Arguably more than any other, Hanoi feels like an Asian city with history. And although it’s developing rapidly (the scooter horns won’t let you forget that), Hanoi’s heritage surrounds you more than in any other capital in the region. Here are my top 10 things to do in Hanoi.
1 – WANDER AROUND HOAN KIEM LAKE
At the edge of Hanoi’s Old Quarter is Hoan Kiem Lake, which feels very much like a centre point for life in Hanoi. I could wander around it all day, people watching. It’s a street photographers dream.
Whether it’s street sellers, couples shooting wedding photograph, people working out, music video shoots, and countless people just sat chatting, reading and taking it all in, this is a place that Hanoi life seems to revolve around. You can also cross the bridge to the 1500-year-old Tran Quoc Pagoda, the oldest pagoda in Hanoi.
2 – GET LOST IN THE OLD QUARTER
Bordering the lake on the South East side, Hanoi’s Old Quarter is one of the most bustling places in Asia, with scooters, street sellers, and every kind of person you can imagine, filling the streets. It’s noisy, colourful, brash, hectic – a sensation overload to say the least.
3 – HAVE A POSH BRUNCH AT THE METROPOLE (AND MAYBE STAY THE NIGHT)
The Sofitel Legend Metropole, Hanoi’s (and possibly Asia’s) most famous hotel, is nearly 120 years old and has hosted countless celebrities and heads of states. It’s one of the most stunning French colonial buildings in the city and a lovely spot for a brunch in their (very colonial) restaurant or an excellent cocktail in the bar in the evening. It’s also one of Hanoi’s best (and unsurprisingly most expensive) hotels to spend a night.
4 – EXPLORE DONG XUAN MARKET
On the edge of the Old Quarter in a 130-year-old building is one of Hanoi’s liveliest markets and where you’ll see farmers and factory owners bringing all manner of goods into the city to sell. There is also a huge food court serving every local dish you can think of. On Fridays-Sundays the street in front of the market is pedestrianised and the market spills onto the streets, and becoming even more vibrant and crazy.
5 – HAVE A LOCALLY-INSPIRED COCKTAIL
Possibly the hippest bar in the city, Polite and Co is a nice retreat from the frenetic streets and backpacker bars (albeit a rather smoky one – smoking in bars and restaurants is still legal in Vietnam). They serve excellent drinks including some locally inspired cocktails in a beautifully decked-out prohibition-era style bar. Happy Hour prices (between 4pm and 8pm) ain’t bad either.
6 – CATCH SOME LIVE JAZZ
Another good place to escape the streets is a tiny, easily-missed jazz bar near the Opera House. Binh Minh Jazz Club is low-key, unpretentious and friendly, and has live jazz every night from 9pm.
7 – SHARE A SEAT WITH LEGENDS
One of Vietnam’s most famous images was taken in Bun Cha, a tiny restaurant in the Hai Bà Trưng district, walking distance (or a short taxi ride) from the Old Quarter. Orchestrated by Obama’s PR team, the much-shared photograph of the ex-President enjoying a beer and Bun Cha (a Vietnamese grilled pork noodle dish) with the late, great Anthony Bourdain is one that made this little restaurant instantly famous. Today the table the pair sat at is forever immortalised under a protective plastic casing, but you can go and sit next to it, have a beer, eat a pretty good meal, inevitably take a few photos, and reminisce about a time when Obama was President and the world still had Anthony Bourdain.
8 – CHECK OUT HANG LUOC FLOWER MARKET
Small disclaimer here: this ludicrously busy and colourful market (even by Hanoi standards) only appears in the lead-up to Tết (the Vietnamese lunar new-year celebration that usually happens around the end of January beginning of February), but if you are lucky enough to be here during that time, make a point of visiting the incredibly wildly vibrant flower market that springs out of nowhere along a small street in the Old Quarter.
9 – GRAB A COFFEE & PEOPLE WATCH
One of the things I always think of when I think about Hanoi, is people sitting on the street, sipping a coffee, and watching the world go by. In a city with streets that are incredibly hectic, taking a small retreat, drinking a strong, sweet coffee and becoming a mere observer to the craziness that is Hanoi is a welcome escape and nowhere in the world is people watching more enjoyable than in this city. Coffee shops are everywhere; just pick one on the busiest intersection you can find and take it all in.
10 – TAKE AN OVERNIGHT TRIP
If you have time, Hanoi is surrounded by some stunning countryside that is begging to be explored. The famous and very popular Halong Bay is a worthy overnight trip from Hanoi and although it’s becoming increasingly over-touristed in the peak months, it’s visually quite stunning.
Ninh Binh is another beautiful area and nearer to the city – if you’re brave enough, rent a motorbike and drive the 100km (1.5hrs), or if that is too much (understandably so), take a car or bus.
Please like, share and follow Travelist, and as always if you have any questions about Hanoi, or if you have visited this lovely city and would like to share recommendations with other travellers, please make a comment below.