In 2010, I had a great opportunity through my work to travel to Hanoi and other cities around Vietnam for six months. I lived in Hanoi and had a number of visitors during that time from the US, UK and the Netherlands.
Hanoi is a bustling city and the capital of Vietnam. It is in the north and therefore the winter months can be surprisingly cool. Walking around the busy streets, and crossing between motorbikes is an experience in itself. The busy markets sell everything from food to cloth, souvenirs and household items. There are plenty of museums and the Mausoleum for Ho Chi Minh.
The French influence is still quite apparent especially in the French quarter, where I lived. There is a beautiful Opera house, and some of the architecture is French. If you have time then I recommend seeing a show at the Opera- there is a mix of opera, classical music and modern music. Some of the Vietnamese food also has a French fusion like the well-know banh mi sandwiches, a “baguette” with meat and vegetable fillings. There are many delicious foods to try in Hanoi!
Near to Hanoi are some beautiful places to visit including the UNESCO World Heritage site, Ha Long Bay. A bit further by train is Sapa, the beautiful valleys with tiered rice paddies near the border with China.
This guide for travel to Hanoi is based on the collective experience from myself and visitors. Luckily, most of the places we visited are still open even more than 10 years later.
- Hoan Kiem Lake and temple
- Hanoi Old Quarter
- Night markets
- Food markets to see some unusual foods and try the exotic fruits
- Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum
- One Pillar Pagoda
- Water Puppet Theatre
- Hao Lo Prison Museum– including John McCain’s flight suit
- Temple of Literature
- Vietnam Museum of Ethnology
- Hanoi Opera House to see a show
- West Lake (Hồ Tây)
- Quan Thanh Temple
- Tran Quoc Pagoda
- Hanoi Train Street
- Get some clothes made by the talented local tailors. I loved Phu Trang and Dong Xuan and Hom Markets for fabrics and food
- Overnight trip to Hao Long Bay, staying on a wooden boat
- Try one of the cooking courses: Hidden Hanoi, Koto, Old Hanoi, Hanoi Cooking Centre
Before you go
- Winters are cool so you may need layers. And in summer, be prepared for humidity and mosquitos
- Authentic medication is not always easy to find, so bring what you need
- You’ll probably end up with a big stack of money due to the conversion rate so keep it safe
- Crossing the road takes some practice. Motorbikes will go around you as you walk, but you need to stay out of the way of cars and larger vehicles
- There are some unusual foods in the markets and local restaurants including dog, crickets, worms, etc. However, these are usually clearly stated on menus if you are not feeling adventurous
- You can bargain at the markets so practice and have in mind what max price you will pay
- Beware of pickpockets
- Face masks are not required usually, but I sometimes wore one outdoors due to the pollution
- There are many people who do not speak English so GoogleTranslate can be useful
- Many airlines fly into Hanoi. Vietnam Airlines was my airline of choice for flying from Hanoi to other Asian countries. However, for the London to Hanoi route, I also flew with British Airways and Malaysian Airlines
- Taxis are relatively cheap for travel around the city. However, sometimes the driving is a little scary so you may want to close your eyes! There are also motorbike taxis that can even take luggage. They are less safe and not that much cheaper than the car taxis
- The overnight train from Hanoi to Sapa is an experience! There are sleeper beds and ours was two bunkbeds in a cabin. However, there were some very sudden stops during the night including some that threw our water bottles across the cabin
- Local buses are possible to take but even the locals are cautious on them. There are a lot of pickpockets! One of my friends had her bag cut open, and her wallet stolen in a crowded bus. She didn’t realise until she was getting off the bus.
- When I first arrived to live in Hanoi, I stayed at the Golden Lake Hotel near Hoan Kiem Hotel. It has since changed name to the Lakeside Palace Hotel. The hotel was well-located and had spacious, clean rooms with air conditioning.
- After a couple of weeks, I moved to a temporary apartment. Then finally my apartment for 5 months 1A Le Phung Hieu in the French Quarter of Hanoi. That area has some nice buildings and is safe, near some embassies
- Although I did not stay there, the Metropole Hanoi was a fancier hotel. I went to the chocolate buffet a few times. Service was excellent and the reception and restaurant were clean.
During my six months in Vietnam, I enjoyed trying many different types of foods. My favourites were the spring rolls, Cha ca (dill fish) and Pho. There were the normal kind of spring rolls and then the special Hue version. Hue spring rolls had a shredded wrapper which was crispier, and they were often served on sticks in a pineapple. More on Cha ca below as that is a Hanoi specialty that can’t be missed! Pho is served as street food and there are many restaurants dedicated to Pho.
Unfortunately, I often had stomach issues and had to take a break from the fresh food. I am still not sure if it was the water, oil or fresh herbs that bothered me. The food was so delicious that I would always try it again!
Some of the more unusual foods for westerners includes roast dog, pig trotters, whole frogs, meal worms, and crickets. Also, there was a special snake liquor that was meant to be good for virility. I tried a sip of that and it was strong so I am not sure if it had a snake flavour!
Highway 4 was a consistently great place to dine out. My friends and I went there often. One of the more unusual dishes was the cricket salad. It was very crispy and tasty. The atmosphere was lively and friendly, and we always met new people while dining there.
An outdoor food court at Quon An Ngon was also a local favourite with many choices. On one occasion, my cousin and I ordered the vegetarian steamed bun. Normally, the bun is filled with pork. It turned out that the vegetarian one was just an empty bun! We had expected a vegetable filling so had a good laugh about that.
Half Man Half Noodle is a local institution to visit for cocktails and beer. Besides having a very cool name, it also had a great atmosphere and a mix of locals and foreigners.
As mentioned, Cha ca was one of my favourite foods. And I recommend to try Cha Ca Thanh Long for this regional specialty, dill fish with peanuts and noodles.
For a fancier meal you may try La Badiane, Bobby Chinn or Ly Club Hanoi. They all have a nice ambience and fine dining.
Hoa Vien brewery and restaurant is great for a fun and casual outing. The beer is locally brewed and there are many choices for food as well. I went out with my work colleagues to Hoa Vien and managed to bring a souvenir beer mug with me back to London.
Try the incredible chocolate buffet at the Metropole Hanoi. It is all you can eat with a selection of delicious desserts and fruits. The restaurant also does afternoon high tea.
If you take a trip to Hao Long Bay, then you will enjoy some seafood. There are fresh crabs and fish served on the boat hotel.
Vietnamese coffee is very popular and there are many different cafes. The traditional brewer is a small metal cup with holes in the bottom. It is used to brew coffee directly into a cup or mug. A special type of coffee is made from beans that are eaten and then pooped by the civet. This is usually more expensive. Honestly, I couldn’t taste the difference but I am not a big coffee drinker. We liked going to the Highlands Coffee near Hoan Kiem lake because it was spacious and a good place for people-watching.
If you like live music then there are many options around the city. A favourite among my local friends was Minh’s Jazz Club, which is still there. You can enjoy drinks and snacks while listening to jazz singers from Vietnam and abroad. It is very chilled out and relaxing.
Although it wouldn’t be my top recommendation, the Pizza Hut was surprisingly nice. It’s more of a sit-down restaurant and my Vietnamese friends took me to lunch there. Also sometimes it was nice to have a change from Asian food.
Q: Do I need a tour guide?
A: No, not to get around the city. You may want to book tours for days out such as to Hao Long Bay
Q: Do people speak English?
A: The younger people often speak some English. For the older people, some do but some also speak French. A translation app such as GoogleTranslate can definitely be useful, especially for local markets!
Q: Is it a walkable city?
A: Yes it is walkable in the centre. You may want to use taxis for the further out sights and also if it is hot and humid.
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