The capital city of Vietnam, Hanoi lies in the Red River Delta in the north of the country. Hanoi would typically be the starting point (or end, if you do it in reverse) of your itinerary. The city went by the names Long Biên (which is also the name of a famous bridge in the city) and Thăng Long (another bridge now), till it was called Hà Nội in 1831. The city is the second largest in Vietnam after Ho Chi Minh City. Where we are headed is a specific part of this city – the Old Quarter.
We spent a weekend in Hanoi (check out our complete itinerary here). Weekends are the best time to be here for an unforgettable experience. In the evening, roads around Hoan Kiem Lake are closed for traffic and you can see people come out, walking, jogging, kids playing, drawing, painting, street performers in action and some people just sitting on benches and looking at the brightly lit Thap Rua (Turtle Tower) in the middle of the lake.
There was an entire road dedicated to remote controlled cars with kids driving them around!
We walked around the lake atleast 3-4 times and kept finding new stuff on each round. We were lucky to be there on the weekend when a South Korea-Vietnam cultural festival was ongoing – there were concerts, food stalls and a lot more. It was a bonus on our food list!
Weekend or not, here is a list of must-dos when you are in Hanoi:
Walk around Hoàn Kiếm Lake: The Hoan Kiem Lake is a beautiful lake right in the middle of the Old Quarter of Hanoi. Visit the Ngoc Son Temple which is on a tiny island in the northern part of the lake (try going early in the morning).
Explore the Old Quarter: The Old Quarter is a bustling centre of activity and most of the nightlife revolves around it. Make sure you get your hotel/Airbnb close enough so that you can save on the commute while making the most of your time in Hanoi.
Each street is dedicated to a certain type of shops (a street full of kitchen utensils, one for mechanical parts etc) and you get a real taste of the life and culture of Hanoi while you are walking around. There are certain places-to-see like temples which you can visit. You can also find amazing eateries with some of the best Vietnamese food here.
Ta Hien Street: This is the beer street of the Old Quarter – the place to head to for the nightlife! You will find dozens of bars on both sides along with the many signature street-side vendors. Grab a tiny table and a couple of tiny stools and get started!
Water Puppet Show: The water puppet show is an experience which you should definitely add to your list. Complete with traditional Vietnamese instruments, the show takes you through a set of stories set in the countryside.
We visited the famous Thang Long Puppet Show which is on the northern bank of Hoan Kiem Lake. For tickets, you can head to the ticket counter a few hours before the show and collect them in advance. It’s best to get seats in the front for a clear view!
Temple of Literature: Now, we take you away from the Old Quarter towards the Temple of Literature. We walked about 2.5 kms to get here from the Old Quarter (the amazing bowl of Bun Bo Nam Bo fuelled us!). Along the way, you can spot the infamous Hanoi Train Street which you would have seen in pics. The street was closed to visitors due to the risk it posed while trains crossed.
The Temple of Literature (featured behind the 100,000 VND note) is dedicated to Confucius and housed Vietnam’s first university, the Imperial Academy.
There are five courtyards with beautiful gardens. Even today, students visit this academy and temple as it signifies a milestone in the Vietnamese education system. So, don’t be alarmed if you see kids roaming around in graduation robes!
One Pillar Pagoda and Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum: A short walk from the Temple of Literature will take you to the historical place where Ho Chi Minh declared independence from France – the Ba Dinh Square. There is an entire complex here which contain a museum, Ho Chi Minh’s Mausoleum, the One Pillar Pagoda and Ho Chi Minh’s Stilt house.
We would recommend this only for people who love history – others can do a quick walk-through.
Tran Quoc Pagoda: This is the oldest pagoda in the city, and it sits on a small islet in the West Lake. You can spot a lot of Buddhist symbols in and around the pagoda. We spent some time sitting along the banks of the lake enjoying the breeze and watching people fish.
We would recommend taking a bus or Grab taxi as the walk back to the Old Quarter can be really long and tiring.
Weekend Night Market: The weekend night market is an amazing place for shopping as well as picking up souvenirs. It is basically a street which is closed and stalls come up right in the middle.
It stretches along Hang Dao street starting at the square near the Hoan Kiem Lake. The one key to shopping in Vietnam is “Bargain-bargain-bargain” – this comes rather easily if you are Indian. Oh, and by the way, the street is unrecognizable during the day with all the scooters zipping past!
Food: No story about Hanoi is even remotely complete without mentioning the food! Pho (Beef Noodle Soup), Bun Bo Nam Bo (Beef Noodle Salad), Banh Mi (Vietnamese sandwich), Bun Cha (meatballs with noodles), Xoi Xeo (turmeric rice), Banh Xeo (Vietnamese pancake), Egg coffee – makes our mouths water just by thinking about them!
So, we decided to write an entire blog on the Fantastic Vietnamese Food and Where You Can Find Them!
While these places give you a real taste of north Vietnamese culture, there are other places you can visit if time permits. Our recommendation is to use the extra time to go on some short trips as Hanoi is a good base location. You can head north to Sapa or go south to Halong Bay (read about it here). After Hanoi, our itinerary took us to the magical town of Hoi An in Central Vietnam.
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