Hanoi, the capital of Vietnam is a delightful city to walk around in, if you like people watching and shopping as I do. Personally, I don’t like museums and usually give them a skip if I have very little time in a city. I love markets and other places that are crowded with locals because they give me a feel of what I like to think of as the ‘pulse’ of the city and on that front, Hanoi has a lot to offer. It is noticeably cleaner than other Asian capitals like Delhi or Dhaka. The population density in Hanoi is much less than these cities. However the number of motorbikes that come at you from all directions can make crossing the street a bit nerve wrecking. The best thing is to keep up with locals crossing the street and you will most likely be safe. Of course it takes many days to truly get to know a city, but if you’re here only for a day or two, apart from visits to the famous sites such as the Temple of Literature and the Ho Chi Minh Complex, here’s my list of what to do in Hanoi.
What To Do in Hanoi
Hoan Kiem Lake
It’s hard to miss the beautiful lake, especially if you’re staying in the Old Quarter as most tourists do. I find it fascinating to see such a beautiful lake in the middle of the city like that (we don’t have any in Dubai). The area around the Hoan Kiem Lake looks serene and beautiful at all times of the day. I enjoyed walking by it, occasionally sitting down at one of the many benches and people watching. There are usually many tourists, locals and expats jogging around the perimeter, young couples drawn to the romantic setting of the lake and women selling cheap eats and souvenirs. There is a bridge from one side of the lake to the Ngoc Son Temple, right in the center of the lake, which is also worth a visit. The lake is lit up beautifully at night with the colorful lights reflecting off its waters to create a twinkling fairytale setting. There are a couple of restaurants overlooking the lake and needless to say, these have great ambience and prices to match.
Water Puppet Show
This is an old art form in Vietnamese culture and is an absolute delight to watch. The theatre is located right opposite the Hoan Kiem Lake in the Old Quarter and there are several shows in a day. That said, being very popular with tourists and locals alike, the shows get sold out pretty quickly. So it’s best to buy tickets a day or at least a few hours in advance. The show consists of a series of short folk tales and music by highly talented folk singers to which the water puppets dance. It’s a spectacular display of colors, puppetry and folklore which is high up on my to do list when in Hanoi.
Vietnam brings out the coffee lover in me. Vietnamese Coffee is really rich and also kind of chocolaty in my opinion, which is why I like it so much. The coffee is a ‘filter’ coffee which could be with or without milk. Sit down at any one of the cafes in the Hoan Kiem Lake area to enjoy this little cup of joy.
Hanoi is a great place to start with if you’re looking to fall in love with local cuisine. There are some very good restaurants and street kitchens in the Old Quarter and Hoan Kiem Lake area where you can find local delicacies such as Pho (noodle soup with meat and herbs), Banh xeo (Vietnamese pancakes made of rice flour and stuffed with pork, shrimps, onions and bean sprouts) and Bun cha (grilled pork served with a wholesome broth, green papaya and rice noodles with herbs) among many many others. Pork, beef and shrimps are the main ingredients in most dishes and so Vietnam can be the ultimate food paradise for carnivores. There is no cause for despair for vegetarians (though it can be tough but not impossible if you’re vegan). I also love the various Tofu dishes that are served with rice and the use of sweet potatoes (sweet potato fritters served with honey, so delicious!) in their meals.
Shopping in the Old Quarter
Hanoi is truly a shopper’s paradise, mainly for two reasons- you will be literally spoilt for choice with the numerous shops selling wide varieties of clothes, shoes, bags, scarves, handicrafts, Vietnamese jewellery, paintings, fabrics and trekking gear, winter clothes and sportswear and most of these are very attractively priced. There are many stores selling’The North Face’ clothes and gear as well as McKinley, Columbia and The North Face trekking shoes and brightly coloured Nike trainers for as low as 15-20$. I bought a pair of McKinley trekking shoes to use in Sapa for a reasonable 17$. There are also boutiques selling high fashion clothes and tailored outfits with price tags that read three million dong and upwards. An important thing to remember is to bargain well. A good way to do this is to start with 50% of the price quoted by the seller and gradually work your way upto 70% of the price and not pay more than that. When shopping in the Old Quarter, it is helpful to know that almost every street specializes in selling one kind of product. For example, on Hang Dau street, you will see all the shops selling shoes of every kind, Nike and Adidas trainers, The North Face trekking shoes, sparkly pumps and heels etc and on Lan Ong there are shops selling traditional herbal medicines. On Hang Bong and around are many boutiques selling fashionable western clothes. So get a map, get organized and head to your streets of interest, or wander about if you prefer. Shopping in the Old Quarter and exploring its many streets, can even take you two to three days if you do it at a leisurely pace, shopping and sampling the street food on the way.
I loved Hanoi and wandering in the Old Quarter so much that I chose to do that over spending an extra day in Halong Bay which is a good day trip from Hanoi. Considering how short I was on time, I decided to get to know Hanoi a little better and was very glad I did!