Hanoi is the capital of Vietnam and is the country’s second-largest city. If visiting Hanoi, I highly recommend you stay in Hanoi’s Old Quarter. The Old Quarter is at the heart of the city and is made of numerous narrow streets arranged by the products sold. The French-influenced buildings are brightly colored, tall and skinny, and are typically no more than 3 meters wide.
There are a ton of things to do in Hanoi to keep you busy for a few days and of course, it is a great place to leave for an overnight stay on a Vietnamese junk boat to see stunning Halong Bay as well as other great North Vietnam destinations like Sapa and Ninh Binh.
Keep reading to check out my tips for visiting Hanoi, including how best to visit Halong Bay.
Guest Post by Melissa, from Thrifty Family Travels author bio below.
*When looking for the best price and biggest selection of hotels in Hanoi check prices on Booking.com, we’ve found they are the best option and have a great cancelation policy.*
1. Explore the Colourful Shops of the Old Quarter
When you first arrive in the Old Quarter I highly recommend you just get out there and explore the narrow streets, experiencing the culture and the local way of life. It’s quite surreal how disordered and messy the streets are, yet how calm and friendly the locals tend to be.
As soon as you step foot onto the streets there’s no doubt that the Old Quarter is full of life albeit a little chaotic, but this is what makes Hanoi so intriguing. You will be bombarded with the sounds of the traffic, motorbikes, and cars continually beeping their horns, you will be scared to cross the main roads which will take you more than one attempt. The pavements are full of vendors selling their wares as well as colorful fruits and vegetables that fill the little stalls that spill onto the pavements. The Old Quarter is absolute chaos, but completely mesmerizing, and an experience that you will never forget.
Once you come slightly accustomed to the chaos one of the first things you will notice is how each street sells only one product. For example, there is paper street (selling gift wrap and cards), spice street, toy Street and cooking utensils street just to name a few.
Once you get tired of all that walking, or the traffic gets a bit much, and your adrenaline rush of trying to cross the main roads has crashed, jump on board one of the many cyclos in the town. Be sure to agree on the price before you get in the cyclo otherwise you may end up paying more than required. A ride on a cyclo amongst the traffic will also open your eyes to the lack of traffic rules on these Vietnamese roads, from entire families of 4 plus people with no helmets on one moped to crates of live chickens or pigs on the back of another- certainly an eye-opener that’s for sure.
2. Join a Food Tour
The best way to get accustomed to Vietnamese food as well as becoming familiar with the Old Quarter is to join a Vietnamese food tour for only $20. Many of the tour guides will provide you with a background on all the food, how it’s prepared, and answer your questions about Hanoi at the same time, and each stop offers something new with all the food tasting fantastic.
What is great about doing a food tour in Hanoi, apart from the food, of course, is that there is usually quite a bit of walking between places. This gives you an opportunity not only to see more of the Old Quarter but to help digest some of the food you eat. You will love strolling through hidden alleyways and fresh produce markets – I would have never have found these places on my own.
Related Article: Is Street Food Safe? – Street Food Safety Guide
3. Check out Hanoi with HanoiKids
HanoiKids is an organization that arranges young Vietnamese people to guide tourists around Hanoi to practice their English. The tours can be whatever you want them to be as they are customized to your needs. The tours are also completely free, you are only required to pay any entrance fees, transport, and food for both yourself and your guides.
I think the most amazing part was how friendly, welcoming and enthusiastic they were and to my surprise didn’t want to accept any money from us. We had two lovely young guides, who took us to the Hoa Lo Prison Museum, Museum of Ethnology, a walk around Hoan Kiem Lake and some delicious Vietnamese food. This tour was definitely one of the highlights of our trip. For a more personal tour of Hanoi, I highly recommend you take a tour with HanoiKids.
4. Get a Massage
There is a massage parlor every few meters in Hanoi, or so it seems at least! So be sure to treat yourself a foot massage after all that walking. Of course, there is a whole array of treatments on offer including full-body massages, pedicures, manicures, and facials. Why not try them all! You are on holiday after all and all the treatments are relatively cheap, so it would be rude not to contribute to this tourist past time – Go on pamper yourself!
5. Visit the Railway Village
An interesting area of Hanoi to visit is the village often referred to as the “Railway Village” or sometimes “train street”. Basically, this is a small village that is built within meters around an operational railway line. In some parts, the distance between the houses and the track is only 3-5m.
When the train leaves Hanoi going towards the south, it passes through this village, twice per day. The train is a familiar image to the people living here so they don’t think it’s dangerous since they have become used to this way of life. So, locals understandably know when the train is due and ensure all their belonging and children are safely tucked inside before the train passes by.
It is interesting to see the locals go about their day to day life with the railway line only meters from their homes.
6. Stroll around Hoan Kiem Lake
For a peaceful Hanoi attraction head just south of Hanoi’s Old Quarter to Hoan Kiem Lake. A stroll around Hoan Kiem Lake (also known as Sword Lake) takes no more than 30 minutes and is a lovely way to observe the locals relaxing when they are not buzzing around the chaotic city streets.
Perhaps one of the more well-known parts of the lake is Jade Island. This is an island in the center of the lake and to get there you need to cross a small bright red bridge (the Huc Bridge). The views from the island back across the lake to Hanoi are superb, something different and in the heart of the action. Jade Island houses an 18th-century Buddhist temple which is small but detailed, there are also many little areas and gardens on Jade Island and a wonderful small pagoda where locals play board games.
At night the area comes alive as it is wonderfully lit up with different colors with the Huc Bridge really standing out in a strong bright red. This place is small but is a must-see as it is so intricate and beautiful.
7. Watch the Water Puppet Show
One of the most popular things to do in Hanoi at night is the Hanoi Water Puppet Show. Watching a Water Puppet show allows you to admire the age-old art of Vietnamese puppetry. Hanoi is world-renowned for its famous water puppet shows emphasizing traditional Vietnamese legends and historical tales.
The shows are in Vietnamese, but you will love seeing the beautifully made puppets and listening to traditional music. And if your anything like me you will keep trying to work out how the puppeteers worked the puppets that can each be several kilos in weight. Apparently, though, each puppet can have more than one person activating them, who constantly stands in waist-deep water for about an hour.
Puppet shows are on multiple times a day, every day of the year. Each show goes for about an hour and can be seen at various places around Hanoi with the most famous theatre being the Thang Long Water Puppet Theatre, just by Hoan Kiem Lake.
8. Ho Chi Minh Complex
Many would say a visit to Hanoi is not complete without checking out the Ho Chi Minh Complex as it is one of the special places among the Vietnamese. It is situated to the west of the Old Quarter and is considered an important place of pilgrimage.
Ho Chi Minh (or Uncle Ho), was the very first president of Vietnam, the National Liberation Hero. He devoted his whole life to the national liberation of Vietnamese people. In order to honor him and show and gratitude, the government decided to build the Ho Chi Minh complex in Hanoi after he was gone. Here you will see the embalmed body of Uncle Ho- which I found slightly morbid, but you might as well have a look whilst there.
The complex itself includes the Presidential Palace, Uncle Ho’s House on stilt, Ho Chi Minh’s Mausoleum, Ba Dinh Square, Ho Chi Minh Museum and One Pillar Pagoda.
9. Hoa Lo Prison
Was initially a prison used by the French colonists for political prisoners in Vietnam and was built by the French in 1896. Later it was used by North Vietnam during the Vietnam war for U.S. POWs and nicknamed the Hanoi Hilton. Originally intended to house around 450 inmates, records indicate that by the 1930s there were close to 2000 prisoners.
You can stroll through the prison and see life-size mannequins depicting the gruesome life of the prisoners as well as read various display boards and watch the footage for an in-depth understanding of how the prison operated. A gruesome relic is the ominous French guillotine, used to behead Vietnamese revolutionaries. This prison was never a very successful prison, and hundreds escaped its walls over the years – some escaping out the sewer grates by squeezing through.
10. Spend the night on a Vietnamese Junk Boat in Halong Bay
If you are visiting Hanoi then you absolutely must take a few days to go and visit the stunning Halong Bay, this place is like something right out of a movie. It’s one of the best places in Vietnam. In fact, the mesmerizing unique scenery has indeed featured in endless movies.
Located in the North East of Vietnam, Halong Bay is a UNESCO World Heritage Site in the Quang Ninh Province. It is well known for the thousands of spectacular limestone cliffs emerging from its beautiful emerald green waters which are topped with tropical rainforests. The Bay is dotted with 1,600 limestone islands and islets and covers an area of over 1,500 square km.
Historical research has shown the presence of prehistoric human beings in this area many tens of thousands of years ago. It is one of the most scenic regions in Vietnam and is a must-do for anyone visiting the country and unsurprisingly, is northern Vietnam’s number one tourism hub.
The bay itself belongs to Ha Long City, Cam Pha town, and is a part of Van Don District. Halong City (also known as Bai Chay) is the bay’s main gateway, but its high-rises are a disappointing doorstep to this site. Therefore, Halong Bay is best visited by a 1 or 2-night cruise, rather than basing yourself at Halong City.
There is a stack of different tours to book, from party boats to more relaxing luxurious boats and everything in between. Most cruises follow a similar itinerary and include activities such as swimming, kayaking, squid fishing, tai chi, hiking, and cave exploring.
Click here to browse the Halong Bay tour options from day trips to overnights, we suggest at least a one night cruise.
You can make your own way to Halong Bay for your cruise, however, if you are in Hanoi your cruise will send a shuttle for you.
Have you visited Hanoi? We’d love to hear some of your favorite things to do in Hanoi just leave them in the comments below.
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Author Bio: Melissa is the creator and writer for the Thrifty Family Travels website; which details her family’s travels both locally and across the globe. Together they travel the world, experience new cultures, indulge in local delicacies, and explore every corner of our beautiful earth, navigating their way around the world. Thrifty Family Travels hopes to inspire other families to travel and to show them all the fantastic places the world has to explore.