Updated: 11/19/2018 | November 19th, 2018
The chaotic capital of Vietnam, Hanoi is a busy and bustling city home to swarms of motorcycles, cheap beer, and budget backpackers.
Located in the north of the country, the city itself is often considered a little crowded, slightly run-down, and perhaps a little polluted. But what it lacks when compared to modern-day standards it makes up for with its quaint looks and charm, as well as its budget-friendly prices.
To be completely honest, I didn’t like Vietnam when I visited. But while my expdreince was less than stellar, I did enjoy my time in Hanoi.
Time and poor rebuilding may have worn down the city. All over Hanoi, old French colonial homes lay crumbling as modern buildings spring up around them, slowly bringing the city into the modern age. The city’s old quarter, located right by Hoan Kiem Lake, is a fine example of French Colonial architecture. I imagine this is what New Orleans would look like if it was left to decay.
But Hanoi is a fascinating city where you’ll find amazing street side pho, tiny beer bars, and a fast pace where you need to follow the grandmothers as you cross the street or you’ll get run over.
Navigate tiny streets and outdoor markets as people crush you from all sides. Hanoi is very busy, and the old quarter is one of the busiest – flooded with bikes, buses, markets, and tourists. Buses cram down streets I didn’t think even motorbikes could get through. A bus of mine went down one the wrong way and I was sure we were done for. Crossing the street here is a fine art, as motorbikes and cars don’t stop for you. But, despite the crowds, these densely-packed streets have a lot of charm as the old battles the new for dominance.
No trip to Vietnam would be complete without a visit to Hanoi.
And no visit to Hanoi would be complete without seeing what the city has to offer. Here are my top suggestions to help you have an amazing trip.
Best Things to See and Do in Hanoi
1. Visit the Old Quarter
The Old Quarter’s 2,000-year-old streets are a web of shopping opportunities and cheap eateries. Gold and silver jewelry, clothes, cosmetics, and even musical instruments can all be bought here alongside a myriad of other goods. There’s also a lot of fascinating old worn French architecture around and you can still see the strong French influence in the area. The old quarter is also a great place to sit and drink Bia Hoi, cheap Vietnamese beer. At 15 cents a beer, you can’t go wrong!
2. Visit Hoam Kiem Lake and Ngoc Son Temple
Get here early in the morning to watch throngs of people practicing Tai Chi, running, cycling and walking before their working day begins. In the center of the lake is the Tortoise Pagoda, a shrine to the famous giant turtles that live in the lake. The lake is very beautiful and there is a temple worth visiting on the north end of the lake.
Dinh Tien Hoang St, +84 8 3910 0555, denngocson.com. Open daily daily from 8am-6pm. Admission is 30,000 VND for adults and 15,000 VND for students.
3. Visit the Temple of Literature
Built in 1070, the Van Mieu temple is a great example of traditional Vietnamese architecture and is one of the oldest structures in the country. Originally dedicated to Confucius, you can wander the five courtyards decorated and see the stelae mark with the first diplomas for the university’s doctorate students.
Quoc Tu Giam Street, +84 43 823 5601, vanmieu.gov.vn/en. Open daily from 7:30am-6pm in the summer and 8am-6pm in the winter. Entrance is 30,000 VND for adults and free for kids under 15 as well as for people with disabilities.
4. Visit the Ho Chi Minh Museum
Looking for something morbid? You can check out the body of former leader Ho Chi Minh himself. Despite wanting his body to be cremated (so as to not waste agricultural land), his countrymen mummified him and put him on display. It’s a creepy sight and he looks very “plastic.” No cameras are allowed in, and soldiers stand guard to make sure you do not speak either. Make sure you time your visit right, though – Ho Chi Minh spends a few months out of the year in Moscow getting “worked” on. The museum is really more of a propaganda tool designed to show how Ho Chi Minh led a revolution against imperialist pigs instead of being a chronology of his life.
19 Ngoc Ha, Ba Dinh, +84 24 3846 3757, baotanghochiminh.vn. The museum is open daily from 8am-12pm and then again from 2pm-4:30pm every day except Monday and Friday. Tickets are 40,000 VND per person.
5. Escape the Hustle for Halong Bay
For those who find the hustle and bustle of Hanoi too much to handle, there are many trips outside the city you can take, too. You can head out to the World Heritage site, Halong Bay, and sail through limestone karsts. Or head west to Sapa, one of the most beautiful regions of the world and home to many hill tribes. Sapa was really beautiful. In fact, Vietnam’s natural beauty was the highlight of my time there.
6. Watch a water puppet show
Water Puppetry probably isn’t an art form you’re familiar with, but it’s been popular in Vietnam for over a millennium. Located near the lake, you can take in a show at the Water Puppet Theatre. The puppets are made of wood and the show itself is performed in small pool. This makes it seem like the puppets look like they’re walking in water. While the plays are performed in Vietnamese, they’re still a spectacle to behold.
57b Dinh Tien Hoang Street, +84 24 3824 9494, thanglongwaterpuppet.org/en. Performances usually occur 5 times per day and last around an hour. Admission is 100,000 VND for adults and 60,000 VND for children.
7. Shop at Dong Xuan Market
This is Hanoi’s oldest market and it’s located in the Old Quarter. It’s a huge area where you can find pretty much everything you could ever expect (especially a lot of knock-offs of popular brands). If you’re looking for cheap souvenirs, this is probably the best place for low-cost shopping in the city.
Dong Xuan (in the center of the Hoan Kiem district), chodongxuan.org. Open daily from 7am-6pm.
8. Visit the National Museum of Fine Arts
This is a must-see if you are interested in the various styles of Vietnamese art. There are incredible exhibits of folk art, silk and lacquer paintings, and Buddhist art. The museum’s most impressive feature though is Kuan Yin, the goddess of mercy who is depicted with a thousand arms and eyes.
66 Nguyen Thái Hoc, +84 24 3733 2131, vnfam.vn/en. Open daily from 8:30am-5pm. Admission is 40,000 VND for adults with discounts available for students and children.
6 Travel Tips for Visiting Hanoi
To help you make the most of your trip to Hanoi, here are some helpful travel tips:
- Eat from street stalls – For the cheapest food in the city head to the street stalls. You can get meals for a fraction of restaurant prices. My favorite food to eat is bahn mi or pho.
- Negotiate – Barter for everything. Tourists are often quoted inflated prices, so talk to your hostel staff to make sure you know what you should be paying.
- Drink Bia Hoi – This cheap beer is available on the streets throughout the city and is only around 3,000 VND per glass.
- Take the bus – City buses are the cheapest way of getting around the city. They are comfortable and efficient and much less hassle than bartering for tuk-tuks.
- Don’t hesitate – When crossing the street, just walk forward with intent. The scooters will zip by you, don’t worry. But if you hesitate and stop and go you’ll confuse them and be much more likely to get hit!
- Ask permission – If you’re going to be taking photos of locals, ask first. Many consider it rude to be photographed without consent.
You’ll find a lot of things to see and do in Hanoi. This city will keep you entertained on your visit but what really makes Hanoi amazing is the charm of the city. It has that special something that makes it absolutely fascinating as much as it is frustrating as you try to make your way around in a place that seems never to notice you.
Visiting Hanoi is an adventure not to be missed.
Book Your Trip: Logistical Tips and Tricks
Book Your Flight
Find a cheap flight by using Skyscanner or Momondo. They are my two favorite search engines because they search websites and airlines around the globe so you always know no stone is left unturned.
Book Your Accommodation
To find the best budget accommodation, use Booking.com as they consistently return the cheapest rates for guesthouses and cheap hotels. I use them all the time. You can book your hostel – if you want that instead – with Hostelworld as they have the most comprehensive inventory. My favorite places to stay are:
- Old Quarter View Hostel – Great location and a good social atmosphere.
- Hanoi Old Town Hotel – A great budget-friendly hotel for those looking for private accommodation.
Don’t Forget Travel Insurance
Travel insurance will protect you against illness, injury, theft, and cancellations. It’s comprehensive protection in case anything goes wrong. I never go on a trip without it as I’ve had to use it many times in the past. I’ve been using World Nomads for ten years. My favorite companies that offer the best service and value are:
Looking for the best companies to save money with?
Check out my resource page for the best companies to use when you travel! I list all the ones I use to save money when I travel – and I think will help you too!
Want More Information on Hanoi?
Be sure to visit our robust destination guide on Hanoi for even more planning tips!