An outstanding blend of history and food, Hanoi has a culture like no other city. First founded in 1010, Hanoi has been through wars and invaders and come out the other side as an incredibly vibrant city. With oodles of noodles, lashings of fresh herbs, and delicate yet pungent fish sauce, the food in Hanoi is a food-lovers paradise.
Hanoi was my first experience of travel in an Asian country. As such, being in the steamy heat, the noise, the pollution, and the crowds of people was overwhelming. It was a weird mix of falling in love with a new country, bursting with excitement, and total exhaustion from being constantly assailed with the unfamiliar. But, I quickly acclimatised and enjoyed my time in Hanoi so much I didn’t want to leave. There’s heaps to do and even more to eat, and I can’t wait to go back.
The north of Vietnam is more proudly communist than the south, and the presence and pride in Ho Chi Minh is still palpable. The streets are adorned with the Vietnamese flag, and the happy communist billboards everywhere shout of the joy of the political system existence. The Vietnamese seemed to me to be gentle people, very industrious, and the women are beautiful, with fine features and sylph-like diminutive size.
1. Wander the Streets of the Old Quarter
The streets of the Old Quarter bustle with activity. The ceaseless ebb and flow of scooters, the piercing jumble of words and music from the public address system, the narrow lanes criss-crossed overhead with a web of cables. Near Hoam Kiem Lake, the Old Quarter seethes with life. The streets are arranged in groupings according to what they sell, so you stroll down shoe street, stumble across bamboo street, and then can meander through metalwork street. You’ll find North Face outdoor gear everywhere, loads of coffee shops, and opportunities to eat everything your heart desires from tiny specialist street vendors. The smell of smoky coal- roasted meat is tempting, and fresh pineapple is available from vendors walking around, with mini cut pineapples displayed attractively on baskets hanging from traditional carrying poles.
2. Hang with the Locals at a Bia Hoi
Bia Hoi’s are street-corner bars serving draught beer and pub food for cheap. Don’t be fooled by the tiny plastic chairs and tables, these bars often have fantastic food. The beer is super cheap and is served at breathtaking speed, and the best way to order food is point at what other people have. Tender hunks of crispy pork, fried tofu stuffed with fresh herbs served with tangy dipping sauce, fresh spring rolls, it’s all incredible. Have a beer-or more than one- and watch life swirl around you. Enjoy the chaos when the police come at night and the mad dash to put all the tables and chairs inside, and then the gentle reallocation outdoors again once they have moved on down the street.
3. Eat Pho Every Day
Pho is a soup of delicate slow-cooked broth, hand-made noodles, tender beef (or chicken, or tofu), with a handful of fresh herbs on top. It became my breakfast of choice, and I hardly ever finished a bowl completely, it is so filling. Every place has a different recipe but the good ones are the small family-owned hole-in-the-wall places. A good pho (pronounced ‘fuh’) is EPIC and should be the top of your list of the top ten things to do in Hanoi!
4. Learn at the Temple of Literature
First built in 1070 by Emperor Ly Thanh Tong, the Temple of Literature has great examples of classic Vietnamese architecture. Dedicated to Confucius, this was the first university in Vietnam. Names of graduates are written on stelae on top of turtle statues (turtles are one of Vietnam’s holy creatures). It’s a large complex spread over five courtyards, with altars, ponds, meticulously maintained gardens, and heavy-branched gnarled ancient frangipani trees propped up with poles. This is worth a visit, even just to escape the frantic city and enjoy a wander through the gardens.
5. Drink the Coffee Served with Condensed Milk
I love coffee and used to drink flat whites, and have progressed to long blacks. However, regardless of your coffee choice, you must have coffee the way the Vietnamese have it. Iced or hot, it is simply incredible. The coffee beans are roasted long and slow, and as a result are rich, bitter, and chocolately. It’s served in glasses containing condensed milk with a slow-dripper on top. The patience required to watch the coffee drip through while smelling the incredible aroma is intense. Finally, once it’s finished seeping through, you can remove the dripper and stir the condensed milk. Heaven. One in the morning, hot, and then one iced for afternoon tea…. Plus the rest!
6. Go Visit Ho Chi Minh (What Remains of Him)
The Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum is set in Ba Dinh Square, where the Vietnamese declaration of independence was read in 1945. Amidst this large flat concrete plain, the sharp square angles of Ho Chi Minh’s final resting place stands imposingly. You will likely have to queue to visit, alongside hordes of locals who have come to pay their respects to Uncle Ho. You will wait, and wait, and wait under long stretches of plastic that keeps the sun off. Then, you will arrive and be watched by guards as you quietly, respectfully, file in and walk slowly past his pale, plastic-like body. Then, you’ll step into the heat and brightness of the day, blinking. If you’re lucky, you’ll get to observe the somber changing of the guard.
The body goes to Russia every year for maintenance from 4 September to 4 November. Wear modest clothing, and photography/ talking is not allowed inside.
7. Visit a Museum
There are four museums in Hanoi worth your time. The Vietnamese Women’s Museum, Hoa Lo Prison Museum, Museum of Ethnology, and the National Museum of Vietnamese History. I visited the Vietnamese Women’s Museum and was impressed with the quality of exhibits, the excellent signs in English, and the breadth of the information. Vietnamese women are pretty special; treasured as mothers and incredibly tough, yet still second and dominated by the patriarchal society. Although Vietnam was originally matriarchal, when the Chinese took over, their patriarchal values were imposed on the Vietnamese. It’s created a complex society and I watched women carry 50kg bags of fertiliser on their heads as men watched; as well as working in rice paddies, preparing and cooking meals, and feeding the animals, the women do everything.
In the museum, of particular note was the place that women held in the war, especially learning about the women spies. Intriguing!
8. Take Your Daily Constitutional at Hoan Kiem Lake
Within walking distance of the Old Quarter, Hoan Kiem Lake is a popular place for a walk and some ‘fresh’ air. In the mid 15th century, heaven sent the Emperor a magical sword, which he then utilised to oust the Chinese. Then, a giant golden turtle took off with the sword and took it to the bottom of the lake, restoring it to its original owner. As such, Ho Hoan Kiem means ‘Lake of the Restored Sword’.
At 6am on any given morning, you’ll find locals enjoying the peace and practicing their t’ai chi. Thap Rua, or ‘Turtle Tower’ is a building that takes up the entire tiny island in the middle of the lake. There is also Ngoc Son temple along the side of the lake. Walk over the scarlet bridge, and admire the traditional temple architecture.
…And while you’re there, keep an eye out for the giant turtle, who supposedly still inhabits the lake.
9. Delve in History at Heritage House
While you’re wandering the Old Quarter, you might stumble across this beautifully- restored property. After shopping for luxury crafts downstairs, you can then explore the home behind and above and see how a merchant may have lived all those years ago. Laid out with high steps to dissuade bad evil spirits, a shrine to the father in the front room, and a lovely courtyard in the middle, this is a fascinating insight into how people would have lived.
10. Marvel at the Stupidity of War at the B-52 Bomber and Huu Tiep Lake
This is a bit random and off the beaten track, a 20 minute walk west of Ho Chi Minh’s Mausoleum. On December 27, 1972, a B-52 was blown out of the sky and happened to land in this lake. All these years later, it’s still here. While it’s just a green pond with the twisted wreckage of a plane, it serves as a reminder of the folly of war. Over 11 days in December 1972 during ‘The American War’, 700 American bombers dropped 20,000 tonnes of bombs over Hanoi and Haiphong. This killed over 1600 innocent civilians. The Vietnamese fired back, successful in bringing 15 bombers rapidly to earth.
A few tips for Hanoi:
- The traffic won’t stop for you. You will find small breaks in the seemingly ceaseless atream of scooters, simply walk out confidently and keep a regular, unhurried pace. The drivers will avoid you. It’s quite a beautiful thing.
- Much of Hanoi is walkable. It has Grab or Uber, and you’ll also find Vietnamese men standing around with their bikes wanting to take you wherever you need to go. Being on the back of a bike is fun and a great way to see the city and feel like a local. You can fit two normal sized adults behind the driver! Just know that your tour driver will want to charge you more than is reasonable, so go prepared to barter down so you don’t get ripped off.
- I felt safe in Hanoi, but take the normal precautions. The Vietnamese love families and children- if you take your kids here, they will be well looked after.
- Cash machines/ ATMs are common. Kiwis and Aussies, there are even two ANZ ATM’s!