Being the capital of Vietnam, there’s a lot of traffic, people and things to do in Hanoi. We were there for nine days, or at least the largest part of our luggage was. We spent four nights at Little Hanoi Hostel, the other nights we were on different tours. We got a bit of work done, but mostly wandered around the city exploring and experiencing Hanoi.
What’s Hanoi like?
Hanoi can feel a bit overwhelming, due to the endless stream of motorbikes, the loud orchestra of differently sounding honks and all kinds of street vendors clinging to you trying to sell their product. We’ve only been in the old quarter of Hanoi. It actually doesn’t feel like a capital, it has a lot more character compared to others (it’s older, less modern). The part we hated most were the blocked sidewalks. They’re supposed to be a pedestrian lane, but are being used for parking motorbikes, expanding stores and restaurants, and putting up street vendor stalls, often complete with tables and chairs, so you’ll have to walk on the street instead. The traffic is pure chaos. And you should see the things they strap to their motorbikes. Crazy!
So, what to do in Hanoi?
Discover Vietnamese food
Having no experience whatsoever with Vietnamese food, we thought it smart to let a professional introduce us. Upon arrival, we booked a street food tour, one of the popular activities for tourists in Hanoi. It was a great experience and we definitely entered some little restaurants and tasted some food we otherwise would have missed. Read our full report on our blogpost about the Food on Foot street food tour with Awesome Travel.
Learn about Hanoi’s history
We also wanted to get to know Hanoi historically, so visited a couple of museums. We took a taxi to the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum Complex (36,000 VND) and visited the Ho Chi Minh Museum. It is probably very interesting if you’re really interested in history, but we made our way through the museum quite quickly. The entrance fee was 25,000 VND per person and the museum closes for lunch break. They warned us at the hostel that the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum was closed for renovation. Apparently the embalmed body of Ho Chi Minh goes to Russia every year for maintenance. Just our luck to be in Hanoi during those two months a year. Too bad, as this is probably the top attraction of the complex. We were disappointed to find out the Presidential Palace was closed as well. No idea why, but the gates were closed and we could only take a picture from the outside of the palace.
In the afternoon we visited Hoả Lò Prison, built by the French in 1896. This museum doesn’t close for lunch break and the entrance fee of 30,000 VND per person was really worth it. I believe we spent about an hour in there, walking through the cells and reading about the gruesome operations of the prison. It’s quite impressive to walk through the prison and see how prisoners were held and treated. We especially like the video footage of the American pilots that were kept in the so-called Hanoi Hilton.
We visited a temple in almost every major city we’ve been, as we did in Hanoi. We took a stroll through the gardens of the Temple of Literature. We paid 30,000 VND per person to be allowed in, not the best money spent in Hanoi. It’s nice for a little walk, but not much to see really.
Attend the Water Puppet Show
Another popular activity in Hanoi is the Water Puppet Show. Probably best to book your tickets the day beforehand to have good places. We booked our tickets about half an hour before the start of the show and went with the expensive ticket, 100,000 VND. Guess we were about the last row of the expensive seats. Most of the show is in Vietnamese, so we couldn’t understand what they were saying or singing, but we could guess the story by looking. It’s not a great show, there isn’t a lot of action (I almost fell asleep), and there is almost no room for your legs, but you can’t visit Hanoi without seeing a Water Puppet Show.
Wander around Hanoi
On our first night in Hanoi, we went “window shopping” on the Weekend Night Market, all along Hang Duong, Hang Ngang and Hang Dao. They told us about the market at the hostel, saying it was mainly for the Hanoi youth. Every Friday until Sunday starting from 19h00 you can buy (fake brand) bags, clothes, phone accessories and much more. We only bought three delicious fruit juices from street vendors, for only 10,000 VND per cup.
In the historical center of Hanoi there’s the Hoàn Kiếm Lake, the Lake of the Restored Sword. Legend has it Emperor Le Loi drove the Chinese from Vietnam with a magical sword, which was afterwards reclaimed by a giant golden turtle who disappeared into the depths of the Lake of the Restored Sword. We took a stroll around the lake at daytime, but it’s probably even nicer at night. You can’t miss the Turtle Tower, often used as the emblem of Hanoi.
Grab your cheapest beer ever
After being in Malaysia for more than two weeks, where beer (and alcohol in general) is unbelievably expensive, we were glad to drink some (good) cheap beer at the Bia Hoi Corner. Normally you can get a beer for only 5,000 VND, but luck just wasn’t on our side that day: the cheap beer was sold out. Or so they told us. So we squatted on those (typical) little plastic chairs and drank a couple of Hanoi beers for 10,000 VND, cheap enough. Apparently the bars there opt for the little plastic chairs for two main reasons. The first one is obvious: you can seat a lot more people on those little chairs than on normal chairs in the same space. The second one is quite funny: the chairs make it easy to expand the terrace onto the road when necessary and quickly ushering people up and clearing the chairs away when police is arriving. We actually saw it happening, while sitting on the last row of legally placed chairs.
Go on two day trip to Sapa or Halong Bay
And last but not least, we did two popular tours. The first one being a two day trip to Halong Bay, spending the night on the boat (125$ per person). The scenery is beautiful in Halong Bay and we really enjoyed the kayaking tour around the limestone karsts. You can read more about it in our blogpost dedicated to this trip.
The second tour was a two day tour to Sapa (90$ per person). We went hiking through the terraced rice fields, did a homestay for the night and visited an isolated village. Too bad the rice fields were already harvested and the weather was a bit cloudy at times. Nevertheless we had a great time! You can read more about our experience in our blogpost about Sapa.
Get a haircut on the side of the road
While in Hanoi we were about a month and a half on the road, so Brecht desperately needed a haircut. We already saw a barber on the side of the road and agreed this would be an adventure of some sort. So after some negotiating, we agreed on 130,000 VND for a haircut and trimming his beard (that was starting to get out of control). I took a lot of pictures while hoping the result would be at least a little bit OK. They guy kept snipping away, so I was starting to get nervous, but the result was quite good.
Oh, one last tip: don’t buy those good looking fried dough balls from women selling them on the street. That was our first mistake in Hanoi, tasting them “for free” and getting tricked into buying some. They monstrously overprice you for their product, which isn’t even tasty. If you want to try it just go to the first stop on our street food tour.
Have you been to Hanoi too? Was there something we missed? We’d love to read all about your experience in the comments!
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