Vietnam

The Ultimate Guide to Hanoi: Must Do’s & Can’t Misses

THE ULTIMATE GUIDE TO HANOI

Hanoi.
Just the name of the city conjures images of motorbikes, street food flames rising up from the sidewalk, its infamous train street, French colonial architecture, charming cafes, and chaos- always chaos.

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Vietnam is the kind of place that awakens your sense and pulls you in from all angles.

The country’s capital, Hanoi, best illustrates this- it’s a crazy, chaotic, beautiful, historic place.

It’s also polarising. Some people love it, others not so much. The general consensus from travellers is that 2-3 days is plenty long enough.

If you’re short on time, I can appreciate that perspective, but really, after nearly two weeks in Hanoi, I feel like I didn’t even scratch the surface. It’s at the tippy top of my ‘re-visit in SE Asia’ list.

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Hanoi was my first stop in Vietnam, and candidly, before visiting, I wasn’t sure how I’d feel about the country. So many people I knew who had been loved it, and talked about it as a simply indescribable place.

Others remarked there’s still hostility toward Americans (which, by the way, is understandable).

Aside from being assaulted in Sai Gon, which didn’t happen because I’m an American, I encountered nothing but kindness. Even in the north, people were curious where I was from, and upon hearing me say the US, would just smile and remark I’d traveled a long way.

Going to SE Asia, I was the most excited for Thailand. As it would be, I was the most entranced with Vietnam.  It was a country I fell so hard for, it’s now one of my favourite places in the world.

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My point being- if you can spend more than a few days in Hanoi, do it. It’s chaos, culture and modernity blended together.

And, trust me, there’s more than enough to do in the city if you’re there for a week or longer. 

The Ultimate Guide to Hanoi

WHAT TO DO

Visit Train Street: No visit to Hanoi is complete without a stop at the city’s train street. A narrow street with shops on both sides and tracks in the middle.

Several times daily, shopkeepers rush to pack up their tables, chairs and displays in anticipation of the train that roars through. Train times change weekly, and are usually posted at cafes on train street. I’ve heard Le Duan is a good selection of the track to watch the train roll through- less cafes, but also less tourists.

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Go on a Street Food Tour: Street food in Hanoi, and really all of Vietnam, is next level.

With countless food stalls and a wonderful variety of dishes and flavours, Hanoi is known as one of the top ten cities for street food in Asia. I went on a street food tour with Hanoi Street Food that catered to vegetarians, and LOVED it.

And, if you’re into street food but not up for a tour, check out Ta Hien Street. Long regarded as a place to hang out for locals and visitors.

Also, not into street food? There are plenty of tours you can do in Hanoi, including a cafe hopping one with Backstreet Academy.

Admire Hanoi’s Historic Temples and One Stunning Cathedral:

  • Neo-Gothic St. Joseph’s Cathedral: The oldest church in Hanoi is one you have to see for yourself. Resembling the famous Norte Dame, it’s simply beautiful. If you want to go inside, it’s free but only open at certain times of the day so check the posting on the gate
  • Temple of Literature: Built to honour learning and some of the country’s best scholars, it’s exquisite. Constructed in the 18th century, it’s dedicated to Confucian and Taoist scholars, and the 13th century war hero, Tran Hung Dao, who was renowned for his bravery in the battle against the Yuan Dynasty. Entrance is affordable, only 30k VND
  • Tran Quoc Pagoda: One of the oldest temples in Hanoi, take a Grab to see this temple situated over a lake

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Stroll Hoan Kiem Lake: I enjoyed walking the lake in the morning, but the nighttime bazaar you’ll find on the weekends is also worth seeing. Tons of vendors with food, juices and fruit, and no shortage of entertainers or trinkets for sale. My favourite part though, was the children riding mini cars and jeeps their parents rented

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Sip a few Beers at Bia Hoi Junction: Widely regarded as the quintessential nightlife spot in Hanoi, the junction is located at the corner of Tien Hien and Luong Ngoc Quyen. You’ll know it when you see it- people perched on stools with pints of cheap beer in hand

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Get a Taste of Hanoian Life at the Quang Bag Flower Market: Most lively between 2-4 am, I came here in the middle of the night. Worth it, absolutely worth it. It’s a wholesale market, which means it’s fascinating to watch people unload the flowers from trucks, and then stack them carefully on the backs of bikes before they whizz away to their destination in the city. I came around 2:30 am and stayed until nearly 4 am. If I did it again, I’d come a bit later- the action really started picking up around 3:15 am

Wander the Old Quarter: Chances are, you’ll be staying in the Old Quarter, if not nearby. It’s the hub of tourism activity in Hanoi. Also known as Hanoi 36 Streets, this part of Hanoi used to be frequented for shopping. Even now, you’ll find streets where all the vendors seem to sell the same things- spices, kitchenware, party supplies, flowers, coffee. When you find those streets, look for a street sign- these streets are named after what it sells.

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Unwind with an Excellent, Affordable Massage: On a rainy night in Hanoi, I decided to treat myself to a massage. Googling the best places in the Old Quarter turned up suggestions for Mido Spa.

I opted for an aromatherapy massage and was blown away by how great it was.

I didn’t get to pick my own oil, but the hot tea before and after the massage and incredible technique more than made up for it.

My only complaint- the spa was a bit noisy and massage therapists talked to each other a few times during the treatment. Those minor annoyances aside, I’d call this massage the second best one I’ve had in SE Asia.

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Hire a Cyclo (tricycle cart) to Whisk You Around the French Quarter: Usually, 150k for an hour, it’s a great (and cooler than walking) way to see more of Hanoi, outside the Old Quarter

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Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum: I didn’t visit this, I know- it’s iconic. But, I’ve also been to Paris more times than I can remember and haven’t been to the Louvre. I’m not sure what that says about me or my travel style, but I don’t always hit-up the must-visits.

In actuality, on the day I’d planned to visit, I felt sick and thought it would be better if I relaxed than fought hundreds of tourists for a chance to see Ho Chi Minh’s embalmed body. He’s an important figure in modern Vietnam, integral in the revolution against the French and the war against the Americans, so a visit here is worth it if you’re able to find time for it.

Like many other Communist Leaders in that era Ho Chi Minh’s body was embalmed and placed in a mausoleum so people could see him for decades after death. In addition to the mausoleum, you’ll find his old house, the Presidential Palace and a museum. 

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Take a Day Trip to The Gorgeous Ninh Binh Province: Oft called the ‘Ha Long Bay of land’, visiting this part of Vietnam is incredible. About two hours south of Hanoi, most tours include a stop at the King Dinh Temple, and then a boat ride around the Hoang Long River, where you’ll be surrounded by rice paddy fields and limestone mountains.

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And, two 48-72+ hour trip ideas outside of the city that would be great ideas to experience while in northern Vietnam-

Take an Overnight Trip to Stunning Sa Pa: Sa Pa, a place in Vietnam that instantly cues visions of emerald rice terraces, hill tribe culture and great trekking.

It’s famous around the world for its ancient rice terraces, carved long ago by ethnic minorities. If that sounds like the kind of place you have to see for yourself, it’s a ~6 hour drive from Sa Pa with buses, trains and tours departing regularly. Best to do for a 2-3 day tour so you have time to trek.

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Cruise Majestic Ha Long Bay Overnight: Cruising Ha Long Bay for two days with its 1,969 limestone karsts was an unforgettable experience.

I went luxe for my cruise, justifying it as a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
And it was.

Jaw dropping scenery.
Sailing past small fishing villages.
Sipping fresh watermelon juice and reading in the late afternoon sun.
A luxe junk ship with one of the comfiest beds I’ve ever slept in.
Tai chi on the top deck while sunrise happened in the distance.
Soaking in a bathtub with one of the most epic views I’ve ever seen.

Seeing Ha Long Bay for yourself is a must-do if you’ve got the time while in Hanoi. Day trips are also possible if you’re truly tight on time, but it’s so far to travel, I’d recommend making at least an overnight out of it.

THE ULTIMATE GUIDE TO HANOI: WHERE TO EAT

I ate a lot of street food and banh mi in Hanoi, which is why I don’t have too many restaurant recos. I’d wholeheartedly suggest you do the same.

Also, if you’re new here- I’m a vegetarian, so you’ll have to go elsewhere if you’re looking for the best places to have beef, pork or the like.

Banh Mi 25: Controversial opinion, but my favourite banh mi was at Banh Mi 25. I say it’s controversial because Banh Mi 25 is pretty modern- always packed with visitors. Although, I’ve seen locals grab takeaway, too.

I came here almost every day I was in Hanoi after discovering it. There were SIX types of vegetarian banh mi on the menu- egg, egg with cheese, tofu, mushroom, vegetable- it was incredible. The breakfast banh mi (egg and cheese), paired with coconut coffee was the stuff brunch dreams are made of.

Vegan Banh Mi: Not my favourite banh mi, but if you’re into meat substitutes, this vegan option for Vietnam’s popular sandwich may be right up your alley.

Pizza 4P’s: The reality of long-term travel is that sometimes, you just want your favourite Western foods. I’m always on the lookout for exceptional Western food in Asia (there’s isn’t much), but thankfully, this pizza place with locations all over Vietnam is the real deal. In fact, it was so good, I came here twice while in Hanoi.

Hanoi Taco Bar: Speaking of Western food, expats I know who’ve lived in Hanoi spoke highly of this unassuming taco joint, with locations in both the old and French quarters. When I saw chickpea tacos on the menu, it was a done deal. So, so good.

Noodle & Roll: Classic Vietnamese dishes, but make it vegetarian.

Other restaurants I wanted to check out, but didn’t make it to (because, excellent street food): Aubergine, Luk Lak!, and UU Dam.

THE ULTIMATE GUIDE TO HANOI: WHERE TO DRINK

Hanoi may be famous for its unique culture, street food and gorgeous French colonial architecture, but it’s cocktail scene is one of the coolest I’ve discovered in SE Asia.

When I visited Hanoi, I wasn’t drinking much, but decided to check out a few places I’d heard did cocktails worthy of starring on menus at some of the world’s best bars.

I enjoyed the lapsang martini I had during happy hour at the Polite Pub, but the pho cocktail I had at Ne was what really convinced me Hanoi’s cocktail scene is on the up and up.

In Vietnam, pho is comparable to a national dish. The noodle soup, typically topped with chicken or beef, can be eaten for really any meal.

Served at the swanky, alleyway Ne bar, the pho cocktail is the creation of Pham Tien Tiep, who won ‘Best Bartender in Vietnam’ in Diageo’s 2012 World Class competition. 

It’s quite literally pho broth in cocktail form.
The drink is savoury, yet sweet.

It’s the boozy pho you never knew you needed.
Weird, yet wonderful.

If you’re on the hunt for fun, tasty tipples in Hanoi, three other bars to check out- Mad Botanist, The Alchemist and The Hanoi Social Club

THE ULTIMATE GUIDE TO HANOI: WHERE TO HAVE COFFEE

Vietnam is a coffee mania. It’s the second largest coffee producing country in the world, so you know they mean business when it comes to brew.

And in Hanoi, you’ll have no shortage of excellent cafes to get your caffeine fix.

Giang Cafe: You must try egg coffee in Hanoi, it’s the best place in Vietnam to do so. Sure, you can find it in the south, but it’s just not as good.

Why Giang?

Simple, it’s run by the son of the man who brought egg coffee to Hanoi. You’ll see many other tourists here, but no one lingers too long, so it rarely feels overly congested.

Here, I tried both the hot egg coffee and iced egg coffee. And, while the hot egg coffee is the classic version, I really enjoyed the iced variety.

Cafe Dinh: More egg coffee.

Run by the daughter of the man who brought egg coffee to Hanoi, this place has an entirely different vibe to it than Giang.

In fact, until recently, Cafe Dinh was primarily locals only.  Then food companies started including it on their coffee shop tours, and the world of Instagram got to it.

Even still, it’s much quieter than Giang and a good mix of locals and tourists.

Cộng Càphê: No list of coffee shops in Hanoi, or elsewhere in Vietnam is complete without mention of Cong. Touted as the Starbucks of Vietnam, this communist themed cafe branch is everywhere.

It’s hugely popular and for good reason.
The coconut coffee here is without question one of the best coffee drinks I’ve ever had- no, scratch that.
One of the best drinks I’ve ever had.
Full stop.

The Note Cafe: Known to visitors as, ‘The Note’, this colourful cafe is an Instagram favourite because, you guessed it, it’s covered from head to toe in post-it notes.

Its location, with sweeping views of the lake in Old Town, also means it’s a relaxing place to sit down and recover from all that wandering you’re doing.

Before you go, be sure to leave a note of your own. My favourite ones were well wishes and words of positive encouragement for those to come.

Hanoi Social Club: Loves me a quirky cafe with a great brunch.

Come here early if you don’t want to wait for a table. I think I rocked up around 10 am and got one of the last remaining ones before the brunch rush really kicked in.

Here, you’ll find fresh smoothie bowls, savoury avocado toast and a whole menu of drinks, including one of the creamiest egg coffees I tried in Vietnam.

Railway Cafe: Located on Hanoi’s train street, stop here to see the train roll through. While you wait for the train, pull up a low stool at this cafe and sip an iced coconut coffee.

Maison de Tet Decor: Outside of the Old Quarter, you’ll find this breezy cafe in a French colonial building near the French Quarter.

Easy enough to get to with Grab, visiting is worth the effort for this cafe’s garden seating and balcony overlooking one of Hanoi’s lakes.

The prices are a bit higher than you’ll find elsewhere, but the food is delicious and the cold brew is one of the best cups I’ve ever had.

Bonus Coffee Recommendation: While not a modern or ‘trendy’ cafe like some of the above recommendations, Hanoi’s coffee street is worth a stroll down even if you aren’t a big brew fan.

Yes, you read that right- an entire street devoted to coffee.

The name of the street is Nguyen Huu Huan. You won’t find cool cafes here, instead, you can see how locals do coffee- perched on low to the ground stools sipping caphe sua.

A few other cafes I wish I had the time to check out, and will be at the top of my list for my next visit to Hanoi: Tranquil Books and Coffee, Bluebird’s Nest, Loading…, The Kafe, and Tâng Trêt Cosmo Café.

And in case, you’re not into coffee or need a break- Sharetea is my go-to for bubble tea in Hanoi.

EXTRA TRAVEL TIPS

  • Language: Transactional English is widely spoken, especially in Old Quarter and among younger Vietnamese. If you find someone who doesn’t speak English, you’ll likely be fine getting by with gestures and Google translate
  • Currency: Vietnamese Dong
    • I withdrew from a bank ATM. Look for Visa and Mastercard images on an ATM- that means it’s global, and only withdraw from a bank one (there’s less of a chance your card will be skimmed). I’d advise carrying cash on you- many purchases are so small, you won’t meet the card minimum if the place you’re at even takes cards
  • Budget: The cheapest place I visited in SE Asia, by far. You can definitely spend money in Vietnam, if that’s your thing and you’re living the luxe life, but if you’re trying to ball on a budget, you’ll have no problem eating well here, and doing cool activities 
  • Getting There: 
    • Flying: Hanoi’s airport is a major international one. If you don’t fly directly into it, you’ll likely come from Bangkok or Sai Gon
  • Getting Around: Walk in the Old Quarter, and use Grab taxi or bike to get to other parts of the city. When walking in the Old Quarter, don’t be intimidated by the bikes whirling all around you. And, don’t wait for a break in traffic- it won’t come. Just start slowly, but steadily crossing and try to make eye contact with drivers when you can. Trust they’ll swerve around you- the way bikers drive in Vietnam is crazy, but it works
  • Where to Stay: I stayed in great budget Airbnbs in the Old Quarter 
  • When to Visit: I visited in early April, and couldn’t believe how how the city was. I’d been told it would be cool, less humid than other parts of SE Asia. Turns out Hanoi was in the midst of a heatwave when I visited. Normally it is cooler than other parts of Vietnam
    • Autumn (September – November) is a good time to visit, as is Spring (March + April)
  • Tipping: Tipping is not common practice in Vietnam, although I’ve seen the practice debated on travel forums. Some upmarket places may add a service charge, and everyone appreciates if you round your Dong up- which is what I normally did 
  • WiFi Access: Every modern cafe I visited had WiFi, key word here is modern 
  • SIM Card Options: I bought a 30-day SIM upon arrival at Hanoi’s airport, paying ~$12 USD for an unlimited month’s worth of data

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Have you ever visited Vietnam? Is it a country you’d like to make it to one day? What would you add to this ultimate guide to Hanoi? 

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