A fusion of history and modernity, Buddhism and Catholicism, Communism and commerce; to describe a city as a ‘melting pot’ is often a travel writing cliché but when it comes to Hanoi it’s wholeheartedly the real deal.
And there’s no better place to experience the full gamut of Vietnam’s current cultural climate than this thriving city of contrasts.
The capital has spent the last 20 years quickly shaking off the dust of war, making way for a new kind of metropolis, one that celebrates the influences of its colonial past while wholly embracing the opportunities of the new.
Things To Do in Hanoi
Take A Cooking Class
You can’t be well-versed in Vietnamese history without appreciating the intricacies of it’s cuisine. The two are so wholly enmeshed that a single meal will traverse flavour influences from the Chinese and French occupations combined to form a completely unique taste. The end result is dish upon dish that’s complex and layered but also very fresh at the same time.
To get yourself acquainted be sure to sign up for classes at the Hanoi Cooking Centre. Held in a historical shophouse within the city’s picturesque Qld Quarter, the course not only includes practical lessons but also tours through street food stalls and lively markets. You’re guaranteed to not only finish with a deeper respect for the whole country but you’ll also end up bartering like a local.
See A Show
There are numerous cultural shows that you cannot miss while in town, such as a show at the grand Hanoi Opera House, which is even worth a visit without tickets for its ornate French-colonial architecture. While those with kids will love all the colour and action at the famous Municipal Water Puppet Theatre.
But if you’re looking to enjoy a slice of modern Hanoi then slip into the Binh Minh Jazz Club, tucked behind the Opera House and always jammed full of music lovers.
Late night revellers will enjoy the live bands at the ultra-hip Cama Atk, which hosts popular local bands and major international acts from the U.S and Canada.
Halong Bay is undoubtedly a must-do for any Hanoi visit. This UNESCO Heritage Site is a breathtaking collection of some 2000 individual islands all clustered in a single area like a giant ocean maze. This area can get busy and touristy so we recommend starting here early in the day.
Cat Ba Island is located at the south edge of Halong Bay and a beautiful vantage point to take in the sprawling view of islands. It also boasts a large national park and even a ‘Cave Hospital’, a hidden Viet Cong hospital from the Vietnam War.
Top Attractions In Hanoi
In Hanoi there’s historical sites for every type of history buff. From the 19th century Gothic-Revival designed St Joseph’s Church, all the way to the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum and Museum, which holds the embalmed body of revered Socialist leader Ho Chi Minh, protected by heavily armed military guards. We weren’t joking when we said Hanoi was diverse.
The Hoa Lan Prison Memorial is a sombre but fascinating museum dedicated to educating the community about the ravages of war. Formerly a prison used for political prisoners during French Indochinese rule, in 1954 the Vietnamese repurposed the prison as their own to hold U.S soldiers during the Vietnam War (where it become commonly known as ‘the Hanoi Hilton’).
Those looking for a little levity post-Hoa Lan will enjoy the beauty of the Imperial Citadel of Thang Long, a UNSESCO World Heritage Site and museum containing ancient artefacts dating back to the 6th Century.
Where To Stay In Hanoi
Vietnam’s French fusion architecture is dotted all around the city but arguably best preserved at the Sofitel Legend Metropole Hanoi. Opened in 1901, the structure has survived cultural occupations, wars and encroaching modernity. And yet, still it stands as an ultra-luxurious living history museum, hosting celebrities, dignitaries and well-heeled travellers looking to revel in a little colonial hospitality.
Hanoi is undoutedly heaven for travellers and there’s a hostel to suit every style, budget and backpack. On the wallet-friendly scale you’ve got Republik Backpacker’s Hostel which starts from $18 per night but still serves up spacious air-conditioned accommodations. Then you’ve got Nexy Hostel, one of the new wave of hostels catering to the ‘flashpacker’ set who are happy to rough it during the day but appreciate coming home to quality linens and modern amenities at night.
Think hostel-meets-boutique hotel with a side of Airbnb and you’ll get close to a Vietnamese guest house, with more often than not an excellent location close to all the action. The Old Quarter boasts Hanoi’s largest collection of traditional guest houses, ranging from the comfortable but basic (most starting at $10 per night), all the way to the princely Hanoi Guest House (still a steal at $40 per night).
How To Visit Hanoi
A range of airlines fly direct to Hanoi’s Noi Bai Aiport from Sydney and Melbourne, including the national carrier, Vietnam Airlines. Flights from Brisbane and Adelaide also run daily, with some connections in Sydney and Melbourne.
Upon arrival you’ll find taxis are plentiful, however keen an eye out for scams by using reputable taxi services or booking rides using Uber.
Places To Shop In Hanoi
The Old Quarter isn’t just the nucleus of Hanoi history, it’s also city’s bustling shopping heart where you’ll find anything and everything. From jewellery to shoes to textiles, just stroll the avenues, dodging traffic and enjoy the ride. The best part is the street names are named after the products that were sold there, so keep your translator app nearby.
Just outside Hanoi you’ll find the village of Bat Trang, which is famous for its handcrafted ceramics. Just ask your driver to take you to Quang’s Ceramics at 61 Tràng Tiền, Hoàn Kiếm to find all the colourful crockery you can fit in your suitcase.
Check out our ultimate guide to shopping in Vietnam for more retail hotspots.
Best Places To Eat In Hanoi
Like most countries in Asia, street food in Hanoi is the great unifier between all classes. Rich or poor, old or young, everyone compares their favourite Pho Bo or Banh Cuon stalls. Savvy travellers looking to insert themselves into the national practice of competitive eating would do well to start in the Old Quarter. Here, you’ll have a choice between trialling the tastes of Ta Hien Street (also known as Beer street), or tucking on noodles and dumplings next to backpackers in Luong Ngoc Quyen Street. Night owls will love the vibrant energy and roadside grills of the Hang Dao Street night market, held from Friday to Sunday from 6pm.
One must–do for history buffs is a meal at Mau Dich 37 (or ‘State-run Food Shop no.37’), which serves up dining with a side of history lesson by recreating the old government-run food shops of the 1976 post-war era. Here diners order food using pre-purchased coupons they can exchange for food from waiters dressed as early Communist state-workers.
On the opposite side of the scale there’s Hanoi Press Club, which serves up high-end Viet-French fusion in elaborate colonial décor.
Urban Adventures from Intrepid offer a diverse range of tours. From Street Food By Night group tours, all the way to Countryside escapes to for those keen to escape the rush of the city.