Vietnam’s bustling, atmospheric capital Hanoi is crammed with interesting pursuits for the curious backpacker, from dodging motorbikes in the Old Quarter to sampling unique street food cuisine and even visiting the embalmed body of one of the world’s most famous Communist leaders – there’s a lot to write in your travel diary! And, just a train or bus ride outside of the city, you’ll find UNESCO world heritage landscapes, misty mountains and magical watery worlds… S.E.A Backpacker teamed up with arguably the BEST hostel chain in Vietnam, Vietnam Backpackers’ Hostels to give you the lowdown on the Top 10 things to do for backpackers in & around Hanoi.
1. Castaways Island and Halong Bay
Every backpacker knows that a trip to Northern Vietnam just isn’t complete without climbing aboard the Jolly Roger for a once-in-a-lifetime swashbuckling adventure to Castaways Island through Halong Bay! Pass limestone karsts jutting out of emerald waters, forgotten caves once used as hideouts during the Vietnam War and tiny fishing villages clinging to the rocks… Eventually a private and deserted golden beach awaits… Feast on fantastic fresh food and party the night away before waking up in a thatched hut in what can only be described as paradise. Enjoy swimming, sunbathing, kayaking, wake-boarding, even rock climbing… and at night a spot of skinny-dipping amongst the phosphorous plankton in the water!
The breathtaking Castaways Island
The motley crew aboard the Jolly Rodger!
2. The Misty Mountains of Sapa
The beautiful rice-terraced scenery of Northern Vietnam is just a comfortable overnight train ride from Hanoi. As well as Vietnam’s highest peak, Mount Fansipan, Sapa is home to a variety of ethnic minorities with their unique customs and colourful traditional dress. Trek amongst a misty landscape and learn about a traditional people whose lives have remained unchanged for centuries as you enjoy a wonderful and welcoming homestay with an ethnic minority family. One not-to-be-missed experience is the market of Bac Ha where locals exchange homemade goods – or if you happen to be visiting on a Saturday, check out Sapa’s famous Love Market where ethnic villages from around the area (Red Tzao and Hmong) meet to find their love match!
Meet the friendly hill-tribe’s of Sapa
3. Cooking Course
After indulging in all that delicious food on your travels – why not learn to cook a few classics to impress the folks back home? Pho Bo (beef noodle soup) may be Vietnam’s most popular dish, but it isn’t the only recipe! Vietnamese cuisine is varied, fresh and healthy, renowned and celebrated for its use of fresh herbs to create unusual, exciting tastes. Fresh spring rolls, spicy hot pots, steamed seafood dishes and a variety of noodle dishes such as the famous Cau Lau or Pho Ga. Cooking classes at ‘Hidden Hanoi’ are offered from 11am – 2pm every day. In small groups, you’ll learn just as much about about Vietnamese culture as you will about food. And the best bit is that you get to eat everything you make! Find out more about Vietnam Cooking classes here.
Learn how to make fresh Vietnamese spring rolls
4. Hoan Kiem Lake
The calming centre of Hanoi, is the charming Hoan Kiem Lake – so don’t rush your time here taking in one of Hanoi’s most serene sights. Read the newspaper and chill out at one of the lakeside cafes with a cup of thick, chocolaty Vietnamese ‘dripping coffee’ – guaranteed you’ll be addicted after just one cup! Or, join the early risers at 6am and stroll down to the lake to witness a variety of exercises taking place from Tai Chi to badminton and aerobics to some very bizarre stretching indeed! A focal point of city life, the lake is also seeped in legend and is known as ‘the lake of the returned sword’ after Emperor ‘Le Loi’ was given a golden sword by the Golden Turtle God on the lake shore only to have it snatched back while he was out boating – the turtle is said to still inhabit the murky depths and many have claimed sightings!
The calm in the eye of the storm – Hoan Kiem Lake
5. Tam Coc & Hoa Lu, Ninh Binh Province
Known as ‘Halong Bay on the Land’, Tam Coc, located in Ninh Binh province is a wondrous sight to behold! It is located around a three-hour bus ride away from Hanoi and trips can be arranged from Hanoi Backpackers Hostel. Take a traditional trip on a Vietnamese boat along the river through caves, passed karsts and magical landscapes and make sure you remember you camera for some breathtaking scenery! You can also explore hidden temples and pat friendly mountain goats in the historic former capital of Vietnam, Hoa Lu.
The beautiful karst scenery of Ninh Binh
6. Motorbike Mai Chau
Head off on an exciting motorbike tour to the rural heartland of Vietnam and explore the local culture of beautiful Mai Chau. Experience the countryside in the best way possible, with the wind in your hair and the sun on our face as you whizz through majestic landscapes. Get to know the Hmong communities of the area and learn traditional methods of fishing in the calm waters of Song Da Lake before finishing the day with a visit to the breathtaking Son Da Waterfall. After exploring the countryside, take part in some traditional local dancing (energized by a dash of local moonshine – roun can!) and indulge in some delicacies such as the tongue tantalizing betel nut!
The calm in the eye of the storm – Hoan Kiem Lake
7. Get lost in the Old Quarter
The streets of Hanoi’s atmospheric Old Quarter are a living Museum steeped in over 1,000 years of history. With ancient architecture, narrow streets and trade taking place on every corner, the area is a fascinating mish-mash of colours, sounds and smells. Each street is named after the trade that was first established there in the 13th Century… you’ll find Silk Street, Woodworking Street, Silver Street and more interesting discoveries! Wander through bustling markets, grab refreshment at noodle stalls and tea stands, barter for goods at a souvenir stall, smile at the locals as they go about their day as outdoor hairdressers, flower sellers, basket-weavers and cyclo-drivers. Oh and watch out for the millions of motorbikes whizzing by every 2-minutes! The main traveller hub is also located in the Old Quarter where you’ll find Hanoi Backpackers’ Hostel right in the centre at 9 Ma May Street, so be sure to pop by for a beer and a welcome respite from the craziness of the streets!
An intoxicating maze of markets and mayhem
8. Bia Hoi Corners & rooftop parties!
When it comes to nightlife, the word for Hanoi is – quirky! Start off your evening at one of Hanoi’s legendary ‘Bia Hoi’ corners where locals and backpackers congregate to drink cheap local draft beer on mini plastic chairs street-side and put the world to rights. It’s a great spot to make friends, soak up the local culture and watch the world go by. After that, there are any number of lively, (slightly grungy) bars to party the night away. Head to the roof of Hanoi Backpackers Hostel on Ngo Nuyen Street for a rooftop party like no other!
Partying at Hanoi Backpackers’ Hostel!
9. Perfume Pagoda
An ancient pilgrim trail through the romantically named ‘Perfume Mountain’ 65 km outside of Hanoi will lead you to one of the most sacred spots in the whole of Vietnam. Known as ‘Chia Huong’ in Vietnamese, the Perfume Pagoda is a complex of Buddhist temples built into the limestone mountains amindst stunning scenery. Each year, the festival of ‘Chua Hong’ takes place during the first Lunar month (February) which sees thousands of pilgrims tread the footpath up the mountain to the temple to chant prayers and ask for blessings. You can take day-trips from Hanoi, taking around two-hours to get to the site.
On the pilgrimage to the Perfume Pagoda
10. Try Pho Bo & Other Street Food
Hanoi is famous for it’s variety of delicious street food, best eaten on a plastic chair in the middle of a hectic city street. Point and smile is the best way here as you’ll end up tasting any number of delicious local dishes – just don’t ask the ingredients! Pho Bo, beef noodle soup is the famous must-try dish, plus, the Vietnamese are famous for their Chinese-style dumplings or ‘Banh’ with a variety of delicious fillings, sweet or savoury – from pork to shrimp, mung bean or sesame. Or if you’re feeling in need of some Western comforts or even some Vietnamese-Western fusion dishes head to Hanoi Backpackers Hostel on Ma May.
A delicious bowl of Pho Bo, Hanoi’s signature dish!
Have you heard about the Buffalo Run!?
On this Amazing 7-day trip, you will travel from Vietnam’s atmospheric capital of Hanoi to UNESO World Heritage city of Hoi An, stopping at amazing places along the way. You’ll visit incredible national parks, such as Cuc Phuong and Phong Na, visit the world’s biggest cave, discover exquisite hidden beaches, learn about the history of the Ho Chi Minh Trail, swim in waterfalls, visit historic tunnels from the Vietnam-American War and much more. Meet like-minded people and have a once-in-a-lifetime time exploring Vietnam – there is no other trip like this in the whole of South East Asia!