What to Do in Hanoi
Landing in Hanoi was an assault on our senses. It is a chaotic city that is bursting with life and I loved every minute of it! With so much to see and do, yet so little time, I wanted to create a list of the Top 9 things to do in Hanoi.
Hanoi is the capital city of Vietnam, the second largest city in the country and home to over 8 million people. If you include the full metropolitan area, that number rises to 20 million! It has been inhabited since 3000BC and has a rich history which adds to its interest. Hanoi was occupied by the French a couple of times in history, an influence which is still discernible by its French colonial style buildings and their excellent baguettes.
You will never be short of things to do, however, if you are short on time then these are the top 9 things that I recommend you don’t miss out in Hanoi.
Top things to do in Hanoi
Get lost in the Old Quarter
The Old Quarter, or otherwise known as Hoan Kiem District, is a square kilometre of congested streets which were once closed off behind the city walls. It is considered not only the main tourist hub but also the business centre of Hanoi too.
Although there are a lot of attractions within the Old Quarter, the best thing you can do is simply to wander the streets and get suitably lost. You are guaranteed to stumble upon no end of photo worthy opportunities whilst absorbing the chaos that is everyday life in Hanoi. Figure out how to cross the packed streets as cars, scooters and bikes avoid you like a school of fish, or simply sit in a café and watch how others do it!
Th 36 Themed Streets
One of the aspects of the Old Quarter which we enjoyed the most were the themed streets. Each street specialises in a trade, so if you want a new toilet you head to toilet street and all vendors will be toilet specialists! Now, we didn’t see a toilet street so this is made up, however here are some real examples:
- Hang Bac: Silversmiths
- Cho Gao: Originally the place to buy grain (Gao means rice), this is now the main entertainment street with lots of places to eat and drink
- Hang Bo: Bamboo goods such as baskets
- Hang Bong: Cotton products
- Hang Can: Scales
- Hang Chinh: Jars
- Hang Dieu: Pipes
- Hang Dong: Copper
- Hang Hanh: Previously the place to buy your onions it has now undergone an aromatic transformation and has become the coffee street
- Hang Ma: paper products have been made on this street for over 500 years
I think you get the idea. 36 specialised streets. It is still evident as you walk, pedal or drive through that they remain specialised to a degree, but as you can see from the examples not all of them remain specialised to their origins. The reason all those of the same trade gathered together was because they were locating themselves next to the temple that was dedicated their guilds patron spirit.
Day or night, Hanoi is full of life and you will not have time to get bored. And if people watching is your thing, you are in the right place.
Go on a Photography Tour
Amongst the top 9 things to do in Hanoi, joining a photography tour should definitely be high on the list. If like us you are an amateur photographer who wants to improve your skills and get some very memorable images, then it is for you. If you are already an accomplished photographer, then I’m sure you will still learn something new, but if not, you will definitely be taken beyond the tourist trail to see the “real” Hanoi.
We booked our tour with Vietnam in Focus and loved every minute of it. We visited the Long Biên Market at 5 am in the morning to see the hustle and bustle of the biggest wet market in South East Asia. This is where all trade goods are purchased ahead of a busy day in the city, and had it not been for Vietnam in Focus it is somewhere we would never have visited.
As well as the market, we also wandered the streets of Hanoi in search of great photo opportunities of locals going about their daily life, including being on the lookout for crazy loads on mopeds! Boris, our guide, not only taught us a great deal about photography, but he also gave us a glimpse of what life as an expat is like in Hanoi, again, another mesmerising peek into a completely different lifestyle.
Finally, we got an introduction into life on the train tracks, however, this deserves it’s own mention.
Go on a Food Tour
On the subject of tours, a food tour is a must. One of the first things we do in any new country is go on a food tour. If we can, we do it on day 1. Not only is it a great way to stuff our faces with delicious food, but it is a great introduction to the culture. Food is at the centre of every culture in the world, and therefore offers more than just a culinary view of the country you are in.
We booked our food tour in Hanoi with Hanoi Backstreet Tours which saw us whizzing all over the city on the back of old Russian Minks bikes. That was one way to get used to Hanoi traffic!!
On the tour we tried all manner of delicious dishes, but we also learnt what we didn’t like too. Based on our likes and dislikes the guide then gave us recommendations of other dishes we should try when in Vietnam, including what to eat in different districts. It certainly gave us the confidence to expand our menu throughout our journey.
But it isn’t only food you learn about on a food tour. We visited the banana plantations and saw the community living on a floating village, a community that Hanoi Backstreet Tours supports financially to help their kids access education. We tried traditional Vietnamese Wedding cake (I still think having doughnuts as our cake was the best option!), and locally brewed beer. We rode along narrow backstreet alleys and along wide long French colonial boulevards. We laughed and we shared stories with other travellers and like every other food tour we have been on, kicked off our holiday to a great start.
Banh Mi 25
Without a doubt, something you must not miss, and which should appear in every top 9 things to do in Hanoi, or even Top 3 things, is a visit to Banh Mi 25. Banh Mi is in essence a baguette filled with pate, meat, veg and chili sauce and you have the best £0.50p meal there is. The French influence means that the Vietnamese know how to make a fantastic baguette and although you can find cheaper Banh Mi’s in Hanoi, at £0.50p it is worth splashing out! They have a little seating area, or you can buy it to take away. Please don’t miss it!
You will find Banh Mi 25 on 25 Hang Ca Street, in the Old Quarter.
Hoa Lo Prison
Hoa Lo Prison, or otherwise known as Hanoi Hilton. Only a 5th of the original prison remains and it has now been turned into a museum. However, although we are brought up to take for granted what museums tell us, on the understanding that they are sharing hard facts. I urge to proceed with caution here. Remember, you are in a communist country!
The museum takes you through the various stages of the prison. Firstly, the era when the brave patriotic Vietnamese stood up to the French. They were kept in the most horrendous of conditions and submitted to daily torture and starvation. This I believe!
However, it then moves on to the era during the Vietnamese War when America POW were kept here. The museum highlights how thy were treated like royalty. They were even cooked proper Turkey Christmas Dinners! Only of course they shouldn’t have been at Christmas but instead Thanksgiving.
Somehow I find it hard to believe, however, I still include it in my top 9 things to do in Hanoi as it is an eye opener as to the power a government can have over the beliefs of their people. The Vietnamese will likely believe this to be true.
Explore Train Street
As this is the case in many Asian countries, the train passes through inches from peoples’ homes. Residents have learnt the timetable like clockwork and use the train tracks as we would our back garden throughout the day before clearing the tracks ahead of the train’s arrival.
Wandering up and down train street was mesmerising. Chickens roamed, kids played, men sat in their plastic chairs enjoying a smoke, women cooked and life revolved as if it were just any other street. Unfortunately, this peculiarity has attracted so many tourists that it became too dangerous with far too many tourists standing on the train tracks as the train approached in an attempt to get a good selfie! The demand was so high that even cafes opened up along the tracks to maximise potential earnings.
I have read that train street has potentially now closed. With tourism having closed down it is impossible at this stage to know (without being there) whether there are other areas where the same spectacle can be enjoyed. Even if you are not allowed on the train tracks themselves, still head to the crossroads of Dien Bien Phu and Ton That Thiep streets. It is a mesmerising scene.
Enjoy a Cuppa Coffee
I should come clean at this stage and say I don’t like coffee, but I did substitute coffee for hot chocolate, however, it is the coffee the Vietnamese are known for. The specific coffee I’m talking about is Egg Coffee. It is made by beating egg yolk with condensed milk for about 10 minutes before it becomes really creamy and frothy. This is then poured over an espresso, iced coffee (or in my case hot chocolate) and is absolutely delicious! Also terrible for the waste line, but delightful!
Escape to Halong Bay
Last but not least, if the city becomes too hectic then escape to Halong Bay. Roughly two hours from the city of Hanoi lies the launching pad for the Halong Bay cruises. There are so many of them that you will not struggle to find a tour provider once in Hanoi, giving you the freedom to book it once you are there.
My only comment would be that Halong Bay may still feel very much like rush hour, only on water, so if you really want to get away from the crowds then make sure to explore Bai Tu Long Bay instead. Equally as beautiful with its emerald waters and towering karst mountains, but with just a fraction of the tourists.
Although Halong Bay was busier than we expected (we wish we had known about Bai Tu Long Bay), we still thoroughly enjoyed it. We visited floating fishing villages, overpriced pearl farms, we went kayaking, we tried our hand at squid fishing and we enjoyed a 5 course meal for lunch and dinner every day! We were waddling by the end of it!
There are of course so many other great things to do whilst in Hanoi, and Hanoi also works as a great launching pad for other adventures such as Sapa, but if like us you are short on time these are the top 9 thing I’d recommend you do.
Make sure to leave a comment if you would add any extras to the list!