Hanoi is one of the loveliest capital cities in the world! While many of its buildings are now modern, they are not too tall and there are plenty of colonial-era gems to give Hanoi the feel of a bygone era. Time seems to flow differently in the capital of Vietnam and there are many reminders of its varied and storied past. Hanoi has resisted developing into Singapore, Kuala Lumpur or Hong Kong despite it having substantial economic growth over the past twenty years.
Hanoi has been continuously occupied since at least 10,000 BCE. Its strategic location on the Red River delta has made it attractive for settlement. It was the capital of an independent polity as early as the 3rd Century BCE. Often incorporated into China under the Han, Xin and Ming dynasties, Hanoi was almost always a regional capital.
Showing some incense-itivity in Hanoi’s temples!
Since that time, Hanoi has opened its economy to foreign investment and has grown economically strong. Today, it is a fashionable and exciting metropolis which still preserves its wonderful history and classic appearance. Some visitors would claim that Hanoi is chaotic, but I love its mix of styles, eras, sights and smells which combine to produce a unique city that has generous, friendly and happy residents.
Here’s a Pro-tip: The currency in Hanoi is the Vietnamese Dong (VND). 1 British Pound equates to approximately 30,000 dongs. Cash is king in Hanoi so make sure you have plenty of space in your wallet. You’ll be a multi-millionaire during your visit!
Hanoi is served by the Noi Bai International Airport. Affordable flights connect from other Southeast Asian destinations such as Singapore. Vietnam Airlines is excellent and uses Hanoi as a hub. The airport is located 25 km (15.5 miles) north of the Old Quarter. Public buses connect to the city and cost 5,000 VND (£0.17) for the one-hour journey. Tourist shuttle buses also connect to the city and cost 40,000 VND (£1.25), dropping you on Phố Quang Trung. A taxi will cost 300,000-350,000 VND (£10 – £12). Once you are in the city you can explore most of the Old Quarter on foot. Download the Grab app on your smartphone and you can hail tuk-tuks and taxis to take you further afield.
Exploring Hanoi means wading through the city’s abundant history and engaging with its vibrant contemporary culture. These are some of the essentials to add to your Hanoi itinerary:
- Hanoi Old Quarter – the historic core curves around the western side of the lake, Hồ Hoàn Kiếm. It’s packed with restaurants, cafes, markets and museums.
- Hồ Hoàn Kiếm – this large lake sits within the Hanoi Old Quarter and is steeped in local folklore. There are a few variations but the most common is that the warrior Lê Lợi was loaned a divine blade to banish the occupying Ming dynasty from China. Once expelled, a golden turtle tracked Lê Lợi down in the lake to retrieve the sword. Turtle Tower (Tháp Rùa) was erected in the middle of the water to immortalise the tale.
The turtle called and he wants his sword back!
- Hoa Lo Prison – dubbed the ‘Hanoi Hilton’, this jailhouse held POWs during the Vietnam War. According to the stories of the Vietnamese, the inmates were treated with compassion, although John McCain, who was imprisoned there, might not have agreed. Propaganda or not, it’s still one of the most fascinating museums in the city.
- Hanoi Street Train – twice daily, a train passes through this narrow street with mere inches between the carriages and the buildings. The trains breeze past at 3pm and 7pm and you can observe safely from one of the nearby cafes.
This neighbourhood is on the right track!
- The Opera House – modelled on the Palais Garnier of Paris, this sunshine-coloured theatre in the French Quarter is an architectural triumph. Book tickets to a show or, at the very least, view its beautiful exterior.
- Vietnamese Women’s Museum – Investigate the roles that women have played in the country’s history. The exhibitions take you through marriage, childbirth, wartime and fashions.
- The Huong ‘Perfume’ Pagoda – tread the footsteps of the monks and take a pilgrimage to this complex of temples and shrines built into the Huong Tich karst mountains. The start is the Huong Tich Cave which translates into ‘traces of fragrance’. Your transfer, first by car and then a scenic boat ride, culminates in an ascent via cable car, so it really is a pilgrimage!
Here’s another Pro-tip: You might wonder if ‘egg coffee’ is a typo. In fact, ‘ca phe trung’ is a Hanoian speciality! It was invented by a bartender at the Sofitel Legend Metropole Hotel in 1946 due to a wartime milk shortage. But, it turned out to be delicious and now it’s readily available in the city. Head to the Note Coffee Shop to receive yours with a message.
Eating in Hanoi often means enjoying a steaming bowl of phở on a curb-side while sitting on a plastic chair. Here are some other places to visit that are fantastic:
- Green Farm Restaurant– this diverse eatery offers immaculately presented dishes with incredibly flavours. They have an extensive vegetarian menu and offer cooking classes.
- Cinnamon Restaurant – quality Vietnamese food in the heart of the Old Quarter. Request a table on the balcony and spend your meal watching the streets glow at night.
- Cafe Nola – there’s no shame in craving a salad when are experiencing ‘noodle fatigue’. This nostalgically decorated cafe also serves Vietnamese classics as well as great coffee.
Hanoi’s coffee is eggs-cellent!
Here’s another Pro-tip: Bánh mì are fluffy baguettes stuffed with sliced meat, eggs, and vegetables. A remnant of the French occupation, they are fabulous snacks while you’re on the go.
Hanoi knows how to put on a show at night and you can party until late on the jostling Phố Tạ Hiện or retreat to an intimate bar until. These are my recommendations of where to have fun at night:
- Le Club at the Sofitel Legend Metropole Hanoi– overlooking the beautiful hotel garden and with the essence of a 1920s Hanoi speakeasy, this evocative bar is one of my favourite places in the world to enjoy a cocktail. You can almost feel the intrigue that was once a staple of this place!
- Binh Minh Jazz Club – hiding in the shadow of the opera house, you’ll have to follow your ears to find this gem. There’s live music every night from 9 pm, featuring a blend of Latin, Funk, and Vietnamese styles.
- Thang Long Water Puppet Theatre – this nightly show brings together traditional Vietnamese music, vocals and puppetry performed against a lagoon backdrop. Even without understanding the language you’ll understand the story and find yourself captivated by the novelty of the performance.
Here’s a Final Pro-tip: Hanoi is the perfect base for planning excursions to Sa Pa and Ha Long Bay. Chat to your hotel directly about booking day-trips or overnight tours. Most accommodations will store your luggage if you visit for a few nights.
With backpackers and holidaymakers alike flocking to Hanoi, you have a plump selection of accommodations ranging from hostels to luxury resorts. My favourite places to stay are independent hotels including:
- Hanoi Boutique Hotel – sophisticated rooms prioritise comfort and space. When you need a little pampering, head downstairs and treat yourself to a massage or sauna at the hotel spa.
- Hanoi Graceful Hotel – go to sleep in Hanoi, and wake in Paris at this French-style hotel. The location is faultless and their generous breakfast will keep you full for hours.
- Scent Premium Hotel – this tasteful hotel comprises rooms and suites that offer panoramic views over the rooftops of Hanoi. The luxurious spa and rooftop Scent Sky Bar are treats!
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Hanoi’s produce is remarketably fresh!
So many sights, flavours and surprises await you in this vibrant and invigorating city. Embrace Hanoi and it will pay you back with a wonderful experience that will provide memories to last a lifetime.