu Long Bay. This is located in the exact same national park but is just a different area that sees less tourists and boats.
Visit the Hanoi Mausoleum
The Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum is a solemn memorial dedicated to Vietnam’s beloved leader, Ho Chi Minh. Here, you can pay your respects and view Ho Chi Minh’s embalmed body on display. The monumental mausoleum reflects the country’s deep reverence for Ho Chi Minh’s contributions to Vietnam’s independence and unification. Remember to dress respectfully, as it is a place of solemnity and reverence.
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