Hanoi, the capital of Vietnam, is one of my favourite cities in the world. The air is humid, hanging heavy and carrying with it scents of fragrant spices, sweet fruit, and the unmistakable hint of an incoming rain storm.
People are EVERYWHERE – vendors pushing bicycles laden with helium balloons, fake flowers and rice cookers, hip young locals in leather jackets (despite the heat) on their way out for a night on the town, and travellers (like myself) who are trying to play it cool but are so overwhelmed by the energy and unfamiliarity of the place. Locals move around you like schools of fish.
The honk of motorbikes is endless; the beep of one horn blends in to another. While many complain that the noise is too much, it gives me a feeling of comfort. It highlights the sensation that you’re somewhere totally new, and breathtakingly exciting.
Still, navigating the city can be daunting. Where on earth do you start? Take a deep breath – here’s our guide to getting the most out of your day in Hanoi:
Start your day the way the locals do, over a huge bowl of steaming pho. The Old Quarter of the city is the perfect spot for your pho fix – just look for the tiny plastic stools on the footpath crowded with people slurping up their breakfast before heading into work.
After pho comes coffee, and Hanoi is famous for it. Set yourself up for the day with a hot ca phe – super strong drip-filter coffee, sweetened with lashings of condensed milk – or a ca phe sua da (sweet and delicious iced coffee) if the weather is particularly steamy. Check out ‘Coffee Street’ (aka Trieu Viet Vuong) for all your caffeinated beverage needs.
If you need some time for peace and reflection before the day gets underway, visit Hoan Kiem Lake, a quiet garden-lake-temple in the centre of Hanoi. Or head to Ba Dinh Square, next to the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum, for the daily flag-raising ceremony.
Explore the 1000-year-old university at the Temple of Literature; it’s a popular place among students praying for good grades. The day I visited, hundreds of school kids dressed in graduation robes posed for photos in front of the well-preserved buildings and picturesque gardens.
Next stop? The Hanoi Hilton, also known as the Hoa Lo Prison museum. The prison was built by the French in the 1880s and was used to house political prisoners; later, American POWs were kept here during the Vietnam War. The prison was demolished in the 1990s, however the old gatehouse has been converted into a museum.
Fresh noodle salads, barbecued fish, fragrant broths, crusty banh mi… Delicious food is EVERYWHERE in Hanoi, which is a huge part of why I love it so much. So, of course, I take every opportunity to eat. In the old quarter, local lunch options abound; cha ca – Vietnam’s famous fish dish served with rice noodles, turmeric and dill – is a wonderful (and relatively light) option. Hit up Cha Ca Street for multiple restaurants serving up the fishy dish. If you prefer your rice noodles with a side of succulent grilled pork, tuck into some bun cha on Hang Manh Street.
You could head back to your hotel for a post-lunch nap, but you’ve still got a lot more of Hanoi to see. History buffs may like to spend the afternoon at the museum. The Vietnam Museum of Ethnology, the National Museum of Vietnamese History and the Bach Ma temple are all well worth a visit, however you’ll need longer than a few hours to explore them all.
If you’d rather spend some time outdoors, take a cycling tour out of the city and into the countryside. Feel the wind in your (helmet-covered) hair as you ride along the banks of the Red River, through tranquil farms on Red River Island and around the West Lake.
Bia hoi is hugely popular in Vietnam and a uniquely Hanoian experience. In 1961, the Hanoi Brewery started making ‘fresh beer’, a low-alcohol, unpasteurised brew without any added preservatives. It’s cheap and refreshing, but is best enjoyed earlier in the day before it goes off. Pull up a stool at one of the Old Quarter’s open-air beer gardens for a glass or two before dinner.
Hanoi really comes to life in the evening, as street food vendors fire up their grills and sizzle, steam and saute meat, vegetables and noodles. Don’t be put off by the concept of street food – this is truly the best way to eat in Vietnam. Just look for the carts and stalls with the longest lines and prepare yourself for some amazing local fare. If you’re in town on the weekend, hit up the night market on Hang Dao street (in the Old Quarter), open Friday to Sunday.
While I’m normally not an advocate of drinking coffee before bed, slurping an icy egg coffee on a quiet rooftop overlooking Hoan Kiem Lake is a perfect way to end your day. Egg yolk and condensed milk are whipped into black coffee, resulting in a very sweet drink with an almost custard-like consistency.
Explore Hanoi before (or after) your next Intrepid Vietnam adventure.