As much as I like being original and off-the-beaten-path, sometimes popular and touristy things are popular for good reason. Below is a list of things to do in Hanoi that are both touristy and not, so you get a good mix of experiences in the wonderful, charming capital of Vietnam. The below activities will have you rubbing shoulders with locals and other fellow travellers alike.
Here are my top suggestions for things to do in Hanoi:
1) Bia Hoi beer corner
This is probably the most exciting and culturally fun thing to experience in Hanoi. Situated in the Old Quarter about 3 blocks north of the lake, you can enjoy 25 cent beers while people-watching sitting in little plastic chairs. This is a popular spot for locals as well as tourists. Many of the shops brew the beer daily on their premises, so if they run out, that’s it for the day. And don’t expect any award-winning quality here either. But for the price and the atmosphere, this by far is one of the most interesting (and fun!) things to do in Hanoi. The spot comes alive at night, and even more packed on weekends. There are other great little restaurants and bars spilling onto the side streets around it.
2) Visit Ho Chi Minh’s mausoleum
The Vietnam experience wouldn’t be complete without paying homage to the father of Vietnam himself. Inside the mausoleum, a unique experience awaits, where you can see his carefully preserved body on display. The mausoleum is visited not just by tourists but also frequented by locals as they come to pay their respects. Do maintain a level of respect and a solemn attitude, and wear appropriate clothing (translation: cover yourself up).
3) Make trips out to Sapa & Halong Bay
So you’ve arrived in Hanoi so why am I telling to you leave it? Because! Hanoi is a great spot to extend your Vietnam journey and head on a little farther into magical places like Sapa and Halong Bay. Also, Hanoi has a myriad of tour operators (and through your hotels and hostels) that you can choose from to arrange your trips to these places.
We booked a trip through our hostel that took us on an overnight train to Sapa, where we did a 2-day trek around the rice-hill terraces and home-stayed with a local family in the mountains.
A trip to northern Vietnam wouldn’t be complete without visiting Halong Bay, a UNESCO heritage site for its vast limestone karst islands. There are lots of options to choose from, from single-day to multi-day cruises, as well as the kind of atmosphere you are looking for on the boats. Popular with the young gap-year kids are the booze cruises… or you can choose a more relaxed, laid-back cruise which is what I opted for. But hey, whatever floats your boat (pun intended). Interested? Here’s my take on how to choose a Halong Bay cruise.
4) Take a walk around Hoan Kiem Lake in the early morning
This might sound a little dull but it was actually one of the more noteworthy experiences in Hanoi. I love the idea of having a lake right in the middle of the city and the locals love it too, as it is brimming with early risers (mostly old grandmas and grandpas) taking advantage of the cool morning and exercising around the lake. Tired and sleepy after getting off at the train station at 4am and unable to find a taxi, we slowly plodded to our hostel at wee hours of the morning, only to find ourselves the lake buzzing with so much life! So this unfortunate event was really a blessing in disguise since we were able to discover this unique, little known fact about Hanoi. Also, they have the funniest-looking exercise movements, makes for a good laugh 🙂
5) Out of the ordinary… get a taste of luxury
Feeling a bit run down and scruffy? Get a time-out from the backpacker lifestyle and into a luxury oasis. Visit a luxury mall situated at the Southeastern tip of the lake called Tràng Tiền Plaza. Here you’ll find designer labels and the expensive price tag that accompany them. The mall’s interiors are beautiful and sophisticated, and will make you forget about the widespread, low-budget scene you’ve become accustomed to in SE Asia. This is a totally different side of Hanoi that you can experience without leaving the main part of town.
6) Walk about in the Old Quarter, around Hoan Kiem Lake, and French Quarter
Pretty self-explanatory here! Take in the hustle and bustle of Hanoi, shop and haggle with street vendors, eat noodle soup, and watch daily life unfold on the streets. I loved Hanoi’s unique appeal where you can find traces of French colonialism in some of its architectures standing in contrast to gritty-looking buildings of a developing Asian nation.
7) Be a rebel and party after curfew
As a communist country, there are laws set in place that differ a lot to others… like having a curfew. I’ve been told that the curfew is actually nationwide, but it’s not as heavily enforced the farther you are from the Hanoi (translation: pretty much no curfew in Ho Chi Minh City). Whatever the case, here in Hanoi the enforcement was felt stronger than in other parts of Vietnam. When we were in Hanoi, bars and restaurants were expected to close by 10:30 or 11pm. Police were out patrolling the city and came by to check on the establishments to make sure the businesses complied.
So naturally the party scene is more subdued here, and the partying starts and ends earlier to compensate. If it is past curfew but you’re hankering for more, there are hidden parties that go on behind closed doors and heavy curtains. If you’re at a social hostel or you’re hanging out with locals or expats, it won’t be difficult to find those secret venues to continue partying.
Food flavours are more mild-mannered than Ho Chi Minh City, but food culture is big here and so is the taste. Choose from makeshift food stalls on the streets, food walking tours you can do on your own (using a food tour map) or with a guide, or restaurants where you can peruse at the selection before sitting down to eat… just point to order what you’d like to have, and they’ll bring the food prepared to your table.