Thing to do in Hanoi

People talking about the big cities of Vietnam always say that if you loved Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC), you will definitely hate Hanoi, and vice-versa. For me, this was not true. Having to make a choice, I would go for Hanoi as the more pleasant one, but if I would not have seen the city during a weekend, I do not think my answer would have been the same. So lets tell you which things to do in Hanoi can make your Vietnam trip a grand success.

– What to do – 

Why go?

Compared to Ho Chi Minh City, Hanoi is the smaller of the two. But with 6.5 million inhabitants it’s still a bustling metropolis. With probably the same amount of motorbikes all cramped into the small streets of the old quarter, it will be virtually impossible to escape the chaos and noise that Hanoi brings, so you might as well go with it. I can guarantee that you will find yourself super annoyed with the traffic at least twice or three times a day. If you can overcome that, you will discover the true beauty of this city. 

It is not the architecture, nor the food or sights. Yes the buildings in the French and old quarter are pretty, which is largely due to the fact that Hanoi got somewhat spared the bombings of the Vietnam war. Bad city planning however has caused random modern buildings top pop up between historic ones. This feels awkwardly incoherent, and you will not get the Hoi-Ann feel of walking in a 19th century Vietnam. Yes the food is amazing and quite different from the flavours of the south of Vietnam. But lets be honest, so is the food in all Vietnam and in most of South-east Asia for that matter. Yes the sights can be very pretty indeed, and later on in this article I am even going to recommend some of them but even though they might be pretty this is not what sets Hanoi apart from other cities.

It is the authentic feel of Vietnam’s capital itself. On the one hand you can still feel the strong presence of communism here. You see it in the looks and mannerisms of the Hanoians. Street-hawkers won’t harass you as they might in Thailand or even South Vietnam. Faces look stern even though the people can be quite friendly and haggling can be quite hard. The vendors are simply not that interested in ripping you off/ selling you their wares and souvenirs.

On the other hand Hanoi is super urban and modern. People are jogging and doing yoga in the early mornings in the park and hip eateries and cafe’s are popping up all the time. Hanoi really feels like it is trying to modernise but still staying true to its own colours. If you allow yourself to get caught up in that vibrant optimistic surge, you will love Hanoi. I guarantee it. Even if you already decided that you are a HCMC-person and therefore cannot also like Hanoi;).

Things to do in Hanoi

So how to spend your days in Hanoi? Arrive by train from Hue or  Ninh Binh, which the train passes by. Read in my article on Ninh Binh why you should include this little gem in your itinerary. Get there around 10-11 AM and walk to the old quarter. This 2,000-3,000 meters stroll takes you through the French quarter so you can cross that off your list. Drop your stuff off at a hostel of your choice in close vicinity to the lake and head off to Don Xuan market, North of the lake, for lunch.

They sell some souvenirs here but Don Xuan is mainly a local market with wholesale products and fresh produce. Go back to the lake and visit the Ngoc Son temple (crossing the little red bridge in the lake). If you got time to spare, buy a ticket for the water-puppet show that night. Although you won’t miss out on much if you don’t. The theatre and its ticket office are located next to the lake.

Spend the rest of your afternoon with a beer on a small plastic stool. Visit the show,or don’t, and sit down in a restaurant for dinner. Walk around the lake which is now closed down if you arrived on a Friday and head North to visit the night-market that takes place on weekends.

Next morning get up super early (6.00 AM) and join the elderly in a yoga-session around the Hoan Kiem or West-lake, have breakfast overlooking the lake in a roof-top restaurant located on the south-bank, then head of to the Hoa Lo prison (recommended even if you visited the war-remnant museum in HCMC!). Have lunch in a street-side shop for about 20-30,000D then visit my number one recommendation for Hanoi: Hanoi Time Coffee (see my video ‘Hanoi – finding Hanoi Time Coffee’ on how to find the entrance!).

Egg-coffee on the balcony of Hanoi Time Coffee, overlooking the Hoan Kiem lake

Hanoi Time Coffee
“At the risk of this hidden gem becoming too popular and losing its charm: go here and order the egg-coffee (hot). Like hot molten tiramisu. Also the balcony is the perfect people-watch spot, and you feel proud at your backpacker-skills discovering this unique venue overlooking Hoan Kiem lake.”

After discovering that egg-coffee is actually superb and not as nasty as you thought before trying it, it is time to discover the next winning invention of Hanoi: Bia Hoi. You will find this in many street-side bars on the west and north of the lake. Try Ta Hien, Ma May, Luong Ngoc Quyen and Hang Bac street. Go to Bia-Hoi Junction (Ta Hien & Luong Ngoc Quyen) if you want to socialise with other backpackers. Walk a little further if you are looking for a more local experience.

Bia Hoi is simple: they brew the beer the same day without preservatives so the cask needs to be emptied the same day. You sit down on a miniature plastic stool, and drink a pint of fresh but light beer FOR ABOUT 5,000 DONG (20 euro-cents), what more can you desire? You will probably not leave this place sober so I think this is all the programme you need for today;).

Bia-Hoi on Luong Ngoc Quyen, what is there not to like:)

On an extended visit you can visit the Ho Chi Minh mausoleum, the citadel, the museum of fine arts or the temple of literature, but (except maybe for the latter) in skipping these you don’t really miss out.

Avoid: The one thing I would avoid doing in Hanoi is the lonely planet walking tour. You will get super annoyed by all the busy traffic and by finding out that all ‘mirror-shops’, ‘tin-box makers’ and ‘craft-shops’ are really nothing special and sell a lot of touristic junk. I lasted about 1/3rd of the route and then threw in the towel.

– Eating, Drinking and sleeping recommendations –

See the map below for general areas where best to spend the night and where to eat or have a drink. Good local street food can be found around St. Joseph Cathedral. Walk through the small black iron fence left of the front of the church to get to the entrance to see the inside.

As I did not encounter any real outstanding places in Hanoi, I will only make a recommendation for when you plan on taking an early flight from Noi-Bai airport and want to spend the night before next to it. “HAAP Airport View Apartment” is a perfect choice (375,000D for a double). It is literally a 10-15 minute walk in one straight line on a wide sidewalk to the airport-terminal (domestic is 5 min more on the same path). The owners are genuinely nice and helpful, the rooms are big and clean and the WiFi is fast. There is really not much to do over here. So do not arrive early in the morning planning on spending your last day in Hanoi ‘exploring this area’.

This (crappy) little map shows where you can find the highlights of the Hoan Kiem area as described above


– Practical information –


Visit Hanoi from October to April, when the temperature is more moderate and the days are mostly sun with hardly any rain in December to February. Furthermore visit Hanoi during the weekend.

On Friday, around 7PM the whole area surrounding the Hoan Kiem Lake gets closed down. With this a rare tranquility descents onto the city. Don’t get me wrong: the area is in no way quiet. The temporary no-traffic zone makes people, tourists and locals alike, flock to the lake. The streets will be filled with street-hawkers, sketch-artists, food-stalls and musicians. Students roam the area and will ask you to have a brief conversation to practice their English. But the absence of beeps from the claxon of the scooter bikes and the air not being filled with exhaust fumes is a welcome relief.

Take a stroll around the lake and talk to some students. Watch Chinese children drive around in electric-toy cars and hover boards. Taste the foods and watch all the colourful lanterns in the trees. Do this, and it will be hard to not walk around with a stupid big smile on your face of pure childish joy. Sunday the streets are open again and with it the beeps and exhaust gasses of the motorbikes return in full force.


Daily Budget EUR 30 (35 USD)
Street food EUR 2 ( 3 USD)
Meal in a restaurant EUR 5 (6 USD)
Dorm EUR 5 ( 6 USD)
Double in a 3-star hotel EUR 20-50 (25-60 USD)

In & out

You can arrive in Hanoi either by plane, bus or train.

Noi-Bai Airport

If you arrive (or leave) by plane (Noi-Bai airport) You can either:

  • take the local bus 17 from Long Bien bus terminal (see map), every 30 minutes from 5AM-10PM for 5000-10,000D, (takes 1.5-3 hours depending on traffic, it stops a lot) which is a 20 minute walk from Hoan-Kiem lake however the terminal is in a pretty dodgy neighbourhood which can feel quite unsafe for (female) solo travelers;
  • take the airport-shuttle, which I recommend (see map), leaving from the city (roughly) every hour on the hour from 4.30AM – 7.30PM for 40,000D (takes 45min-1.5 hours depending on traffic) (I know the first and last bus contradict the ‘on the hour every hour’, but I found out the hard way that the last one leaves at 7.30 PM), see the photo below of the ‘shuttle-terminal’ on the city-side; or
  • take a cab, which should cost you around 200,000D per car (I missed the last shuttle and had to take a cab, I shared one with 3 other backpackers so it only costed me 50,000D), however if you are in a hurry or have bad luck you might be forced to pay double.
the airport-shuttle leaves right in front of the big yellow building with the red roof on the left (after the pedestrian-crossing), this is also where you buy your ticket.


If you arrive by train you can either walk the 2-3 km walk through the French quarter or take a taxi. Walk straight from the main entrance for about 6 blocks, then head left. If you take a taxi, beware of taxis with speed-meters. They are notorious for overcharging with a factor 3. ABC-taxis are cheap, clean and reliable. You recognise the pink colour.

From Hanoi,  fly anywhere in Vietnam for about 350,000-900,000D or take the train to Ninh Binh, or the night-train straight to Hue. Hanoi – Halong Bay is about a 3 hour bus drive which is also a great ‘next destination’ or head North to Sapa.

– Things to take to Vietnam –

Of course these are not the only things you need when travel to Vietnam but I recommend them because I feel they are essentials that might not be on your radar when packing your bag.

Waterproof Bag

A waterproof bag is a lifesaver when caught in the rain but also when kayaking, jungle-trekking or chasing waterfalls. If nothing else it gives you piece of mind when traveling with camera gear or other stuff that just can’t get wet. Get a 5L or 10L version so you can pack it within your daypack. I recommend this one from Mountain Splash. It’s durable and tough, transparent and it has got an easy handgrip.

Hand Sanitizer

Yes I view anti-bacterial hand sanitizer as essential. Not because I am germophobic but because this will save you from diarrhea and food poisoning. Most people that get sick from eating street food in South-east Asia don’t get sick from the shitty hygiene at the street food stall but because they didn’t probably wash their hands. Use hand sanitizer, stay a happy traveler. This set got handy Carabiners to latch it on you any pack.

3MM climbing rope

Even if your not going to do any climbing or trekking, you need a 3MM climbing rope. Most often you will only use this as a washing line. Or to tie stuff to the outside of your backpack. I for one have never needed to use my rope for anything else than that. However 3MM climbing rope takes up as much space as any washing line. It is nice to know it can also take the full weight of any person when needed.

Lonely Planet

Because its just the best compact travel guide out there. I always take a lonely planet with me for its practical information and background on certain sights. It is a lifesaver for when you find yourself unexpectedly off the beaten path in search of accommodation for the night. For me this is still the best way to read up on a destinations in long haul bus rides. You don’t need internet or battery-life and you can keep it dry in your recently purchased waterproof bag!