Vietnam's up-and-coming capital city Hanoi might seem small, but really - there's A LOT packed in there! 🙌🏽 From walking through the colourful streets of Old Quarter, to devouring a warm, flavorful bowl of 'Pho' at a local hawker’s, this bustling city boasts a sensory overload with its vibrant street culture, excellent food-scenes, and an energy like never felt before! 🥰 What might seem overwhelming at first, Hanoi just grows on you. And then again if ever you feel the need to get away from the hustle and bustle, Hanoi is also the perfect launching pad for trips to Halong Bay, Ninh Binh, Sapa and many other exotic regions around North Vietnam.
So here's a list of the 7 Best Things to do when in Hanoi.
DISCLAIMER: I went on a solo trip to Vietnam for a week during which I hardly used my camera. So the pictures in this article are not really the best, and don't really depict Vietnam the way it should. But the written article surely comes from the bottom of my heart. 😊
1. Explore the Old Quarter
Old Quarter is the heart and soul of Hanoi. Simply walk and get lost in its charming alleys, nooks and crannies. 💚 The energy here is crazy - people and motorcycles whizzing past you, eateries and bars spilling onto the streets! It is fascinating to see how every inch of space has been made functional. There's so much you can do from exploring the French cathedral and shopping at galleries, to devouring some authentic Vietnamese street food. 😊 The prices are also incredibly cheap by western standards.
TIP: We recommend you choose your accommodation within the Old Quarter because of its proximity to many of the city sights. There is some or the other backpacker hostel or luxury hotel around the corner of every street at very affordable rates.
2. Eat, eat, eat......and drink some Bia Hoi !
Vietnam's greatest pleasure is its food - so fresh and flavorful! 🤤 What makes it interesting is the French-colonial influence on their food, such as the baguettes (Banh Mi) and crepes (Ban Xeo). Just head to Hanoi's Old Quarter and you have a plethora of options to choose from. I was travelling during the cold winters, so Pho was like my go-to comfort food. I calls it a bowl of warm hug 🍜❤️ !
If you are new to Vietnamese food, then here is a list of must-try dishes that you can begin with. You can click on each food type for images.
1. Pho (Top favorite)
2. Banh Mi
3. Goi Cuon (Top favorite)
4. Banh Xeo
5. Bun Cha
6. Com Tam
Well, after all that food I assume you may want to wash it down with some good ol' beer 😉. A trip to Hanoi is incomplete without trying the 'Bia Hoi', which literally translates to 'fresh beer'! Starting merely at 3,000 VND (0.13 US$) per glass, this light and refreshing draught beer is super popular in north Vietnam, and we highly recommend you enjoy it the local-style. Head to Ta Hien (Beer Street) after sunset, sip on a cold mug of Bia Hoi on one those little plastic stools by the pavement, and watch the streets come to life by night. Cheers, folks! 🍻
With my travel mate Caroline, feasting on some Pho and stuffed bun during a stopover to Sapa! ❤️
Traditional Bun Cha
3. Embark on a cultural tour around the Hoan Kiem Lake
The still water and greens around the Hoan Kiem Lake is a peaceful respite from the hustle of the city. 💚There are many historical and cultural landmarks at the lake such as the picturesque Huc Bridge and Turtle Tower. If you want to immerse a little more into history and ancient architecture, then head to the Ngoc Son Temple and the Temple of Literature.
4. Dig into the history of Vietnam at Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum
Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum, situated in the center of the sprawling grounds of Ba Dinh Square, is the most visited attraction in Hanoi. Ho Chi Minh was the most popular and iconic leader of Vietnam's political history. Since his death, his body has been preserved in a glass case within the mausoleum for people to visit and pay their respects. For a history buff like me, this was an extremely interesting and surreal experience. 🙏🏽
And now...it's time to get out of Hanoi !
5. Cruise through thousands of islets in Halong Bay
It is no surprise that people travel to Vietnam solely to see Halong Bay. Labelled as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the experience of sailing on emerald green waters surrounded by limestone karst formations is so breath-taking! 💚 One of the best things to do in Halong Bay is discovering the place yourself on a kayak that you can rent at the site. The tour also takes you to the 'Thien Cung' cave which translates to 'Heavenly Palace', and rightly so, with its extraordinary stalactite & stalagmite formations. The pictures below explain it all!
6. Discover the enchanting landscapes of Ninh Binh
Ninh Binh, for me, was the best part of North Vietnam, so much that I would even rank it above Halong Bay. 🥰😮 The magical sights of this quaint village are very humbling and surreal. We recommend dedicating at least one full day to experience its glory.
Getting there: I took a shared tourist-van from Hanoi to Ninh Binh, and the journey took about an hour-and-a-half.
Places to see: There are several places to see such as Hoa Lu (cultural center filled with ancient pagodas and citadels against the captivating mountainous backdrop), Tam Coc River and Trang An.
Tam Coc River: This is probably the most peaceful, picturesque setting I have ever experienced. 🙏🏽 We were rowing a boat alongside these beautiful limestone mountains rising out of the still green waters. It was drizzling. The only sounds were the trickling of raindrops, and the oars moving to a soothing rhythm. 💚
After we returned to the pier, we rented bicycles and cycled aimlessly for over an hour through the surrounding rice fields. 🍃 We lost our way in between and stumbled upon some quaint homes of the local people.
7. Bask in the lush rice terrace fields of SaPa Valley
SaPa is a beautiful hill station to the north of Hanoi, and is home to diverse hill tribe minorities, lush-green rice terraces, and some incredible landscapes. 💚 One of the things to look forward to is trekking through the hill terrains with a member of the local tribe. This is such a fascinating way of getting close with nature and understanding the culture, lifestyle and challenges these tribal communities face up in the hills.
How to get there : I got to SaPa from Hanoi in a shared-tourist van. By road it takes about 5 hours. There is also an overnight train from Hanoi to Lao Cai station which takes around 9 hours, and from Lao Cai you take a shuttle bus to SaPa which takes about another hour . You can book your bus or train tickets from any of the tourist centers in Old Quarter, Hanoi. Some even choose to motorcycle the entire journey, in which case we caution you to ride safe (with helmets on!) as the roads are winding with lots of hairpin bends...and reckless drivers!
Accommodations: There are many standards of accommodations in SaPa from backpacker hostels to luxury hotels. I stayed at the SaPa Panorama Hotel in the center of the town. The rooms were spacious and very clean. If you want to get a little adventurous then you can also stay in one of the rustic homestays up in the villages with a local family! 🙂
Bonus Tip: We highly recommend you visit Sapa in the months of September and October to witness the rice terrace fields in its greenest avatar. I was there in December, and albeit beautiful, it was really cold so I mostly walked through thick mist that blocked our views.
With Pang and her dearest mum at Sapa ❤️ Some beautiful memories made that day...