For three years now, we have been in and out of Hanoi, staying 5-8 months at a time, and I have never run out of fun things to do in this capital city of Vietnam.
Given its rocky history, Hanoi is a living map for the curious, and every nook and cranny invites one to peek in, take a picture and enjoy.
While most Asian cities have transformed into vast metropolia, Hanoi retained many of its old features giving it its old-world charm. I hope it remains so.
Things You Must Do in Hanoi
Moving about in the streets of the Old Quarter, a whole street drama unfolds of eternal grandmas sitting on their small stools, arranging their wares on a small cloth, of vendors with baskets balanced on their shoulders hawking flowers, vegetables, and other household necessities. A 7-11 on legs!
And the longer you look, the more comes out of the background. But before you get lost in this city, here are some of the exciting things you must do when in Hanoi:
1. Try Pho or Bun Cha in the Streets of Hanoi.
These dishes are legendary, and they will not kill you. This dish has never stopped fascinating me, the tiny grottos in buildings with small stools extending to the sidewalks full of customers eating pho or bun cha.
In Hanoi, the crowd is busy at breakfast and peters off as soon as work starts. In the most popular restaurants, you better go early, or you will not be able to get a seat. When we go to our favorite Pho place, we sometimes have to wait outside until some customers finish and free up stools for us.
Then, the crowd changes from the breakfast eaters to the tea drinkers lazily lounging and talking to each other while savoring a cup of tea.
If you’re hesitant about the pho or bun cha, perch yourself on the tiny blue stool and have tea. Small though that stool is, it supported friends and Grumpy, weighing over a hundred kilos.
2. Eavesdrop on the bargaining between the street vendors of Hanoi and their customers.
The loud bicker often sounds aggressive, but it's the traditional way of setting market prices.
The customers often start inspecting the wares, flowers, or vegetables and criticizing the ones they are interested in buying. They scrutinize every bit of each item and express their deep dissatisfaction. Only then will they ask for how much.
But the street vendors can’t be beaten in this battle, although their price has to come down to make a sale. They usually puff up the first quote anyway, so they have room for negotiation.
Sometimes, they have reached an agreement, but the vendors move on to hassle other customers who are willing to pay their price. Pride sneaks in, so managing the discussion is essential.
3. Visit the Temple of Literature
It's a testament to the love for the scholarship that the Vietnamese hold dear. Here are the stellae and stone statues dedicated to the achievements of their first scholars.
This temple is Vietnam's oldest university. With its gardens around various courtyards, one can imagine how the scholars and their students walked through these, earnestly discussing some of their deep thoughts and inquiries, preparing to become Mandarins in the far-off Chinese courts.
4. Explore the Citadel of Hanoi
This place, only recently opened to the public (2011), became the center for the Vietnamese military in their fight against the United States.
Historically, it was part of the old residence of the ancient Kings of the North, and the archeological work is going on throughout the site.
But most interesting is the bunker where the military leaders of Vietnam planned the war against the South in the 1960s.
From your historical eye, you can go down the bunker and see these tiny leaders, including the famous Ho Chi Minh and General Giap, draw up their strategies. The meeting room is still the same as when they were doing their plan.
Their teapots, cups, and other memorabilia are also there, as with the different maps.
Even before the American War, it was the headquarters of the French administration, so there is so much history here.
5. The Military History Museum
This Museum is just beside the Citadel and worth a visit. It has all the remnant hardware of the French and Americans you will ever want to see.
Close by is the Ho Chi Minh Memorial, where you can see the preserved body of the Vietnamese leader, Ho Chi Minh.
6. Hoa Lo Prison
Another treasure not to be missed is the Hoa Lo Prison, the “Hanoi Hilton,” where the Vietnamese imprisoned the American Senator John McCain and his fellow pilots. Pictures of their days here, especially the happy days, are displayed.
But this prison was not just for the Americans. The French built this prison, and many Vietnamese revolutionary heroes suffered for their commitment to freedom in this prison.
7. Museum of Women
A short walk from the Hoa Lo prison is the Museum of Women which has well-organized exhibits and videos on the Vietnamese women and their contribution to Vietnamese society. When you're in Hanoi, this is worth visiting.
8. Museum of Ethnology
Another place to explore in Hanoi is the Museum of Ethnology, where you can learn about Vietnam’s 54 ethnic minorities and understand what a complex society this once was.
9. Shop in Hanoi's Old Quarter No other place will a shopaholic's dream get fulfilled as in these ancient alleys. Each street was in the past dedicated to one particular ware.
Today, it has changed, but it is still reminiscent of the olden times, so one can go to the silk street or rattan row and get lost in the various products.
There are embroidered items unique to Vietnam, where the embroidery is taught early in schools. Some of these embellished frames look like paintings.
For fabulous buys in Vietnam, here's the link.
10. A Quiet Stroll Around Hoan Kiem Lake.
Get over to the Ngoc Son Temple walking across the red bridge. For the people of Hanoi, this is the center of their day.
If you happen to be there on the weekend, sit on one of the benches here, and you will see generations of Hanoians enjoying the lake.
11. Visit the best Art Galleries in Hanoi.
Explore Vietnamese art. The transition in art from Rembrandt Reproductions in the 1990s to the emergence of innovative Vietnamese artists today can be seen and purchased.
The first place to visit if you intend to buy art is Mai Gallery at 113 Hang Bong Street. It has some of the paintings and sculptures of the best local artists well displayed to appreciate it.
12. Look up.
The architecture above the tapestry of phones and power wires in Hanoi shows the city's history. From the remnants of the French empire to the fantasy of local temples, it's like a second layer on Hanoi's fabulous cake.
You can now enjoy this better when you walk on the weekends. The downtown center streets are closed off to traffic, so you can walk in the middle of the road and enjoy the view of the buildings. The lanes closed off to traffic offer their fun, from kids having so much fun, bands with folks dancing around, families playing games on the road, and food trucks.
There is also Pho Sach, another closed street to traffic. Lined with bookstores, you can get both Vietnamese and English books.
13. The Metropole
Go and drink at The Metropole and don't forget to look at the old pictures in the Lobby. You will have a better understanding of the history not just of Vietnam but of the world.
14. Learn how to prepare Vietnamese dishes.
You can easily do this at any of the advertised cooking classes in Hanoi. The KOTO restaurant outside the Temple of Literature offers on-site courses.
More Places to See and Things to do in Vietnam: