Your Cultural Guide to Vietnam’s Hanoi

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It’s tempting to create your Hanoi itinerary based on fairytales—I should know.

The first time I visited Vietnam‘s capital, nearly a decade ago, I arranged my trip around what I then assumed to be the most iconic Hanoi attractions, but what I know not to be cliche or even insufferable. I mean, I enjoyed strolling around Hoan Kiem Lake and through the French Quarter immensely, but I knew before I entered each of Hanoi’s military museums that none would change how I felt about the 20th century’s most pointless war.

When I returned in late 2019, to be sure, my list of what to see in Hanoi was not hugely different, even if I tackled it in a more sober way, maybe even a utilitarian one. There was nonetheless a fanciful and wondrous (and occasionally terrifying) current running under my trip. There was a frog to kiss, too, though it remains to be seen whether he’ll turn into a prince.

Where to Stay in Hanoi

Hanoi is one of the best cities in the world for cheap luxury hotels, though according to my travel companion on this most recent trip, the best place to stay in Hanoi was an Airbnb immediately to the west of Hanoi Train Street. Certainly, the location was convenient, the room huge and the house atmospheric, set deep within a tree-shaded courtyard within Hanoi’s Old Quarter. However, I’m not sure how I would’ve felt about the place had I not been there at the behest of someone else.

If you’re looking for the best hotels in Hanoi, as I said, you’re sure to be spoiled for choice. This not only includes luxury properties like Oriental Jade Hotel and Sofitel Legend Metropole, but also the charming Conifer Boutique Hotel, which is just steps from the picturesque French Quarter.

Top Things to Do in Hanoi

Center Yourself at Hoan Kiem

It can be necessary to seek out beautiful places in Hanoi, even if you aren’t dealing with the tumult of infatuation like I was during my latest trip to this famously chaotic city.

Robert Schrader in Hanoi

In addition to Hoan Kiem Lake, whose iconic The Huc Bridge and “floating” Ngoc Son Temple could tranquilize even the most lovesick mind, I also feel like a trip to West Lake (and its own famous Tran Quoc Pagoda) is worthwhile, if only because the 30-minute walk there from the Old Quarter will allow you to clear your head.

Discover the Old and French Quarters

Speaking of Hanoi’s Old Quarter, it’s difficult to tell exactly where it ends and where the nearby Hanoi French Quarter begins. In my mind, the Old Quarter sits to the west of Hoan Kiem Lake while the French Quarter is to the east, though I’m not honestly sure if this has any basis in objective fact. To be sure, there’s plenty of French-style architecture in the Old Quarter; the officially French parts of the city are rather old indeed.

Drink Your Coffee Outside

It wouldn’t be a Hanoi itinerary (or a plan for a trip anywhere in Vietnam, in my opinion) if I didn’t mention coffee, though you can decide for yourself whether you prefer egg coffee, coconut coffee or a good, old-fashion ca phe sua da (Vietnamese iced coffee with milk).

Although many of Hanoi’s (and Vietnam’s) cafés have taken on a decidedly modern feel in recent years, I still prefer old-style cafes where you sit outside, often on a simple block, as you sip your coffee and watch city life transpire.

Celebrate Hanoi’s Ascension

The bad news? If recent press reports are correct (and spoiler alert: they often aren’t, when they’re about developing countries like Vietnam), the bars that line either side of Hanoi Train Street might soon be closing, on account of a recent near-miss with some moron tourist on the tracks. The good news? Every old Hanoi institution that closes sees the opening of more sky bars in Hanoi, with my personal favorite being Diamond Sky Bar, even if I didn’t necessarily feel celebratory last time I was there.

Take an Excursion to Halong Bay—Or Don’t

Like Nikko and Kamakura from Tokyo or Ayutthaya from Bangkok, a Halong Day day trip from Hanoi is practically a rite of passage for travelers to northern Vietnam. With this being said, I can’t lie: I probably wouldn’t have returned here on this trip, certainly not with a Halong Bay luxury cruise, if I hadn’t been trying to impress a boy. While is not to say Halong Bay isn’t fabulous, but rather that it’s one of those places you really only need to see once.

How Many Days in Hanoi?

I usually spend longer in a given city than I need to, but in the case of my most recent Hanoi itinerary the opposite was true. I only had one full day in Hanoi (plus one at Halong Bay, and the evening of another which was largely spent…not sightseeing).

Now, having been to Hanoi before and also being a marathon traveler, I was able to make this work. In general, however, I would say that two full days in Hanoi (assuming you also plan to visit Halong Bay) is the minimum amount of time I would recommend devoting to Vietnam’s fascinating capital.

Of course, depending upon how many day trips from Hanoi you plan to take, even 3 days in Hanoi might be enough. Truth be told, had I not been in the Airbnb I talked about earlier with a romantic (and, occasionally, sparring) partner, it might’ve been tempting to stay there for a week or two, and to “live” and work in Hanoi while slowly digging deep into the city’s many nooks and crannies.

Is Hanoi Worth Visiting?

I’ve always been partial to Hanoi, but I’ve noticed that many travelers don’t seem to share this perspective. Rather than simply posing the question “is Hanoi overrated?” I’ve spoken to many people who’ve simply written the city off for any number of reasons, whether because of its perpetual chaos and noise, due to the seeming unfriendliness of its locals compared to those farther south or even the fact that it actually gets cold in winter (which, as someone who’s lived in a tropical country the past three years, is a definite positive in my book at this point).

If I’m honest, when it comes to the eternal Hanoi vs Saigon debate, I would actually say I’m on Team Hanoi, if only because of the rich, 1,000+ year history of Vietnam’s capital—Ho Chi Minh City, as it’s sometimes known, doesn’t even really come close in that regard. Hanoi is definitely worth visiting, in my opinion, though it’s of course best seen in the larger context of Vietnam, even if you can only make it as far south as Da Nang, Hoi An or Hue.

The Bottom Line

The bad news? The frog I kissed during this latest Hanoi itinerary may never become a prince. The good news? Whether you’re planning a Hanoi fairytale, or simply want to discover the best of what to do in Hanoi as you make your way north or south through Vietnam, you’ll still find value in what I’ve shared here.

Consider 2 or 3 days in Hanoi with a day trip to Halong Bay—or, perhaps, somewhere slightly more exotic. Or, spend your entire time in the city center, delving into the food-filled alleyways and bar-lined train tracks of a city that evolved immeasurably between my first and second visits, certainly to a greater extent that my romantic judgment.

Robert Schrader
Robert Schrader is a travel writer and photographer who's been roaming the world independently since 2005, writing for publications such as "CNNGo" and "Shanghaiist" along the way. His blog, Leave Your Daily Hell, provides a mix of travel advice, destination guides and personal essays covering the more esoteric aspects of life as a traveler.
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