Some places are so easy to like. But I’m not going to lie, Hanoi is not one of them. After a very early wake-up call to catch our flight from Danang, we arrived in Hanoi to catch the first morning light. We were tired, cranky (well I was!) and quite sad after leaving Hoi An behind us. I had been told great things about Hanoi; but my first glimpse of it, as we were driven to our hotel, was less than convincing. It looked just like any other big city, once again with plenty of motorbikes, and seemingly even more pollution than Ho Chi Minh City.
After checking in early, we decided to explore the city’s main sights. Lonely Planet in hand, we made our way to the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum. After struggling to find the entrance of this big complex (the local guards were pretty unhelpful and rather rude), we finally found the queue to the Mausoleum. It was long, and the thought of waiting that long to see an embalmed body was more than we could stomach.
We hurried away and headed to the nearby Tran Quoc Pagoda instead. But with our recent visit to Myanmar still fresh in our minds, we found Vietnamese temples a little disappointing. Thankfully, our last stop for the morning was the old Hoa Lo Prison Museum, which was actually quite interesting. I would definitely recommend a visit there.
But by this stage, I began to feel that we’d made a big mistake budgeting five nights in Hanoi. We were both rather unimpressed by the city, so we decided it was time to ditch the guidebook. Instead of seeing more sights, we headed back towards our hotel in the Old Quarter. While walking through the Old Quarter, suddenly everything changed and we began to truly appreciate what Hanoi is all about.
Hanoi is not about sightseeing and to truly understand and enjoy it, you need to see it as the adventure that it is! You don’t need a guidebook; you need your eyes and ears open to revel in the craziness and your nose to sample the amazing street food aromas that waft from every corner.
Here are the 8 reasons why in the end we absolutely loved Hanoi:
1- People “live” in the streets
Hanoi’s street life is one of the most fascinating things to experience there. Pretty much everything is lived outdoors. Women cook and wash their dishes in the streets. Others sit on small plastic stools on the sidewalk to eat and drink coffee or beer with friends and colleagues.
Kids play football and badminton amongst the traffic. You’ll often see sidewalk barbers and hairdressers styling hair. Men forge metalwork on the pavement, totally oblivious to the hot metal sparks flying out into the street.
People have afternoon naps on the back of their parked motorbikes. How they manage to sleep through all that honking and other mayhem is beyond me. I certainly could learn a thing or two about relaxation from them!
As overwhelming as it can be at first, it’s absolutely incredible to watch. We’ve visited many Asian capitals before, but we’ve never experienced this level of street life in any of them. We’d often stop and just stand there, watching the locals go about their day, occasionally looking over at each other with big smiles. It was great fun!
2- Its bustling Old Quarter
The first thing we should have done after checking in was to go for a walk and get lost in Hanoi’s Old Quarter. As the heart of the city, it’s simply the place to be in Hanoi and it’s where all the action happens.
The Old Quarter is very well preserved and it still has an old Vietnamese atmosphere. You’ll see women wearing their traditional conical hats and carrying goods in baskets that hang from poles across their shoulders. The Old Quarter’s maze of narrow backstreets bustles with activity. It’s also home to temples, local markets, churches, restaurants, hotels and many street food vendors. With all that’s going on, you certainly won’t get bored. We spent hours simply walking around the Old Quarter. Believe me, you’ll want to get lost in it too.
The Old Quarter also has an incredible nightlife and if you visit on a weekend, don’t forget to check out the night market which is only open from Friday to Sunday night. The night market consists of over a thousand stalls. Most sell the same sort of things, but even if you don’t want to shop, still go along to check out the atmosphere and enjoy the aroma of the street food. But if you are in the mood to shop, you’ll find the shopping there quite good as well.
3- Its Motorbike madness!
As with the rest of Vietnam, motorbikes are everywhere in Hanoi. In fact, there are approximately five million motorbikes crowding the streets. The “motorbike” situation seemed even crazier in the Old Quarter because the streets are narrower and motorbikes appear to come from everywhere. Front, back, left, right, you really need to keep your eyes out for them. Just walking around or crossing the road is enough to give you an adrenaline rush!
Hanoi’s Old Quarter has no sidewalks. Well actually this is not entirely true, but the sidewalks are used as a motorbike parking lot and for people’s “living quarters”, so pedestrians are often forced to walk on the road. It makes getting around a bit tricky, especially when it’s easy to be distracted by all the quirky things going on around you. How we didn’t get hit by a motorbike is a bit of a mystery.
One of our favourite things to do in Hanoi was to sit outside a corner shop sipping Bia Hoi on a plastic stool while watching the never-ending stream of traffic around us. We saw some pretty funny stuff passing by. You can read more about it here.
4- The food is awesome!
Like everywhere in Vietnam, Hanoi offers a wide range of culinary experiences, with many different dishes to discover. Whether you prefer to eat street food or to dine at fancier restaurants, you’ll be spoilt for choice in Hanoi. The best part is that Hanoi’s stand-out dishes are inexpensive but super tasty. Some Hanoi specialities you shouldn’t miss are the famous Pho (noodle soup), Cha Ca (Turmeric Fish with Dill), Banh Cuon (Rolled Cake), Banh Goi (Fried Dumplings) and of course you simply must try a Banh Mi (sandwich).
5- You can drink Bia Hoi
The traditional Bia Hoi is a light beer brewed daily by locals throughout the city and delivered to small corner shops. It costs a fraction of other Vietnamese beer, starting at 5000 VND (25 cents) a glass. Made without preservatives, the beer is drinkable for just twenty-four hours and is only 2-3% proof, but it is surprisingly tasty. There are many Bia Hoi shops in Hanoi but the best place to enjoy it is Ta Bien Street or Beer Street in the Old Quarter.
6- Hanoi’s terrifying train street
Hidden in the narrow streets of the Old Quarter, you’ll find a street like you’ve never seen before. It’s a residential area built up around a train track, through which a high-speed train blasts past twice a day. The street is so narrow that when the train passes, it takes up almost the entire street.
People live around the train track; children play on it, wives cook next to it and chickens forage across it. The locals even start fire pits right in the middle of the track (we’re not quite sure why). A few minutes before the train arrives, everything is put away and the children and chickens are taken inside. Once the train passes, everything returns to normal.
You’ll find “train street” between Lê Duẩn and Khâm Thin streets in Hanoi’s old quarter. The train comes through around 3.30pm and 7.30pm every day. But on the day we visited it was ten minutes early, which took us completely by surprise. We were busy taking photos when we suddenly heard the train’s repeated honking and we saw it coming straight towards us. We had to quickly jump off the track and stand up against the wall. As it passed by with barely a few inches clearance we experienced a huge adrenaline rush!
7- It’s perfectly located
Hanoi is a pretty good access point to some of Northern Vietnam’s most beautiful places, such as Halong Bay and the highlands of Sapa. You can also take some great day trips from Hanoi to such beautiful rural and historic places as Tam Coc, the Mai Chau District and Hoa Lu. It’s super easy to organise tours in the city. Almost all hotels will offer you a great selection of tours at quite affordable prices. However, sometimes you get what you pay for, so be extra careful, especially when booking Halong Bay.
8- It’s home to the egg coffee
Just like our home city of Melbourne, Vietnam has a very strong coffee culture. But forget about your skinny latte, in Hanoi good coffee comes with egg yolk. I know, it sounds a bit weird. But believe me, you’ve got to try it! One sip and you’ll be glad you did.
This special coffee was created by Nguyen Giang in the 1940’s during a fresh milk shortage. His son Tri Hoa Nguyen now follows his father’s recipe at his coffee shop called Giang Cafe. He makes egg coffee the original way by brewing cups of strong coffee and then topping it off with whisked egg yolk, Vietnamese coffee powder, sweetened condensed milk, butter and cheese. The egg coffee can be enjoyed in many places around Hanoi, but Giang Cafe is one of the best places to taste it. You won’t find an egg coffee anywhere else in the world, so be sure to try it.
Café Giang is located at 39 Nguyễn Hữu Huân, Lý Thái Tổ, Hoàn Kiếm, Hanoi.
Where to stay in Hanoi?
The Old Quarter is the place to stay. Personally, we wouldn’t stay anywhere else. There are many affordable hotels in the Old Quarter and most are quite comfortable and provide breakfast.
We stayed at the Hanoi Golden Holiday Hotel. It was conveniently located in the centre of the Old Quarter. The rooms were large, clean and of a high standard. Their manager and staff were super friendly and extremely helpful. The best part was that it only cost us $50 a night. Check their latest prices here.
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Where to eat in Hanoi?
Street food is king in Hanoi and you’ll find some sort of street food everywhere you look. Of course, as a westerner, you have to be pretty careful where you eat as you don’t want to get sick and spend the next two days in the bathroom! Some places are far from hygienic. So only buy food from a place with enough crowds to have a quick turnover and avoid all sort of uncooked food like salads.
Banh Mi 25
For the best Banh Mi in town, head to Banh Mi 25. We loved this Banh Mi joint. Not only were their Banh Mis the best we’d had in Vietnam but the owner is super friendly. You order your Banh Mi from his Banh Mi cart, and then head across the road to sit in the tiny restaurant while you wait. On our first visit, there was no room in the restaurant, so the owner opened up the house next door and took out a couple of stools for us to sit on to eat in the street. Banh Mi Vietnamese style!
Address: 25 Hang Ca Street, Hoan Kiem District
Banh Cuon Ba Hanh
At this unassuming restaurant, the Banh Cuon are made on the spot, right in front of you. They are tasty and cheap. You can order a mixed plate which comes with a few other Vietnamese specialities, such as pork lemongrass skewers, mushroom omelette and nom salad.
Address: 26B Tho Xuong, Hoan Kiem, Hanoi
Duong’s 2 Restaurant and Cooking Class
Duong’s Banh Xeo (pancakes) were the best we had in Vietnam. Everything we ordered was tasty, fresh and delicious! The atmosphere is also fantastic, especially if you can get a table on the balcony to watch the world go by while you eat! This was our favourite restaurant in Hanoi. It’s not street food, so it’s not as cheap, but for us Australians, it was still a bargain.
Address: 101 Ma May Street, Hoan Kiem District,
Set in an old heritage house, this is not the cheapest place in town either but the food is very tasty. Its style is traditional Vietnamese with a French twist. Yum! The alfresco area is the nicest part of the restaurant, so try to book early to get a table there.
Address: 15 Chan Cam Street, Hoan Kiem District
Highway 4 Bat Su
This restaurant has a great selection of dishes and the food is really fresh and tasty. But the best part is their craft beers and ciders. They also make their own rice wines and you can order a rice wine tasting platter to sample a few of them. If you are into quirky foods, they have crickets, locusts and ant eggs on the menu, although this was definitely not for us!!
Address: 25 Bat Su, Hoan Kiem District, Hanoi
Tours and Activities around Hanoi