Initial Impressions of Hanoi, Vietnam’s Intriguing Capital
Vietnam is a country defined by two major cities: the national capital of Hanoi and the economic center of Ho Chi Minh City (abbreviated HCMC and also known by its former name, ‘Saigon’). Since Hanoi is in the northern part of the country and HCMC is in the south, the two cities have very distinct cultures and atmospheres. Visitors to Vietnam should try to visit both if they can. But if you only have time to visit one, you’ll want to investigate what both cities have to offer before making a decision.
I recently moved to Ho Chi Minh City and still need to write a blog post about what I’ve discovered there. However, I checked out Hanoi two times in the past month and saw it from a tourist’s perspective. In this post, I’ll reveal the sites and attractions in Hanoi that intrigued me most!
Compared to other world capitals, Hanoi feels relatively calm and quiet. It also lacked that overtly political vibe that some capitals have. Since most visitors to Northern Vietnam at least pass through Hanoi on their way to the region’s many tourist hotspots, it’s worth knowing what the city is about.
I first spent about two days in Hanoi before embarking on my solo two-week adventure to Sa Pa (an incredible destination that you can read about here). A few weeks later, I spent two more days in Hanoi with my friend Kristen who came to visit all the way from Seattle! I’ve seen enough of the city to document my first impressions in this post, but I may write a second post in the coming months.
If You Have Only One Day
Many visitors to Vietnam may have only one day scheduled in the city of Hanoi. You might be on your way to the cultural destination of Ninh Bình, the famous Hà Giang Loop, or Hạ Long Bay. You may also have one night in Hanoi before flying back home after a week or more in Vietnam. If that’s the case, this section is for you!
Hoàn Kiếm Lake
This small lake is probably my favorite touristy attraction in Hanoi. It’s located in Hanoi’s Old Quarter, but the relatively quiet walkway that surrounds Hoàn Kiếm Lake is a world away from the noise and traffic of the blocks directly to the north.
There’s a little temple on an island in the lake’s northern half (Temple of the Jade Mountain). You have to pay a fee to get in, and in my opinion there wasn’t anything spectacular about it. Don’t feel obligated if you aren’t interested; I liked the view of the structure from the shore much more than anything in the temple grounds.
Hoàn Kiếm Lake is also great to walk around at any time of day, especially after sunset. Everything is lit up at night, including the Turtle Tower. The reflections of the buildings on the water make for some great photos if you have a camera that does well in low lighting!
The other thing you should check out on a one-day tour of Hanoi is the Train Street. It’s not really a street; it’s a short stretch of active railway not far from the Hanoi Train Station. What’s so special about that? Well, for one, dozens of cafes and restaurants set up folding tables and plastic stools right on the tracks. This in turn attracts hundreds if not thousands of people each day, many of whom stop at one of the eateries to sip on a beverage or have a snack.
You might be thinking, “but that sounds dangerous!” I would agree. But people who live there (and yes, people live in houses with front doors opening onto the train track) seem to know when a train is scheduled to come through. There isn’t any sort of warning system as far as I could tell, but you’ll know if one is few minutes away when all the cafe and restaurant owners start scrambling to move all the tables and chairs to the sides of the tracks. Move over as well and wait for the train to whoosh by. It’ll look like it’s coming right at you, so be ready!
Hanoi's Best Culinary Specialty
There’s one particular food item I recommend if you’ve only got one or two meals in Hanoi: bún chả! This amazing dish is a specialty from Hanoi, so you’ll often see restaurants advertise it by combining the two words together: “bún chả Hà Nội.”
So what is bún chả? It’s easier to just take a look and see for yourself.
Basically, you’ll be served a soup with meat in it, some cooked rice noodles on the side, and a basket of basil, mint, lettuce, and other leafy greens. You dip the noodles and greens in and eat it all together. Part of the reason it’s so good is that it’s simple but delicious. When Kristen and I had bún chả in Hanoi, we just found a stall serving it on the side of the road. It cost about 30,000 VND (approx. 1.30 USD) per serving, so it’s really budget-friendly.
If You Have Two Days
Take a quick look at any map of Hanoi and you’ll see that it’s a city of lakes. That’s why I’m recommending you check out another lake if you have two days to spend there. See everything recommended for day one and then on day two, head over to…
Trúc Bạch Lake
Despite being only about a half hour walk north of Hoàn Kiếm Lake, Trúc Bạch and the surrounding neighborhood offer a different experience. According to this blog, Trúc Bạch actually used to be a part of the much larger and adjacent West Lake before a road was built cutting it off. The lake may not take very long to walk around, but it will take a full morning or afternoon to explore if you’re willing to stop to smell the roses, so to speak. The area boasts two temples, a small island, and a number of restaurants I recommend.
The road mentioned above that separates West Lake from Trúc Bạch Lake is called Thanh Niên, and it’s surrounded by water on both sides. Two small temples are located across from one another on this road. The first is Đền Thủy Trung Tiên, and its entrance is lined with colorful flags.
The second temple is Chùa Trấn Quốc, and its most striking feature is a tall spire with intricate statues (see here). I didn’t feel comfortable entering either temple because I was in a tank top the day I visited. Dress conservatively to show respect if you’re interested in going inside. The pictures shown here are the views from the street.
Trúc Bạch's (Unnamed?) Island
This small island is probably my favorite part of Hanoi. Despite being more or less in the center of the city, it’s incredibly quiet and relaxing. There’s not really much going on here, so you won’t encounter crowds of tourists like you would in the Old Quarter or the French Quarter. In fact, as far as I can tell, the island is so quiet that it doesn’t even have a name. If it has a name that you know, please leave a comment and let me know what it’s called!
The island is connected to the rest of the city by two small bridges that pedestrians and cars can cross (see map below). You won’t need to take a ferry or anything like that. It takes less than fifteen minutes to walk around it, but if there’s any place in Hanoi to meander and go for a leisurely stroll, this is it!
This area is also home to a few cozy-looking restaurants. Kristen and I stopped at Standing Bar, a small bar on the island specializing in craft beer. Be sure to check it out when you visit!
If you’re looking for places to eat, the following three restaurants are located on or near the shores of Trúc Bạch Lake.
Indian Food: Foodshop 45
When I lived in Mexico, Indian food was almost non-existent. Luckily, it’s much more popular in Vietnam, and Foodshop 45 was a good place to get it. Their naan bread is good and their dining room looks out onto the lake. Give this place a visit if you’re looking for something other than Vietnamese food!
A Mexican Restaurant: Tacos - Fresh and More 2
I didn’t actually eat a meal here, but they had good margs (a rare find in Vietnam), so they still get a mention. Next time I go back, I’ll try some of their tacos or quesadillas.
A Recommended Pho Place: Phở Huyền
I unfortunately didn’t get to try this one, but a family I met in Sa Pa ranted and raved about this phở restaurant. It definitely doesn’t look like anything special, but I’ll be sure to try it then next time I’m in Hanoi. If you’ve been, I’m curious if you liked it!
If You Have Four (or More) Days
Hanoi’s Old Quarter wasn’t one of my favorite areas, but to each their own. It just felt too crowded and chaotic, but it’s the most popular area for visitors. I ended up passing through the neighborhood multiple times during my trips. As I mentioned above, Hoàn Kiếm Lake is located in the Old Quarter, and I really enjoyed walking around it. The rest feels like a big maze of traffic, souvenir shops, hostels, and bars. There’s the occasional point of interest such as the Hang Dau Water Tank, but I’d say overall this neighborhood doesn’t necessarily live up to its name in terms of architecture and style.
If you need to shop, Old Quarter is also home to Đồng Xuân Market (pictured below). I picked up a pair of shoes there for about 12 USD, but you can get everything from food and drinks to gifts. It’s a cool place to check out, especially at night.
The French Quarter to me was sort of similar to the Old Quarter in terms of not necessarily being super interesting. The streets reminded me a little bit of New Orleans, which I guess makes sense. Unfortunately, I didn’t see anything there that really grabbed my attention. I think I need to give these two areas another chance the next time I go back. Nevertheless, they’re the most popular neighborhoods among visitors and are still pleasant to walk around.
Be sure to try Vietnamese food in Hanoi! There are tons of resources online to learn more about the most popular dishes in Vietnam. In general, food is very cheap and Vietnamese food is so satisfying. Hanoi also has a huge variety of dining options.
Case in point: the dish pictured above came from a vegan all-you-can-eat buffet called Veggie Castle. What’s even better is that it only cost a few dollars! Even as a non-vegan, I loved their food and left feeling super full. If you’re in Hanoi, be open to trying something new. You won’t be disappointed!
Hanoi is fairly easy to get around. By international standards, it’s also quite safe. Exercise normal caution and take care to prevent being pickpocketed, especially in the French Quarter and Old Quarter where tourists congregate and streets can be chaotic.
The one thing I’d mention is that you should download the Grab app. Grab is like the Uber of Southeast Asia. You don’t even have to connect it a credit card; you can use it to book rides and then pay in cash upon arrival. The reason I suggest you use it: I got ripped off in taxis on multiple occasions. I read online that taxis are notoriously fraudulent in Hanoi, so it’s better not to risk it. The Grab app presents an upfront fare and it doesn’t change even if there’s traffic. It’s more transparent and safe, and you can even use it to take hitch rides on the backs of motorbikes if you want a truly local experience of getting around!
I hope that this post provides some ideas for first-time visitors to Hanoi! If you have any additional suggestions, leave a comment below and let me know! I’m sure I’ll return to Hanoi sooner than later and can’t wait to see even more of Vietnam’s fascinating capital!