If you’re going to Hanoi for the first time then you’re in for a treat! This big beehive of a city is a place you’ll not soon forget.
When I first arrived in the Vietnamese capital several years ago, my eyes just widened with pure excitement…
The honking, the thousands of motorbikes. The women in conical hats and flowery shirts hawking fruits to passers-by. The noise and thick polluted air… but also the tree-lined streets filled with atmosphere, the quiet pagodas, and lakeside cafes.
One thing is for sure: Hanoi is never boring.
While Hanoi can be an overwhelming sensory experience, this also makes it so rewarding to explore.
I’ve had the chance to visit several times now. But instead of giving you just a bullet list of things to do in Hanoi, with this mini guide I want to inspire you to discover Hanoi in a different way.
1. Ignore the sights (really!)
If your first instinct is to grab a top things to see in Hanoi listicle and work through all the items then this might honestly not be the best approach.
Most of the sights in Hanoi are, well, buildings of some sort.
I mean, sure, there’s the Opera House over there.
And you’ve seen the French Cathedral… and the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum.
But now what?
My advice to you is not to let the typical ‘sights’ in Hanoi distract you from what it’s really about: enjoying the vibe, tasting the food, and watching all the street life unfold.
I encourage you to ignore the usual (overpadded) listicles of buildings or museums, at least for a while. The sights are not all bad, but it’s best to cherry-pick just a few. Many sights you’ll probably stumble upon anyway as you move around the city.
You can start by wandering around the Old Quarter and the French Quarter districts and seeing what you’ll find.
2. Take a food tour
There’s a wild variety of tasty things to try in Hanoi. While your eyes and ears still adjust to the city, you can let your tastebuds do some of the groundwork.
You can check out our detailed guide to street food in Vietnam (coming soon), take note of some interesting dishes, and set out to find them.
But there is also no shame in having a guide! I took a street food tour with a local guide and it was genuinely the best thing I did in Hanoi. It was like a crash course in Vietnamese cuisine, which just kept paying off during the rest of my trip as I knew much better what to order — besides the usual noodle soups.
I tried eight different things on my tour, many of which I probably wouldn’t have tried on my own. My guide also took me to many truly local places and I could ask him a lot about life and politics in Vietnam.
I highly recommend a food tour as the first thing you do in Hanoi!
How to find a Hanoi food tour: I’ve not seen them offered in Hanoi itself, so the best thing to do is to book them online. You can book a Hanoi food tour at GetYourGuide. You can also find one at Backstreet Academy, which is also a social enterprise that connects tourists with local guides.
3. Enjoy a traffic-free Hoan Kiem Lake
Many Hanoi travel guides will tell you to see Hoan Kiem Lake and its small island pagoda. But none of them will tell you this: by far the best time to do this is on the weekend evenings!
You see, the roads around the lake will be entirely closed to traffic at this time. If you know a bit about Hanoi traffic, then you know this is a big deal.
There will be a kind of fun fair atmosphere. Performers give mini concerts and students sit in circles singing songs. Groups of women perform synchronized dances by the lakeside — in what seems like some odd some mix of salsa and tai chi.
Sixteen streets are entirely traffic-free, including Hang Dao Street where you’ll find the weekend night market. There you can buy clothing, fake name-brand sunglasses, local crafts, and try cheap street food.
Try to time your Hanoi stay so that it’s on the weekend, as it’s a rare and wonderful opportunity to enjoy the street life at its most relaxed. Afterwards, you can dive straight into the nightlife of the Old Quarter.
Traffic-free times at Hoan Kiem Lake: Friday to Sunday, starting at around 6 PM. The night market kicks off from about 7 PM and lasts until midnight.
4. Escape to the hidden cafes
I must admit, Hanoi can be a bit much sometimes. The noise and bad air give me a headache after a few hours.
Fortunately, there is an escape: you can relax in Hanoi’s many hidden cafes! Often they have leafy courtyards, secret rooftop patios, or are located in quiet alleyways away from all the hubbub.
I’d like to think of these cafes as save points in a video game. These little oases let you get away from all the noise and recharge for a while.
My favourite is Nola in the Old Quarter. You have to go through an easy-to-miss corridor with red lanterns and up some stairs. There you’ll find several levels with quiet leafy roof terraces and a maze of cosy indoor spaces. It’s a blissful place.
An amazing resource that will help you find many of these gems is the blog Hanoi Hideaway. It even has Google Maps markers that you can copy to your phone. If you do this, you can always find an oasis nearby.
How to find many hidden cafes: check out the Hanoi Hideaway blog.
5. Chill out at the railway
There’s a railway line that runs right through a residential neighbourhood of Hanoi — with just a meter or so of space on each side. Several times a day, a train rushes past within arm’s length of all the houses.
It became a bit of an Instagram spot. Then some enterprising locals took note and opened several tiny cafes right along the railway.
I thought it would just be a place where people quickly get their picture and then leave (like so many other Insta-famous locations), but there’s more to it than that. After the obligatory snaps, many people will sit down for coffee or beer and just chat as they wait for the next train to come.
It’s the perfect spot to chat with locals and other travellers!
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There’s a railway line running through a neighborhood in Hanoi that has just a meter or so on each side between the track and the houses. It’s become a bit of an attraction recently thanks to the @therailwayhanoi, a little cafe where you can chill by the railway and wait for the train to pass. I went to meet my friend @a.fab.journey who works at the cafe, which is also a social enterprise designed to benefit the area. In the last year, many more cafes have popped up here, but I highly recommend visiting the original one and meeting its super lovely staff! The cafe also sells local crafts, runs food tours, and will soon have a mini railway museum.
I recommend going to the original Railway Hanoi, which was the first cafe to open around here. It’s set up as a social enterprise benefiting the whole area and their staff is delightful. The Railway Hanoi also sells local crafts, runs food tours (to a nearby local market) and has a mini railway museum.
Take your time if you can and spend an hour or two at the railway to soak up the atmosphere. While you await the train, be sure to try the coconut coffee or the intriguing pho craft beer by Furbrew. Don’t worry, this beer doesn’t taste like soup — but it has taken some of the spices and umami flavour from pho and worked them into a wonderful little brew.
When to catch the passing train: Mon- Fri at 6:00 and 19:00. On weekends at 9:15, 11:35, 15:20, 17:45, 18:40 and 19:10. Times are approximate!
Finding the original Railway Hanoi Cafe: just go to this exact spot
6. Get on the back of a scooter
While Hanoi is best explored on foot, there’ll also be plenty of times when you want to move a little faster.
You will often hear “hello? motorbike?” from people offering you rides. These motor taxis (‘xe om’s) are cool, though it can be difficult explaining where you want to go or knowing how much to pay.
But things have become easier thanks to Grab, an app that you can use to hail cars or motorbikes. You’ll see drivers wearing green Grab jackets and helmets everywhere. Even if you don’t want to use Grab, you can use it to calculate the rough costs when using the regular xe om’s.
The motorbikes are faster than taxis. And it can be quite exhilarating to ride on the back of a scooter through Hanoi!
How to use Grab: download the app and create your account. You can use Grab in most major cities in Vietnam. Payment isn’t through the app but in cash after you’re dropped off.
7. Don’t miss the markets
The local markets are another one of those multi-sensory delights. You’ll be amazed at what you can find, especially if you haven’t been to many Asian markets before.
The easiest wet market to check out is Dong Xuan Market, at the north tip of the Old Quarter. As it’s not oriented towards tourists you’ll probably not buy anything here in particular, but it’s amazing to catch all the sights and smells.
Vendors sell all manner of fruit, vegetables, and household goods inside the market hall and in all the little streets around it. You might see some strange tropical fruits, live eels still wiggling in their boxes, buckets filled with frogs, and other curiosities.
More tips for Hanoi
Don’t wait to cross the street
Because you’ll be waiting forever! Traffic rules are oft ignored and so the best thing is to… well, just start walking. Most scooters will pass in front and behind you — and you can adjust your pace to avoid any others. You’ll get the hang of it.
Watch the traffic
By which I mean, watch the traffic.
Hanoi takes people-watching to new heights as the scooters add another wonderful dimension. You might see up to 5 or 6 people share the same motorbike and all sorts of crazy things transported on them (even glass pane doors or huge Chinese vases).
Try the street food
Street food is not necessarily better than the restaurants, though it’s definitely an essential part of Hanoi life to eat outside.
Absolutely don’t hesitate to sit down on one of the little blue chairs and have a meal on the street. This is all part of the local experience!
Look for the themed streets
Many of Hanoi’s Old Quarter streets are entirely focused around a certain business. For example, there’s a lantern street, and a zinc street, and a street where you can shop for bamboo stairs to your heart’s delight.
These clusters of businesses are a typical thing that goes back hundreds of years (when they centred around craft cooperatives or guilds).
Don’t worry about the pyromaniacs
If you see lots of people starting fires on the street and, uhh, throwing money onto the fire, don’t be alarmed! This just means it’s just a new phase in the lunar calendar. The locals throw (fake) money onto little fires as symbolic offers to the dead.
Use MAPS.me to explore
Nearby was a local park with some botanical gardens and an island filled with pigeon coops. This park wasn’t a ‘top sight’ in the normal sense, but I enjoyed seeing some typical Vietnamese scenes, such as a truckload of green-uniformed military men picnicking and listening to nationalistic music. Later, I discovered an awesome rooftop bar near West Lake by looking for interesting markers nearby.
If you only have one or two days in Hanoi then such random exploration may not be quite as worthwhile, but it can be a lot of fun to throw the dice every now and then. Maps.me is a great tool for this, as it shows more locations that are relevant to tourists than other map apps, and some of the markers are user-contributed.
Wondering where to go next after Hanoi? Why not go to Ninh Binh and take a paddle boat tour into the UNESCO world heritage site of Tam Coc!