Vietnam

Top 8 Things to See, Eat, & Do in Hanoi

Hanoi - Cover (1)

Vietnam was part of the “French Indochina” back in the early 19th century and the colonial territories include Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos. Today, the country retained a unique mix of Chinese and French and these characters were reflected in their food, lifestyle, and architecture. I was planning to visit Ha Long Bay and Hanoi was, to me, a convenient stopover at first. However, I found the city quite charming for any tourists to stay a few days and explore!  So, here I present the “top things to see, eat, and do in Hanoi”:

Hanoi #1 Old Quarter (2)

Wander in Hanoi´s Old Quarter and survive the insane traffic


Hanoi’s old quarter (a.k.a. the Hoàn Kiếm district) is the city’s top tourist hot spot, and business hub. Hotels, cafés, antique stores, boutiques, and markets are all hidden in between the narrow allies and old buildings. Buy an old propaganda poster, hunt for interesting old-fashioned toys, or just relax and have a sip of Vietnamese coffee during the day.

Hanoi #1 Old Quarter (3) PosterIt might sound a bit crazy but insane traffic in Hanoi did put everyone´s road crossing skills to the test. Especially among main roads (let say around Hoàn Kiếm Lake) – Thousands of scooters, motorcycles, and car flood in from every direction like a school of fish and they don’t seem to end. Well, it could be intimidating for first-time travelers and you might stand on the sidewalks for hours if you let your fear overcomes you.

Here are some tips for crossing the streets in Vietnam:

  1. Observe and wait for the right moment. With one eye on the traffic, keep another in your surroundings. When you see a group of nearby locals take their first step, it would probably the moment you take off.

  2. Having said that, it would be wise to cross the road in groups. There’s always safety in numbers. Following a group of locals would at least increase your chances to be seen.

  3. Keep your pace steady. No need to run, and definitely don’t jump out like a deer on a highway (Obviously, it would surprise the oncoming drivers and make things worse). Walk slowly, the drivers would anticipate your position and adjust their drive paths accordingly.

  4. It is even more dangerous if you stop, walk backward or scream in horror in the middle of the road. Be cool, calm, collected and leave your prima donna inner self at home.

  5. Hanoi - TrafficI find it pretty useful for me to do a “parting the red sea” pose (holding both arms up by the side of the body) when I cross the roads. Maybe it helps to make the drivers notice me, or it just help me to put myself in a “Zen” mode and keep my pace. Anyway, it works like a charm every time!

Hanoi #1 Old Quarter

Hanoi #2 Hoàn Kiếm Lake

Unwind in Hoàn Kiếm Lake and look for the giant turtle


Hanoi #2 Hoàn Kiếm Lake (3)Once I walked through the horrendous traffic from the Old Quarter. I sunk in the tranquility of the Hoàn Kiếm Lake, the focal point of Hanoi city. Although, technically, the lake is a “pond” of depth 1.2-meter. Legend has it, the Emperor Lê Lợi was given a magic sword, “Heavenly Will”, from the Dragon King, which led his victory to the China army in the Ming Dynasty. One day, when the Emperor was boating on the lake, a Golden Turtle, which is the servant of the Dragon King surfaced and reclaimed the sword. The Emperor renamed the lake “Hoàn Kiếm” afterward, meaning “returned sword”. There are reports of sightings of a giant turtle in the lake for the past years; While those sightings may not be true, there was a unique species of giant softshell turtle living in the lake (even called the Hoàn Kiếm turtle, but a group of scientists suggested they are actually the same as the Yangtze giant softshell turtle). Unfortunately, the last Hoàn Kiếm turtle in the lake passed away and Hoàn Kiếm turtle is considered extinct in 2016.

Hanoi #2 Hoàn Kiếm Lake (2)

There is a small island in the lake, walk under the willow in the Ngoc Son Temple where you might learn all the interesting stories from the past and enjoy the comforting morning breeze.

Catch a water puppet show


Water puppetry is a tradition that dates back as far as the 11th century when it originated in the villages of the Red River Delta area of northern Vietnam. In Vietnamese, it’s called Múa rối nước meaning “making puppets dance on water”. It might sound a bit “cheesy” and “touristy”, but well, it’s an art tradition that survived a thousand years while a small theatre next to Hoàn Kiếm Lake is still hosting the show about 4 times a day, from 4:10 pm t0 8 pm. Believe it or not, the Thang Long Water Puppet Theatre is in the Asia Book of Records as the longest-running water puppetry performance and tickets might be sold out in busy seasons. Buy the tickets before entering the Hoàn Kiếm Lake to avoid disappointment.

The show lasts about 50 minutes and it’s pretty much what you would expect. We caught the show at 5:20 pm and then it’s about time for dinner~

Hanoi #3 Water Puppet Show

Hanoi #3 Cyclo

Ride a cyclo


After the puppet show, we had a quick change at the hotel and got ready for our dinner reservations. It could get quite hot and hectic visiting the attractions and wandering the Old Quarter in the afternoon. Everything seems to slow down in the early evening. To me, it was the best time to hop on a cyclo and travel through the streets in the city. When I was the cyclo I felt like all the noise were screened out, and I could enjoy the unique Hanoi scenery ran pass me at a slow pace.

Hanoi - Train

Explore Vietnamese cuisine, yes, other than Phở


Hanoi #5 Ngon Villa (2)Generally, the “foodie” experience would be in one of the top things to do because the food is never out of style. Vietnamese food is delicious and I just want to try it all. First thing first, although it spells “Pho”, the well-known Vietnamese noodles is pronounced as “faar~”… or “farr~”, but definitely not “pho”. A nice Pho place could probably be found in every corner of the world nowadays, and it is one of my favorite dish (even my “comfort food” when I was traveling). It’s really nice to take a break from the greasy and deep-fried food and have a warm bowl of noodles – the lightness, the warm broth and the fresh crunchy sprouts and herbs were just the perfect combination that I need.

We had dinner @ the Ngon Villa. The restaurant has a wide selection of North, Central, and South Vietnamese dishes and you know what – it’s all-you-can-eat!

The choices (while these are my favorite) include spring rolls, soft shell crab paper rolls, pork belly, smoked beef in the clay pot, soft shell crab salad, southern sweet soup, and many more! Each dish is marked its origin, while North is a sophisticated mix of vegetable ingredients, Central has the distinctive flavor of spicy and sweet, and South offers a diversity of salty and sweet dishes.

Hanoi #5 Ngon Villa

Ngon Villa Restaurant: https://www.ngonvilla.com

Sit on mini stools by the streets at night and enjoy a Hanoi beer


We stayed in La Siesta Hotel and Spa in the heart of Old Quarter, which is a cozy and hip boutique hotel with a lot of colonial charm. I enjoyed very much their breakfast and what’s more, the hotel is located nearby the bar area which has a rather vibrant nightlife.

If you still have space in your tummy after dinner, the streets in the Old Quarter comes alive at night with lots of street vendors, bars, and live music. But be aware of hygiene when eating street food. My advice – opt for vendors who already have customers. After the walk, just sit on one of those mini stools along the pavements, enjoy a Hanoi beer and snacks on a tiny table, listen to the music and have fun people-watching.

Although I was there on a Thursday night, the streets were crowded and filled with foreigners!

Hanoi #6 Old Quarter at Night (6)

Admire historic monuments where East meets West


Unlike the surrounding Buddhists (Thailand, Myanmar, and Cambodia), Hindu (Indonesia), Islamic (Malaysia, Indonesia, and Brunei) or Catholic (The Philippines) Southeast Asian nations, Vietnam is in a different religion system. The majority of the Vietnamese population practices folk religion, and the country is filled with temples and shrines dedicated to various gods or goddesses in Chinese religion and mythology.

Famous temples like Quán Thánh Temple and Tran Quoc Pagoda are located near the West Lake (Hồ Tây), a bigger lake located in the north of the city.

Chùa Một Cột, or “One Pillar Pagoda”, is a small temple next to the Ho Chi Minh Museum. The structure is a rebuilt iconic Buddhist temple, originally erected in 1049, designed to resemble a lotus blossom. The pagoda is the size of a niche with a Buddha statue, and next t the pagoda is the historic Perfume Temple, one of Vietnam’s most iconic temples.

While Vietnam is heavily influenced by the Chinese traditional values, the country also retained a trace of French colonization. The Saint Joseph’s cathedral was built based on the design of Notre-dame (while there’s another “Notre-dame” in Ho Chi Minh City, the Saigon Notre-Dame Basilica); and the Hanoi Opera House, is located in the city center, and it was modeled on the Palais Garnier in Paris. Today, their buildings are still considered to be the architectural landmarks of Hanoi.

Follow the footsteps of Ho Chi Minh and learn about the country’s past


Ho Chi Minh, was the iconic Vietnamese Communist revolutionary leader. He led the Viet Minh independence movement from 1941 onward, establishing the Communist-ruled Democratic Republic of Vietnam in 1945 and defeating the French Union in 1954 at the battle of Điện Biên Phủ.

HAnoi - Maison Centrale

Imagine the country would be so much different without him, and his name would basically pop up anywhere when you are looking into the country’s historic past. Saigon, the former Capital of the Republic of Vietnam, was renamed Ho Chi Minh City to commemorate this important figure in the country. While his final resting place was actually in Hanoi at the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum. The Mausoleum is in the center of Ba Ding Square, and it is where he read the Declaration of Independence, establishing the Democratic Republic of Vietnam. The Mausoleum is open to the public.

The Presidential Palace is next on the right side of the Mausoleum, and the Ho Chi Minh Museum is on the left, which showcased exhibits that related to Ho Chi Minh.

Hanoi - Maison Centrale Almond TreeIf you are interested to learn more about the Vietnam War, visit the Hoa Lo Prison Museum. The “Maison Centrale” was built by French and the prison was used to capture political prisoners. One of the most memorable moment to me was not the narrow and dark prison cells, but the almond tree. I was told that the almond tree (which is still growing in the backyard of the museum) linked with the prisoner’s lives deeply. Prisoners used almond bark and young leaves to cure dysentery and diarrhea, to clean wounds, ate almond nuts to improve health and made penholders, pipes, or even flutes with the branches. It is also a place where prisoners could discuss tactics or plots on fighting against the enemy’s severe confinement and barbarous repression.

28 thoughts on “Top 8 Things to See, Eat, & Do in Hanoi

  1. I haven’t been to Hanoi but would love to visit. Handy tips on traffic and crossing the street. And, I’d be so into trying Vietnamese food. When I lived in Alaska there was a Vietnamese restaurant near the college and I loved the food. I’m sure it is much better in Vietnam. I’d love to see a puppet show too!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I would love to visit Hanoi to visit the Old Quarter, and I’m interested to see if the traffic is as crazy as everyone says it is! Great tips for crossing the road – I’ve been in many cties with crazy traffic before, and committing to the road cross is generally the safest thing, as you said, walk slowly and with a purpose – it’s usually when you falter, stop, or change your mind mid way through that you get hit!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. This article reminds me of a joke… Why did the blogger cross the road? To prove he wasn’t chicken! I think I am chicken and would cross in a big group of locals. Now I am super curious about the turtles. The idea that a species could go extinct when everybody was watching sounds insane. How could that happen?

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Of course the museums of the past, the old quarter, & seeing the water puppets looks like great adventures but you sold me on the food in Hanoi! I bet the street food is off the hook and I would love to explore all the different spices they use.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Hahaha, from what you are describing crossing the street in Hanoi’s Old Quarter is like taking your life into your own hands. Even so, I would enjoy visiting it. I’d love to visit both Vietnam and Cambodia, so I truly enjoyed reading your post.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. I’ve heard the traffic can really be crazy there! I can just imagine you walking with both arms out (he-he!). I’d never heard of a water puppet show before — that would be interesting to see. So much to see and do in Hanoi!

    Liked by 1 person

  7. The water puppet show looks super interesting! And I love your “parting the red sea” pose, haha! I’ll have to remember that one the next time I am faced with crossing insane traffic. Vietnam is high on my list! I can’t wait to eat and explore there 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  8. I love your Hanoi guide. I think that traffic junction crossing in Vietnam is really crazy and I’m glad that you actually wrote a detailed guide for that! Hanoi is much better than HCM in my opinion. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  9. My husband and I wanted to go to Vietnam last year but our plan fell apart. How nice to come across your post about Hanoi. I am hoping to get there soon and hopefully see Cambodia too. Great post!

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Glad I read this! We might jump into Vietnam next after we are done exploring Cambodia. I’ve heard great things about the food, so I’m hoping we like it. I laughed at the crossing the street section. I am the worst crosser ever and have to follow my husband like a little kid haha! Hope I can survive the busy streets!

    Liked by 1 person

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