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 characteristics 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”:
Wander in Hanoi´s old quarter and survive the insane traffic
Hanoi’s old quarter (a.k.a. the Hoàn Kiếm district, or Hà Nội 36 phố phường) 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.
It might sound a bit crazy but insane traffic in Hanoi did put everyone´s road-crossing skills to the test. Especially on main roads (let say… around Hoàn Kiếm Lake) – Thousands of scooters, motorcycles, and cars 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.
Sidewalk Stumbles: Parking space for motorbikes in Vietnam is at a premium and some pavements have become de facto parking lots. Sometimes this means that pedestrians have no option but to share the road with traffic. In this case, be on high alert.
Here are some tips (I call it the 5-step program) for crossing the streets in Vietnam:
- Observe and wait for the right moment. With one eye on the traffic, keep another on your surroundings. When you see a group of nearby locals take their first step, it would probably be the moment you take off. Take a few minutes to watch how Vietnamese people do it.
- 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.
- 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.
- It is even more dangerous if you stop, walk backward, or scream in horror in the middle of the road – no riders will be expecting that. Be cool, calm, and collected, and leave your prima donna inner self at home.
- I 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 helps me to put myself in a “Zen” mode and keep my pace. Anyway, it works like a charm every time!
Yes, Vietnamese traffic is probably well-known to the world. Most Vietnamese motorcycle riders have a habit of honking the horn almost constantly, particularly when they want to speed up and pass other bikes. People will use horns more to announce “I am here” than to warn of danger. They will also use it for other riders to move aside and let them through. Locals normally do not feel offended or upset by this practice.
Some places that you may want to check out in Hà Nội 36 phố phường:
Memorial Tube House: A long tube-shaped house that is merely 3-4 feet wide but 120 feet long.
Cửa ô Quan Chưởng (Đông Hà môn): An old gate of the Imperial Citadel of Thang Long, while many of the gates and walls are destroyed, this is one of the most symbolic in the bunch.
Bach Ma Temple: A national heritage that was rebuilt in 1839.
Chợ Đồng Xuân: A historic market that started business in 1889. The original market was destroyed in a fire, and the current operating market was rebuilt in 1996.
Take a break in the afternoon: Break up your sightseeing and go early in the morning and late afternoon. It can get quite hot visiting the attractions so taking a nice long break in the middle of the day can keep you refreshed for the afternoon’s activities.
Unwind in Hoàn Kiếm Lake and look for the giant turtle
Once I walked through the horrendous traffic from the Old Quarter. I sunk in the tranquility of Hoàn Kiếm Lake, the focal point of Hanoi city. Although, technically, the lake is a “pond” of depth 1.2-meter. Legend has it, that Emperor Lê Lợi (1385) was given a magic sword, “Heavenly Will”, from the Dragon King, which led to his victory over 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 the Hoàn Kiếm turtle is considered extinct in 2016.
It gets cold in Hanoi: Unlike Saigon, Hanoi has four seasons with very hot sticky summers and rather cold and humid winters. If you are heading to the North from November to February, you might want to bring a jumper or a heavy fleece.
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 unique 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 during busy seasons. Buy the tickets before entering Hoàn Kiếm Lake to avoid disappointment.
Apart from the dancing puppets, the band is also something that you should be paying attention to – musical instruments include flutes, erhu (two-stringed bowed musical instrument), pipa (four-stringed), and Đàn bầu, a one-stringed instrument that is unique in Vietnam with could make different sounds.
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 was about time for dinner~
Leave the plastic at the hotel: Vietnam, when one of the major cities, is still a cash-based economy. Most places won’t accept credit cards and ATMs can be scarce.
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 of the city. When I was on the cyclo I felt like all the noise was screened out, and I could enjoy the unique Hanoi scenery running past me at a slow pace.
Pavements as motorbike parks: Motorcycles – mostly low-power, small-engine scooters – are the primary means of transport and are everywhere in Vietnam. It is estimated that the country’s 85 million people own around 30 million motorcycles. No wonder when a basic model only costs around US$500. With little room to expand urban roads and streets, the sheer number of motorcycles is often blamed for creating traffic jams, pollution, and accidents. After an earlier false start, compulsory wearing of the helmet has only been enforced since 2009.
Wear a helmet: If you’re going to brave the traffic, make sure you take proper precautions. Always wear a helmet, avoid dangly jewelry and miniskirts and clip your bag to the bike to keep it safe from snatchers. Also, see if there is a storage area underneath the seat.
Explore Vietnamese cuisine, yes, other than Phở
Generally, the “foodie” experience would be 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 are 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 dishes (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.
Relax and just eat everything: Vietnamese food is delicious and you will want to try it all. Go ahead and bug a kilo of that strange-looking purple fruit, and Baguette Sandwich is a unique food culture that was brought from France to the country during the colonial time. But be aware of hygiene when you’re eating street food. To be cautious, opt for vendors who already have customers.
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 by 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.
Tipping like a coffee lover would: While tipping is not expected, especially at local restaurants, international venues have become used to the practice. Leave enough for coffee: VND 7,000-12,000.
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 the 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.
Keep your phone and wallet out of sight: Violent crime is rare, but Hanoi has its fair share of pickpockets, be very aware in Hanoi’s Old Quarter and Saigon’s Pham Ngu Lao. There is no need to be overly cautious, simply be aware of your belongings and surroundings.
If you still have space in your tummy after dinner, the streets in the Old Quarter (like Hang Dao Steet) come 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.
If you want to go souvenir shopping, there are souvenir stores in the areas that sell all sorts of things from clothes, belts, bags, glasses, accessories, appliances, stationeries to many more.
Although I was there on a Thursday night, the streets were crowded and filled with foreigners!
Use your bag or camera strap: A loose strap is like a moth to a flame for motorbike thieves. So make sure to put your bag or camera across your chest over your shoulder to make it a less obvious target.
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 religious 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. Moving further to the outskirts of the Old Quarter in Hanoi, visit the Temple of Literature, one of the best-preserved historic temples in Hanoi.
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 Chinese traditional values, the country also retained a trace of French colonization. The Saint Joseph’s Cathedral was built based on the design of the 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.
Be a sensitive Snapper: Most people in Vietnam love having their photo taken and will ask to have one with you, but there are some places like Ho Chi Minh’s Mausoleum or military buildings where taking photos is prohibited.
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 related to Ho Chi Minh.
If you are interested to learn more about the Vietnam War, visit the Hỏa Lò Prison Museum. The “Maison Centrale” was built by the French and the prison was used to capture political prisoners. One of the most memorable moments 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 prisoners’ 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.
More, there are more museums in the area that you can explore, for example, the Vietnam Museum of Revolution, National Museum of History, Geology Museum, Museum Cong An Nhan Dan, and Vietnam Military History Museum.
Cover up – in some places: When visiting temples or pagodas, make sure to pack a shawl or extra shirt to cover your shoulders. Remember that you are visiting a piece of history so show it some respect and cover up those shoulders.