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What to Do in Hanoi, Vietnam

A relaxed attitude in Hanoi makes it easier to appreciate the dreamy pagodas, colonial boulevards, and the graceful movements of morning Tai-chi next to Hoan Kiem Lake. The capital city of Vietnam is far more laid back than Ho Chi Minh City, and it is usual for foreign visitors to stay here longer than they intended. The main tourist area is to be found around the Old Quarter, and there is plenty of cheap accommodation, restaurants, and bars to be found in this part of the city. Some of the recommended things that visitors might like to do during their stay in Hanoi would include:

Street food in Hanoi

Explore the Culture of Hanoi

One of the most interesting things for people to do during a stay in Hanoi is to explore the local culture. There have been people living in settlements here for at least 3,000 years, but the birth of Hanoi really began with the Co Loa Citadel which is 20 km from the current city center. In 1010, King Ly Thai To had a dream about a dragon ascending from the Red River, and he decided to create a capital in the area that is present day Hanoi. The Chinese briefly took over the city during the fifteenth century, and the French took control during the nineteenth century.

Hanoians have witnessed a rapid growth in their population over the last few decades, but there is still a strong sense of tradition in the city. There are shops in the Old Quarter that have belonged to the same families for generations, and there has been a mostly smooth mix of modernity with the old ways of doing things. Hanoians tend to be delighted when foreign visitors express an interest in the history of the city, and those who can speak English will usually be happy to share some local knowledge. One of the great joys of a visit to Hanoi is the opportunity to explore this fascinating culture.

Language of Hanoi

The people of Hanoi speak Northern Vietnamese, and this language is close to Mon-Khmer languages, and it also contains many Chinese words. Up until the nineteenth century, the local people used Chinese characters when writing but this changed with the arrival of the French who decreed that all official documents must use Romanization. This type of script is referred to as Middle Vietnamese, and it is now the system used for all writing in the language. It actually makes it easier for foreign visitors to learn the language because there is no need to learn a new writing script (as would be the case when learning other languages in South East Asia such as Thai).

Most of the local people involved in the tourist industry can speak at least some English, but if visitors want to explore this culture, it will be a great help for them to learn at least a few basic phrases in Vietnamese. A better option would be to actually attend a language course while staying in Hanoi and this type of learning can be fun as well as educational. Vietnamese courses are available to suit all levels at Hanoi University.

Festivals in Hanoi

The people of Hanoi love to celebrate life, and this might help to explain why they have more festivals than anywhere else in the country. There is usually no problem with foreign visitors to join in the fun ( although care needs to be respectful at religious ceremonies) and some of the most popular events in the city would include:

  • Tet Festival (Vietnamese New Year) is the most important of event of the year, and the festivities last for about three days around the full moon. In 2014 Tet will officially take place between Saturday February 1, and Wednesday February 5 (the extra two days are given because Tet falls on a weekend).
  • The Co Loa Festival involves street parades, cultural performances, and religious ceremonies to commemorate the inauguration of King An Duong Vuong about 2,200 years ago (he is considered the founder of Vietnam). Most of the events marking this occasion take place in the Dong Anh district on the sixth day of the first lunar month.
  • The Dong Nhan Temple Festival is a religious event that involves a procession, lantern dance, human chess, and the bathing of statues in the Hong River. It takes place on the sixth day of the second lunar month.
  • Labor Day (International Worker’s Day) is on the first of May, and there are events in Hanoi to mark the occasion – it is also a national bank holiday.

Food in Hanoi

Bun Rieu Cua Nuoc - Ly Quoc Su VND20000

Hanoi was selected as one of the top 10 destinations in the world for street food by the Lonely Planet. The city is famous for offering some unique cuisine options including ant eggs, snake, and many varieties of insect. Some of the most popular dishes that visitors might like to try during their visit would include:

  • The national dish of Vietnam is a type of rice noodle soup called Pho, and this can be found on sale at street stalls everywhere in the city. The pho found in Hanoi has its own unique character because it will usually have more seasoning than elsewhere in the country, and the gravy will be made from boiled beef bones.
  • Com is made from immature rice kernels which are flattened and roasted. Some people will eat com as a type of quick snack, but it can also be combined with other ingredients such as coconut to create something a bit more substantial.
  • Xoi xeo is a type of sticky rice dish that is popular in North Vietnam. It is usually eaten with a green mung bean paste and fried onion.
  • Cha Ca Thang Long is made up of small fish fillets which is fried after being marinated in galangal and turmeric.
  • Banh Cuon is a breakfast dish that is made from steamed fermented rice batter filled with pork, mushrooms, and vegetables. It looks similar to a spring roll.

Visitors who really want to get to appreciate the wonderful local food can attend a cooking class. This means that people can continue to enjoy these dishes once they return home – they will also have the opportunity to learn a bit more about the local culture. There are a number of cooking schools in Hanoi to choose from including: Hanoi Cooking Centre, and Orchid Cooking Class.

Another way to experience the culinary delights of Hanoi would be to go on a food tour. This type of adventure can be arranged by Hanoi Street Food Tours and Hidden Hanoi.

Places to Go in Hanoi

DGJ_1873B - Turtle and the Sword

The city of Hanoi covers an area of 186 square kilometers (72 square miles) and is packed to the brim with interesting things to see such as:

  • Hoan Kiem Lake can be found in an attractive park area in the historical center of Hanoi – it is the perfect place to relax or do some exercise. The name can be translated as meaning, Lake of the Restored Store, and this refers to a legend that the lake once produced a magical sword.
  • Vietnam Women’s Museum offers some fascinating insights into the culture and history of Vietnamese women. There are about 25,000 artifacts to explore, and the museum is located on Ly Thuong Kiet Street.
  • Hoa Lo Prison is better known in the west as the Hanoi Hilton – this is where captured US soldiers were kept during the Vietnam War. The actual prison was demolished two decades ago but there is now a museum here that provides insights into the dreadful conditions at the prison – it was built by the French to hold 500 people, but for many years it contained four times as many people.
  • The Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum is where the body of Ho Chi Minh is kept on display. Foreign visitors are allowed to enter the mausoleum which can be found in Ba Dinh Square, but there are strict rules for how they need to behave – the Ho Chi Minh is open every day from 09:00 to 12:00.
  • The Temple of Literature is dedicated to the Chinese sage Confucius, and it is over a thousand years old. Visitors get to walk around the courtyard and explore a number of pavilions.
  • The Downed Aircraft Memorial is located in Thanh Nien Street, and this is where downed US aircraft are kept on display. This memorial hit the headlines and became embroiled in a great deal of controversy in early 2013 when it was used as a location in the Amazing Race CBS TV show.
  • The Hanoi Old Quarter is made up of about 40 streets, and this is the main tourist part of the city, and it is packed with markets, shops, restaurants, cultural venues, and bars. One of the most exciting ways to get around the Old Quarter is to go by cyclo, but it is also a nice place to just go walking.
  • Vuon Bach Thao (Hanoi Botanical Gardens) was originally created by a French landscape designer in 1890 (it has been remodeled over the years), and it is a peaceful oasis in the midst of the hustle and bustle of the city. There is a romantic small island in the middle of a lake, and the paths around the gardens are suitable for walking or jogging.
  • West Lake (Ho Tay) is in the north west of the city, and it has a shore line of about 17km. This is one of the most affluent areas in the city, and it can be a nice place to relax or go walking.

Things to Do in Hanoi

Finding things to do in a vibrant city like Hanoi is never going to be a problem for visitors. Some of the best options would include:

Women Soldiers at Ho Chi Minh Museum - Hanoi - Vietnam

  • Vietnam has a rich history of water puppetry that dates back to at least the eleventh century. One of the best places to enjoy this unique art will be at the Thang Long Water Puppetry Museum on Dinh Tien Hoang Street – they are open each day from 15:30 until 21:15 (as of mid 2013).
  • Enjoy a free tour of the city with Hanoi Free Tour Guides – this service is provided by local university students who want to practice their English.
  • To to the Hanoi Night Market (aka Dong Xuan) in the Old Quarter on weekend nights. Every type of local food can be bought here, and there are also plenty of gift items and trinkets for sale as well.

Off the Beaten Track in Hanoi

There are plenty of options in Hanoi for people who want to see or do something a bit different such as:

  • Visit the Street of Hemp (Hang Gai Street) and purchase all types of items made from fabrics including: cushions, scarves, ties, pillow cases, every type of clothing, and unique souvenirs made from silk.
  • The Oldest House in Hanoi (aka Ancient House) can be found in the Old Quarter on Ma May Street. It was restored in 1999 and visitors are allowed to explore the interior because it is shop that sells traditional items such as artwork.
  • Quang Ba Flower Market opens between 02:00 until daybreak, so visitors need to get up early (or stay up late) if they want to enjoy this fascinating glimpse into local life. It is located on Au Co Street close to the West Lake area.

Sports and Other Physical Activities in Hanoi

Visitors who are looking for some physical exertion might try:

How to Get Around Hanoi

The options for getting around Hanoi include:

almost no rules

  • Many of the main attractions can be found close to the Old Quarter so walking is a viable option most of the time. Hanoi has a reputation for being safe place to go around on foot.
  • Cyclos (cycle rickshaw) are cheap and can be a fun way to travel short distances. It is always important to be clear about the destination and to agree a price before setting off – a reasonable amount would be 100,000 VND (less than $5) for one hour.
  • Taxis are abundant in Hanoi, and these can be the best choice for longer distances. It is best to stick to metered taxis and to insist that the meter be used – if the driver does not want to do this there are plenty of other taxi drivers who will.
  • Riding a motorcycle in Hanoi can be an enjoyable experience due to the large boulevards, but there congestion is a problem so this is only recommended for experienced riders. It costs about 100,000 VND ($5) per day to hire a scooter.