Hanoi is very navigable – it does not have the copious amounts of traffic you might expect, and although there are plenty of motorbikes, scooters, taxis and bicycles, crossing the road is not as terrifying as in many other major Southeast Asian cities. The people are generally very friendly too, as befits smaller cities; you will feel welcomed instantaneously.
Despite its quaint charms however, Hanoi is packed with enough culture to fill a metropolis twice its size. You will not lack things to do and see regardless of your interests. The three major attractions of Hanoi (out of many) are surely eating, visiting museums and temples, and using the city as a launching point from which to head to other places. Thanks to its location and fantastic transport links, from Hanoi you can explore a great range of areas: from the immediate surroundings (which include stunning bays, coasts, mountains, rice fields, towns, islands), to the most northern tip of the country right down to the most southern point, and even heading to neighbouring countries such as Laos.
There is such a variety of attractions on offer that it can be daunting knowing where to begin. Below we have compiled a few of what we believe to be the top attractions that Hanoi and its surroundings have to offer.
Hanoi is a city rich in culture, a diverse culture built on centuries of shifting history. Evidence of the deeply ingrained French and Chinese influences are plainly visible in the old colonial architecture as well as in the cuisine, and add depth to the city’s charms. It is a very varied town; on one hand you have the old quarter whose narrow streets are vastly populated with backpacker hostels and a thumping nightlife that would not be out of place on the Greek party islands. On the other hand, the Hoan Kiem Lake and various temples and museums can offer visitors spaces for quiet reflection and relaxation, as well as food for thought. There is something for all culture vultures here, it can feel as if every street has its own museum or building of worship.
The Temple of Literature was built in 1070 as a homage to Confucius, a Chinese philosopher, teacher and politician, whose teachings revolved around love, affection and practising making the moral choice over the one of personal advantage. The temple is primarily dedicated to the literary accomplishments of himself and his disciples. Interestingly, the architecture, quite unusually, is typically Vietnamese, and is very well preserved. Inside you can find many well-crafted statues and even a small pond known as the ‘Well of Heavenly Clarity’. The Hoa Lo Prison Museum, located on the site that once was the Hoa Lo Prison, offers thought provoking exhibits on the Vietnamese struggle to gain independence from France. The prison was in use up until the mid 20th century although it was never very successful as hundreds of peoples escaped from it. It is definitely worth a visit as an interesting piece of history, providing some insight into Vietnam’s war-fuelled past.
Another key ingredient of Hanoi is its vibrant food scene. A wide of variety of dishes can be purchased and devoured on the city’s streets. Turn any corner and find women carrying large bamboo baskets filled with pastries or fresh fruits or people with little glass kitchen units on wheels selling kebab-style meats in flat breads and banh mi, a Vietnamese sandwich that consists of a baguette filled with pate, meats, salad, fried egg and chilli sauce. Some street vendors even set up little plastic chairs and tables around their carts, selling pho, a traditional noodle soup, or other noodle or rice dishes. There is a lot to be tried so be brave: new culinary experiences await you.
Ha Long Bay
Ha Long Bay, just a short bus ride from Hanoi, is a great place to escape from the city for a weekend or even longer. The bay is comprised of a collection of 1,600 limestone islands, topped with rainforests, which make up a UNESCO World Heritage site that is over 1,500 square kilometres in size. Start in Ha Long City, which is primarily a launching spot for trips around the bay. The town is home to a large amount of accommodations, ranging from nice hotels down to budget hostels. It also has a variety of nice restaurants from local eateries serving traditional meals to more fancy establishments where you can sit and have cocktails overlooking the bay.
The bay itself offers visitors some truly stunning views of the islands ringed by emerald waters, and there are a wide variety of cruises and boat trips which can take you around the area, offering fantastic swimming, hiking, snorkelling and scuba diving opportunities. One of the top places to visit in the bay is Cat Ba island, the largest island in the Cat Ba archipelago, which makes up the southeastern edge of Ha Long Bay. The archipelago has 260 square kilometres of stunning ecosystems, natural scenery, coves, cliffs, rugged jungle areas and tiny fishing villages, lending itself to a multitude of activities such as climbing, kayaking, hiking, swimming and simply exploring. This can be done as a day trip or as a several day trip. There are plenty of places to stay on the island if you want to do an extended tour.
Hanoi to Sa Pa by train takes around eight hours, and by bus around six and half hours, and yet it is like you’ve reached another world. This area is visually impressive, famed for the stunning terraced rice fields that look like something from Lord of the Rings. Lush, verdant steps create the optical illusion that the landscape itself is melting and folding over itself. However, you may want to revise your expectations of a serene mountain town. Sa Pa has seen a burst of tourism in recent years and as modern construction is relatively unrestricted, the skyline is becoming ever crowded and higher reaching.
The true charm of this region lies outside of the city: the natural spaces are unlike anything else, offering unbeatable views of mist-topped mountains, waterfalls and valleys, which makes the area very popular for trekking. The Muong Hoa Valley is heralded by many as the most beautiful valley in Sa Pa; the golden fields and green waters make trekking here completely awe-inspiring.
Some other things not to miss
Below we have compiled a few extra suggestions of things not to miss out on:
- If you’re in Ha Long City and looking for a bite to eat, check out Tuan Huong, a small Vietnamese restaurant that specialises in fresh seafood. The crab is particularly delectable: you can choose which one you want from the tanks outside and then personalise your dish further from their range of sauces and sides.
- In Hanoi the Vietnamese Women’s Museum is lauded as one of the city’s top attractions. It charts the history of the role of women in Vietnamese culture and society. They have displays that change on a regular basis but one of the most interesting exhibits is a permanent one that showcases the role of women in the war, including an array of spectacular propaganda posters.
- If you are in Sa Pa you simply must go to the Hill Station Signature Restaurant for traditional Hmong dishes and jaw-dropping views. We’d recommend the trout, which is wrapped in banana leaf and then ash-baked, served with a glass of local rice wine. It makes for a great culinary experience.
- One of the top street food experiences in Hanoi can be found in the Old Quarter, at 66 P Hang Bong. It not only offers great tasting meals but is an experience all in itself. Akin to a little market, you are given tongs and a basket and go along the stall choosing a variety of meats and vegetables, which you then take to your seat and cook yourself on the little BBQs situated on each table. Fun and tasty!