Before this past summer, I had never considered travelling to Vietnam before. Despite having visited several countries in Europe and crossed the pond to go to university, South East Asia had never really been on my list of places to go. But through a programme hosted by Princeton University, this past summer I was able to spend a glorious 6 weeks in beautiful Vietnam to stay in its capital city, Hanoi.
If there is one place that any visitor of Vietnam must go to, it is Hanoi. Hot, humid and absolutely jam-packed with culture, Hanoi is full of fun things to do and is one of the few cities in Vietnam that has managed to adjust to the needs of the influx of tourists over the past decade without losing its rustic charm. While it may not be the top destination for those looking to explore Vietnam’s beautiful coastal attractions or lush mountainous terrains, for the avid city-dweller looking to experience as much Vietnamese culture as possible, Hanoi is the place to be.
So, after having spent 6 weeks in Hanoi, here are my picks of wonderful attractions that are must-sees for any trip to Hanoi.
1. Start and end your day at Hoan Kiem Lake
If you’re staying in/near the Old Quarter area (do I hear you asking what is the Old Quarter? Never fear, we’ll get to that in a bit!), then this will be something that you physically cannot miss.
Right in the centre of all the action in Hanoi, the lake stretches for a mile around. In the morning, before 6.30am, you’ll find Vietnamese people of all ages doing their bout of daily excercise, while the roads branching out from the lake are full of Vietnamese people (mostly women, for some strange reason) selling fruit and all kinds of good food. In terms of the dancing, it’s free to watch and even join in with the women dancing the Macarena or tangoing by the lake, and its definitely a sight worth seeing, but a pro tip for if you’re going to buy any fruit or food from the street-salespeople is to always haggle. (Trust me when I say that the cute old women selling fruit have no qualms in ripping off foreigners and I’ll be posting a list of best prices later on for what to expect when haggling for food in Vietnam!)
At night, the lake is lit up with beautiful lights, and while there isn’t as much to see, buying a 6,000 VND (approximately 10 pence) ice cream from one of the local ice cream stands really hits the spot. Sitting with a good ice cream to people-watch and take photos is fun for both solo and group travellers alike!
If you happen to be visiting Hanoi on a Friday or Saturday night, make sure to stick around in the city to check out the Night Market. Spanning several streets, the Night Market is a glorious hub of all things touristy and is a perfect place to buy gifts (for yourself or others), try cheap street food and just bask in the vibrant night vibes.
2. Explore the Old Quarter
The Old Quarter is a maze of streets in Hanoi that sell anything and everything from stationary to clothing to electronics. For the avid shopper, while the Old Quarter might not boast high-end or designer products that you could find in shopping centres, the Old Quarter is certainly a place where you can bargain and people who love to haggle will find a haven of knick-knacks galore here.If you’re a foreigner, store-owners are bound to jack up the prices in the hopes to make a quick profit, and while it might feel strange at first, haggling here is part of the culture. As a person who used to hate haggling, Trust me when I say that people who aren’t used to bargaining for their purchases will soon pick up on the best way to get the cheapest buys and it can even be fun!
Best explored on foot, make sure to slather on the sunscreen before you head out of your hotel and if you pass food stands, sit down and have a bite to eat! There’s no better way to explore Vietnamese cuisine than by being spontaneous!
3. Visit a few cultural sites: Hoa Lo Prison, the Women’s Museum, the Ethnology Museum
Hanoi is a place that is chock full of history, and to miss out on these would be to miss a great opportunity to learn and understand more about Vietnamese culture. Even for those who find going to museums as dull as watching paint dry, I can promise you that these three cultural sites are worth checking out.
For a brief overview of these three attractions:
Hoa Lo Prison is a prison that was first used by French colonists against Vietnamese political prisoners. Over time, the prison was used for numerous other purposes, including the imprisonment of American PoWs during the American war in Vietnam. Although the original site has mostly been demolished since then, it was rebuilt as a museum with exhibits of original equipment and prisoner quarters to allow visitors to see the place. For anyone interested even slightly in the history of Vietnam as a colony, or the history of military conflict in the region, I would highly recommend visiting the Hoa Lo prison. With all the interactive components of the museum, it is far more interesting to visit than most museums alone can be, and provides a really interesting perspective on past conflicts in Vietnam.
In contrast, while the Women’s Museum in Vietnam has less interactive components, I would encourage you to check this place out if you are at all interested in the role that women have played throughout history in Vietnam. Taking a more ethnographic approach to history, the Women’s Museum was a gem for the feminist side of me, and exhibits the role of women both in the contemporary history of Vietnam (i.e. in the Vietnam War) and also historically. This museum takes a multimedia approach to its exhibits, and for one day in Hanoi, is perfect for a visit, as it is small and yet thorough enough for you to walk away feeling enriched, but still fresh and ready to explore.
Finally, of all the museums in the area, the Ethnography Museum was probably my favourite. The museum is unique for not only having exhibits that showcase a variety of different ethnic groups in Vietnam indoors, but also for having large structures outside to explore. Easily overlooked by visitors who don’t wander out into the museum gardens, the Ethnography Museum has large replica structures of different kinds of buildings that Vietnamese citizens used to live in. For those of you who are travelling with children, or love to explore museum exhibits hands-on, this is a perfect way to engage with Vietnamese culture (and also take a few great pictures!) I highly, highly recommend this museum and for the low cost of a few pounds, you really have nothing to lose!
4. Take a trip to the AEON Mall
This might sound basic for Westerners who spent their childhood days hanging out at the local mall, but trust me when I say that this mall in Hanoi is worth checking out.
As well as the wonderful A/C and large, spacious stores that will appeal strongly to middle-class Western sensibilities, the food options on the ground floor are what really makes this place special. Skip the fancy restaurants upstairs and head on down to the self-serve area, where you can grab a variety of different foods at much more reasonable prices. Although the food here won’t be anywhere as cheap as street food, expect to find cheap (by Western standards), quality food that you wouldn’t normally be able to get on the streets, including sushi, tempura and more.
For a quick break from the hustle, bustle and humidity of Hanoi, this mall is worth checking out.