Ho Chi Minh City may have eclipsed Hanoi as Vietnam’s most populace city, but one cannot forget that Hanoi, Vietnam is the political heart of the nation, the capital of one of the world’s last communist fronts.
They say that Hanoi is the most Asian city of all Asian cities. Personally, it’s hard to dictate what makes a city more Asian than the next. But undoubtedly, there’s something unhurried about the way the city conducts itself. The tempo of Hanoi is deliberate and leisurely, where every act —people sipping on their midday coffees, motorbikes in transit, incense sticks burning in the solemn pagodas —is all conducted in slow motion. For the romantics, Hanoi has preserved this timeless charm, prompting visitors to think of Vietnam’s tourism slogan. The city feels resoundingly timeworn, with paint peeling off the yellowed facades of administrative buildings and multi-tiered pagodas decorating the skyline, but despite being one of the world’s most ancient capitals, Hanoi is becoming a metropolitan city in its own right. More and more, tourists flock to Hanoi as it is the gateway to destinations like Sapa, Halong Bay, and Ninh Binh. As a consequence of the influx in Hanoi’s popularity, outdated practices of curfews are being lifted. But don’t think that Hanoi is on its way to following in the footsteps of its little sister to the south. Unlike Ho Chi Minh City, it offers tranquility, with lakes and parks to tuck into. For the perfect weekend in Hanoi, check out my piece for Vietnam Tourism here. Interested in my top five? Keep on reading.
1. Bucket list foods: Egg Coffee, Bun Cha, and Pho oh my!
Vietnam’s most well-known export, pho, a rice noodle soup, came from Hanoi. Hanoian treatment of pho calls for simplicity: the broth should be clear and slightly salted, with only chopped birds’ eye chilies and slices of lime for garnish. If you find Hanoian pho too bland, the Beef Pho (Pho Bo) at Pho 10 Ly Quoc Su is served with a spicy, creamy orange sauce and a plate of quay, fried salted breadsticks, meant for dunking into your broth.
Where? Pho 10 Ly Quoc Su, 10 Ly Quoc Su, Hang Tron, Hanoi
Only in Hanoi can you get a cup of egg coffee, ca phe trung. And no place does it better than Giang Cafe, operated by the son of the late Mr. Nguyen Giang. The story goes that during The French War when rations were low, a bartender at the Sofitel Metropole, Nguyen Giang, improvised by using this meringue-like concoction in lieu of milk for guests seeking coffee and thus, this glorious treat was born. Egg coffee is more of a dessert than a caffeine fix, a treacle with a similar taste to tiramisu. Black robusta coffee is topped with a frothy, incredibly sweet, egg-based substance, which needs to be warmed to reach its appropriate consistency. You can order it hot or iced, and at Cafe Giang, they also have egg beer on the menu!
Where? Giang Cafe, 39 Nguyen Huu Huan, Ly Thai To District, Hanoi
If I could eat only one Vietnamese dish for the rest of my life, it would have to be bun cha. For a top ten list of my favorite Vietnamese dishes, click here. This is everyday fare for Hanoians, a dish made up of cold, vermicelli noodles, mini pork patties soaked in vinegary fish sauce, and a side of herbs for that freshness ubiquitous in all Vietnamese dishes. Anthony Bourdain and Barack Obama made it cool to the masses, chowing down at a little place called Bun Cha Hoang Lien, now frequented by tons of tourists wanting to copycat the meal shared by former POTUS and the food world’s most brazen chef, but for the real deal, check out Bun Cha 34 near Tay Ho Lake. Bun Cha 34 is a lot grittier than Hoang Lien, but their food packs a punch with all the flavor cooked into those beautiful patties.
Where? Bun Cha 34, 34 Hang Than, Nguyen Trung Truc, Hanoi
2. Amble around The Old Quarter
Enveloping the perimeters of Hoan Kiem Lake, also known as Turtle Lake, is Hanoi’s predominantly tourist haunt, The Old Quarter. During the weekend, the street bordering Turtle Lake is blocked off to cars and motorbikes, so pedestrians can walk in peace. Within The Old Quarter, rows and rows of shops selling designer knockoffs (that possibly are also stolen goods?), as well as handicrafts found only in the north like silk robes and embroidered scarves, preoccupy shopaholics. But my favorite spots in The Old Quarter are St. Joseph’s Cathedral, a greying Catholic church with immense charm, and The Shark’s Mouth, an apt nickname for the intersection of Ta Hien and Luong Ngoc Quyen streets that come nightfall, becomes a scene of bedlam and boozing. Baby stools, heaving with the weight of heavy, drunk tourists, are set around matching infant-sized tables littered with frosty pints of fresh beer, bia hoi.
3. Stop by One of the Many Museums in Hanoi
There are a number of museums that could satisfy any cultural enthusiast. The Museum of Ethnology on the outskirts of town pays homage to the 54 ethnic groups represented in Vietnam’s population, but the real attraction is the garden of ethnic homes, where life-size replicas of tribal homes have been built in the backyard of the museum and welcome guests to come play. They even have a water puppet theater performance in this cultural garden. Other popular museums include The Women’s Museum, a well-curated, five-floor institution dedicated to the achievements of its female folk in shaping the nation. Textile fans will love the fifth floor, showcasing the female regalia from all 54 ethnic groups. Hoa Lin Prison and Ho Chi Minh Museum are other notable museums.
Where? Vietnamese Women’s Museum: 36 Ly Thuong Kiet, Hang Bai, Hoan Kiem, Hanoi. Entrance is 30,000 VND (~$1.50 USD).
Museum of Ethnology: Nguyen Van Huyen, Nghia Do, Cau Giay, Hanoi (it’s away from the city center). Entrance is 40,000 VND (~$2 USD).
4. Get To Know Beloved Leader Ho Chi Minh
His name might be in the south, but his body is in the north. In suit with other communist leaders, the late Ho Chi Minh, father of the Vietnamese revolution, was embalmed and his body is on display to the public eleven months out of the year at the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum. The mausoleum is a grand, severe sight. Mausoleum cons: you have to queue for a good 30 minutes to catch a quick glimpse of the mummified Uncle Ho, but for those who have a taste for the macabre, it’s pretty interesting. Positioned behind the mausoleum are the Ho Chi Minh Museum and the Presidential Palace. If you have to choose between one or the other, go to the museum. The 2nd Floor of the museum lays out interactive displays with a host of Ho Chi Minh-related artifacts, and also walks you through social and political movements happening during his lifetime.
Where? Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum, 25 Hung Vuong, Dien Bien, Ba Dinh, Hanoi. The mausoleum is free but the museum is 40,000 VND (~$2 USD).
5. Traverse The Way the Locals Do
Once in the The Old Quarter, there’s no doubt you’ll see convoys of rickshaws carting around middle aged folk with their Nikon cameras poised at the passing motorcade. Those contraptions are called cyclos, a dying breed of transportation used only by the locals to pedal around tourists or supplies. For the most part, locals are loyal to their motorbikes, which helps them deal with the horrendous congestion posed by the increase of cars navigating Hanoi’s narrow streets. If you want to try a motorbike, order an Uber Moto or Grab Bike, two motorbike sharing services that are available with working internet. Ask the Uber/Grab driver to ride down Long Biên Bridge, designed by Gustave Eiffel himself. If you’re into trains, The Reunification Express, a passenger train that connects Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City, rolls right through The Old Quarter and many tourists love traversing the so-called “train street,” a set of tracks that bisects residential areas. Watch ordinary citizens scramble off the tracks at the sight and sound of an approaching train.
Looking for the Train Street? Check out this fun guide made by traveling couple Frances and David of So The Adventure Begins.
- The Temple of Literature is Vietnam’s oldest university, where you can see the diplomas of yore fixed upon the backs of stone tortoises.
- KOTO (Know One, Teach One) is a social enterprise disguised as a restaurant that takes destitute youth off the streets and gives them meaningful employment inside the kitchen, where they learn a new vocation…
- … Many of the students from KOTO graduate onto The Hanoi Social Club, a popular eatery among expats, where healthy, Western meals are served in a charming space. There is live music at night too.
- In a city of lakes, Hoan Kiem Lake pales in comparison to Tay Ho Lake, also known as West Lake. Rent a bike at Hanoi Bicycle Collective and bike around the shoreline around golden hour, where you’ll catch fisherman expertly balancing on blocks of wood in the lake.
- For all the mandala loving, zen abiding hippies out there, check out Eden Cafe, located right next door to St. Joseph’s Cathedral. Make sure to check out every floor, as each of them have their own unique character.
- Collective Memory is probably my favorite souvenir shop in all of Vietnam, and the secret behind its great curation: it’s run by an artist and a writer. Double the creativity points!
For a splurge, The French Quarter district is home to Vietnam’s most historic property, The Sofitel Metropole. This five-star heritage hotel is a vacation in and of itself.
Tip: The Opera Wing is a modern addition to the Metropole. If you’d like to stay in the original suites, request a night in the historic wing on the first and second floors, the section of the hotel built in 1901.
For budget hunters, The Old Quarter has every type of accommodation you could ask for. It’s notorious for backpacking-friendly spots, like See You At Lily’s, but if you want something calmer, check out the boutique properties. The blog Willful and Wildhearted has a great list of where to stay in Hanoi.
- Hanoi has very volatile weather, with seriously suffocating heat during its summer and cold fronts that come from China from January to March. The best time visit is October to December, where the days are for the most part, sunny and less humid than any other time of year.
- Taxis are iffy in Hanoi. For reputable taxis, stick to these companies: Vinasun (White and Green), Mai Linh (Green), and Hanoi Taxi Group (White and Red). Also, do not begin your ride until the meter is turned on. And do not haggle for a fixed rate; it will most likely be an inflated price. Uber is always my number one choice when traveling in the big cities.
- Looking to visit Sapa or Halong Bay? Check out what tour packages your hotel provides. Chances are, you can barter for a lower price at the hotel versus if you were to choose one online.
- Cyclos may be the very definition of touristy, but its a great way to get a lay of the land. A reasonable fare is 100,000 VND (~$5 USD) per hour for one person, but I’ve scored 120,000 VND (~$6 USD) hour long rides for two people.