Why is it that I’ve been to Vietnam three times when I haven’t even visited some of its neighbors even once? Because it is perfect, that’s why. It is one of my favorite countries in Southeast Asia, maybe even my very favorite, which is such a bold statement that I hesitate to even put it out there. So, what do I love so much about Vietnam? Well, everything, truthfully. Vietnam offers destinations for everyone – wildly chaotic cities full of culture and history, quiet, rural villages where rice fields disappear endlessly into the horizon, mountains for hiking, beaches for relaxing, and landscapes so unique they’ve been UNESCO-listed for preservation. The fact that all of that fits inside what I consider to be a relatively small country is impressive, for sure, but even better is that all of it can be seen for a fraction of the price you’d pay in say, the USA. For a budget traveler like myself, being able to spend less and do more is always the goal, and that’s easily attainable in Vietnam. Then, of course, there’s the usual things that make a place attractive – the food, the people you meet, and the ease with which you can travel and navigate between places. Vietnam nails it in all these arenas, too.
Hanoi, Vietnam’s capital, was my second big city to visit in Vietnam. The first was Ho Chi Minh in the late 90’s, which was so long ago that most people were still calling it Saigon, so I won’t attempt to compare the two until I’ve been back again. Hanoi has the reputation of being somewhat of an acquired taste, and I can see why. At first glance, Hanoi feels downright crazy. Motorbikes packing the roads, their blaring horns harmonizing into a shrill musical score. Dirty water being thrown out into the streets from shops and restaurants, sometimes directly onto your feet. Unidentified and often unpleasant smells mingling with the scent of cooking food. Determined shopkeepers demanding repeatedly for you to look at their goods. The sensory overload that hits while walking Hanoi’s streets is unsettling for almost everyone on their first visit. Factor in the death-defying risk that is crossing the street, and it’s easy to want to hightail it back to the safety of your hotel room. But give it a day. Hanoi will grow on you, just as it has on many travelers before.
I recommend at least two full days for a visit to Hanoi – one to get adjusted and another to make you want to stay longer or come back again. All of the major sights in Hanoi can be seen over a long weekend, but part of the appeal of Hanoi is its convenient location to nearby destinations commonly visited on overnight tours, so if you plan to head out of the city at all, you’ll need a few more days. We stayed in the Hanoi area for 6 nights – 4 in Hanoi and 2 elsewhere – and it was the perfect amount of time for a first visit. If it’s also your first visit, here’s how I recommend you spend your time!
8 THINGS TO DO IN HANOI
EXPLORE THE OLD QUARTER
The first thing on your agenda after dropping your bags at your hotel should be to explore the historic Old Quarter, preferably on foot. Granted, this is easier said than done since the sidewalks in Hanoi are nothing more than parking lots for motorbikes, but it’s essential if you want to get comfortable with the chaos sooner rather than later. Most hotels in Hanoi are located in the Old Quarter and many of the city’s sights are, too, so this is likely where you’ll be spending a good portion of your trip. Best to get your bearings early on.
Besides hotels, restaurants, and sights, the Old Quarter is also the prime shopping district. If you’re looking for those now rather iconic ‘I’ve been backpacking through Asia’ pants, this is where you’ll find them. For like the equivalent of $2 USD. Everything here is so delightfully cheap by western standards that even if you don’t like to shop, you’ll still probably find yourself shopping. And haggling is the name of the game, so prepare yourself.
WALK AROUND HOAN KIEM LAKE
Meaning Lake of the Restored Sword, Hoan Kiem Lake is at the center of Hanoi city life, at least figuratively anyway. Located in the Old Quarter, Hoan Kiem Lake is where people gather in Hanoi to rest, eat lunch, play, or simply take a walk around the perimeter of the lake. Ngoc Son Temple, an 18th century Buddhist temple, sits on a tiny island in the lake reachable via the bright red bridge connecting the island to the northern shore of the lake.
After visiting the lake twice while we were in Hanoi, we realized this is where young Vietnamese students have learned to come to practice their English with tourists. Any time we sat down, we were approached by people for a chat. For me it was exciting, even when the conversations were painfully slow and repetitive, because I’m always thrilled to talk to people when we travel, but if you came to the lake to rest, it could be a little exhausting. In that case, just pretend you don’t speak English. Kidding!
SHOP HANOI’S NIGHT MARKET
The night market in Hanoi is only open on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday nights. It’s all the same stuff you’ll find during the day, though, so don’t despair if you’re not in Hanoi over a weekend. If there’s nothing there you can’t buy in the daytime, why go to the night market at all? Because the atmosphere is better. The streets are quieter. There’s less insistence from shopkeepers that you look through their wares. And, in my experience, you can often get better deals. It’s just a more pleasant shopping experience in general. Plus, there’s food – loads of choices cooked fresh right in front of you while you shop. (More on eating in Hanoi below.)
VISIT THE TEMPLE OF LITERATURE
Ngoc Son Temple may be Hanoi’s most visited temple, but its prettiest is definitely the Temple of Literature. A quiet, green oasis, the Temple of Literature blooms in stark contrast with the concrete city surrounding it. With many landscaped courtyards, gardens, and pavilions, this place is definitely one for the photography-inclined!
Built as a temple to Confucius in 1070, the Temple of Literature was centered more on academia than religion. A place of study for the wealthy, The Temple of Literature was Vietnam’s first national university, and many monuments still remain on the grounds dedicated to the scholars who graduated here. I recommend arriving as early as you can because the temple is a popular sight and can get very busy even just a couple hours after opening.
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