After being lost from the tourist map for decades due to the ravages of war, Hanoi has become a mainstay on the majority of backpacker’s trips around South East Asia. For most people, it will be their first – or last – port of call in Vietnam.
While not Vietnam’s most populous city, the capital is far more interesting than Ho Chi Minh City in the south. Here you will find a fascinating mix of Chinese and French colonial history swirling together with the buzz and din of a bustling modern metropolis.
Scooters buzz around the labyrinthine roads of the Old Quarter while diners spread themselves at tiny stools on the pavement, stuffing their faces with Pho or Bun Cha and sipping incredibly cheap cups of Bia Hơi. Hawkers peddle their wares to unsuspecting tourists and rickshaws weave between the lanes of traffic.
It is a boisterous, dirty and beguiling assault on the senses. There is noise and activity wherever you look.
However, if you dig a little deeper into Hanoi you will see just how wonderful it is. On every street corner, there is the possibility for you to taste the best meal you have ever eaten, there are world-class museums and beautiful lakeside walks, a vibrant coffee culture and burgeoning art scene. Hanoi oozes history and culture at every turn. If there is one major city that you visit in Vietnam, make it Hanoi.
Where to Stay
Old Quarter and Hoan Kiem
Most visitors will want to be amongst the action in the city’s old quarter. While it is noisy, busy and often dirty, it is a small price to pay to be in the heart of the city. Hostels are plentiful, with many of them centred around P Ngo Huyen. This is the main backpacker hub of the city, with accommodation lining both sides of the narrow street and plenty of great eating options nearby.
Original Central Backpacker’s
Considered by some to be one of the best hostel’s in the country, Central Backpackers is certainly not for those wanting a quiet night – it is most certainly a party hostel. Having said that, it is a great place to meet people, has a fantastic location and an on-site bar. They also have a sister hostel, Downtown Backpackers.
£4 for a bed in an 8-bed dorm, breakfast included.
May De Ville
Located away from the main backpacker hub but just a short walk from the bars of Ta Hien. While not as sociable as Central Backpackers, May de Ville is clean and perfect for those looking to get a little more sleep. The dorm beds are incredibly cheap too.
£3 for a bed in a 6-bed mixed dorm. Twins and Doubles start at £21 per night.
See You at Lilly’s
For those looking for a little more style and comfort, you can’t go wrong with ‘See You at Lilly’s’. With its neon lit facade, its hard to miss despite being on the city’s main backpacker drag. However, forget the dozens of hostels surrounding it and make sure you head here.
Dorms start at £5 for a bunk in an 8-bed room. Doubles start at £21 per night.
Those looking to get away from the noisy and frenetic Old Quarter more than likely will head south of Hoan Kiem Lake to the French Quarter. It is a little away from some of the major attractions and you are less likely to find a cheap hostel here. However, if you fancy treating yourself by splurging a more luxurious hotel, then the French Quarter is the place to be.
Conifer Boutique Hotel
Situated on a quiet side street overlooking a beautiful French era mansion, Conifer Boutique Hotel is the perfect mid-range place to stay. Some of the front facing rooms have a balcony and on the lower floor, there is a lovely outdoor seating area.
Double rooms start at £66 per night.
Where to Eat
Like with anywhere in Vietnam, I would recommend trying the street food rather than venturing into a restaurant for food that may ultimately be much more expensive and significantly less satisfying.
There are innumerable vendors crowding the city’s streets stirring pots of steaming noodles, smoke billowing from their charcoal. Most of the stalls offer only one dish, indicated by a small sign near the cook. The food is cheap and usually delicious. My advice is to keep an eye out as you walk the streets and if you see someone eating a dish that you like the look of, pull up a tiny plastic stool and order the same. Here are a few of the dishes you have to try:
Bun Cha – A Hanoi speciality and you cannot visit the city without trying it at least once. It consists of barbecued pork on a bed of rice noodles, usually served with a side order of spring rolls. The best I had cost just 30,000 VND with a beer thrown in.
Pho – I’m not exaggerating when I say that I ate Pho every single morning for breakfast when I was in Vietnam. This fragrant beef noodle broth is forever etched on my tastebuds and I’d be willing to travel back to Vietnam to find a bowl of it that is as tasty as the ones I had in Hanoi.
Bahn Mi – While not as prevalent as i is in Ho Chi Minh City, these sandwiches – consisting of meats, pickles, pate and vegetables all crammed into a hollowed baguette – are one of the best things you will ever eat.
Egg Coffee – A drink made from coffee, condensed milk, sugar and egg yolk that is available all over the city.
However, if you are wary of street food or just looking to eat with a roof over your head, here are a few of my favourite spots:
12 Hàng Bạc
After two weeks of eating nothing but Vietnamese cuisine, I couldn’t help but crave a burger. Serendipitously, I wandered past Chops. It’s an American style burger joint offering 17 different burgers ranging from standard cheese and bacon burgers to inventive creations with names like ‘Wham Bam Thank You Lamb’, ‘The Fresh Prince’ and ‘Moby Dick’s Chopper’.
The best thing about this place is that it is one of the few spots in Hanoi that you can find a good beer. They serve ales brewed by the Pasteur Street Brewing Company, a small craft beer company that I visited in Ho Chi Minh City, and were the only place I found in the Old Quarter that serves it.
6 Ấu Triệu
A Lovely little cafe set inside a colonial building adjacent to St. Joseph Cathedral. The food and coffee are both wonderful. Make sure to get a seat on the upstairs balcony if it is a warm and balmy night so that you can eat while overlooking the cathedral and people watch.
Hanoi Social Club
6 Ngõ Hội Vũ
It’s not the cheapest place to eat in the city but it more than makes up for that with style. Spread over 3 floors, it is packed with retro furniture and serves a wide variety of international and Vietnamese food. They even host gigs.
Cafe Duy Tri
43A Yên Phụ
After an afternoon of exploring the area around Truc Bach Lake, We were in desperate need of a caffeine hit and stumbled upon Cafe Duy Tri. The owners couldn’t have seemed more surprised to see us wander in as the cafe was empty and, with the ageing decor, looked as though it had been for decades.
It has been open since 1935 and the furniture doesn’t look like it has been updated since. Old photographs and newspaper clippings line the walls and you have to climb tiny ladders to reach the upstairs balcony. Despite all this, it was one of the best coffees I drank in Hanoi.
Where to Drink
Despite most of its bars closing by midnight on weekdays, the Old Quarter can be lively on an evening. Most people choose to pull up a stool outside one of the many Bia Hoi (fresh beer) places located on street corners to sip away for as little as 5,000 VND a glass. A lot of travellers and Ex-pats gather at the corner of Ta Hien and Luong Ngoc Quyen Streets where a few of these places are located.
For something a little more lively, head over to Ta Hien Street, or beer street, where you will find the narrow thoroughfare bustling with people drinking and eating most evenings. Each side of the street is lined with bars, but they are generally identical.
Free Things to Do
Explore the Old Quarter
The Historic Heart of Hanoi, The old quarter has existed for other 1000 years as the commercial hub of the area. Here you will find a maze of built-up streets, crisscrossed with telephone wires and clogged with scooters billowing out plumes of sooty exhaust fumes. While this may sound intimidating (certainly, crossing the street here can be), the Old Quarter is probably the most exciting and fascinating part of Hanoi.
Originally developed as a trading hub, the city’s 36 guilds established themselves here, each taking their own street. Some of these specialised areas remain, such as P Hang Quat that sells prayer flags and items of worship, or P Hang Gai where you will find art, craft and fashion supplies. Even if you are not looking to purchase anything, walking around this atmospheric area of the city can still occupy a full day (The Lonely Planet Guide has a great walking tour itinerary that takes in the temples, markets and themed streets of the district) and on an evening it is the perfect place to pick up some delicious street food.
Bach Ma Temple
Located in the heart of the Old Quarter, this unassuming yellow-walled facade is home to the oldest temple in all of Hanoi. It was originally built in the 11th century by Emperor Ly Thai although the temple was moved to its current location in the Old Quarter of Hanoi in the 18th century, during the Ly Dynasty. Bach Ma Translates to ‘White Horse’, referring to the horse that used his hooves to mark the best area for the Emperor to construct the temple.
76 Hàng Buồm, Hoàn Kiếm
8 – 11 am & 2 – 5 pm Tues-Sun
Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum and Museum
The tomb of one of Vietnam’s most beloved leaders is a monumental marble structure built in the tradition of so many other communist figures such as Lenin, Stalin and Mao. It is a place of pilgrimage for many Vietnamese who flock to see the preserved remains of ‘Uncle Ho’, despite his wish for a simple cremation. Each day, hundreds of people form a queue in Ba Dinh Square to slowly file past the glass sarcophagus containing his embalmed remains. Strict rules apply for those wishing to visit; no shorts, hats or sunglasses are permitted to be worn and putting hands in pockets, talking and even smiling are not permitted inside. If you’re lucky, you can even catch the changing of the pristinely white-uniformed guards outside the mausoleum.
There are plenty of other things to see in the wider complex surrounding Ba Dinh square that can easily occupy a full morning of exploration; the pedestrianised area is full of monuments, pagodas and Botanical Gardens. The Ho Chi Minh Museum (admission 25,000 VND, open 8 – 11.30 am daily & 2 – 4 pm Tues-Thurs, Sat & Sun) is a triumphalist Soviet-style building dedicated to the countries leader between 1945 and 1969 containing mementoes of his life. Nearby is Ho Chi Minh’s Stilt House (admission 25,000 VND, open 8 – 11.30 am daily & 2 – 4 pm Tues-Thurs, Sat & Sun), the humble home where Ho Chi Minh lived intermittently during his leadership and the One Pillar Pagoda (admission 25,000 VND, open 8 – 11.30 am daily & 2 – 4 pm Tues-Thurs, Sat & Sun), constructed by Emperor Ly Thai Tong in 1049.
Dong Xuan Market
Hanoi’s largest market, Dong Xuan was originally constructed by the French in 1889 and then rebuilt in the Soviet-style after being completely destroyed by a fire in 1994.
The market is generally targetted towards locals, selling bulk items in pretty much any form; fresh produce, clothing, electronics and even pets. What may be of more interest is the dining area serving up coffee and a range of fairly exotic Vietnamese fare such as fried frog and duck blood soup. You can pick up lunch for around 15,000 – 20,000 VND
Each Friday at 7 pm, the streets of the old quarter – starting from Hang Dao Street and running north to the edge of Dong Xuan Market – are completely closed off to the usual throngs of traffic for the weekend night market. Stalls pop up along the main thoroughfares and street food vendors roll up their carts to cater for the huge crowds of locals and tourists.
There isn’t too much of interest shopping-wise; Most of the stalls sell clothing such as T-shirts, trainers and sunglasses as well as trinkets such as phone cases. However, it is worth stopping by to take in the buzzing atmosphere and sample some street food. Classic Hanoi dishes such as pho, bun cha, bahn mi and bun thang can all be snapped up for as little as 15,000 VND.
As well as the food, drink and shopping on offer, the market also plays host to cultural performances such as dancing and music. When I was in Hanoi, a stage was erected alongside Hoan Kiem lake where an orchestra performed classical music for the crowds.
Take an Early Morning Walk Around Hoan Kiem Lake
I have already written in another blog post about how a 6 am walk around Hoan Kiem Lake became one of my favourite experiences in Vietnam.
The lake itself is steeped in legend. The story goes that Emperor Ly Thai To was given a magical sword, which he used to drive the Chinese from Vietnam. Once the war was over, his sword was stolen by a giant, golden turtle who vanished into the water along with the sword to return it to its rightful owners. Ho Hoan Kiem literally means Lake of the Restored Sword and the tiny islet in the centre of the lake is known by some as ‘Turtle Island’.
In a city where peace and quiet can be hard to come by, the only respite seems to be around Hoan Kiem at 6 am. Groups of elderly people gathered on the lakeside to practice Tai Chi or aerobics.but other than that, no one else is in sight. It is blissful.
Gradually, as the day progresses, more locals are drawn towards the shimmering green waters where they while stop to chat over a sweet iced coffee or begin a game of chess. The lake appears to be the focal point of all life in the Old Quarter.
The best time to visit is over the weekend. From Friday at 7 pm until midnight on Sunday when all traffic is banished from the surrounding roads. The people of Hanoi take full advantage of this and a carnival atmosphere ensues. Families descend on the newly pedestrianised areas to play and picnic while clowns, face painters and toy sellers try to entertain them for a few Dong. It really is joyous and the goodwill is infectious.
Visit ‘Train Street’
With all of the craziness that takes place on the streets of Hanoi’s old quarter, it’s surprising that there is one street that can top them all for sheer weirdness. That is the ‘train street’.
It is a street where, twice a day, a high-speed train rushes through, just mere feet from the front doors of the residents living there.
That doesn’t seem to stop them from living out their lives though. I saw children playing, women washing their clothes, and even a man shampooing his hair, right there on the tracks. As soon as the time of the trains arrival approaches, you will witness a sudden flurry of activity as people rush to clear the path and stand out of the way in their homes. It’s a sight to behold.
With a little help from google maps, the street isn’t too difficult to find. Just search for ‘Ngo 224 Le Duan’ and let your phone lead the way. The walk from the centre of the Old Quarter will take you about 30 minutes.
Explore the French Quarter
Once home to luxurious villas, today the French Quarter doesn’t quite live up to its evocative name following its annexation by the communist party for government offices. Although not much of its Parisian splendour remains, it is still worth heading to the south side of Hoan Kiem to get away from the cacophonous din of the Old Quarter and spend a morning wandering around the quiet streets. The main point of interest here is the beautiful Hanoi Opera House.
Truc Bach and Tay Ho Lakes
Much larger in size than Hoan Kiem, Tay Ho Lake and its surrounds are one of the more upmarket areas of the city. The lake is far too large to circumnavigate by foot but it can easily be done on a bike. If you’re short on time, you can wander the smaller Truc Bach Lake, separated from Tay Ho by D Thanh Nien and surrounded by flame trees. While you’re there it is worth stopping by the stunning Tay Ho Pagoda.
Other Things to do
Ngoc Son Temple
Located in the Old Quarter on the northern shore of Hoan Kiem lake, the ‘Temple of the Jade Mountains’ is the most visited in the city. With its beautiful red bridge, it is easy to spot as you approach the lake from the bustle of the Old Quarter.
Đinh Tiên Hoàng, Hàng Trống, Hoàn Kiếm
Admission: 20,000 VND
8 am – 6 pm Mon-Sat
Hoa Lo Prison Museum
Originally constructed by the French in 1896, Hoa Lo Prison was infamously used to imprison revolutionaries and US POWs during the American War, who ironically nicknamed it the ‘Hanoi Hilton’. Now a museum, the building contains displays focussing on the American pilots, such as John McCain, that were incarcerated here.
1 Hoả Lò
Admission: 30,000 VND
Open daily 8 am – 5 pm
Vietnamese Women’s Museum
The Women’s Museum is run by the Women’s Union of Vietnam, one of the countries most powerful social, political and cultural institutions. Spread over 5 floors with over 1000 objects and photographs, the museum tells of women’s contribution to the country through the lens of life stories and experiences of Vietnamese women.
It is considered to be one of the best museums in the country and well worth a visit.
36 Lý Thường Kiệt
Admission: 30,000 VND
Open Daily 8 am – 5 pm
Temple of Literature
Built in 1070 by Emperor Ly Thanh Tong, the Temple of Literature is one of the best preserved, traditional buildings in the city. It honours Vietnamese scholars and was even the site of the country’s first university in 1076. I would recommend getting there early as when I visited, the queue for admission snaked all around the outside courtyard.
Hồ Giám, Văn Miếu
Admission: 30,000 VND
Open daily 8 am – 6 pm
Fine Arts Museum
With statues of Buddhist monks, lacquer works, and stone carvings, Hanoi’s Fine Arts Museum is home to the most diverse art collection in the country. There is a great mix of pre-historic, feudalist and post-war work on display, however, there are no audio guides available so to get a sense of how the art relates to Vietnamese history, you may have to hire a guide (150,000 VND)
66 Nguyễn Thái Học
Admission: 30,000 VND
Open daily 8.30 am – 5 pm
With hundreds of tour agencies crammed into the old quarter, find one that is reputable can be a bit of a challenge. Some have been known to be pushy, overcharge or fail to deliver. What makes it worse is that numerous ‘copycat’ agencies are appearing, taking the name of a well-respected operator and setting up shop nearby to hoodwink unsuspecting tourists.
My advice to speak to other backpackers and ask them which tours they took and see how well run they were, particularly for trips to Halong Bay. It has been known for boats to be rat-infested and for passengers to get food poisoning from eating aboard.
I followed the advice of someone I know and travelled to Halong bay with Vega Travel. While they weren’t the cheapest operator, the guide was fantastic and the boat was comfortable.
Getting to and from Hanoi
With flights from all over the world stopping at Noi Bai International airport, It has never been easier to get to Hanoi. Air travel is also a fast and cost-effective way to reach the city from other parts of Vietnam. Multiple flights depart to and from Ho Chi Minh City, Phu Quoc, Can Tho and Da Nang through Jetstar and Vietjet each day for as little as £20 if you pick your day and time correctly, making it occasionally cheaper and more comfortable than both bus and rail travel.
Noi Bai Airport is around 35km from the city centre and the journey takes around 45 minutes. The public bus 17 departs from either the arrivals hall or Long Bien bus station between the hours of 5 am and 9 pm each day (5000 VND). Jetstar and Vietjet also run their own buses to and from the airport, however, the Jetstar one has the high price of 30,000 VND.
Taxi rides should cost around $20 from the Old Quarter. If taking one from the airport, ensure that you use the official drivers with bright yellow jackets as there are often accounts of freelance drivers scamming tourists.
Despite being only 300km from Hanoi, reaching Sapa can be a time-consuming process. The most popular, and safest way to reach Sapa from Hanoi is by sleeper train. Three sleeper trains leave Hanoi’s main station each evening at 8.17 pm, 9.35 pm and 10 pm. The journey takes around 8 – 9 hours to reach Lao Cai at a cost of 295,000 VND for a hard sleeper or 400,000 VND for a soft sleeper.
From Lau Cai, you will need to take a minibus or taxi (around 50 minutes) for the final 34km to Sapa.
The return trains leave Lau Cai at 1.50 pm, 8.55 pm and 9.40 pm.
Train travel is by far the easiest way to head south from Hanoi. It is relatively cheap and can be comfortable if you are willing to pay for a soft sleeper.
Typical cost to Hue: Between 600,000 and 750,000 VND for a hard sleeper or ~ 800,000 VND for a soft sleeper.
Typical cost to Da Nang/ Hoi An: 850,000 to 900,000 for a soft sleeper.
|Danang (for Hoi An) arrive||11:26||12:05||13:00||22:31||01:28||07:49|
|Danang (for Hoi An) depart||11:41||–||13:15||22:47||01:43||08:04|
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