Vietnam’s capital Hanoi is like a living museum; a fascinating glimpse into an Asian city of old, yet oozing with the energy and pace of a modern metropolis. Motorbikes, pedestrians, street hawkers, pedaled rickshaws, bicycles and cars whizz around the narrow streets as tourists timidly try to navigate around them. Trying to cross the road is a challenge in itself and requires a bit of nerve the first few times you do it. Everywhere you look there is activity and noise. Life seems to take place outdoors on the busy streets; working, eating,, cooking, playing, creating, feeding babies, laughing, or just sitting and chatting. You could spend days just people watching. Crazy, beautiful and hectic, at times frustrating, a day in Hanoi is never dull.
Places to stay in Hanoi
The Old Quarter:
The main traveller hub is located in the Old Quarter which stretches all around Hoan Kiem Lake, encompassing plenty of restaurants, cafes, bars, internet cafes and travel agents. Pretty much everything a backpacker could need (and many things you don’t – Steamed dog meat anyone?) can be found around the Old Quarter – which serves as a good base for exploring the rest of the city.
Steeped in almost one thousand years of history, Hanoi’s Old Quarter is wonderfully medieval and atmospheric. A fascinating mish-mash of architectural styles, colours, conditions, genres; there is a photograph to be taken on every street corner. Every street is named after the trade that was first established there as early as the 13th Century; there is Silk Street, Woodworking street and Silver Street. Hanoi’s Old Quarter is great for shopping, wandering and people watching.
Things to Do in Hanoi
- Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum and Museum: See the tomb of Vietnam’s most beloved revolutionary turned leader, Ho Chi Minh, President from 1945-1969. In the same style as fellow Communist leader, Lenin, Ho Chi Minh’s body is embalmed and preserved in a glass case, in a stone tomb protected by guards. A visit to the mausoleum and accompanying museum is a fascinating insight into Vietnamese History and a great way to gain an understanding of today’s culture as hundreds of proud Vietnamese pay their respects at the Mausoleum. The site is located in the middle of Ba Dinh Square, the location where Ho Chi Minh read the ‘Declaration of Independence’ in 1945 after forming the Democratic Republic of Vietnam. For visitors, strict rules apply upon entrance; no walking on the grass outside, no wearing sunglasses, no talking, laughing or smiling
- Hoan Kiem Lake and 6am aerobics: Hoan Kiem Lake is one of the most famous landmarks of Hanoi, and an important focal point of public life. If you can drag yourself out of bed at the unearthly hour of 6am you’ll witness the wacky morning exercises taking place around the lake; group massage sessions, ambitious stretching, Tai Chi, volleyball, bizarre aerobics. During the day, locals and tourists stroll around the lake, the pedestrianised walkway surrounding the green waters offering a (slightly) calmer area of the city. Perch yourself at a lakeside cafe and while away a pleasant afternoon, reading the newspaper and sipping a cup of deliciously sweet Vietnamese coffee. The lake itself is seeped in history and legend. It is also known as ‘Lake of the Returned Sword’ after Emperor ‘Le Loi,’ was given a golden sword by Kim Qui, the Golden Turtle God, at the lake shore, only to have it snatched back from him whilst out boating on the lake one day. The turtle is said to still inhabit the murky depths of which sightings have been reported throughout time.
- Hoa Lo Prison: Built by the French a the beginning of the 20th Century, the prison was first used by the Colonial Regime to detain Vietnamese Freedom Fighters. Later, when it became known as the ‘Hanoi Hilton’ it was used by the Vietnamese to hold American Prisoners of War who had been shot down in planes over the skies of Northern Vietnam. John McCain, former Vietnamese War Veteran and recent campaigner for President of the U.S was famously incarcerated here. There are some strange photos of prisoners playing basketball, putting up Christmas trees and playing chess.
- Sit at Bia Hoi Junctions: Ideally located on bustling street corners of Hanoi and other cities, Bia Hoi junctions are a fantastic place to grab yourself a glass of Vietnam’s beloved local brew whilst taking part in a popular Vietnamese cultural tradition. It’s a great way to socialise with both locals and fellow traveller’s; sat by the roadside with a litre to share, watching the fascinating street life go by, guaranteed you’ll have tonnes of new friends by the end of the night. A light lager (usually around 3%) you’ll see shirted workers sat on little plastic stools drinking the stuff on their lunch break. At 10,000 VND a litre (about $0.50) it’s an absolute must for the backpacker! Tram Phan Tram! (Bottoms up!)
- The Vietnamese Museum of Ethnology: About half an hour motorbike ride from the Old Quarter, the Museum of Ethnology is an interesting glimpse into the cultures of the ethnic minorities of Vietnam. Discover more about the culture, art and rituals of the tribes of mountainous areas of Vietnam. Very insightful prior to a trip to Sapa.
- Hire a motorbike: At your peril! Much better to watch the seething traffic from a rooftop bar with a beer in hand.
- Day Trips from Hanoi: There are many worthwhile day trips that can be taken from the city, booked at many hotels and travel agents in the city. One of the best is a trip to Tam Coc, dubbed the ‘Halong Bay on land,’ a breathtaking landscape of limestone karsts and beautiful river winding through. (Beware the hard-selling boat ladies.) The famous Perfume Pagoda also makes for a good day out. About an hour’s drive from Hanoi, The Perfume Pagoda is a sacred collection of Buddhist Temples built into the rocks of the beautiful Huong Son Mountain. Legend has it that the site dates back to over 2000 years when a Buddhist Monk began meditating in the area.
Bus: From Vientiane, Laos, the bus trip is a notorious 24 hour journey and is a very popular backpacker route. Stories of rice bags piled up the aisle, tiresome border crossings and hotel scams have all been reported. Take lots of snacks and prepare yourself for an epic ride – do it for the experience!
Fly: Low cost airlines fly into Hanoi’s main airport. It’s a one hour taxi journey into the city.
Where to go next?
As a capital city, Hanoi is perfectly positioned as a base for adventures into the amazing surrounding areas. Not too far away from the busy, hectic city, you’ll find rugged mountain scenery, lush rice paddies, golden sandy beaches and astonishing geological wonders; Northern Vietnam is an great area for backpackers to explore and one that’s hard to beat on diversity. You could be trekking amongst hill tribe villages one week, wake-boarding by the beach the next. Hiking, kayaking, water-sports, rock-climbing, even scaling the heights of Vietnam’s highest peak ‘Fansipan.’
- Head North to Sapa to visit the hill tribe villages: Just an overnight train journey (350km North of Hanoi) towards the Chinese border, lies the misty, mountainous market town of Sapa. Best used as the starting point for treks and adventures into the surrounding hills and valleys. Hill tribes live here in the mountains as they have done for hundreds of years. You can also use Sapa as a base to climb Mount Fansipan. Read more about Sapa here.
- Head South via the Buffalo Run! Vietnam is an awesome country to backpack due to it’s shape – you can head down the coast by train or bus (or even via motorbike or bicycle!) exploring all the country has to offer and watching as the scenery changes with every stop.
- Vietnam Backpackers’ newest and very popular trip, the Buffalo Run (you can read our article about the trip here!) is a great, very good value for money way to explore the coast of Vietnam. Along the way experience you’ll incredible national parks, such as Cuc Phuong and Phong Na, visit the world’s biggest cave, discover exquisite hidden beaches, learn about the history of the Ho Chi Minh Trail, swim in waterfalls, visit historic tunnels from the Vietnam-American War and much more.
- Halong Bay: Just a two hour bus ride from Hanoi lies the awe-inspiring natural wonder of Halong Bay. Known in Vietnamese as ‘Bay of the Descending Dragons’ this UNESCO world heritage site is made up of almost 3000 limestone islands that jut out of emerald waters creating a stunning, magical landscape… You can book an awesome 3-day, 2-night trip with Vietnam Backpackers Hostels where you’ll experience the natural wonders of the bay whilst kayaking, caving, wak-boarding and spending the night on a private paradise island! This trip is one of the unmissable adventures in South East Asia!
- Cat Ba Island: Jurassic island of jungle covered karsts and rocky beaches, located in Cat Ba National Park, Halong Bay. Rock climbing and exploring on a motorbike are essential activities. It’s a two hour journey to Halong City, then catch a one-hour speed boat to the island. Accommodation is located around Cat Ba Pier – an old English style beach resort.