Hanoi City Guide
Vietnam’s capital city, Hanoi, is chaotic. During daylight hours the city’s narrow Old Quarter streets are clogged with motorbikes and the footpaths so packed with street vendors that often it’s hard to find the buzzy markets and atmospheric temples hidden in the backstreets. But the chaos is compelling and the wide boulevards and lakes outside the Old Quarter offer respite in this fascinating city. To make sense of it, here’s our Hanoi city guide.
What to see in Hanoi
The starting point for any visitor to Hanoi is the Old Quarter. Many of the streets here are dedicated to a single line of business, such as Silk Street. Dotted between these businesses are plenty of soup shops, tea stalls and coffee houses. The lovely Hoan Kiem lake is the people-watching capital of the city. Further afield is the Temple of Literature, dating to 1070, which is dedicated to Confucius. For more on history and folklore, and with an exquisite collection of textiles and costumes, the Vietnam Museum of Ethnology is worthwhile, while the striking Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum is a must-see. The Hanoi Opera House and other French colonial buildings are also worth admiring for their elegant architecture.
What to do in Hanoi
It doesn’t take long in Hanoi to realise that the city is food-crazy. Everywhere you look there’s a vendor creating something tasty and the best way to experience it is to take a food tour. To take the worry out of sampling street food, I recommend both Van Cong Tu and Mark Lowerson’s Hanoi Street Food Tours and chef/cookbook author Daniel Hoyer’s Well Eaten Path Tours. Vietnamese food is fantastic to cook as well, so I also recommend a cooking course at the Hanoi Cooking Centre where you visit the local markets and get to cook delicious Vietnamese fare. Less interactive activities such as watching the Ca Tru performance and seeing the Water Puppet Theatre are also worth your time. Hanoi also has a hip and happening contemporary art scene, so gallery hopping is great here and Manzi is the place to start.
Where to shop in Hanoi
While there’s wonderful shopping all over the Old Quarter, make a beeline for Hang Gai street for silk shops, tailors, and stores selling beautiful souvenirs and gifts, like lacquerware, ceramics, embroidery, and handicrafts. Hang Bong Street is the place to go for striking communist era posters and badges. The small streets around St Joseph’s Cathedral are home to interesting fashion boutiques and shops selling shoes and accessories that are popular with Hanoi’s hipsters.
What to eat and drink in Hanoi
The first dish that the locals will tell you to sample is phở (pronounced ‘fer’), a rice noodle soup with beef or chicken that’s a breakfast staple at places such as Pho Gia Truyen and Pho Bat Dan. Another street food favourite is bún chả with smoky grilled pork pieces and pork patties served over rice noodles. While Vietnamese coffee is a great way to kickstart the day, when the sun goes down locals head to bia hoi joints such as Bia Hoi Ha Noi for fresh beer and snacks. Of the restaurants, Little Hanoi is a great casual lunch spot for Vietnamese and Western dishes and while Quan An Ngon is touristy, the food is good and it’s lively in the evenings.
How to escape Hanoi
A fantastic escape from the hustle and bustle of Hanoi is Halong Bay, a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1994. Legend has it that a dragon descended from the sky and its thrashing tail carved out the thousands of islands that make up this stunning area. Most visitors stay at least one night here although I recommend a 2-3 day cruise. Another great getaway is beautiful Sapa, an overnight train ride away from the capital. Here there are colourful hill tribe markets, fantastic food, a picturesque lake, and treks to villages.