Hanoi is hands-down my favorite city in Southeast Asia, to which my grandfather always says, “Well, consider yourself lucky you weren’t there 40 years ago.” History’s waters still run deep in Hanoi,Vietnam, with Ho Chi Minh’s mausoleum, his house at the back of the presidential grounds and ubiquitous presence in most museums being some of the main sights. You can easily spend a full week there without seeing the same thing twice. Here are some ideas for making the most of this exceptional city:
A neighborhood per day
I love to start the day with a walk around Hoan Kiem Lake and passing between endless motorbike traffic and tai chi classes. I stayed in the Old Quarter, which is an ideal, central location for walking around to most areas. If you can handle the traffic – both in the street and on the sidewalk – Hanoi is a wonderful city for doing some wandering. In the Old Quarter, the street names refer to what’s sold there. Some of the most notable include Hang Bac, which sells silver and is quite touristy (you can also pick up propaganda posters there). A block on Hang Bo sells all manner of yarn, thread and buttons, and Hang Trong used to be the place to go for all manner of art and dishware. Hanoi’s day usually starts at dawn and ends around 9pm, but more bars and clubs are popping up, and you don’t have far to go in the Old Quarter before running into a jazz club.
Go back in time
Hanoi’s museums are well worth a look. Hoa Lo Prison includes dummies chained to their beds, showcasing one of the more intense moments of the city’s 1,000-year-old history. Just slightly older than the city is the Temple of Literature. I didn’t encounter any touts or scams when visiting the heavily touristed areas, but I went on less crowded weekday mornings. Other choice options include the American War Museum, with tanks and a downed plane on full display; the Fine Art Museum, with wartime and more modern artworks; and the exceptional Women’s Museum that’s a real eye-opener. And of course there’s the chance to see Uncle Ho himself at the mausoleum (give that he’s not in Moscow getting his yearly touch-up). The lines for this are always long and consequently, there’s not a lot of time to see Ho Chi Minh. The Ho Chi Minh museum is worth a look if you’re interested in propaganda, but seeing where Uncle Ho lived on the presidential grounds is a better way to spend your time if it’s limited.
Eat, eat, eat
One of the best things to do in Hanoi is eat. If you’re wary of street food but still want to give it a try, do so on a street inundated with food stalls, and make sure to give the food a once-over before sitting down. You’ll probably be sitting with your knees up to your ears, but it’s all part of the local culture! One of my favorite places is Cha Ca La Vong, which only serves grilled fish mixed with noodles, peanuts, chilis, and tons of herbs. It costs about US$8, but when I went, they charged about $12, which was not worth complaining about. If you keep odd hours, you can visit Long Bien Market from 1-6am to see towering stacks of dragon fruit, pomelo and more. As for drinks, Beer Hanoi is really good, and bia hoi, the beer you’ll drink with street stall food, is worthy of several takes.
I usually buy jewelry when traveling, but in Vietnam I bought art instead. The city’s art scene is booming, from reprints of anti-war propaganda to more modern abstract pieces. Silk and embroidered clothing by local designers crowd Hang Gai Street, and are still on the affordable side.
I never had a problem with safety in Hanoi, but there were several times I’d get overcharged for food or cigarettes, and occasionally someone would spit in front of me. There’s no insulation, so hotels can be quite cold in winter. On a happier note, one thing I love to do in Vietnam is check my balance at the ATM since it’s as close as I’ll ever get to being a millionaire!
What do you like to do in Hanoi?