For many tourists, Hanoi is just a departure point for a Ha Long Bay cruise. In our opinion, Hanoi has much more to offer. If your time allows it, plan at least two whole days for the fascinating Vietnam Capital.
Morning at Hoàn Kiếm lake
Hanoi wakes up early. At 6 am the streets are already full of life. If you’re also an early bird, head to the park at Hoàn Kiếm lake before sunrise.
When first sunbeams touch the lake’s surface, Hanoians gather at the surrounding park to stretch their bones, meditate and fill their bodies with positive energy for the day. With great interest, we observed bigger and smaller groups of old and young practicing Tai Chi.
Whether it was the traditional way or rather a modern approach combined with Vietnamese pop-music, they all trained together to stay fit.
Spend a day in the Old Quarter
The best way to get to know Hanoi’s Old Quarter is on foot. It doesn’t matter where you start. Choose a location close to your hotel.
We began at Ngoc Son Temple at Hoàn Kiếm Lake and continued to the narrow busy streets of the Old Town.
The tradition of each street being dedicated to one kind of craft has survived until today. Some streets engage in both, production and sales.
There is a street, where smiths only sell bird cages, another, where stonemasons sell their products, the next one, where you’ll find jewellery. Interestingly, you’ll also find a street selling only western Christmas articles.
A word of advice: Hanoi traffic can be hazardous. Locals use pavements for parking their motorbikes, so you have to walk on the road and unwillingly become part of the traffic.
With common sense and quick reactions, you’ll be safe. Crossing a wide road may seem challenging at first, but you’ll get used to it. Before crossing, wait until there is a little free spot between the bikes in the first lane and step on the road. The good thing is, nobody rushes through the streets in high velocity.
You’ll become a part of the big traffic snake, and the bikes will just pass by you. Continue in the designated direction and never stop in the middle of a road.
Don’t bother waiting for the green light. Nobody stops anyway. After some time, you’ll be a pro.
While visiting the Old Quarter, don’t skip the Đồng-Xuân-Market.
You’ll find everything you can imagine in there.
Spices, exotic fruits, meat and fish of all kinds, flowers. You’ll get insights into Hanoi’s everyday life. And a fresh pineapple on a stick is a delicious snack.
Street food and Bia Hoi
Hanoi is famous for its street food culture. Decide for yourself, if you want to take a guided tour or explore on your own. Pho stands are around every corner.
If you are a beer enthusiast, head for Tạ Hiện street – Hanoi’s pub and restaurant corner. Try a glass or two of Bia Hoi. This light refreshing draught lager is brewed daily without preservatives.
Join Hanoi’s street life, sit by locals on little plastic chairs, sip pho and splash it with Bia Hoi.
Street nightlife can sometimes be ruined by the arrival of a police patrol. Then, the little chairs disappear within seconds just to be put back to business only a few minutes after the police drives away. This cat and mouse play repeats a few times, so don’t be surprised or scared.
Evening walk form Trấn Quốc Pagoda Pagoda through Government district
The oldest pagoda in Hanoi located on a small island of the West Lake (Hồ Tây) dates back to the 6th century. After visiting the shrine, enjoy a panoramic view over the lake. The promenade offers a peaceful alternative to the busy streets of the Old Town.
A word of advice: The best way to get there is to use a taxi. Hanoi has an unfortunate reputation of being the Vietnamese cab-scams capital. Thus, ask at your accommodation to book a taxi with a trusted company for you. The drive from the old town should take around 10 minutes.
For the way back, we chose to continue on foot passing the promenade on Thanh Niên. We wondered through the government district and caught a glimpse of the Presidential Palace. Unfortunately, there is no photography allowed. After the Presidential Palace, don’t miss an opportunity for a great panorama picture at the huge Ba Đình square used for political parades.
In the middle of the plaza, you’ll find the famous Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum.
At the end of the mausoleum’s park, you’ll pass by the One Pillar Pagoda (Chùa Một Cột). After that Điện Biên Phủ street and at the end the Hàng Bông street will lead you back to the Old Quarter. The walk takes about an hour (4 km), but in our opinion, it’s worth the effort. You can stroll around the less touristy Hanoi.
Along the way, you’ll find many small cafes and streets stands, where you can rest your legs on little plastic chairs and enjoy a bowl of pho or a glass of Bia Hoi.
Hanoi is much more than only a stopover on the way to Ha Long Bay. Stay for a night or two and enjoy the vibrant Capital.