Unlike the daring skyscrapers and bustling commerce centers that make up Vietnam's former capital Ho Chi Min city, Hanoi proves with each visit exactly why it's earned the spot as the countries new capital with its historical contrast of old and new. Dazzling pagoda's, energized streets of scooters and horns, and architecture spanning between the ages with influences of French and Chinese occupation make this city a great start or end to your time in Vietnam.
Whether you spend more time here or just a few days, there is so much to see and do. Below I will outline a number of activities and must-sees to keep you entertained, if even only for a short visit, in this historic capital!
Wander the Old Quarter
Quite literally one of the best ways to keep yourself entertained in Hanoi is just to wander. Make your way to the Old Quarter and discover an array of traditional storefronts, merchants, and fortuitously placed Pagodas. Its labyrinth streets and hidden alleys hold in themselves charm and authenticity, staying true to it's Chinese roots.
Although a bit overwhelming at times with the sheer amount of motorbikes and seemingly zero regard for road rules, this city still captivated me. With every turn there is something new to discover. Spend an afternoon getting wonderfully lost in it's side streets, and head down P Hang Dao for endless merchants with knock off goods to sharpen your haggling skills. After enough exploring and walking around, grab a bite at Bahn Mi 25 and take a seat on their 2nd story patio for an intimate view of city life passing you by.
We spent a lot of time along P Hang Dao - but what I loved most about this street was the buzzing energy that comes out at night. The street gets completely blocked off from vehicles and becomes a pedestrian only haven of knockoff merchants and food stands. There is quite literally nothing you can't find here, and after a day of dodging motorbikes and never ending honking, having a pedestrian only road is zen. For dinner one night, I suggest just walking down this street and trying a few items from the variety of street food vendors that line periodically between retailers. There are also a few bars along this stretch so you can sit down for a local Hanoi beer between bites.
You've probably seen this on Instagram, or just about anywhere you'd look to see images of Hanoi. Along P Kham Hoang, you find train street, a popular destination among tourists. You can luck out on certain times of the day and it feels like you have the whole street almost entirely to yourself. This unique attraction is a must-do when in Hanoi. Along the center of this very narrow street is an active train track that still runs to this day. You have just mere feet between the merchant shops and the train, which runs by every hour. Take a seat and grab a Vietnamese Coffee while awaiting the next run. A local family even allowed us up onto their second story patio to have a unique view of the train rolling by. For a souvenir you wont get anywhere else, take your beer cap and place it along the train rail and wait until the train comes by and flattens it to a coin shape. I keep mine in my wallet for good luck!
Start Your Morning With a Vietnamese Coffee
Coffee in Vietnam awoke a coffee habit I thought I had nipped in the bud - but you cant help it, they are so good! For some added sweetness, mix in some condensed milk. You can get these just about anywhere, but I personally loved the ambiance of Hidden Cafe. You'll find this elusive Oasis on P Hang Trong street. There are multiple indoor areas to sit, but if you posses the stamina, a few flights of narrow spiral staircases up you get a breezy rooftop patio with airy views of the Red River that runs through Hanoi. Get yourself a refreshing iced coffee or fresh fruit smoothie to cut that Hanoi humidity.
Bar and Food Cart Hop
Hanoi is brimming with quaint joints that run various hours of the night. An added bonus: the assortment of food stands that also run for most the night outside the bars. After a night of barhopping, stop by to get some fresh sliced Doner or Bahn Mi made on the spot. A lot of the food carts also have their own kegs with house beer (and it costs about $.20 US a pop). I won't lie, it's not the best beer you'll ever have... but for 20 cents, ill take three! There are some good bars around Hang Buom/Ta Hein area. Also, don't be alarmed when shop owners panic when the police walk along the streets. Shops aren't legally allowed to sell food/alcohol on the sidewalks, so every hour when the police do make their rounds, owners will typically run out frantic and get you to move yourself and your food/drinks inside. These "mini raids" cause owners to get a lot of fines and confiscations, so it's best to just go along with it, wait it out, and in no time you'll be back out enjoying a house beer on your patio stools on the sidewalk.
Well, there you have it! A few things to do to kill some time while you're in Hanoi. If you have any other ideas, leave them in the comments - I'd love to hear 'em!