The first thing you’ll notice about Hanoi, the capital of Vietnam, is the traffic – horns blare as the locals zip past on a seemingly endless fleet of scooters, while tour buses barrel in carrying a steady flow of tourists, ready to lap up the sights and sounds of this vibrant city.
There’s certainly plenty to enjoy, ranging from mouth-watering street food to traditional entertainment, plus the fascinating history and culture of a city that has survived colonial occupation and war with its spirit intact. Here are 10 must-do activities in Hanoi.
Explore the old quarter
The buzzing heart of Hanoi for over 1,000 years, the Old Quarter is situated at the north end of Hoan Kiem Lake and is still a hub of everyday life for locals. Its 36 streets were originally named after the goods once traded there, and a few still specialise, such as P Hang Gai, lined with shops selling silk and textiles.
This is a fascinating area to wander round, whether you’re haggling for souvenirs or people-watching over a cool Hanoi beer in one of many open-fronted bars.
Discover Hanoi’s history
Having endured Chinese and French occupation, as well as the chaos of the American War, Hanoi has a rich historical heritage. Recent excavations at the Imperial Citadel of Thang Long have uncovered artefacts dating back as far as the 7th century AD; check out the on-site museum to admire beautiful terracotta phoenixes and dragon heads.
The site also has more modern resonance as the home to the D67 Tunnel and House, the headquarters of the Vietnamese People’s Army from which war was waged from 1954 to 1975.
Pay respects to Uncle Ho
The Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum is a place of pilgrimage for many Vietnamese people who come to pay tribute to “Uncle Ho”, the man who led the fight for an independent, unified Vietnam.
Queues to see Ho Chi Minh’s embalmed corpse can stretch for hours outside the gigantic mausoleum, and once inside talking, photography and hands in pockets are banned. Open Tuesday to Thursday plus weekends, 8am-11am (last entry 10.15am); free entry.
Lap up the coffee culture
If you thought Europeans were the world’s coffee connoisseurs, a few days in Hanoi will make you reconsider. Coffee was introduced here by the French in the late 19th century, but Vietnam quickly started to grow its own crop and put a unique spin on the drink.
An absolute must-try is the local egg coffee (cafe trung). Somewhere between a beverage and a dessert, this creation involves beaten egg whites poured over an espresso, resulting in a sweet caffeinated mousse that’s utterly delicious.
Visit the Women’s Museum
All too often historical exhibitions have a distinctly male focus, which is why the Vietnam Women’s Union decided to establish this museum, exploring women’s contribution to the country’s culture and society.
Admire fantastically elaborate bridalwear, learn the toil of women’s agricultural labour and discover the female fighters who played a key role in Vietnam’s war against the US. Open daily 8am-5pm; entry costs 30,000 VND (£1).
Sample the street food
You’re never more than three steps from a Hanoi street food vendor, it seems, and incredibly low prices mean it seems rude not to try every dish. Make like the locals and sit by the roadside at Bun Cha Nem Cua Be Dac Kim (87 Duong Thanh Street), where for 60,000 VND (£1.90) you can enjoy bun cha; barbecued pork and rice noodles in tasty broth.
Visit Hoa Lo Prison
Grim but absorbing, Hoa Lo was originally a French prison built in 1896 to house Vietnamese prisoners. Only a small section of it remains, but it’s enough to display gruesome examples of the torture and squalid conditions endured in the over-crowded prison, plus a chilling French guillotine used for executions.
Hoa Lo eventually became the detainment site for American POWs, and was jokingly known by prisoners as the “Hanoi Hilton”. Among the misery there are tales of hope, including the captives who managed to escape by tunnelling to freedom through tiny sewers. Open daily 8am-5pm; entry costs 30,000 VND (£1).
Stroll around Hoan Kiem Lake
One of the city’s more serene spots, Hoan Kiem Lake draws locals from dawn – when morning Tai-Chi practice occurs – to dusk – when the lake’s tasteful illuminations glimmer into life.
Stroll past tree-lined banks to reach the Municipal Water Puppet Theatre, where highly-skilled musicians and puppeteers keep this 1,000 year old Vietnamese art form alive. Tickets cost 100,000 VND (£3.15).
Indulge in some relaxation
The frantic pace of Hanoi’s streets mean the chance to unwind is always welcome, and the city is awash with opportunities for pampering.
Many high-end hotels have in-house spas, such as the Movenpick Hotel Hanoi. If you’re staying in budget accommodation then head to the SF Spa (sfintercare.com) – an oasis of calm in the midst of the bustling Old Quarter – for a Vietnam Traditional massage. Sixty minutes costs 499,000 VND (£15.70).
Be enchanted by Halong Bay
Perhaps Vietnam’s most magical sight, Halong Bay is dotted with tiny islands, caves, grottos and fairytale forests.
Most people explore it on a day trip or overnight excursion from Hanoi. Vega Travel runs tours for $120 per person, including bus transfers from Hanoi and a private room aboard a boat, which moors overnight in the blissful waters of the World Heritage Site.
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