Hanoi is the capital of Vietnam and the main powerhouse driving the north. The city is a centre for culture, food, and education, and the starting or ending point for most people's Vietnam travels. The city is a busy cluster of French-inspired boulevards, motorcycle delivery people, clothing vendors, and hidden temples. Though pollution and millions of people make the city a little overwhelming at first, a keen eye will spot beauty at every corner. The historic and twisted streets of the old quarter make for the perfect spot to get some food, while Ho Chi Minh's mausoleum and accompanied museum and palace allow you to take a step back and explore the country's turbulent past.
What to do
As the second largest city in Vietnam, it should come as no surprise that it is full of things to do. The best part is that though there are almost 10 million people living in the city, the main tourist attractions are pretty much within walking distance of each other (though walking in the city is an experience in and of itself as well)!
Historical City Center
The top area to stay is in the Historic or Old Quarter. While much was rebuilt after the Vietnam-American War, its complicated network of streets filled with restaurants, shops, hotels, and cafes make it a top place to visit. You should spend at least a half a day just wandering around the area as every street you venture down opens up a new and unique aspect of Hanoi life. One of the most unique things to try in Hanoi is egg coffee. Cafe Giang started the Egg coffee trend and is still one of the top places to try it!
Hoàn Kiếm Lake and Ngoc Son Temple
On the edge of the old quarter is Hoàn Kiếm Lake and Ngoc Son Temple. This ornate Confucian temple is one of the main places of worship in Hanoi and even Vietnam in general. The site draws special attention during Tet as the temple is a pilgrimage spot to start the new year clean. Take a wander around the lake and pass many groups of people running, biking or doing tai chi. It is the heart of the city's outdoor community.
Ho Chi Minh Mousoleum
At the convergence of several wide boulevards lined with massive trees and stately homes is Ho Chi Minh's Palace and Mausoleum. Sections of the palace are open to tour including his garage and gardens. Just beside it is the massive Soviet styled Mausoleum which houses his glass entombed body. Styled after Lenin's tomb in Moscow, the large granite structure allows visitors to pay their respects to the former leader of the Socialist Republic of Viet Nam. When visiting make sure to be respectful to the many locals who will be coming to pay their respects. This includes wearing long pants, not taking pictures, and being quiet. If you are lucky you may be able to watch the changing of the guard in front of the mausoleum.
Temple of Literature
The Temple of Literature was the first university in Vietnam and the centre point for higher learning in the country for centuries. The school was based on confusion teachings and was closely tied to the ruling government during the ages. Though some of the site was destroyed during the numerous wars of the 20th century, it has been rebuilt to the same standard and is no doubt somewhere to spend part of the day. If you can, find the large stone slabs that have inscriptions detailing each person who graduated from the school for over 500 years. During the 20th century wars, to protect the national treasures they were buried deep in the sand to keep them from being destroyed by the Arial bombardments.
Vietnamese Puppet Show
One of the oldest and most unique art forms in Vietnam is the water puppet shows. What started out as a way to pass time in the flooded rice fields quickly became a royal art form. Long bamboo sticks with puppets on the top are used to tell stories of local Vietnamese life and history by performers who are waist-deep in water and hidden behind a curtain. These shows are accompanied by full bands and vocalists to illustrate scenes from
mythology or great victories by former leaders. The Thang Long Theatre is one of Vietnam's top theaters for the art with several shows per day. It is an absolute must to see when you are in Hanoi!
Instagram has the ability to influence many aspects of our travel lives. Nothing is more evident of this then Train Street in Central Hanoi. For years trains have come and gone from the main station along a set of tracks that cut between tightly built buildings. The shopkeepers and residents went about their daily lives like normal even though a train could zoom past at any moment. The odd juxtaposition has become a hotbed for photography turning many of the main floor shops into cute cafes. While walking aimlessly along the tracks is not allowed, there will be many people trying to get you to have a drink at their restaurant. Finding out when a train will arrive can be a little tough but you can often resort to DSVN.VN to help.
At the centre of the old town is a narrow lane that is full of restaurants and bars. This is likely the busiest place in town and during the evening it is completely full of people shuffling through the mess of tables. If you are looking for a crazy meal with lots of lights and a ton of people watching, this is the place for you!
Make sure to try Ha Noi Beer- beer made daily with no preservatives and served by street vendors surrounding beer street! It's hard to complain about for just 5000VND!
The Imperial Citadel of Thang Long
The Hanoi Citadel was once the major stronghold for the city and political centre of the country. Founded in the 11th Century, it was built and destroyed numerous times before being almost completely destroyed during the French and American wars. Recently, excavations have been done to expose parts of the former capital leading to its listing as a UNESCO world heritage site. For a bit of more active history, check out Bac Mon (North Gate). Not part of the excavations, this gate is the last remaining gate from Nguyen Dynasty. During a French invasion in 1882, this gate was the site of extensive cannon fire of which you can still see several large holes. You can climb a staircase up to the top where a small temple houses statues dedicated to several heroes who fought and died against the French.
Covid Conscious Activities
With Covid-19 being such a huge factor in daily life, it is important to take steps towards a safer holiday like trying to limit your daily contact with others. Keep up to date with the latest local advisories and information.
In our opinion, Hanoi and many of the other massive and populated cities will struggle to recover their tourism-friendly image in the face of Covid-19. It's tough to write a covid conscious paragraph when the population density is so high and the streets are so crowded. While many of the top attractions (such as Ho Chi Minh's mausoleum or the Temple of Literature) can be viewed with relatively safe distances, much of Hanoian life leads you in direct contact with many others. The vast majority of restaurants are tucking into doorways with tables spilling onto the sidewalk. Our best suggestion is to try to make your way out of the city and towards places like Tam Coc or Cat Ba Island.
Where to Stay
Hanoi is a massive city so it may seem a bit complicated to figure out where to stay but in actuality, it is really simple. The old town is by far the best. Restaurants, bars, and the majority of things to see or do are all located within a few minutes' walk. When you try to stray away from the centre, you will find the number of restaurants drop significantly. If you are used to travelling through Asia and street restaurants no longer faze you, it may not be that bad but for people who like a standalone restaurant, they are a bit tough to come by. We suggest staying in the Queen Hotel and Spa 2 as it has great rooms and a full breakfast. Restaurants are not far away but it is much quieter than staying right beside Beer Street.
How to get there and around
Hanoi has one of Vietnam's busiest airports and is a main gateway to the country. Noi Bai International Airport is on the outskirts of town and can be quite a trek if you are arriving at rush hour. The two most popular ways to get into town are by taxi (takes about 30 minutes at minimum if there is no traffic) or by bus 84 (which takes roughly an hour) and costs 35,000VND/person.
Once you are in town, the is a network of buses but your most likely option if you are solo is the massive fleet of motorcycle taxis. Using grab or any number of apps, call yourself a driver and make your way across town on the back of a bike.
When you are ready to leave, you have two major options. The central station is about 20 minutes from the old town and will take you all the way to south Saigon or northwest to Sapa. As your alternative, you can take an open bus tour and slowly make your way south. For this, depending on your company, they will either pick you up from your hotel/hostel or have a central meeting point. 12go.asia is one of the top sites to book transportation on in Vietnam. It is fast, user friendly, and very reputable.
Hanoi has some amazing day trip though you should really think about extending a few of them to an overnight trip.
60KMs from Hanoi is one of the most popular Vietnamese Temple complexes. Though it is not that far from town, the best way to access the pagoda is on a tour group as the route is quite complex. After a 2 hour drive, you board a small wooden rowboat and spend the next hour slowly making your way along the river to the base of a mountain. Here you have either a few hour hike to make it to the complex or a cable car to the top. The site is very popular for Vietnamese people at the start of the New Year (February-April) but is worth the trek any day of the week!
Ninh Binh / Tam Coc / Trang An
A few hours south of Hanoi are the mountains surrounding Tam Coc. This area is a very popular day trip as the karst mountains hide everything from cave pagodas, river valleys, and bird nesting grounds. We highly suggest spending a few days in the area as the second you get there you will fall in love. Just outside of Tam Coc is the UNESCO site of Trang An. This protected area offers some of the most amazing river caves and temples. Hop into a small boat and be paddled through mountain tunnels, along rice fields and even check out the props from Kong: Skull Island which was filmed in the area.
Almost everyone coming to Vietnam will have heard of Halong Bay. Seeing over 6 million tourists a year, it is no doubt one of the most popular attractions in the whole country. Some people visit the bay as a day trip but there is almost no point in doing this. We would suggest opting for the 1 or 2-night cruise as the distance from Hanoi makes it time-consuming to get to. There are hundreds of agencies in Hanoi all wanting to sell you on a Halong Bay cruise so find one that you like and see what they have to offer. The Ferry port is roughly over 3 hours away so the 6+ hours of driving makes it too far to be a very good day trip. An overnight cruise will take you out onto the water passing hundreds of small rocky islands where you will try your hand at squid fishing, wander through massive caves, and get a birds-eye view from the top of Titop Island. There are a ton of different cruise companies at all different qualities and prices. We chose Apricot Premium Cruises through Ocean Tours in Hanoi and were extremely satisfied with their service.