City Guide: Hanoi, Vietnam

The capital city of Vietnam does not disappoint. Full of color, culture, cuisine and character, Hanoi has it’s own vibe. The Old Quarter dominates the tourist attractions, but it’s more than a tourist trap. The architecture and street life is unlike anything I’ve seen in Asia. Hanoi is a blend of colonial and modern, similar to Saigon in the south. But the vibes of the two most popular cities in Vietnam are different. A trip to Vietnam would not be complete without a visit to Hanoi. Here’s a handy guide to what to eat, drink, see and do while enjoying Hanoi!

EAT

  • Bánh Mì: A baguette sandwich stuffed with meats and veggies makes for a great meal at any time of day. Often, the bánh mì is eaten for breakfast, but you can find them all day long! We had bánh mì several times while in Hanoi, with all varieties of fillings. Our favorite bánh mì shop was a cart in the Old Quarter called Bánh mì 25.
  • Bun Cha: This dish of grilled pork and rice noodles is served separately and combined at your table for a delicious soup that you won’t forget. It’s a traditional Vietnamese dish thought to have originated in Hanoi. It’s so famous, that even President Obama had bun cha when he visited Hanoi earlier this year! We ate bun cha at few times, but our favorites were at Ngon Villa, with it’s street food chic version of this popular dish. Another great spot in the Old Quarter was at Bun Cha Ta, which we visited on our street food tour!
  • Chả Cá Thăng Long: Another Hanoi classic is a pan-fried fish served tumeric & dill with thin rice noodles. Many people suggested we try this dish while in Hanoi, and I’m so glad we did. Check out Cha Ca Lang for a great interactive meal of Chả Cá Thăng Long.

DRINK:

  • Egg Coffee [cà phê trứng]: It’s good! I’m serious! Yes, it’s a dark Vietnamese coffee prepared with condensed milk and an egg yolk. It’s creamy and delicious. Apparently, the drink originated back during the French colonial days, when there wasn’t enough milk to enjoy a cup of coffee. The egg yolk is an unconventional addition, but a creative solution. We also tried this drink on our street food tour, and it was a hit with the whole group!

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SEE:

  • Hoàn Kiếm Lake and West Lake: Hanoi surprised me. There’s really beautiful nature in the middle of a bustling city. These two lakes, located pretty centrally in the city, are a breath of fresh air among the crowded streets and loud traffic. More than once, we would grab a Banh Mi and a drink, and sit and enjoy the view of the lake and the city scape. It reminded me of a mini version of Central Park in a way.
  • Government Building District: I don’t actually know the name of this part of town, but there’s a beautiful long road with the Presidential Palace, Parliament, and the Tomb of Ho Chi Minh. We didn’t set out to find this area, but stumbled into it. It’s simply beautiful, with so much history on one road.
  • The Flag Tower: This building is an iconic site of Hanoi, and a must see & must photo. It’s nearby a cute park and the government buildings, which makes for a good walking loop.

DO:

  • Shopping in Old Quarter: This part of town is always alive and thriving. There’s so much to see and do in Old Quarter. But specifically, shopping, is the thing to do in Old Town. Whether you are looking for a unique Vietnamese souvenir or some cheap clothes, you can find it in Old Quarter. Originally, the area was made up of 36 streets where you can find different 36 necessities in life…like shoes, silver, or silk! Friday & Saturday nights, parts of the Old Quarter are closed to traffic, and turned into a walking street market.
  • Street Food Tour: I can’t rave about street food tours in Vietnam enough! It’s a fantastic way to experience the food and culture with a guide, who can share cultural insights as well as what to eat! Full review on our Hanoi Street Food Tour here!
  • HaLong Bay: A trip to Vietnam is not complete without a HaLong Bay trip. There’s so many options and approaches to experience this natural wonder, but no matter how you go…just go. It’s beautiful. It’s unforgettable. It’s magical.

GETTING AROUND HANOI:

  • Walking. It’s a pedestrian friendly city with plenty of sidewalks. However, traffic can be INSANE. Crossing the street is an art form. Use wisdom, and be safe.
  • Grab Taxi & Uber. These app based taxi services are a game changer. Get yourself a SIM card at the airport [around 200,000 dong] and the whole city is at your fingertips. You can not only call a Grab Taxi or Uber quite easily using their applications, but also access Google Maps which allows you to feel confident in always knowing your location. And that of your driver!

WHERE TO STAY IN HANOI:

  • Old Quarter. Sure, it’s touristy and packed, but with good reason. It’s centrally located and there’s lots to see and do. We stayed in two different Old Quarter hotels, one that we recommend, and one that we do not!
    • Real Hanoi Hotel – We stayed here first, and it was not worth the money we saved. For about $18 a night, we were down a dark alley where no taxi could reach, with a moderately helpful staff, a breakfast worth skipping, and six flights of stairs up to our room every day. But, we had a window. Apparently, lower levels have no windows, which would have made this place even worse. It’s no frills at all, and for just a few dollars more, we upgraded to something way better in quality.
    • Hanoi Royal View Hotel – We relocated to another hotel during our stay, but remained in the Old Quarter. What a breath of fresh air, for only $25 a night. The Hanoi Royal View was well-styled, but simple. It was clean and bright. There were windows and an elevator. We still didn’t enjoy the breakfast, but this hotel was a wonderful stay. I will say that because we weren’t down a dark alley, the road noise was much louder than at Real Hanoi. But I was still happy we switched.

 

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