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My Favorite 31 Things to do Hanoi – Understand
This Northern Vietnamese metropolis isn’t the communist Pyongyang lookalike you might expect – far from it. It’s one of the best city destinations Asia has to offer. Hanoi is blessed with several downtown lakefronts and an old town that has been transformed into a masterpiece of markets, food, coffee and shopping.
Hanoi has a relaxed ‘joie de vivre’ feeling to it that is surprising. Locals and foreigners easily mix and there is very little tourist scamming. In general, people in Hanoi are exceedingly friendly, though rushed.
The sheer amount of food and coffee options here is mind-boggling and you could spend weeks trying out new places every day.
Hoan Kiem Lake is right at the center of the old town and is likely your best bet as a base.
Hanoi is generally very cheap, with food, drinks and hotels running at about one-third what you pay in the US, with just slightly worse quality.
My Favorite 31 Things to do Hanoi – Get Around
Traffic in Vietnam is generally a mess. While drivers are usually courteous, there are no rules in local traffic. Everyone goes anywhere and in any lane and there’s lots of honking. This is intimidating at first but people are so good at watching out for each other that accidents are really rare. Traffic also flows well and traffic jams are uncommon.
Traffic here is annoying and the streets are loud and being out in the traffic is no fun.
Uber is in town and most rides are $1 to $2 anywhere in the city. The drivers are friendly but usually speak no English. They tend to find you despite the manic traffic everywhere and always get you where you want.
In most parts of the old town, walking is what you want to do. I refrained from using motorbike taxis or driving myself, but if that’s your thing, Vietnam is still for you!
My Favorite 31 Things to do Hanoi – Sights
Hanoi isn’t blessed with a lot of ‘must-do’ sights but makes up for it in atmosphere and original neighborhoods.
A walk around Hoan Kiem Lake is a great way to see some of Hanoi’s best real estate. At the weekends it is always car-free.
Vietnam isn’t a very religious place and the Temple of the Jade Mountain isn’t exactly huge, but it is located on a scenic island on the lake and costs just around $2 for a quick visit. It’s a great introduction to the city.
This is another small temple but gets almost no visitors. It’s not easy to find, but a great little oasis to spend a few minutes in.
A little further from the Old Town is the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum – essentially a huge square with the mausoleum on top. Ho Chi Minh was the leader of communist Vietnam which took over after the invading Japanese army left.
This museum was closed for a three-month (!) renovation when I was there. However, the gardens are pretty and the building has some original architecture to it.
Very hidden in the gardens of the museum is this quirky pagoda. It’s a big tourist attraction and often has real crowds.
This temple is fairly close (and walkable) from the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum. It was EXTREMELY crowded when I visited, with locals and tourists alike. If you have been to Beijing then this temple won’t blow your socks off with excitement.
While the West Lake does not have much in terms of sights, the gorgeous views there on a sunny day easily make up for it. The little peninsula around the Sheraton is the best place for walking and taking in the views.
Trúc Bạch Lake has good sidewalks, while the larger West Lake does not.
It does not get much more central than Trúc Bạch Lake. Amazingly, John McCain managed to land in this lake after being shot down.
The little Chua Tran Quoc Pagoda sees busloads of tourists and isn’t much of a religious sight. Still, the lake views and the pretty pagoda are worth a visit.
SF Spa (I could not figure out if there is a San Francisco connection) takes the spa experience seriously. Massages run at $30 per hour, which is expensive for Hanoi but still cheap for the US. The quality levels of the massage rooms and therapists easily match the US though.
Hanoi has spas like other cities have traffic lights (there are none of the latter really in this city) but the Yakushi Center for Holistic Health has a reputation for great massages and healing therapies. It’s also very cheap. Highly recommended.
My Favorite 31 Things to do Hanoi – Eat & Drink
Hanoi is a foodie town par excellence. The sheer amount of dishes (mostly Vietnamese) is amazing. Food is usually best enjoyed in one of the many streets stalls where you sit on a tiny stool outside. The food is generally cheap and of decent quality; I didn’t manage to get sick here ever.
Hoan Kiem Lake and Old Town Area
This unassuming street stall was my favorite banh mi shop in Hanoi. Great, fresh ingredients and a lovely baguette for under $1? I’m sold!
Banh Mi 25 is decidedly more upmarket but still somewhat resembles a basic street stall. The baguette is good too, but at $3 is 3x as expensive as Banh Mi Bami. The shop seems to be in every tourist guide and gets a huge share of ‘old town explorers’ for lunch.
Cong Caphe is a chain and it is all over Hanoi. It is extremely well done with super-rustic decor and servers in Viet Cong outfits. Every location has its own creative twist and the cafes span several tiny floors. If you were in Hanoi I’d take you on a Cong Caphe tour all over the city, sipping delicious (though sugary) cafe creations.
This place is well-rated for its pho. It’s just $2 but I felt that the beef meat (I had the ‘well-done’) was pretty terrible. This wasn’t my favorite.
Pizza 4P’s is all over town and serves delicious Italian food (which isn’t that cheap anymore). Come here for world-class atmosphere, great service and decent prices that are about half what we pay in the US for similar quality. The place is often booked solid for sinner on the weekends.
The Hanoi Social Club does exactly what the name suggests – it creates a superb atmosphere. The coffee is real espresso and the beers are IPAs. While the food menu sounds delicious, I found it stale and NOT my favorite, though.
Bun Bo Nam Bo Hang Dieu is another local ‘street food’ experience in Hanoi that serves cold noodle salad with beef and dried onions. It’s simple, yummy and cheap. There is no atmosphere and the service is nonexistent. However it is cheap and fast!
At Cha Ca Thang Long, you can fry your own fish – literally at your table. It’s more expensive than other places around, but you get a proper seat and fresh fish – hard to beat!
This cafe comes highly recommended but I couldn’t really find out why. The food isn’t great, the service is slow and the coffee is nothing special. Yes there is decent music, but it’s loud and the many smokers inside really made it hard to breathe.
Yamamoto Mattcha Cafe is a Vietnamese chain and serves solid green tea ice cream creations. It is not as good as my favorite Matcha place in Asia in Hong Kong but it is also much cheaper.
This is likely the weirdest ice cream shop I have ever been to. It’s like a huge market hall (even a motorbike drove through) but with half a dozen ice cream sales counters. All seem to sell some version of that famous Kem Trang Tien ice cream. I had the mochi which was cheap and delicious, but the ice cream was too soft. There is also an abandoned coffee shop inside. This place is just surreal.
Hidden in a small street off the posh district where the Opera House is, you’ll find the Nha Cafe, which is housed in a lovely, renovated old house. The design is indeed the most striking feature of this place, as the drinks (including coffee) are just OK.
Cafe Giang has a reputation for making the best egg coffee in the city. It’s in a hidden courtyard, so you will need to ask around to find the entrance. I don’t eat (or drink) eggs so I skipped the coffee, but the many patrons there looked really happy at a random 1PM stop I made.
Xoi Yen is famous for its small and cheap bowls of rice that are topped with fried chicken and onions. Doesn’t sound too exciting? Well, it is – and it is also really delicious!
Right next door is Bun Cha Ta, which has delicious pork meat balls in a sour soup where you dip in noodles and veggies. I’d never had that dish before but loved it. It’s just $3 and the staff are superbly friendly.
This restaurant prides itself on the option of giving customers different ways to try many parts of the local cuisine. And indeed I tried several salads and fried chicken. Everything was delicious and the prices were low. You can’t fault a place that has so much choice, has fresh ingredients and is one of the few who readily accepts credit cards here.
Apparently this is a famous spot – a small alley with lots of bars that sell cheap beer. Nothing wrong with that! However, on the day I was there, it was incredibly crowded, noisy and just raucous.
West Lake and Truc Bach Lake Areas
The area around the Sheraton is decidedly more upmarket (though not in a bad way).
Maison de Tet Decor drives home the upmarket spirit. Dark wood interiors and whitewashed walls give this open-air space a fantastic look and the views towards the lake are superb too. The food menu is full of healthy, Mediterranean items. I thought the food was just OK and somewhat overdone, but the atmosphere certainly made up for it.
Salt n’ Lime is a modern, fusion, Mexican eatery right around the corner from the Sheraton. I really loved the salmon tacos and the chicken tacos that I tried. It’s not cheap for Vietnam, but the quality would easily work in San Francisco. Come here for a relaxing dinner and chat with the chef.
On the little island lake are these two pho institutions – Pho Cuon Hung Ben & Pho Cuon Huong Mai. Both enjoy a reputation for fresh pho that warms you up and fills you up.