You get off your plane and you're shocked by how busy this capital city can get. It gets you thinking: What should you do in Hanoi? We've got you covered with a long list of things to do in this bustling Vietnamese metropolis. Don't forget to take a look at our One-Month Complete Vietnam Itinerary.
1. Eat ALL the food you can
Seriously. Hanoi is known for amazing street food, and the best bites we had were from unassuming shops with plastic chairs. Read more below on what dishes to try in Hanoi.
2. Turtle Lake (Hoàn Kiếm)
Head to the Hoàn Kiếm Lake (locally known as Turtle Lake) and take stroll around it. If you're there in the evening, do as the locals do and by ice cream from one of the many street stands. The lake particularly beautiful when the sun goes down and the colored lights come on.
3. Thang Long Water Puppet Theatre
Book your tickets for the popular Thang Long Water Puppet Theatre at the northeast corner of the lake (it's a good show to see when your first visiting Vietnam, but if you are crunched for time don't go out of your way to see it). Tickets are cheap (60,000 - 100,000 dong, which is between $3-5 USD) and there are many showtimes each day, but they book up quickly so get there in the morning to book that afternoon or for the next day.
4. Downtown Night Market
Explore downtown Hanoi (north of Turtle Lake), which is relatively calm during the day but really livens up for the night market.
5. Mausoleum of Ho Chi Minh
You can take a tuk tuk or walk 2 km from the lake to the Mausoleum of Ho Chi Minh. It's a huge communist-style structure surrounded by a nice park to walk around and get away from the buzzing city.
6. Do as the locals do
Sit on a plastic chair, drink bia hoi and people-watch. This is a favorite activity of the locals. Walk down any street and you'll find several shops with plastic chairs to post up in. Bia hoi is fresh locally brewed beer, but don't get too excited... it's no craft beer. In fact, it's the lightest of light beers (which is not really my thing), but it's SO cheap (about 40-50 cents USD for a glass) that you just can't pass the opportunity to try it. The beautiful thing about Hanoi is that life happens on the street. As you sip on your super light-light beer, watch people getting haircuts, men lifting weights and playing chess, children playing games and women catching up with friends – all taking place on the sidewalk. It's something to be seen.
7. Hanoi's Old Quarter
Get lost in the winding, messy, chaotic, narrow streets of Hanoi's Old Quarter. There's no place like this city, and getting lost is the best way to explore it.
8. Drink Vietnamese coffee
It wasn't love at first taste for us, but over time we came to appreciate the ultra-sweet and thick coffee that is compulsory to drink at least once in this country.
9. Take a walking tour
We aren't usually fans of organized tours, but free walking tours are one exception. We're kind of obsessed with free walking tours because they allow you to see parts of the city that you otherwise wouldn't, and you can pay as much as you're able on your budget. The hostel we stayed at offered a free walking tour that was pretty good, but one we really wanted to take was run by an organization called Hanoi Kids. They offer different types of tours and are led by local kids who want to better their English. We tried to book a tour with them but they book up weeks (and even months) in advance! So if you're interested in taking a tour with Hanoi Kids, be sure to plan ahead.
What to eat in Hanoi:
Bun Cha. This is a top contender for our favorite Vietnamese dish, and we think you'll love it too! Originating in Hanoi, this dish consists of grilled pork patties and noodles served with lettuce and herbs and a dipping sauce. We had two delicious meals of Bun Cha in Hanoi and it was too hard to choose a winner so I'm putting both. One was in a small shop on the northeast corner of St. Joseph's Cathedral and the other was at a restaurant called Bun Cha Ta at 21 Nguyễn Hữu Huân. Try them both to compare and let us know which one you liked better. And this is just one of the ubiquitous dishes to try in Hanoi.
For international food in a relaxed atmosphere, look no further than the Hanoi Social Club. With several levels, including a quiet rooftop and tons of inventive and healthy food to choose from, this is a great non-Vietnamese option. Best of all, they are vegetarian-friendly and regularly host live music and other events.
Where to stay in Hanoi:
Vietnam Backpackers Hostels - Original. Offering both dorm rooms and spacious private rooms and centrally located in Hanoi's Old Quarter, Vietnam Backpackers Hostel Original was one of the best hostels we stayed in Vietnam. There's free breakfast every morning, free walking tours of the city, other tours of the surrounding areas and throughout the country, happy hour specials every day and a pub crawl multiple nights each week. What more could you ask for?!
How to get to Hanoi from the airport:
The Noi Bai International Airport (HAN) of Hanoi is about 30 km away from the main city center and there are many ways to get there. The best option is to take the airport shuttle bus which leaves just outside of the gates. The cost is 40,000 VND ($2 USD) and takes about 40-60 minutes depending on the traffic. If you are one of the first on, you'll have to wait a bit because they typically leave once they have a full bus. If you arrive during the day you can take the city bus number 7 that terminates at Kim Ma Bus station or number 17 that terminate at Long Bien bus station. The cost is 5,000 VND and takes about one hour. The last option is to take a taxi, but they are known to overcharge travelers and typically charge $35 USD one way.