Located in the North (cue: “King of the North!!!”) this charming capital city is backpacker’s paradise. Big enough to have an international airport and all of the merits of a metropolitan city, Hanoi is often used as a way point for trips further north (Ha Long Bay, Sapa, Mai Chau) as well as a starting point for trips down the coast. Trips aside, Hanoi is worth staying for a couple days to explore.
Here were some of my highlights
1. Wander through the Old Quarter
The 36 streets that comprise the old quarter are full of shops and great for people watching and soaking in the street food and market culture. As the name implies, this area hosts the oldest temple as well as the biggest market in the city. Here is the place to try street food like bun cha (BBQ Pork with Rice Noodles on Dao Duy Tu St), Bun Dau (spicy shrimp, noodle, and tofu soup on Ma May St), and Pho Bo(Beef Noodle Soup on Trung Yen St). If you’re not in the mood to sit on tiny stools in the blazing heat (not for the faint of heart), check out Mum’s Cafe for some great fried spring rolls and delish coconut ice cream and sticky rice.
2. Sip Egg Coffee over Hoan Keam Lake
The coffee in Hanoi is so good that I was in a constant state of jitters from the amount that I consumed. Probably not healthy, but I have no regrets. Hanoi is famous for it’s egg coffee (think whipped tiramisu style) and vietnam for it’s coffee in general. I preferred the ice coffee(cà phê sữa đá) for most of the trip -- essentially drinking espresso over condensed milk. Two cafe’s I tried that overlook Hoan Kiem lake are Cafe Dinh or Cafe Pho Co -- if you can see through the smog.
The lake itself is nice as well. The lake, famous in Vietnamese folklore as the “Lake of the Restored Sword”. If you arrive early, you can see many locals working and/or hanging out, as well as take a walk over the the Rising Sun Bridge to the Ngoc Son Temple
3. Pay your respects (at at least people watch) at the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum
As the leader of the Vietnamese Independence Movement in the 1940’s Ho Chi Minh’s body has been mummified for the country’s posterity and the world to see. A bit far from the old quarter (where most people are saying), consider taking a grab motorbike (fairly cheap SE asian version of uber).
In the same vicinity is the Ho Chi Minh House and One Pillar Pagoda. Also in the area (~ 15 min walk) is the Temple of Literature -- one of vietnam’s oldest schools/temples.
4. Sit in wonder at the Thang Long Water Puppet Theatre
Hanoi boasts one of the largest water puppet shows (not sure how much competition there is). The show lasts about an hour and showcases several selections from a much larger collection of pieces . including the story of the king and the turtle-- the legend behind the Lake of the Restored Sword (~ 100,000 dong, 4 USD)
5. Spend a night on backpacker’s street
The backpacker’s district, interwoven with the old quarter has become as much part of the modern Hanoi culture as some of it’s historical landmarks. Walk through the streets at night to find makeshift bars right on the street. Grab a short stool and treat yourself to a 50 cent beer!