Your Local Hanoi Travel Guide
This Hanoi travel guide will give you a quick overview of the capital city of Vietnam. You will find out where to eat, where to drink, some of the top things to do in Hanoi, and great day trips in the surrounding regions.
Although Hanoi has a population of over 10 million people it still maintains a large village-like atmosphere. The streets are filled with vendors on bicycles, motorbike traffic is crazy, and public transport is virtually non-existent.
The city seamlessly combines colonial French architecture, with the modern hustle of Southeast Asia.
With it’s hidden cafes,
Most visitors stay in Hanoi’s Old Quarter around Hoan Kiem Lake. This is where most budget and boutique accommodation options are located. Looking for accommodation? Check out the latest deals here on Agoda.
Where to go in Hanoi
Hanoi is massive, and without a decent public transport system in place, it can be quite confusing to get around. Instead of tackling the whole city at one, let’s focus this Hanoi travel guide on the two main areas you’ll most likely explore; the Old Quarter and the West Lake.
The Old Quarter is the area where most of the action happens for travelers. Here you will find a huge range of cafes, bars, nightclubs, street food vendors, coffee stores, guesthouses, and hotels.
In the Old Quarter, the streets are narrow and busy, however, most places are within walking distance so it is easy to get around. You can walk just about anywhere in 20 minutes.
Book hostels and guesthouses in Hanoi here.
The West Lake (locally called Tay Ho) is where most of the expats in Hanoi hang out, and there is a lot of them! Teaching English in Vietnam is quite a popular expat job, in case you are thinking about staying a bit longer in this amazing city.
The area around West Lake has plenty of international restaurants, small craft beer spots and popular expat bars like Standing Bar, and Rastaman Bar.
Weather in Hanoi
Hanoi is hot and humid like much of southern Vietnam. The summer temperatures range from 25 to 35 degrees. The winter months in Hanoi are considerably cooler with temperatures dropping down to as low as 10 degrees.
The wet season in Hanoi (and north of Hanoi) starts in May and ends in October. During these months, you can expect rain almost every day. It is best to avoid the wet season if you plan on motorbiking around Vietnam.
Eating in Hanoi
I love Vietnamese food and Hanoi offers some of the best of it. When it comes to Southeast Asia you have to get out of your comfort zone with street food and just try it, otherwise, you are seriously missing out.
The two classic street food dishes in Hanoi are Pho Beef Noodle Soup and Banh Mi Rolls. They are both great options for an early morning breakfast before a big day of exploring.
In the afternoon local like to snack out on the street with a few cold local beers. The most common snack you’ll see around is snails, locally written as Oc. You may approach them with a bit of caution, but they are actually really tasty and quite fun to eat with a toothpick.
There are loads of other great tasty dishes out there too like Bun Bo Hue, Bun Rieu, and Ban Xeo covered in this Hanoi food guide.
Top Things to do in Hanoi
Whether you are here for two hours or two weeks, you will find plenty of great things to do in Hanoi. Many of these things are easy to do and quite cheap.
I’ve included some of the most common attractions, along with some tips you will only find from locals and expats (I was lucky enough to have a friend who lived in Hanoi for 5 years teaching English).
1. Get a Pho breakfast
Start off with a hot, fragrant bowl of Pho for breakfast. There are plenty of restaurants around the Old Quarter which serve up Pho in the morning, but for the real deal head to a street vendor. These streetside stores are generally hidden down a small alley, set up with a small table and even smaller chairs.
2. Enjoy Local Coffee at a Hidden Cafe
Vietnam is Southeast Asia’s largest coffee producer and consumer. Vietnamese coffee is served with dripper standing over a few cubes of ice and sweetened condensed milk.
My favorite place to grab a coffee in Hanoi is Cafe Pho Co located right by Hoan Kiem Lake. The entrance is hidden behind a silk shop with no street front signs. Head out the back, climb four levels of stairs, and you will have one of the best views in town of Hoan Kiem Lake.
There are actually lots of hidden cafes all around Hanoi, on top of book stores, down small side alleys, alongside railway lines, and out the back of leafy courtyards. There is an amazing resource called Hanoi Hideaway which has over 100 cafes reviewed with photos and directions, I highly recommend having a read.
3. Walk Around Hoan Kiem Lake
Hoan Kiem Lake is right by the Old Quarter and is surrounded by some of the most peaceful streets in Hanoi. You will easily recognise this lake as there is a small island with a pagoda in the middle called the Temple of the Jade Mountain.
During the week the roads around Hoan Kiem Lake can still be quite busy. However, on weekend evenings the surrounding roads are closed to vehicle access which leaves a peaceful traffic free area to walk around.
4. Visit the West Lake District (Tay Ho)
Tourists hardly know about it, ex-pats love it. West Lake is a much quieter area compared to Hoan Kiem Lake, where you will find lots of good cafes and a few nice bars.
The distance around West Lake is 17 kilometers and is a popular cycling route. There are a few notable attractions around the shore of the lake such as Tran Quoc Pagoda, the oldest temple in Vietnam.
4. Drink Bia Hoi (Home Made Beer)
A trip to Hanoi would not be complete without trying the Bia Hoi. This is Vietnam’s way of doing a local Mum and Pa craft brewery.
Bia Hoi costs just 5,000 VND (USD 0.20) per glass, which is the cheapest beer I’ve found in Asia!
You will find lots of street vendors tapping kegs of homemade beer around the Old Quarter from about 6pm. The last drinks are served either when the kegs run dry or it reaches midnight, which is the Old Quarter’s curfew. Typically, the kegs will empty out first.
5. Visit Buddhist Temples
The Bach Ma temple is located in Hanoi’s Old Quarter. Navigate your way through small rooms filled with thick clouds of incense smoke where you will find a decorated Buddhist Shrine. The smell of incense will leave a lasting memory of these temples.
Next, head to the nearby Ngoc Son temple located in the middle of Hoan Kiem Lake. This small temple is accessed via a small pedestrian bridge, a unique attraction to visit.
6. Explore Hanoi’s Train Street
Is it a street, or a train line? It is kind of both. Hanoi’s train street is an active railway line, which runs directly through a mixed residential-commercial area. People live and commute along the railway line in a unique small community similar to Bangkok’s Maeklong Railway Market.
7. Visit Ho Chi Minh’s Mausoleum
This is one of the most popular attractions to visit in Hanoi, and for that reason, the lines can be incredibly long. On a busy day, you can expect to wait in line for two hours. Ho Chi Minh’s Mausoleum is located in the south-east corner of West Lake. The opening hours are Tuesday to Thursday from 7.30am to 10.30am, and Saturday to Sunday 7:30am to 11:00am.
8. Watch the Water Puppet Show
Water puppetry in Vietnam dates back to the 11th century where villagers would have traditionally performed in flooded rice fields The Water Puppet show in Hanoi tells a series of short folktales, one of which is about the Hoan Kiem Lake which lies right beside the Old Quarter.
Places to Visit Near Hanoi
There’s no shortage of things to do in this northern end of Vietnam. You only have to venture half an hour outside of Hanoi to feel as though you’ve totally escaped the city to the countryside. With a few days or more to spend in the area around Hanoi, I highly suggest checking out some of the following destinations.
Sapa – Starting with the obvious. Everyone talks about how good Sapa is; hiking through the rice terraces, staying a night with a local family at a traditional Vietnamese ‘homestay.’ Sapa is definitely a scenic place to visit for a couple of days. If doing a homestay, plan to stay up here for at least two nights / three days. I wouldn’t suggest staying too much longer as you’ll just get annoyed by the hordes of tourists.
Ha Giang – In my opinion, this is the real northern Vietnam. Ha Giang is located approximately 300 km directly north of Hanoi. It is 240 km further north of Sapa and sees far fewer tourists. There are a number of homestays in the area such as the Ha Giang Homestay and Thon Tha Tay Stilt House. Roads in every direction out of Ha Giang are amazingly scenic, some of the best you’ll find in Southeast Asia.
Halong Bay – Halong Bay is a UNESCO World Heritage site best known for its emerald waters and thousands of towering limestone pinnacles standing in the ocean. Most people visit Halong Bay from Hanoi as either a day trip or overnight cruise on a traditional junk boat. For the rambunctious travelers, there are also quite a few party boat cruises.
Lan Ha Bay – If you’re looking to escape the tourist trail then head out to Lan Ha Bay instead of Halong Bay. Lan Hay bay is the area directly south of Halong Bay and encompasses Cat Ba island. Instead of making a day trip from Hanoi, you’re better off spending a few nights on Cat Ba and explore the surrounding areas with a small local boat. With loads of rock climbers in the region, free climbing the pinnacles is a popular daytime activity.
Ban Gioc Waterfall – Loads of travel agencies in Hanoi have huge landscape photos of Ban Gioc Waterfall plastered across the walls. Therefore, it is quite surprising that no tourists venture up this way. Ban Gioc Waterfall is a huge three-tiered waterfall on the Quay Son River, forming the Vietnam China border. Read more about my motorbike trip to Ban Gioc Waterfall here.
Ma Pi Leng Pass – perhaps one of the most scenic roads in Vietnam, this road winds its way around panoramic views from Ha Giang in the west across to Meo Vac in the east. The 160km road, officially labeled the QL34, takes about 6hrs to ride over two days. A trip from Hanoi and back will take at least one week on a motorbike. Check out my full review of the Ma Pi Leng Pass here, you’ll be awestruck I promise.
One of the most amazing ways to get around Vietnam is by motorbike. If you are thinking of exploring the area surrounding Hanoi by motorbike be sure to check out my guide on how to buy a motorbike in Vietnam. You’ll also learn some useful tips about breakdowns and repairs!
Going further afield? Be sure to check out my Vietnam travel guide, and this 1 month Vietnam Itinerary.
MORE VIETNAM ARTICLES YOU’LL LOVE
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11 thoughts on “A Quick Hanoi Travel Guide for 2020”
Great guide to Hanoi. I am a beginner traveler and have never been to Vietnam before. I really like your blog! Thanks!
I’ve wanted to go to Hanoi for a long time! When eating there, would you say the street food is generally safe to eat? I remember in some of the more rural areas of Peru, street food was actually better quality than the actual restaurants. Is it the same in Hanoi?
Hi Zac, the street food in Hanoi is great, I’ve never had a problem eating it. I’d say it is really on par with the food in many restaurants, and you get to enjoy eating in a local atmosphere.
This is great information. Thinking of moving to Hanoi next year so have found this page really useful. Any chance you know what the deal is with Visas in Vietnam, especially if I want to stay awhile and teach english.
Any information would be useful.
Hi Roey, although I haven’t lived and worked in Vietnam long term, I understand the process to be roughly (1) enter Vietnam with a Business Visa and supporting documents including TEFL certificate (2) convert that Business Visa to a Work Permit once you have secured the work position.
You definitely need to include Tam Coc in this. My favorite place in Vietnam for sure, and it’s just a couple hours south of Hanoi!
Hi Alex, thanks for your suggestion, yes Tam Coc is a stunning place, we cycled around the villages for the day! Tam Coc is in the area of Ninh Binh about 10km from town, so I haven’t listed it as a separate stop here but will cover it in a more detailed article on Ninh Binh.
Hey Josh, nice travel guide. How difficult is communication in Vietnam, like ordering food and shopping. I can only speak English.
You can get around with English only, though many people only speak Vietnamese. Language is more challenging than visiting Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, etc.
As Hanoi is on my bucket list for a while now, I desperately needed a well-written and inspiring post to cross it off as soon as possible. This is probably one of the most detailed Hanoi guides I’ve read, Josh. Is it possible to hike to the Ban Gioc Waterfall?
Hi Lydia, glad you’ve found this guide useful. I wouldn’t hike to Ban Gioc Waterfall, best to take a motorbike or tour van there.