The one thing people tell you to expect when you visit Hanoi is craziness. It’s a city with a buzz that goes well beyond its borders. So, when I arrived at the airport and hailed a taxi to the hotel, it’s fair to say I was a bit surprised. There were lots of motorbikes, but it wasn’t that different to Bangkok. It was only after leaving the hotel for the first time that I did understand why people call this city crazy.
Hanoi is the capital and the second largest city of Vietnam. It is full of wonderful colonial architecture, Buddhist temples, picturesque lakes and pagodas. It wasn’t the first Asian country I’ve visited, but it does feel like one of the most authentic in my opinion. The experience is very raw, crowded, loud and dirty… but also completely fascinating.
Where to stay in Hanoi
We divided our stay into two for our visit to Hanoi. Our third night was on Halong Bay. Then we headed back to the centre of Hanoi. This is around Hoàn Kiếm Lake, so it’s best to find your hotel there. If you plan to stay in a hostel, the best place for it will be the Old Quarter, which is the city’s backpacking base.
The first place we checked into was the Acoustic Hotel & Spa. It was a cheap but beautiful place. Friendly staff gave us a warm welcome and refreshed us with fruit and a drink. We loved the very charming balcony overlooking the city from our room, and the price included breakfast too!
For part two of our Hanoi experience, we headed to Hotel de l’Opera Hanoi MGallery by Sofitel. You’ll find it right in the heart of the French Quarter. Sofitel hotels are some of my favourites – we loved it when we stayed in the Sofitel in Singapore too – because there’s always a nice surprise.
These are not standard rooms but they have some elements that stand out. Our room was wonderful. Beautiful decor, a huge bathroom and a super comfortable bed. There was also a pool with a view of the Opera House on the top floor and downstairs there was a restaurant. They also served the best hotel breakfast I’ve ever eaten.
Unmissable experiences & things to do in Hanoi
This is a place you just can’t miss it! The Old Quarter is full of narrow, bustling streets characterized by colonial architecture, divided thematically by services and goods sold. It’s the heart of the city where you go shopping, dine and party.
Full of cheap souvenirs, tiny chairs, the smell of good food, the cheapest beer in the world and bars that close the main door at midnight to continue the party inside.The Old Quarter simply has to feature in your list of things to do in Hanoi.
I won’t lie, it’s not easy to walk there. The streets throb with tourists and motorbikes. My favourite time there was at the weekend, when most of the streets are closed to cars and bikes for the market. The night market in Hanoi happens every Friday, Saturday, and Sunday. Vendors display stalls in the middle of the street! You can pick up virtually anything and shop for hours.
Founded in the nineteenth century when the city was under French control, today this district has beautiful colonial architecture, houses, fancy hotels and nice restaurants too. On some streets, you feel like you’re back in Europe and only the buzz of the bikes reminds you that you’re still in Vietnam.
Established in the early twentieth century and modelled on the building of the Paris Opera Garnie, Hanoi’s Opera House is the largest building of this type in Southeast Asia. Today it is considered as the most luxurious theatre in Hanoi.
One of the most Instagrammable places in Hanoi! This small and narrow street has a train that passes twice a day. Pay it a visit for some super cool coffee shops and be prepared to share your table with an Instagrammer or two!
Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum
This is a mighty edifice and one of the most important places in Hanoi. And rightly so, as it’s where their national hero rests. Ho Chi Minh was the prime minister from 1945–1955, then from 1955 until his death the president. He dreamed of unifying the nation, but unfortunately he died 24 years before that happened.
Near the mausoleum, you can also admire the wonderful Presidential Palace. The inside is closed to the public but the building itself, being a French colonial mansion, is stunning.
You’ll also find the One Pillar Pagoda, Uncle Ho Fishpond and Ho Chi Minh’s Stilt House close by. The stilt house is a great reflection of the simple and modest life Ho Chi Minh chose to lead.
Hanoi Water Puppet Theatre
This is the traditional Vietnamese theatre showing the old life in Vietnam. There is a small pool on the stage that acts as a lake or rice field. The actors are hidden behind the set in the waist-high water. They move wooden dolls with a special bamboo stick and strings. It’s a great show regardless of how old you are!
Tran Quoc Pagoda
As far as things to do in Hanoi goes, this was my biggest disappointment because… I couldn’t find it! I walked around West Lake and just didn’t see it only to find it the next day while driving to the airport.
Tran Quoc Pagoda is considered the oldest Buddhist temple in Hanoi. It dates back over 1,500 years with interesting architecture and colour that attracts many tourists. But the biggest attraction of the Tran Quoc Pagoda is the 15m red brick tower, built in the Chinese style.
Saint Joseph’s Cathedral
Built in 1886 and stylized as the Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, Saint Joseph’s Cathedral stood on the site of the Bao Thien Pagoda, which was destroyed during the war. The cathedral is the largest Catholic church in all of Vietnam and has been the seat of one of the largest Vietnamese parishes since 1990.
Lake Hoan Kiem
Located in the middle of Hanoi, this lake is a peaceful place for a romantic walk. It’s a place to gather your thoughts or dance late at night. In the middle of the lake, you will find the Thap Rua – The Turtle Tower with a legend of a daredevil who, thanks to the sword he received from the golden turtle living in the lake waters, defeated the Chinese occupying the city. There are so many things to do in Hanoi right around this lake.
Museum of Ethnology
This is the largest, interactive and most interesting museum in the city. Add it to your list of things to do in Hanoi and make sure you fit it in! The open-air museum contains the history, heritage and cultural identity of 54 communities living in Vietnam. You can discover their traditions, customs, symbolic rituals, beliefs, as well as a glimpse into everyday life.
Vietnam is the second largest coffee exporter in the world that’s why we decided to book a tour. We were taken to five different places to try different blends. The most famous is egg coffee with whipped egg yolks and condensed milk. I’ve also tried coconut, cinnamon, yogurt, and a few specialty coffees. The tour is worth it if you have a strong heart – it’s a lot of tasting!
Getting around in Hanoi
I would highly recommend an app called Grab if you don’t feel completely comfortable and safe walking in the city. It’s a bit like Uber, where you can get a car or even be a passenger on a motorbike.
We had an amazing time experiencing the many things to do in Hanoi. A handful of days would be perfect for your visit – it’s a great city to twin-centre with another part of Vietnam. Since I only had a week overall, I knew I had to choose between the north and south. We had to skip Ho Chi Minh and Phu Quoc.
Vietnam is much bigger than you could think. I also planned to visit Ban Gioc waterfalls and the Sapa mountains, but the distances were just too long for such a short time there. But, despite those compromises, we cruised around Halong Bay, and that was an experience we’ll never forget.
Which of these things to do in Hanoi has headed to the top of your bucket list?
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