A Crash Course to Exploring Hanoi
“From the iconic & charming to daunting & morose, Hanoi’s attractions span all ends of the spectrum”
Vietnam’s capital city of Hanoi sits in the northeast region of the country, about 120 kilometers inland from the coast. Thanks to its 1,000+ years of history, the city has a cornucopia of incredible experiences to offer its visitors. From the iconic and charming to the daunting and morose, Hanoi’s attractions span all ends of the spectrum.
While ‘first timers’ are going to want to cover all the must-see’s, return visitors presumably aren’t going to want to re-visit the same haunts. Luckily, Hanoi has a lot of tricks up its sleeve. This ‘crash course’ will take you from the standard spots to the unique getaways, providing you enough material to explore the city on your own accord.
First time in the Capital?
For starters, be conscious of the arrival via Noi Bai Airport. The ride into Hanoi’s Old Quarter can take up to an hour (depending on time of day/traffic), so don’t get nervous when you turn off that first highway into (what seems to be) the middle of nowhere. Also, be wary of taxi drivers looking to take you on the proverbial ride; if possible, book your transport into the city ahead of time through your hotel… taxi meter scams are unfortunately widespread.
The easiest place to begin a tour of Hanoi is in the iconic Old Quarter. Almost all the major sights are within walking distance, food is (somewhat) easy to come across and hotels are more than prevalent.
If the temples have grabbed your attention, make sure not to miss the One Pillar Pagoda, Perfume Pagoda or the beautiful Temple of Literature, sitting just west of Hoan Kiem Lake. Vietnam’s first university, the Temple of Literature dates back to the 11th century and has some brilliant architecture & cultural relics to explore. While you’re in the area, make sure to swing by the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum, where the country’s revered Uncle Ho lies in state. Admission is free, but hours/days open depend on the time of year, so be sure to check ahead before you visit.
Bringing your cultural explorations to Hanoi’s 21st century, the next stop along the visit will be the Old Quarter. Ripe with experiences that will stimulate all the senses, this aspect of the city can be the most full on.
Exploring the Old Quarter
While it is one of Hanoi’s biggest draws, the Old Quarter doesn’t have many specific attractions to visit. Instead, it is an all encompassing experience of ancient alleys, wild traffic patterns, cobwebbed electrical wires, stall hawkers, mobile vendors, rowdy beer halls and quiet retreats.
The best approach? Get lost! Dive into the maze of interchanging alleys, lose yourself amongst the similar sounding street names, explore the chaotic, pungent local markets, retreat into cool cafes, try out the local eateries and, most importantly, be careful when you’re crossing the streets! If you get remarkably lost during your explorations, just grab a cheap taxi back to the hotel for a breather.
(Tip: always carry the hotel’s business card!)
Feeling the pangs of hunger?
Hanoi has some amazing food options. While they may be duplicated throughout the country… many of the favorites originated right here in the capital.
Pho: Vietnam’s original noodle soup. While Pho Bo (beef) is often a go-to, Hanoi has some of the best Pho Ga (chicken) in the country! Look for the stalls that also offer banh quay- fried breadsticks that are deliciously dip-able.
Banh Cuon: Steamed rice cake filled with meats, herbs and spices
Ga Nuong: Chicken prepared with a honey marinade, grilled directly on the street!
Bun Cha: Rice noodles with chargrilled pork
Nem Ran/Cha Gio: Spring rolls… everyone’s favorite!
Banh Mi: While it didn’t originate in Hanoi, it’s still one of the best “street food staples.” Fresh baguettes, herbs, meat of choice, vegetables and homemade sauce… spectacular.
Another exciting adventure to look out for is Bia Hoi. Since when is beer an adventure? Since it costs 5.000-10.000 VND per glass and is brewed fresh, on-site every day with no preservatives! You will see these beer halls all over the city: concrete rooms with giant silver vats surrounded by plastic furniture and patrons hovering around with plates of peanuts, pork belly, veggies and clinking glasses filled with ice and “bia.”
(Tip: give a local your best “mot, hai, ba… dzo!” — Vietnam’s version of “cheers”)
If you’ve had your fill of the touristic Old Quarter, need a gentle break or are looking to get off the beaten track a bit… Hanoi has another side to the city that tourists seldom experience…
West Lake: A Hanoian Oasis
About 15-20 minutes away from the Old Quarter is the West Lake District of Hanoi. Where the majority of the city’s expatriates live, West Lake makes you feel as if you’re in an entirely different city. Quiet alleys lead out to open waterfront promenades with fewer people, a greater range of authentic restaurant, bar & cafe choices and practically no hawkers. The more modern face of the capital, visitors will find contemporary shops, beautiful homes, friendly, un-intrusive locals and a much more laid-back vibe.
Some of the most popular shops, restaurants and cafes are found around Quang An, Xuan Dieu, Quang Ba, Tay Ho & Dang Thai Mai streets… so just have a wander and enjoy the peacefulness!
Getting Out of the City
Like most destinations in Vietnam, amazing day trips and unique multi-day adventures are only a car, bus or train ride away. From Bat Trang, Vietnam’s most famous pottery village, and Ninh Binh (the country’s inland Halong Bay) to Halong Bay itself and the mountain town of Sapa… new adventures are always just around the corner!
Author: Daniel Robbins
Photo: David Ruiz Luna, Robert Mitreski, Chinhnc, Huongbeo, Doro Tran