Hanoi is an enormous, dirty, and vibrant city. It is the epitome of organized chaos and it was the perfect introduction to Vietnam.
The sheer quantity of scooters in Vietnam’s capital will blow your mind. You have to see it to believe it. Vietnam has a population of 92 million people and over 45 million people own a scooter. When you need to cross the street in Hanoi, people don’t stop. You’ll inch your way across the road step by step and drivers will maneuver around you. It’s terrifying the first few times, but by the end of our 3 days in the city I’d be lying if I said I didn’t find the experience slightly thrilling.
Dong is the Vietnamese currency and currently 100,000 Dong is worth less than €4. You’ll be dealing with “millions” of Dong during your visit so make sure to pay attention to the bills you’re paying out (I almost gave away a 100,000 bill instead of a 10,000 bill a few times). There should be exchange centers located in the city center / old quarter, however we found it was more convenient to exchange money at our hotel.
We stayed at the Sunway Hotel and it was within walking distance to Hoan Kiem Lake and the historic center of the city. A taxi to and from the center costs about €2, but you’ll need to be on the lookout for cheating taxi drivers. They will try to overcharge you when possible. At our hotel the bellhop would run to the street every time we arrived to write down the license plate of the taxi in case we wanted to make a complaint.
Meals cost anything from €1 – €10 depending on where you eat (street food vs. touristy restaurant). Tipping in Vietnam is not customary for locals. It is expected of tourists however so a 5 – 10% tip should be fine. Also, for a two-hour massage I paid €15 and left a €5 tip (I usually tip masseuses at least €5 because they get paid very little and they do such an amazing job!).
It’s worth mentioning that we encountered friendly locals everywhere. We got lost several times and even though we couldn’t find anyone who spoke English everyone we asked for help was happy to stop what they were doing, look at our map, and point us in the right direction.
Things to do and see in Hanoi
These are my top recommendations for anyone planning to visit Hanoi. If you’ve got extra tips on things to do, see, or eat in the city please add a comment below! 🙂
Shopping & restaurants in Old Quarter
The Hoan Kiem District, aka Hanoi’s Old Quarter is the city’s commercial district and go-to area for tourists. You’ll notice many of the buildings here have a charming, colonial architectural style and you can also find several of the cities attractions nearby (Hoan Kiem Lake, Hanoi Opera House, Puppet Theater, etc.).
If you’re looking for knock-offs and trinkets then you won’t be disappointed. We had fun haggling with shopkeepers and exploring the market stalls throughout Old Quarter. Most of the time we would counter at their asking price by half or less, and then work our way up. You can also find luxury brand shops and nice restaurants near the city’s French Quarter.
We enjoyed a meal at Avalon Cafe Lounge and its great views of the lake. You can choose between Vietnamese and western food, so there’s something for everyone. 😉 There are several restaurants in the same building, so if Avalon is full you can go to another. I would recommend trying to make a reservation if you’d like to secure a table with a view.
We enjoyed walking around the Old Quarter at night and snapping photos of the lake from various angles. It’s also a good area to see locals playing the national sport, jianzi (shuttlecock), and dancing / exercising in the park. You can also hire a cyclo to take you around the city (cyclos are basically tricycles with a chair for passengers); we paid less than €5 for an hour “tour”.
Thang Long Water Puppet Theater
Javi and I enjoyed the water puppet show at Thang Long Water Puppet Theater. Water puppetry is a cherished Vietnamese folk art. It began around the 11th century in the villages of the Red River Delta and during that time water puppet performances were used to celebrate religious festivals, the end of the rice harvest, and other special events. Music is an integral element of the performance and a traditional band performs throughout the show. Skits normally depict the typical life of Vietnamese villagers or Vietnamese folklore. Keep in mind the show is narrated in Vietnamese but you can interpret what’s going on most of the time.
There are four to six performances a day and tickets cost around €4. I’d recommend trying to purchase your tickets a day ahead or a few hours before at least at the theatre; don’t purchase tickets online because you’ll probably be overcharged.
Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum Complex
I would definitely recommend visiting the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum. However If you plan to visit Mr. Ho Chi Minh you’re going to need to dress appropriately; knees and shoulders should be covered and you can purchase a scarf on site if necessary. Once we passed through the entrance we were ushered into the mausoleum and had to walk in single file around Ho Chi Minh’s preserved corpse, which is displayed in a glass casket. There are guards everywhere and you can’t talk or take photos. It was a creepy and interesting experience to say the least. Ho Chi Minh’s body is taken to Russia for a few months every year where they “care for” his corpse and keep him preserved—so you might want to check if he’s home before going yourself.
Apart from the mausoleum you can also visit Uncle Ho’s stilt home and the One Pillar Pagoda, which is one of Vietnam’s most iconic temples. You’ll also find the botanical gardens and Ho Chi Minh Museum close by.
Temple of Literature & Tran Quoc Pagoda
The Temple of Literature hosts the Imperial Academy and was the first national university in Vietnam. The temple is dedicated to Confucius and features a number of pavilions, halls, courtyards and statues. I would recommend hiring a guide if possible so you can fully appreciate the history this attraction has to offer. The entrance fee is about €0.40 and the temple is open from 8:30 to 11:30am and 1:30 to 4:30pm everyday except Monday and national holidays.
Men and women need to cover their shoulders and knees to visit any of the temples in Hanoi so bring a scarf/sweater or dress accordingly.
Tran Quoc Pagoda was one of my favorite attractions of Hanoi because of its picturesque appearance. The pagoda sits on an islet near the southeastern shore of West Lake and it is the oldest Buddhist pagoda in the city (built in the sixth century). Tran Quoc Pagoda is free to see and opens daily from 7:30am – 6pm.