Hanoi Vietnam: The Top Ten Things To Do On Your Visit
When I first arrived in Hanoi, I didn’t have the best time. In fact, I wanted to leave. I arrived into the city and right away went to Hoan Kiem Lake, a lake in the center of the city, to shoot photos. I was followed by a group of teenage boys and something didn’t feel right. I kept walking around the lake and they were always in my peripheral vision. I sat beside a group of Vietnamese grandmas and sat with them for a while. I tried to make it look like I was talking to them. They probably thought I was crazy but I just didn’t want to get jumped for my camera bag. I stayed until they left and then ran into a taxi. But…I ran into a sketchy taxi. Things weren’t looking up for me. I wanted to leave but I thought I’d give myself one more day. I ended up meeting a really fun gay Vietnamese Canadian traveler. He ended up being my guide and my translator and it changed my opinion of Hanoi. I ended up loving it and staying for a week.
Most of my days in the city consisted of wandering around, shooting photos, and eating. I did go out and party one night on a gay houseboat nightclub with my gay friend and his friends. We danced the night away and then rode around on their scooters and ate really amazing fish soup in some back alley stall. I never shared that story until recently and found out my friend also partied on the same gay houseboat nightclub.
Here are a few things I did while exploring Hanoi and recommend. Most of these are my photos. Some shots were not up to par so I sourced some online and credited the photographers under the photo.
Hoan Kiem Lake is a lake in the center of Hanoi. It’s very scenic, there’s a temple on the lake and it’s the focal point of the city. I used the lake as a compass and to find my way back to my hotel in the Old Quarter.
Ngoc Son Temple or the Temple of Jade Mountain is the most visited temple in the city. It sits on an island on Hoan Kiem Lake.
Photo credit: David C Jones on Flickr
Ngoc Son Temple
2. West Lake or Ho Tay
West Lake is a freshwater lake with a shore length of 17km. You will find many of the upscale hotels and beautiful villas surrounding West Lake. I didn’t spend much time around here but would be keen, as it’s becoming the more fashionable area of the city. Lots of new restaurants and boutiques can be found here along with the upscale hotels.
Photo credit: David McKelvey on Flickr
If you’re not staying in the Old Quarter, you must wander around this ultimate maze of shops, restaurants, cafes, bars, temples, and people watch. You’ll get lost in the Old Quarter but that is the best way to explore it. The Old Quarter has been kicking around since the 13th century and since then, a guild was responsible for each street and they’ve somewhat kept that going. When you wander around you’ll notice that each street still specializes in a certain business like fashion trimmings, bamboo poles, or metal cages. If you get lost just make it back to Hoan Kiem Lake and use that as your compass.
This was obviously metal organizer street
This was a road with different fashion trimmings
3. Eat Street Food
Eat all of it!!! If you love Vietnamese food you’ll be in heaven here. At first, I have to admit to sticking with banh mi (Vietnamese sandwiches) and pho (noodle soup) but luckily my friend opened up my palate to new things like savory porridge with shredded pork and fish soups. If you don’t like it, remember it’s so cheap so you can always order something else. Food in Hanoi was amazing!
Look for bun cha vendors that have pork wrapped in betel leaf. It’s the best!
4. Drink Vietnamese Coffee
I love ca phe sua da or Vietnamese iced coffee. I drank around 2 or 3 a day. Probably not a good idea…I was so wired! Smoking is still allowed inside cafes and restaurants so if you have a strong aversion to smoke, many cafes will be quite smoky.
5. Temple of Literature
The Temple of Literature is a stunning and well-preserved example of Vietnamese architecture. Originally founded in 1070, this temple is dedicated to Confucius and honors the country’s finest scholars. The first university was also established here.
6. Hoa Lo aka the Hilton Hanoi
Hoa Lo was a prison used by the French colonists for political prisoners and then later used by Northern Vietnamese for prisoners of war during the Vietnam War. American POWs also dubbed it the Hanoi Hilton. The prison was demolished in the ’90s but the gatehouse remains as a museum.
7. One Pillar Pagoda
The One Pillar Pagoda is a replica. History states that Emperor Ly Thai Tong built it in 1049. He did not have an heir and in a dream he met the Goddess of Mercy who gave him a male child. He then married a peasant girl and had a son and heir by her. He built this is gratitude for his male son. The pagoda is designed to resemble a lotus blossom, the symbol of purity, rising out of a sea of sorrow.
Not sure if I really recommend going inside, I did but could have easily passed going. Try to see the changing of the guards if you can catch them.
The Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum holds the embalmed remains of Ho Chi Minh. Ho Chi Minh actually wanted to be cremated and his ashes spread around the country but the government gave him the Soviet leader protocol. They embalmed his body and placed it in a clear viewing case in a large building in a massive square. There is no photography inside and lots of guards watching you.
The Ho Chi Minh Museum contains mementos of Ho Chi Minh’s life including photos and documents relating to the overthrow of the French and the rise of communism. No photos allowed.
9. French Quarter
The French Quarter is less hectic than its neighboring Old Quarter. My friend TB and I grabbed some pastries from a French patisserie and wandered around here. If you want to have a nice meal, check out the fancy hotels and have a meal at one of them.
Photo credit: Michelle Lee on Flickr
10. Weekend Night Market
Starting around 7 pm on Friday through Sunday, the streets starting at Hang Dao going north shut down for the night market. I love any and all markets. Vendors set up and sell trinkets like phone covers and gadgets. It may not be what you’re looking for but it’s fun to people watch and snack around the market.
Photo credit: Kaley Portier on Flickr
When I first arrived in Hanoi I stepped into a wrong taxi. He didn’t set the meter and I just went along and at the end, he asked for a lot of money. I threw some money at him, luckily for me he didn’t lock the door, and I just ran. The taxicabs you should use in Hanoi are Mai Linh and Vina Sun. Always get the meter and make sure to watch the meter because some are tricked out to charge more. Ask your hotel or accommodations for a business card so you can come back without a hitch and to help you write out places in Vietnamese.
Hang Man Bun Cha
I remember reading about it and getting local recommendations. It’s 4 floors of pretty much one dish, bun cha or vermicelli noodles and pork. It’s a favorite dish of mine so of course, I went!
Another place I remember eating (I ate mostly street food) and loved was a Japanese mushroom hot pot restaurant called Ashima. There were tons of different mushrooms to choose from and we even tried black chicken from Sapa. It was a spendier meal compared to what I was paying for Vietnam but so cheap compared to at home prices.
Get cheap spa treatments
I can’t recommend a particular spa but I remember going to have a spa day with my gay friends. We got massages and facials and like everywhere in Southeast Asia, it was super cheap.
Be very mindful of your things and belongings
Upon my arrival to Hanoi, I was followed by a gang of teen boys who were ready to rob me. I sat down with a group of old ladies until they got bored with following me. Everywhere can be dangerous, I have even been pickpocketed on the bus in my hometown. Just be mindful of your belongings. If you are carrying a purse, have it in front of you. Do not carry loads of cash or your passport around with you.
Remember you’re in Asia so the price that a vendor tells you is not set in stone. Do barter to get a better price but don’t be offended in Vietnam if they don’t accept your lower price. They are tough sometimes and would rather sell at an outrageous price than make the sale ten times over.
This may have changed since I was there but most ATM machines in Vietnam I experienced only let you withdraw up no more than $100US. I use a Charles Schwab account and do not get charged for my overseas transactions so it wasn’t a big deal for me. Many smaller businesses and hotels prefer cash or tack on a surcharge for using a card.
Things I wish I did but didn’t: Vietnamese cooking class
I never got to take a cooking class while I was in Vietnam and it is my biggest regret. If you love food, definitely try to find a class to sign up for. Your hotel/accommodations should be able to help you.
Day trips from Hanoi:
If you are in Hanoi long enough, I recommend adding on a Ha Long Bay or Tam Coc (Ha Long Bay on land) tour. I did a day tour for both. I would recommend doing an overnight on a really upscale boat for Ha Long Bay (I have heard boats with rats on them, etc). Ha Long Bay is too far for a day trip looking back at my experience but if that’s all the time you have, then go for it. Tam Coc is not as far and much more manageable. I did a cycle tour through a village and then we sat on little boats and floated along the river.