Hanoi is a Vietnamese city that awakens the senses. Chaotic, zigzagging streets, crowded with motorbikes, keep you on your feet as you try to get to your destination. Humid, hot air and aromas of freshly cooked food waft from vendor stalls and storefronts. Peaceful quiet pagodas are tucked away amidst all the noise. This thriving city is rich in culture and history. And while Hanoi may seem overwhelming at first, you will find yourself quickly adjusting to the pace.
Eat at Street Food Restaurants
The best thing about Hanoi? Street food. There are thousands of street food spots in Hanoi – from miniature street food store fronts crammed so closely together that the tiny plastic tables and chairs spill onto the streets, to street food carts set up wherever they can find a free space for the day. And while we were a little hesitant at first to try Vietnam street food (knowing that we might be risking some stomach aches while on vacation), we were immediately hooked after our first experience. A few local favorites of ours from the street food vendors we frequented were the Pho (noodle soup), Bun Cha (grilled pork and noodles), Ca Phe Trung (egg coffee), and Nem Cua Be (crab spring rolls).
Pro Tip: Need to make a decision on which street food place you should eat at? Head the busiest ones. You can guarantee that the food is good and hasn’t been sitting out in the hot humid weather for too long if there is a line. Your taste buds and your tummy will thank you.
Explore Hoan Kiem Lake
In the heart of the chaotic Old Quarter of Hanoi lies the peaceful Hoan Kiem Lake, or the “Lake of the Returned Sword.” Legend has it that in the 1400s an Emperor had borrowed a magic sword from the Golden Turtle God in the lake to defeat the Chinese. After defeating them he returned the sword to the God in the lake. Today, you can spend time walking along the ancient streets surrounding the lake as locals practice tai chi. You may even see a turtle or two swimming in the water (the lake is filled with endangered soft shell turtles).
Pro Tip: Stop by the lake at sunrise when it’s coolest outside to see the sun rise over the beautiful bright red Huc Bridge (Rising Sun Bridge). You’re sure to get some Instagram-worthy shots.
Check Out the Beautiful Ngoc Son Temple
At Hoan Kiem Lake, you can cross the Huc Bridge and explore the Ngoc Son Temple. Built in the 1700s on the center of Jade Island on the lake, the Pagoda is designed in a classic Vietnamese style and was built to commemorate a 13th century military leader, Tran Hung Dao, who was known for defeating an armed force of 300,000 soldiers sent by Mongolian Emperor Kublai Khan. The temple offers unique views from the center of the lake and the opportunity to explore the historic interior of the pagoda. Typically Ngoc Son opens at 8 am and closes at 6 pm.
Pro Tip: In order to enter the temple, you must have your shoulders covered, as well as your knees (guys and girls). If you are in Hanoi at certain times of the year, it may seem difficult to cover up because of the humidity and heat of the city. If this is the case for you, you can grab a cover-up garment at the entrance to the temple to wear inside and return upon exit.
Admire the Architecture of Saint Joseph Cathedral
If it wasn’t for the bustling street food and the noise of the motorbikes, you might mistake your location for Paris, France when you first set your eyes on Saint Joseph’s Cathedral. Built in 1886, this is the oldest Cathedral in the city and was inspired by Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris. Throughout Hanoi and Vietnam, you will find a heavy French influence, as Vietnam was under French control in the 1800s and this time period has had continued influence on aspects of local culture, including religion (over 4 million Vietnamese are Catholic). Whether or not you are Catholic, this cathedral is undeniably beautiful and worth a visit.
Wander the Hanoi Weekend Night Market
If you happen to be in Hanoi on a Friday, Saturday, or Sunday evening head to the weekend night market on Hang Dao Street in the Old Quarter. Starting at 7 pm, the streets are closed to traffic and roadside stalls and food vendors converge on the area. The merchandise at the stalls may be touristy, but even if that isn’t your thing the overall experience is worth it. The energy in the air is hard to resist.
Pro Tip: Grab a drink, take a seat on a tiny plastic stool, eat some delicious phở and spend the night watching the tourists and locals intermingle. It will be an experience you won’t soon forget!
Pay Respect to Ho Chi Minh
You can’t miss Ho Chi Minh’s colossal mausoleum when walking through Ba Dinh Square in the city. Ho Chi Minh led the independence movement in the north and became the first communist leader of Vietnam. He is still very well respected and admired throughout the country. Ho Chi Minh passed in September of 1969 and the country modeled his mausoleum after Lenin’s mausoleum in Moscow. You can pay your respects to Ho Chi Minh (if you’re open to it) you can pass his preserved glass-encased body when you visit.
Pro Tip: Do not try to visit the mausoleum on Mondays or Fridays since it is closed.
Visit Tran Quoc Pagoda, the Oldest Pagoda in Hanoi
A visit to Hanoi is not complete without exploring the oldest pagoda in the city, Tran Quoc. This beautiful temple was built during the 6th century on the shores of the Red River. However, in the 1600s when the water levels began to rise, the pagoda was moved to the bank of the West Lake. The temple has an iconic 11-story stupa (Buddhist shrine), with the top nine stories depicting a lotus flower – the national flower of Vietnam and an important Buddhist symbol.
Pro Tip: Wear something that covers your shoulders and knees to visit the pagoda. There will be women selling cover-ups outside of the entrance and while you may think you are purchasing one, you are actually renting it and they will chase you down upon exiting to retrieve it! While there, we saw some visitors enter the temple without proper attire, however this is considered disrespectful so we recommend covering-up.
Stroll the Ho Chi Minh Presidential Palace Grounds
While it may be extremely hot and humid outside during the summer months, a stroll through the presidential palace grounds is still worth it. Once inside the grounds you can get an up close look at the bright yellow Presidential Palace (unfortunately you can’t go inside), the beautiful carp ponds, Ho Chi Minh’s cars, and Ho’s traditional Vietnamese house. When Vietnam gained independence in 1954 and Ho was expected to move into the Presidential Palace, he refused on principle (the Palace was built by the previous French rulers) and instead built a traditional Vietnamese-style home that he lived in on the property.
Visit a Tailor for a Custom Vietnam Suit
Whether or not you’ve ever owned a custom-tailored suit, you are probably aware that they come at a steep price. However, because of the exchange rate between dollars (or euros) and currencies in Southeast Asia, the price of a tailor-made suit is significantly lower and the tailor shops in Hanoi are a perfect place to visit if you want a suit that fits you just right. The length of time that it takes the tailor to make you a custom suit will vary, but typically if you go into a shop to get measurements done, they can design, cut, sew and have your suit ready for pick-up in two days.
Pro-Tip: Vietnam is known for their beautiful silk. Consider lining your suit in a fine silk, picking up a silk tie for yourself or as a gift, or purchasing a beautiful silk scarf.
Treat Yourself to a Fine Dining at the Green Tangerine Restaurant
The street food is undeniably delicious as we mentioned earlier, but it’s also amazing to have a fine dining experience while in Hanoi. Amid the hustle of the old quarter, is the Green Tangerine restaurant, one that we highly recommend visiting if you have the opportunity. The cuisine here is a perfect blend of French and Vietnamese cooking and the ambiance is unforgettable. While you may not notice it at first from the street, as soon as you walk through the doors you are greeted by a beautiful open patio leading up to a typical French-style home. Bonus: the prices are reasonable for such an exquisite experience and food (entrees are around 20 to 30 US dollars).
Pro Tip: If you’re interested in dining here for lunch or dinner, ask your hotel to make a reservation for you. Tables fill up quick!