Hanoi is not for the faint-hearted. Just navigating your way through the scooter-filled streets is an adventure in itself. But for all the chaos, noise and humidity, Hanoi has a magnetic pull and is one of those cities that stays with you, long after you’ve left its bustling streets behind.
Its energy and buzz is almost hypnotic and you need at least 48 hours to settle in and explore some of the top experiences this city has to offer. Here’s 5 of the best things to do, if you’re short on time…
1. Explore the Old Quarter
This is the Hanoi you’ll have seen pop up time and time again on your Instagram feed. Tangles of electrical wires dangle from rooftops and a hoard of scooters and street vendors dodge around wide-eyed pedestrians, creating a truly unforgettable scene. (Don’t worry, it’s 100% true when they tell you that the traffic will swerve around you – just keep walking and somehow, miraculously, they’ll move… don’t ask me how, it just works…)
Which is precisely why the Old Quarter should be at the very top of your must-do list when visiting Hanoi!
The best way to explore this bustling area is to simply wander through the maze of historic streets and alleyways and soak up all the sights, sounds and smells of the city as you go. Historically, each street specialised in a specific trade and you can still make your way around the different vendors today, from copper street to silk street – and even to shoe street!
There are a few key sights to look out for, such as St Joseph’s Cathedral, with its striking Gothic architecture and Bach Ma Temple, the oldest temple in the city.
As night falls, the old city lights up and fills with the aromas of freshly prepared street food. Be sure to stop by Beer Corner, perch yourself down on one of the coloured stools and order a cold Hanoi beer, as you watch the city come to life.
2. Discover the legend of Hoan Kiem Lake
Perched in the midst of the Old Quarter, you’ll find a little oasis of calm in the form of Hoan Kiem Lake – one of the city’s most beautiful and famous attractions.
The lake is marked by the iconic red Huc Bridge, which for a small fee will take you across to the peaceful Ngoc Son Temple, where you can sit back and enjoy some of the most stunning views of the city across the water.
It’s worth spending an hour or so walking around the lakeside trail, where you’ll get a view of the famous Turtle Pagoda. This ancient building stands in stark contrast to the modern skyscrapers surrounding it and remains a symbol of Vietnamese history and folklore.
Legend has it that Le Loi, one of the early Vietnamese Emperors, was boating in the lake when a turtle emerged from the water and asked him to return his sword to the Dragon King. The Emperor obeyed and threw his sword into the lake thus giving Hoan Kiem Lake its unique name today – “Lake of the Returned Sword”.
3. Step back in time at the Temple of Literature
Located a short walk across town, the Temple of Literature is one of Hanoi’s better kept secrets and, in my opinion, the city’s most beautiful attraction. This mesmerising complex of stunning architecture and ornate temples is a haven of peace and tranquillity within the chaos of the city.
The Temple, built in 1070, was Vietnam’s first national university and, today, honours its finest scholars through a number of memorials and structures.
We just happened to be there for the spectacular Mid-Autumn Festival (celebrated each year in September) and were lucky enough to see the celebrations in full swing, with colourful lanterns strung from pillar to pillar and locals enjoying the festivities in traditional dress.
But no matter what time of year you visit, this is truly one of the most beautiful spots to pass a few hours in Hanoi.
4. Try the egg coffee
Forget flat whites. Hanoi is all about the egg coffee.
Who would have thought in a million years that coffee and egg would work together – but don’t knock it until you’ve tried it; this is by far one of the most delicious cups of coffee I’ve ever tasted!
Born out of a milk shortage in the 1940s, this alternative brew is made by beating eggs with coffee and sugar, creating a unique silky texture and vanilla-like taste.
Top tip: The best egg coffee we tried was at the Hanoi Street Food Restaurant on 7 Cho Gao Street, but you can grab a cup pretty much anywhere in town.
For location alone, look no further than the quirky Note Coffee, in Hoan Kiem – one of my favourite finds in the whole of Hanoi.
We stumbled across this place in the midst of a torrential downpour and have never been so glad to be greeted with a friendly smile and a cup of coffee. As we entered, we couldn’t believe our eyes… colourful post-it notes dotted EVERYWHERE, from the floors to the lampshades, with personal messages from travellers from all across the globe.
This is the perfect place to sit down and relax with a coffee – and don’t forget to leave a note of your own!
5. Take a street food tour
If there’s one thing Hanoi is known for it’s some seriously tasty street food. But if you’re a bit nervous about braving the maze of street food stalls and hole-in-the-wall restaurants on your own, then do what we did and join the Hanoi Street Food Tour. This is the best way to sample some of the city’s signature dishes and see the city’s main highlights while you’re at it.
Your tour guide will take you to 7 or 8 stops, sampling classic dishes like bún chả and bánh mì as you go, all washed down with some of the finest local beers.
There’s no need to reserve a spot – tours run every day at 11am, 5pm and 6:30pm (later night-life tours are also available) and you can just turn up 20 minutes before to get placed in a group. I’d definitely recommend doing this in person to avoid any online scams.
For $20, it’s an absolute bargain for the amount of food and drink you get and a truly unique way to experience this fantastic city and its thriving food scene.
Heading to Hue after Hanoi? Check out my post on how to experience the very best of Vietnam’s Imperial City in a day here.