Your Local Hanoi Travel Guide
This Hanoi travel guide will give you an overview of this diverse city of 10 million people in the north of Vietnam. Though many people mistake the capital of Vietnam as being Ho Chi Minh City, it is actually Hanoi.
Hanoi is one of my favorite cities in Vietnam. The city combines a nice mix of colonial French architecture, meets new age hustle and bustle of Vietnam. It acts like any other major metropolitan in Southeast Asia, yet feels like a city of villages.
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.
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 bars such as Standing Bar, and nightclubs like Rastaman Pub.
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. 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.
Things to do in Hanoi
Whether you are in Hanoi for two hours, two days or two weeks, you will find plenty of things to do which are easily accessible. Here is my pick of things to do in Hanoi for a start.
Get a classic Pho breakfast – start off with breakfast in the morning with a hot, fragrant bowl of Pho. 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 halfway down a small alley, set up with a tiny table and even smaller chairs.
Enjoy Local Coffee at a Hidden Cafe – Vietnam is Southeast Asia’s largest coffee producer and consumer. Vietnamese coffee is served up 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 (location). The entrance to this cafe is hidden behind a silk shop with no street front signs. Head out the back, climb four levels and you will have one of the best views in town of Hoan Kiem Lake.
Walk Hoan Kiem Lake – Hoan Kiem Lake is right by the Old Quarter and is surrounded by some of the most peaceful streets in Hanoi. On weekends many of the roads are blocked off for vehicles, allowing you to walk freely around the quiet streets.
Drink the local Bia Hoi – a trip to Hanoi would not be complete without sampling the Bia Hoi. These Vietnam’s local Mum and Pa craft brews. From about 6pm in the Old Quarter, there will be loads of beer street vendor set up tapping kegs of homemade beer, last drinks are when the kegs run dry. From just 5,000 VND per mug, you can’t go wrong.
Visit Buddhist Temples – walk through the clouds of increase smoke in the Bach Ma temple in the Old Quarter. The smell of incense stick burned over many hours lingers thick in the air, a fond memory of these temples. Afterward, venture over to Ngoc Son temple which is located in the middle of Hoan Kiem. This small temple is accessed via a small pedestrian bridge, a unique attraction to visit.
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.
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 more than one or two hours. Ho Chi Minh’s Mausoleum is located at the south-east corner of West Lake. Note the opening hours:
- Tuesday to Thursday 07:30 – 10:30,
- Saturday & Sunday 07:30 – 11:00
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 – Ok, Ok, let’s start with the most obvious. Everyone rants and raves 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, book here with Intrepid Travel. 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!
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