Updated May 10th, 2018.
Vietnam’s capital, Hanoi, is like a living museum; a fascinating glimpse into an Asian city of old, yet oozing with the energy and pace of a modern metropolis.
Motorbikes, pedestrians, street hawkers, pedalled rickshaws, bicycles and cars whizz around the narrow streets as tourists timidly try to navigate around them. Trying to cross the road is a challenge in itself and requires a bit of nerve the first few times you do it!
Everywhere you look there is activity and noise. All life seems to take place outdoors on the busy streets; working, eating, cooking, playing, creating, feeding babies, laughing, or just sitting and chatting. You could spend days just people watching. Crazy, beautiful and hectic, at times frustrating – a day in Hanoi is never dull!
Things to Do in Hanoi…
Wander around the Old Quarter
Steeped in almost one thousand years of history, Hanoi’s Old Quarter is wonderfully medieval and atmospheric. A fascinating mish-mash of architectural styles, colours, conditions, genres; there is a photograph to be taken on every street corner.
Every street is named after the trade that was first established there as early as the 13th Century; there is Silk Street, Woodworking street and Silver Street. Hanoi’s Old Quarter is great for shopping, wandering and people watching.
Visit the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum and Museum:
See the tomb of Vietnam’s most beloved revolutionary turned leader, Ho Chi Minh (the man whom Ho Chi Minh City is named after), President from 1945-1969. In the same style as fellow Communist leader, Lenin, Ho Chi Minh’s body is embalmed and preserved in a glass case, in a stone tomb protected by guards.
A visit to the mausoleum and accompanying museum is a fascinating insight into Vietnamese history and a great way to gain an understanding of today’s culture, as you see hundreds of proud Vietnamese paying their respects at the Mausoleum. The site is located in the middle of Ba Dinh Square, the location where Ho Chi Minh read the ‘Declaration of Independence’ in 1945 after forming the Democratic Republic of Vietnam.
For visitors, strict rules apply upon entrance; no walking on the grass outside, no wearing sunglasses, no talking, laughing and NO SMILING.
Hoan Kiem Lake and 6 am aerobics:
Hoan Kiem Lake is one of the most famous landmarks of Hanoi, and an important focal point of public life. If you can drag yourself out of bed at the unearthly hour of 6 am, you’ll witness the wacky morning exercises taking place around the lake. Group massage sessions, ambitious stretching, Tai Chi, volleyball, bizarre aerobics, dancing – it ALL happens lakeside!
During the day, locals and tourists stroll around the lake, the pedestrianised walkway surrounding the green waters offering a (slightly) calmer area of the city. Perch yourself at a lakeside cafe and while away a pleasant afternoon, reading the newspaper and sipping a cup of deliciously sweet Vietnamese coffee.
The lake itself is steeped in history and legend. It is also known as ‘Lake of the Returned Sword’ after Emperor ‘Le Loi,’ was given a golden sword by Kim Qui, the Golden Turtle God, at the lake shore, only to have it snatched back from him whilst out boating on the lake one day. The turtle is said to still inhabit the murky depths of which sightings have been reported throughout time.
Hoa Lo Prison:
Built by the French a the beginning of the 20th Century, the prison was first used by the Colonial Regime to detain Vietnamese Freedom Fighters. Later, when it became known as the ‘Hanoi Hilton’ it was used by the Vietnamese to hold American Prisoners of War who had been shot down in planes over the skies of Northern Vietnam. John McCain, former Vietnamese War Veteran and recent campaigner for President of the U.S was famously incarcerated here.
There are some strange (rather staged looking) photos of prisoners playing basketball, putting up Christmas trees and playing chess – prison was a ball!
Sit at Bia Hoi Junctions:
Ideally located on bustling street corners of Hanoi and other cities, Bia Hoi junctions are a fantastic place to grab yourself a glass of Vietnam’s beloved local brew whilst taking part in a popular Vietnamese cultural tradition. It’s a great way to socialise with both locals and fellow traveller’s; sat by the roadside with a litre to share, watching the fascinating street life go by, guaranteed you’ll have tonnes of new friends by the end of the night.
A light lager (usually around 3%) you’ll see shirted workers sat on little plastic stools drinking the stuff on their lunch break. At 10,000 VND a litre (about $0.50) it’s an absolute must for the backpacker! Tram Phan Tram! (Bottoms up!)
Try some local Vietnamese Street Food
Hanoi offers some of the best street food in the whole of Vietnam. The buzzing city is a street food paradise with the interwoven alleys of the maze-like Old Quarter offering up a wonderful range of steaming local dishes.
Venture beyond the touristic Old Quarter (spring roll land) and you’ll come across some unusual dishes from barbecue dog (thit cho) to snail soup (canh ốc)! Read our article here for the not-to-be-missed meals.
The Vietnamese Museum of Ethnology:
About half an hour motorbike ride from the Old Quarter, the Museum of Ethnology is an interesting glimpse into the cultures of the ethnic minorities of Vietnam. Discover more about the culture, art and rituals of the tribes of mountainous areas of Vietnam. Very insightful prior to a trip north to the hilly town of Sapa or north-east to Lao Cai, Bac Ha and Ha Giang.
Urbex treats for urban explorers:
We discovered two great abandoned places in Hanoi. There’s an abandoned water park in Tuoi Tre park (article coming soon). It’s very easy to get in, but there’s a grumpy security guard who’ll come out of his slumber to shoo you off sooner than you hope.
The other is Lideco Bắc 32, an extensive ghost town that was never quite finished on the outskirts of the city. It’s well worth the taxi ride!
Hire a motorbike:
At your peril! Much better to watch the seething traffic from a rooftop bar with a beer in hand we say!
Day Trips from Hanoi:
There are many worthwhile day trips that can be taken from the city, booked at hotels and travel agents in the city.
Tam Coc: One of the best is a trip to Tam Coc, dubbed the ‘Halong Bay on land,’ a breathtaking landscape of limestone karsts and a beautiful river winding through. (Beware the hard-selling boat ladies!)
The famous Perfume Pagoda also makes for a good day out. About an hour’s drive from Hanoi, The Perfume Pagoda is a sacred collection of Buddhist Temples built into the rocks of the beautiful Huong Son Mountain. Legend has it that the site dates back to over 2000 years when a Buddhist Monk began meditating in the area.
For more things to do in Hanoi read our article – ‘Top 10 Things to Do in Hanoi.’
Where is the best place to stay in Hanoi?
The main traveller hub is located in the Old Quarter which stretches all around Hoan Kiem Lake, encompassing plenty of restaurants, cafes, bars, internet cafes and travel agents. Pretty much everything a backpacker could need (and many things you don’t – steamed dog meat anyone?) can be found around the Old Quarter – which serves as a good base for exploring the rest of the city.
For a lively place to stay, right in the heart of the Old Quarter, check out Hanoi Backpackers Hostel Downtown on our Best Hostels List! The popular hostel chain also has a hostel ‘The Original’ near the picturesque St Joseph’s Cathedral near Hoan Kiem Lake. Or search for other hotels and guesthouses in Hanoi here…
How to get to Hanoi?
Bus: From Vientiane or Luang Prabang in Laos, the bus trip is a notorious 24-hour journey and is a very popular backpacker route. Stories of rice bags piled up the aisle, tiresome border crossings and hotel scams have all been reported. Take lots of snacks and prepare yourself for an epic ride – do it for the experience! (Or take a one hour flight!)
Fly: Low-cost airlines fly into Hanoi’s main airport. It’s a one-hour taxi journey into the city.
Where to go next from Hanoi?
As a capital city, Hanoi is perfectly positioned as a base for adventures into the amazing surrounding areas. Not too far away from the busy, hectic city, you’ll find rugged mountain scenery, lush rice paddies, golden sandy beaches and astonishing geological wonders; Northern Vietnam is a great area for backpackers to explore and one that’s hard to beat on diversity.
You could be trekking amongst hill tribe villages one week, wake-boarding by the beach the next. Hiking, kayaking, water-sports, rock-climbing, even scaling the heights of Vietnam’s highest peak, Fansipan.
Head North to Sapa to visit the hill tribe villages:
Just an overnight train journey (350km North of Hanoi) towards the Chinese border, lies the misty, mountainous market town of Sapa. Best used as the starting point for treks and adventures into the surrounding hills and valleys. Hill tribes live here in the mountains as they have done for hundreds of years. You can also use Sapa as a base to climb Mount Fansipan. Read more about Sapa here.
Check out the Mai Chau Valley Homestay here – 3 days / 2 night trip from Hanoi.
Head South: Vietnam is an awesome country to backpack due to its shape – you can head down the coast by train or bus (or even via motorbike or bicycle!) exploring all the country has to offer and watching as the scenery changes with every stop. Next stop Hoi An?
The Buffalo Run! Vietnam Backpackers’ very popular trip, the Buffalo Run is a great value for money way to explore the coast of Vietnam. Along the way, you’ll experience incredible national parks, such as Cuc Phuong and Phong Na, the location of 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.
Halong Bay: Just a two-hour bus ride from Hanoi lies the awe-inspiring natural wonder of Halong Bay. Known in Vietnamese as ‘Bay of the Descending Dragons’ this UNESCO world heritage site is made up of almost 3000 limestone islands that jut out of emerald waters creating a stunning, magical landscape…
You can book an awesome 3-day, 2-night trip with Vietnam Backpackers Hostels where you’ll experience the natural wonders of the bay whilst kayaking, caving, wakeboarding and spending the night on a private paradise island! This trip is one of the unmissable adventures in South East Asia! Check out more information about the Castaways Island and Halong Bay Trip here.
Cat Ba Island: Jurassic island of jungle-covered karsts and rocky beaches, located in Cat Ba National Park, Halong Bay. Rock climbing and exploring on a motorbike are essential activities. It’s a two-hour journey to Halong City, then catch a one-hour speedboat to the island. Accommodation is located around Cat Ba Pier – an old English style beach resort.
Don’t Forget: Make sure you have good backpacker travel insurance before you head to Vietnam.
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