My dear Hanoi …
You were the first Asian city I’ve visited and I think we both know it wasn’t love at first sight. Nope, in the beginning I didn’t even like you or think we could be friends. I didn’t want to get to know you better, I just wanted to leave…
It was the first culture shock of my life. The first scams and rip-offs and the first time people would rather drive right over my toes than deviate and inch from their route. It was the first time it took me over 10 (scary-ass) minutes to simply cross the street because nobody even cared about the red light or thought about letting me pass. My first feeling of “it is so damned hot, humid and smelly over here I just wanna lock myself up in my hotel room and not come out until it’s time to get in the taxi to the airport again”…
It was also the first time I realized how much I actually love when things don’t go exactly to plan…
You’ve probably heard stories from people who hated Vietnam. They probably hated it for all the reasons I’ve mentioned above and I’m sure everything they’ve told you is pretty much true. But I’m also sure that if you like to experience all those things that will never be in any guidebook, you’ll be glad you came. If you’re anything like me and love to get shaken out of your comfort zone
every once in a while all the time, I’m sure you and Hanoi could become friends and who knows, maybe even fall in love.
Hanoi, you were one of those first times that aren’t easy. But I believe in second chances, and I’m glad I gave you one.
PLANNING: 2 days in Hanoi
Day 1: Hoa Lo prison, Hoan Kiem lake, Ngoc Son temple, Old Quarter, Ma May house, take a food tour or a cooking class, Water puppet theatre
Day 2: West lake, Tran Quoc pagoda, Quan Thanh temple, Ho Chi Minh’s mausoleum, One pillar pagoda, Temple of Literature, have dinner in a local home
HOA LO PRISON Hoa Lo Prison was built by the French in 1896 to incarcerate Vietnamese political prisoners. Conditions were horrible: by the 1930s the prison that was built for 450 prisoners housed almost 2000 and the inmates were tortured. In 1964, the Vietnamese began using Hoa Lo Prison for prisoners of war. You’ll see cells, torture instruments, the wooden ‘beds’ to which the prisoners were chained and plenty of pictures that’ll give you the shivers. Absolutely worth a visit!
HOAN KIEM LAKE Situated in the heart of the old town, Hoan Kiem Lake litterally means “lake of the returned sword”. According to the legend, a giant turtle appeared out of the lake when emperor Le Loi was boating on the lake, asking him to return the sword he used to fight the Chinese. A nice place for a walk or to sit down for a while.
NGOC SON TEMPLE Located on a small island in Hoan Kiem Lake, Ngoc Son temple is definitely the most picturesque temple in Hanoi. A charming bridge connects the island to the shore of the lake.
OLD QUARTER Put away your map and get lost in the small streets of the old quarter, north of Hoan Kiem Lake. Look at and visit one of the old houses, do some shopping and have some great and inexpensive food. Take your time and be prepared for crowds.
MA MAY HOUSE Late 19th-century house constructed according to the principels of the “tube houses”. People built very narrow houses in an attempt to minimize taxes. Some are 70m long and only 2m large.
TEMPLE OF LITERATURE The Temple of Literature is one of many temples dedicated to Conficius and hosts the Imperial Academy, Vietnam’s first national university. Bureaucrats, nobles, royalty and other members of the elite were educated here. Walking through the front gate is like entering a different world. The site is an oasis of calm in the middle of the busy city. Highlights of the visit are the different courtyards and the Stelae of Doctors, in which are engraved the names and birthplaces of the graduates of the royal exams.
FOOD TOURS / COOKING CLASSES The tour I took isn’t available anymore, but here’s a whole list of other options that look just awesome!
Another amazing experience is having dinner in a local home. Check below under food for more information.
WATER PUPPET THEATER Yes, this is a bit ‘too much’, but it’s fun & cute and certainly worth a visit.
OTHER SITES West lake, Tran Quoc pagoda & Quan Thanh temple Ho Chi Minh’s mausoleum One pillar pagoda
Looking for more inspiration? Check out this list of authentic things to do in Hanoi by Wanderlust Storytellers!
THINGS TO DO AROUND HANOI
There’s obviously a lot more to do and see in Vietnam than big cities like Hanoi. Book a tour and go explore the countryside, jump on a bus to Halong Bay, the possibilities are endless. Here’s a few ideas I tested myself, and a couple I regret I didn’t.
- Visit to the Perfume Pagoda – check prices and availability
- Discover the countryside by bike and boat – check prices and availability
- Visit Hoa Lu, the old capital of Vietnam, and the limestone caves of Tam Coc – check prices and availability
- Head to Halong Bay for a couple of days – check prices and availability
In Hanoi (and in Vietnam in general), walking is for the poor. Sidewalks are not for walking, they’re parking lots for motorbikes. Walking any distance over 500m is considered weird. I walked anyway, and advise you to do so as well, but be prepared to be followed by guys offering a – paid, of course – ride on their motorbike!
For places that are further away, taking a rickshaw is the best solution. Agree on a price with your driver BEFORE getting in and if you’re not traveling alone, make sure you get him to confirm the price is for both people. If you don’t, trust me, he will try and take advantage of it.
To get from and to the airport, you have several options.
- Take the Vietnam Airlines minibus (32.000 VND to city center, more in case of hotel drop-off). Be sure to take the minibus at the ‘minibus’ sign and don’t follow strangers that want to show you the way inside the airport. They’ll probably lead you to their own minibus and might not drop you off where you asked.
- Take bus lines 7 or 17 (5000 VND).
- Take a private or shared taxi.
If you want to leave Hanoi by train, make sure to book early. I tried to book tickets to Hue 3 days in advance, but there were only hard seats left (there are 4 categories: hard seat, soft seat, hard berth and soft berth). It’s a 12 hour train ride from Hanoi to Hue in the middle of the night, so I decided to take a bus instead. This costs about € 20 and takes 13 hours. I booked with Sinh Café but there are many other companies in the Old Quarter that sell tickets. Click here for information about how to get from Hanoi to Halong Bay.
You’ll find great food almost everywhere. Street stalls are the cheapest option (less than 20.000 VND) but most local restaurants also offer a complete meal (1 course and a simple drink) for less than 100.000 VND. Here’s a list of my favorite restaurants:
La Place 6 Ấu Triệu (west of Lake Hoan Kiem) Small restaurant with simple dishes, juices, smoothies, … The vegetarian spring rolls were delicious!
Quan Bia Minh 7 Đinh Liệt (north of Lake Hoan Kiem in the Old Quarter) Try to get a table on the balcony and enjoy the hustle and bustle of the city. Complete meal with a drink around 100.000 VND/person.
69 bar-resto 69 Mã Mây, (north of Lake Hoan Kiem in the Old Quarter) Great food and good service. Price around 80.000 VND/person for a good meal and a drink.
To mix good food and an unforgettable experience meeting the locals, book a dinner experience in a local home.
The cheapest accommodation is located in the Old Quarter and around Hoan Kiem lake. You can find a bed in a dorm room for less than € 10 and prices for a double room with private bathroom in a mid-range hotel start around € 15.
I stayed at Jasmine hotel, which was awesome. The staff was extremely friendly and helpful and didn’t try to push me into booking tours etc. Free airport pickup was included. A standard double room costs about € 25 and for a double deluxe with a small balcony and a PC with internet connection, you’ll pay about € 40.
Some of the links in this article are affiliate links, which means I receive a small commission for every booking, without any extra cost to you.