Visiting Hanoi, Vietnam: 6 Things I Loved (And You Might Too)

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We only had a quick 30ish hours in Hanoi. That was enough to get a taste of the city, begin to appreciate the culture and mix of architectural styles, and of course enjoy some great local cuisine.

We loved strolling in the neighborhoods around Hoàn Kiếm Lake (and seeing all the families dressed in their finest clothes taking New Year’s portraits), sampling the coffeehouse culture, and experiencing the crush of people.

It’s obviously not enough time to have a true appreciation for a city, or experience even a fraction of the cultural activities on offer. But I thought it would be fun to compile a list of some of the things we did, and that I think are enjoyable no matter how long (or short!) your visit to Hanoi.

How to cross the street in Hanoi

If this sounds like an odd thing to preface my list with, well — you’ve never been to Hanoi.

Everything we did was within walking distance of our hotel, and we ended up walking many, many miles during the time we were in Hanoi. So I’m not saying I’m a street-crossing expert (though my years in Sicily certainly gave me a confidence advantage), but there are four basic rules that will significantly reduce the amount of time you spend wondering when on earth you’ll have a clear shot to cross. Which will actually never happen.

1. Never look the drivers in the eye

It doesn’t matter whether they are in a car or on a motorbike — Hanoi drivers have a lot to be managing already. Having pedestrians try and make eye contact is distracting, and thus actually reduces your chances of crossing safely.

2. Make yourself more visible

You don’t need to wear certain clothing or anything, but raising your arm so that drivers can see you will make a big difference. If you’re in a group, clump up and move as a unit so that you’re collectively a larger obstacle to avoid.

If drivers can see you, they will make an effort to not run you over, basically.

3. Maintain a constant rate of speed

Naturally, you’re going to want to slow down to make sure a scooter saw you (but see #2), though you’ll want to resist that temptation.

Chaotic as it looks, drivers are actually paying attention, and are anticipating the traffic ebbs and flows. So if you’re moving across the street in a visible fashion, at the same speed the entire time, they’ll adjust.

If you speed up (or slow down), you change the dynamic for everyone — and not just the drivers nearest to you, but the ones behind them that can’t see you.

4. The bus is king of the road

All the above rules apply to motorbikes and small cars, who are prepared to adjust to pedestrians. Buses are not.

Not only are they large, and at a different visual plane, they are heavy. With ~30 seats and carrying half again as many people standing, they actually can’t just effectively stop or slow down for pedestrians, which is bound to lead to accidents.

So don’t cross in front of the bus. Please.

With that out of the way, let’s talk about the fun things you can (safely and efficiently!) walk to.

1. Water puppet theater

We had some friends recommend that we go here, and I’m so glad that we did. The Thang Long Water Puppet Theater has daily performances of Vietnamese water puppets, accompanied by traditional musicians and singers.

Now, you may not think that a puppet show is something you’d naturally enjoy, but let me just say — there are smoke-and-fire-breathing dragons.

That being said, this isn’t actually like, thrilling theater. But it is a good introduction to some Vietnamese mythology and musical traditions.

And at ~$8 for the 45-minute performance, it’s not a huge investment in terms of either time or money.

2. Street food tour

An OMAAT reader suggested we try the Sticky Rice Hanoi food tour, which does indeed look amazing. The guys who run it were out of town for Tet, but since we had the idea of a Hanoi food tour in our heads, we went ahead and booked an Old Quarter Street Food tour with Awesome Travel.

Our guide Rocky met us at the exit to the puppet theater, then started by taking us to their company headquarters, where they also run a little cafe and series of classes:

We sampled a few dishes there (which was nice, as the quiet environment meant we got lots of explanations):

Then we headed out into the city, where we went to several different restaurants in the Old Quarter, pausing along the way to learn about the history of the neighborhood, why the architecture was how it was (taxes, in many cases!), so there was much more than just food involved.

The food was great too though, especially as we’d tried some of these dishes in the southern or central parts of Vietnam (and made some in our cooking class!), and it was neat to see the regional variations.

We also went to a casual cafe tucked back into an alleyway (honestly, I’m not sure you could even find it without someone who had been there before even if you knew to look for it), where everything was inspired by the lotus plant. So we got to try several different dishes with various ways of preparing lotus, which was fun.

Even a lotus flan! (I didn’t like this at all, but…it’s a thing).

So that was highly enjoyable, and even if you don’t take this particular tour, I’d recommend a street food tour in Hanoi as a general way to make the Old Quarter more digestible (hah!) on a short visit.

3. Fun cocktail bars

Hanoi has some very cool bars, and a burgeoning craft cocktail scene.

If that sounds like your jam, you’ll want to try Ne Cocktail & Wine Bar, and specifically the Pho cocktail.

The bartenders infuse the various spices in a complicated preparation that involves heat and possibly magic:

But it’s a delicious drink, and the bar has a fun vibe. There are several similar places across the city, so you could definitely spend a night doing a glammed up pub crawl.

4. All the coffee

Hanoi has great coffee, and an amazing coffee shop culture. Almost anywhere local that you go will have a great vibe, but there are of course very strong opinions as to what the best places are (please share yours in the comments!).

Regardless of where you go, definitely try at least one egg coffee, ideally before it gets too warm outside.

5. Sweetest foot massage place ever

We introduced our moms to foot massages on this trip, and they loved the concept, so it quickly became a near-daily activity.

Most night-market-type massage places are roughly the same (though we loved that the shops in Hoi An had outdoor river-view seating). We stumbled into a shop in Hanoi run by a group of utterly lovely young ladies — they were so sweet and fun that I feel it’s worth giving them a shout out. And the massages were incredible.

Not like anyone is going to go to Hanoi for a tiny foot-massage parlor, but if you happen to be in that part of town and are deciding between options, Thanh Hoa body & foot massage was great.

6. Museums

This is a bonus section, because we actually didn’t make it to any of the Hanoi museums on our list. We’d heard great things about the Vietnamese Women’s Museum and the Vietnam Museum of Ethnology, and of course there’s the Hoa Lo Prison Museum as well.

But we were having such a nice time people-watching and enjoying the vibe of the city, that we weren’t really feeling a museum visit. These are all definitely on my list for next time, but it looks like Hanoi has a bunch of super interesting museums, so if there are others folks should consider please share in the comments!

Overall thoughts

While it was a brief stay, we very much enjoyed our time in Hanoi. Sure, the city is chaotic in terms of traffic, but there’s a very chill cafe culture that we loved, and the city has a ton to offer in terms of museums, experiences, and a great food scene.

I can’t wait to come back.

What other things do you love to do in Hanoi?

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Comments
  1. Yes, I remember my first street crossing in Saigon. It was one of the wildest things I’d ever done up to that time.

    Great list of things to do in Hanoi.

  2. My greatest memory of Hanoi was actually not Hanoi but the trip to Halong Bay and the overnight boat ride on the bay. Spectacular rock formations that make an impression.
    Hanoi city I enjoyed much more than Saigon (Ho Chi Minh).
    I remember two years ago being there and there was one massage place that offered all day massage for $50usd. I didn’t go for it.

  3. Wow, your posts literally follow my trip! In Hanoi now after Saigon, Hoi An, Bana Hills and Hue.

    Crossing the street is definitely more difficult in Hanoi than in Saigon.

    If you get a local Sim Card, you can use Grab (same as Uber) and move around the city for 1-3 $ each way. I got 2GB a day for 30 days for less than 10$ so definitely worth it.

  4. Crossing the street. OMG. It is actually exhausting trying to not get killed. Our hotel told us to never hesitate and never go backwards! IT IS CRAZY!

  5. As an expat living in Hanoi this was a fun read. Buses are the kings of the road, never ever try to cross the road when a bus is coming your way.

    I highly recommend to try the local bus though, you can easily find routes on Google maps and you pay VND7000 (USD0.3) to a guy onboard for the ride. It is thrilling to travel through traffic and see how it all just works. And also, be prepared to disembark while the bus is still moving, no time to slow down!

  6. Interesting – the one thing we were told by locals when we arrived in Hanoi was to actually make eye contact with drivers/riders, and we did find that it made crossings easier!

  7. @ Tiffany or anyone else that has toured the highlights of northern and southern Vietnam. If planning a 14 day trip what would you say for an itinerary? i.e., how many days to see Hanoi, Saigon and other areas? Like Malaysia I could see Vietnam being a return visit.

  8. Having lived in Hanoi for 8 years, everything you say seems to be pretty much spot on, but I can’t say I agree with not looking drivers in the eye. Cars tend to be more obnoxious so just let them pass, but motorbikes will generally look out for you and if you’re not sure you’ve got their attention you shouldn’t be moving out in front of them.

  9. I think not making eye contact is a non issue. The idea that you’ll distract them doesn’t pass the smell test for me because they are pretty much scanning around for potential problems and your eyes aren’t going to bring them at you like a tractor beam. That said, should I ever be driving a scooter through Hanoi and Emily Ratajkowski makes eye contact while crossing a street, I will likely run into her.

    I was actually hit by a scooter there in 20011. Never saw it coming. I hit the pavement with my eye orbit and got up bleeding like a boxer but was otherwise okay. Scary though. She was screaming at me for varying my pace (nope don’t speak a word of Vietnamese. Sometimes you just know). So, the idea is to start across and continue as is you’ve got a protective barrier around you. Since you obviously don’t, what do you do if your unvaried pace and a scooter are about to meet? Don’t ask me.

    I was back last year and it seems more organized and actually easier to navigate. Seems like more stop lights ( or, obeying the stop lights).

  10. I highly recommend Hanoi Back Street Tours, particularly the morning one. There were six of us, and Back Street Tour picked us up in a old, open-air Army jeep, gave us Viet army caps, and took us to shops, cafés (you must try egg coffee or egg hot chocolate at Hidden Gem Café), a hole-in-the-wall restaurant, and even a shop that sells paper replicas of personal items (such as eyeglasses, a mobile phone, money, shirt-and-tie, etc.) to put in the casket if a family member is buried or burned if the deceased is cremated – so that the deceased will have these types of items in the afterlife!

  11. The military history museum is a must see, if you’re in to that sort of thing. One tends to get a lot of perspective from the US side, but less from the Vietnamese – interesting to see how a country sees their own history. Likewise the Ho Chi Minh museum.

  12. @RichW

    Thanks for the suggestion Rich, this looks like a great tour! Will definitely check this out when we visit Hanoi in November. Anyone else have any other suggestions of things to do and places to see when in Hanoi?

  13. I actually was not a huge fan of Hanoi. Grey, drab weather, so much congestion and crossing streets was dang scary! Did finally start crossing with the locals and that helped. Halong bay was gorgeous though and I loved seeing the congregations of people sitting on those little plastic chairs sharing a meal. Once is enough for me. However our next stay was the JW Marriott in Phu Quoc island and that was fabulous!

  14. Many thanks @Tiffany for your great reviews of your Vietnam visit! It has been on my somewhat crowded agenda for a few years, and will definitely make it in 2020. Heaps of ideas on places to see and things to do.
    And being no stranger to Vietnamese cuisine (been huge in Australia for 40 years) I’m going to be the proverbial pig in mud!

  15. Thanks for good 30hr trip planning for Hanoi. I have lived here over 9 years now and have seen this country develop with amazing strides. I have driven a motorbike for 8 of those years. When local older people older people cross the streets in a busy intersection they often will extend their hand (palm facing traffic), wave their hand or hold a hat/umbrella in the air to ensure people on motorbikes see them. I really shut my Western driving brain off (when it comes to the rules of the road/courtesies, etc.). Their driving practice makes sense once you become accustomed to their way of driving (hard for a visitor to understand that). I have seen my fair share of accidents and have had a few scrapes myself (this is a city with a few million people mind you). All you shared was good and helpful as I have guests come into town and am looking for fresh ideas to do with them. Thanks for a great post!

  16. @Pam
    Yes, when it REALLY gets tough cross downstream from a local—after determining he or she is not suicidal.

    FYI I wasn’t thrilled with Hanoi my first time there but sometimes things just click and my second time I loved it.

  17. Hanoi is amazing. Let us know if you visit Siem Reap. Would love to offer a complimentary tour.

  18. @EC2 For Hanoi you should do a minimum of three full days. Add in an additional day or two days (if going overnight) for Halong Bay. HCMC two full days minimum (with half of one of those days to visit the tunnels). Add in additional time if you want to go down to mekong delta.

  19. I was in Hanoi last month. The Women’s Museum is excellent, especially the third floor. We went on several walking tours and we appreciated where they took us but we mostly liked meeting the guides and their fascinating lives. We also did a cooking class in a farm village on the edge of Hanoi which was our favorite visit. Favorite meal: Bun Cha at Bun Cha Ta.

  20. Just left Hanoi after visiting friends and family. Hanoi actually doesn’t have the best coffee, for that, you have to go to the central highlands like Pleiku. Even locals will tell you the coffee is not as good because they mix other things in the coffee. I was quite disappointed with food and coffee. However, in terms of crossing the street then you’re spot on.

  21. Tiffany – great post.
    Pretty upset we dont get more frequent posts from you. While Lucky is great, he has a very unique ummm style and focus, and your additions are definitely refreshing.
    Lucky – if you read this… and you can… see if you can get more content from Tifanny. With James no longer contributing, it would make the blog more diverse.

  22. I did many of the things you did when I visited several years ago. The water puppet show was memorable as was the war museum. You are right about the coffee. Traffic reminiscent of India with the usual 2 physics rules applying (1) smaller vehicles have to give way to larger vehicles unless (2) they are faster. But if you screw up (2) watch out!

  23. I second the advice on crossing downstream from someone else; you do get a bit of protection that way.

    Stayed here only one night on both ends of a Ha Long Bay tour (didn’t have much vacation to dedicate to the Cathay fare), but definitely like the vibe of the Old Quarter and am sure to be back someday

  24. I love Hanoi. Always stay in the old quarter as I love the bustle, sitting in the streets and having a beer.
    Two of my favourite places are eating a banh mi by the side of the railway track waiting for a train to come along a couple of inches from you feet.
    The other is sitting in beer corner, so packed so many offers of food.

  25. The following works for street crossing in most third-world countries: Normal traffic, EXCLUDING heavy vehicles like trucks and buses, will avoid you as long as you remain predictable. So, if you just stand in the middle of the road, the traffic will weave around you; if you walk at a slow steady pace, they will accommodate that. Just don’t be unpredictable.

  26. Was in Hanoi a month ago. Really enjoyed the city. It still retained the Indochine charm. Crossing the street was a breeze. Just cross with the locals and everything will be a ok! Went to the water puppet show u went to. It was fun. The War museum is quite educational and good to see the side where they don’t show you in American history books. Will return again if I find myself in this part of the world. Sofitel Metropole interior finishes is a bit meh but the service standard is as high as any Mandarin or Four Seasons (to my surprise and delight). A Four Seasons is being built on the lake side. Will try that next time.

  27. Much prefer Ho Chi Min city ( Saigon) – did the drive from Hanoi to Halong Bay in a mini bus ( about 3 hours) and spent at least half that time on the wrong side of the road – lol.
    Once you learn how the traffic rules work ( none) you can open your eyes and take in the view.
    A lovely country and people.

  28. In Hanoi November of last year. I liked the lake scene, which you can literally walk around. As for crossing street, well, I perfected my thousand yard runway model stare (they never look at an individual)…Backstreet Tours was a hoot on vintage Soviet motorcycles, and I’d like to recommend the massage place run by and for blind Vietnamese masseuses, Omamori Spa. Prices quite reasonable, no tipping policy, and you’re helping out folks learning a trade. I went twice, because there is a LOT of walking about in the city….you did good Tiffany!

  29. Nice write up Tiffany. As a Vietnamese- American now living in Hanoi. I am loving my time here. If you are ever in Hanoi again, I’ll be glad to show you my favorite egg coffee shop.

  30. I loved Hanoi! We stayed at the Sofitel Metropole and it was a wonderful oasis from the busy city – close enough to walk around the lake in the early morning, and incredible French Vietnamese breads at breakfast.
    Definitely maintain constant velocity and direction when crossing the roads, and our local guide put it perfectly: “stick together like sticky rice” – it’s so much more difficult to not notice a bigger group!

  31. Hanoi is just an amazing travel destination, I have been there twice.
    I would love to go back again and again.

    Thanks for your amazing travel guide and your photos are mind-blowing.

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