So you’ve seen the top tourist spots in Hanoi?
Well then, it’s worthwhile to explore the city like the locals do. Let me take you gallivanting to the hustle and bustle that is the real Hanoi.
Get a taste of what food the locals adore even though it might get quite eccentric, visit the nooks and crannies of the local markets, witness cultural performances, and explore this bustling city like the Vietnamese.
Just watch the roads as they are dominated by motorbikes and then simply enjoy and experience the authentic Vietnamese way through Hanoi‘s most hidden gems.
Hanoi City is the capital of Vietnam and the second biggest city of the country with a population of more than 7 million people.
Once the capital of French Indochina before European influences appeared in the city’s architecture, which you might quickly notice. It is sometimes monikered as the Paris of the East.
The name Hanoi actually means ‘River within’ and had other charming names in the past like Thang Long meaning Ascending Dragon or Dong Do meaning Eastern Metropolis, just to name a few.
The charm has to come from somewhere right?
Have A Coconut Or Egg Coffee At The Note Coffee
I am generally starting every day with good coffee because you know what they say, ‘Life begins after coffee.’
Coconut coffee? Egg coffee? Yes, that’s definitely something new but isn’t that what travelling is all about, exploring the new!
These sweet and creamy coffees are like caffeine and dessert in one. The coconut iced coffee includes coconut milk and condensed milk to add to the sweet taste.
The egg coffee seems to be on a whole new level. It’s made of drip coffee, condensed milk and a whipped raw egg yolk that gives it a thick and creamy texture. The egg dominates this drink and gives it a crème brûlée flavour. Yum!
For a cup of these delicious Vietnamese delicacies, head over to The Note Coffee Hanoi nearby the Hoan Kiem Lake, a coffee shop that is as special as the coconut coffee and egg coffee itself.
The colourful walls are covered in post-it notes with messages from travellers all over the globe. Don’t forget to add one there after you have your cup of joy. Perfect to start off a day of exploring the city of Hanoi.
Discover The Nooks And Corners Of The Old Quarter
The Old Quarter has been a business hub ever since the 13th century. Although the products on sale have changed from silk, cotton and herbs to present-day goods and services, the Old Quarter’s charm has remained with its distinctive colonial architecture and well-preserved shop houses.
There are 36 old streets in the quarter so you will never run out of nooks and corners to explore.
All those streets were actually named by the specialised things they sell, such as Bat Su meaning China bowls, or Cha Ca indicating roasted fish (which you will surely smell that too!), Hang Bac selling silver and jewellery, Hang Dau exhibiting shoes and sandals and many many more.
Do expect crowded streets, narrow empty streets, hidden backyards, sidewalk dining scenes and insights into the life of Vietnamese families as their living room normally leads out to the street and often stands open.
The Old Quarter has it all, from art galleries to cafes, bars, and restaurants, bakeries, and boutique shops. You can even attend a Vietnamese culinary class here. You will be overwhelmed, but this part of town will grow on you the more you explore it, that’s a promise.
On one of the main streets of the Old Quarter you can find the Dong Xuan Market, which is the oldest and largest marketplace in Vietnam.
Admire The Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum
Although not exactly a top-secret spot, the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum lands this list because it definitely is one of Hanoi’s gems.
This mausoleum is to honour their national hero and former president, Ho Chi Minh for aiding the country back to independence and unity.
The Mausoleum was built through donations from all over the country to fund its construction from the exterior granite, the interior wood, to the plants and bonsais in its lush gardens.
A day at this historical landmark starts with the raising ceremony of the Vietnamese flag at 6am by an army of soldiers. If you like to sleep in, opt for the 9pm flag lowering ceremony.
Dive Into Street Food Paradise
It’s about time for lunch after so much walking around, don’t you think? And Hanoi is truly a foodie’s paradise especially if you enjoy street food.
You can find little street food stalls all around the Old Quarter, on the main streets, the side streets and little alleys, and especially during the night market. You might be familiar with Pho, a flavourful Vietnamese noodle soup that is served in many restaurants.
There are different ways of serving Pho. Try Pho Ga, which adds chicken to the soup and Pho Bo, one of my personal favourites, that adds thinly sliced beef to the noodles.
And then there’s Pho Xao, which is stir-fried noodles usually served with vegetables. Momentum Travel has a great article on the history of Vietnamese noodles, I urge you to check it out!
Another street food you cannot go past is the Banh Mi, a Vietnamese sandwich that’s the result of French meets Asian cuisine. The French part is the baguette, the Asian part is what goes inside which are cold cuts, pate, cucumber, carrots, daikon, topped off with mayo and hot chilli sauce of course.
Bun Cha, a favourite of locals and travellers alike, is another Hanoi food gem that you shouldn’t miss. It literally means grilled pork but in actuality there is a little more to it. It’s like a vermicelli bowl where meat strips and minced pork patties are added. Usually there is a side of fresh herbs, and red chilli and minced garlic.
Mix everything in the soup before eating!
Watch The Chess Players At The Temple Of The Jade Mountain
Towards the southern end of the Old Quarter you will find Hoan Kiem Lake.
Visible from the edges is a small island. This is where the Temple of the Jade Mountain lies. You can get there by walking over a small but beautiful red bridge called the Welcoming Morning Sunlight Bridge.
On the other side awaits a Buddhist temple built way back in the 18th century and is dedicated to General Tran Hung Dao, a 13th century military commander, to Van Xuong, a Confucian scholar who aided in the temple’s restoration, and to La To, the patron saint of physicians.
The temple’s pavilion is a favourite spot for old men playing chess.
The best time to visit is early in the morning or late afternoon when you can also see people doing Tai Chi, yoga or work out.
Learn About Old Vietnamese legends While Watching The Water Puppet Show
Hanoi’s water puppet show is a spectacle to behold and a perfect thing to see while winding down in the late afternoon. Dating back to the 11th century, water puppetry has been a traditional art unique to Northern Vietnam.
This cultural performance originates centuries back when villagers would entertain each other through putting on shows in flooded rice patties. Today, this is depicted through puppets’ performance over the water in short skits held at the Thang Long Water Puppetry Theater accompanied by live traditional music.
The shows all center Vietnamese legends and the historic way of life and is definitely something not to be missed in Hanoi.
Join The Locals Dance, Run And Perform Around Hoan Kiem Lake
By now, you have probably understood that Hoan Kiem Lake is the centre of Hanoi where the locals meet. It’s a welcome respite from the busy city and all those motorbikes.
There is an interesting legend about this lake that you definitely should discover. One hint? It has to do with tortoises, which are also nurtured in the lake. A perfect opportunity to chat up the locals and find out!
If you are used to doing your afternoon or even morning exercise, you definitely can join the numerous joggers here. Some are already starting to get active around 5am!
There are also a lot of people doing yoga, tai-chi, and aerobics as it’s a great place for exercise or for simply observing the Vietnamese way of life if you don’t feel like sweating.
On the weekends, the street around the lake is closed off for pedestrians and there is a lot more going on with shows, performances and music all day long.
Relax At The Temple Of Literature
Just 10 minutes from Hoan Kiem Lake is Vietnam’s first national university, The Temple of Literature. It was originally erected to honour Confucius. Today, it is a school where students learn Confucianism, literature, and poetry.
The temple also honours Confucian scholars of the past with their names listed on tombstones atop tortoise backs and also, today’s excellent students and top performers in exams. A well-known practice for students who are about to take important examinations is to visit the Temple of Literature to pray and rub the tortoise heads for guidance and luck.
And for tired travellers like you and me, it’s a tranquil place to relax and unwind. Or well, in my case I had the opportunity to watch a school class on their graduation day and throw their hats, so cool!
Cycle Around West Lake & View The Sunset
A great way to explore a different side of Hanoi is by bicycle. There are many bicycle rental shops and guided tours that you can join. One of the best routes to take is around West Lake, Hanoi’s largest freshwater lake.
It used to be surrounded by royal palaces while presently, luxury hotels and premier housing surrounds the lake.
The bike route will take you through little parks, past sparkling temples, water parks, and various shops and restaurants you can stop in for a bite. There are also some great spots to watch the glorious sunset.
Shop ‘Til You Drop At Hanoi Night Market
When in Hanoi, do not pass up a chance to check out the weekend night market where you can perfectly browse for souvenirs and buy yourself some inexpensive clothes.
The market starts around 7pm Friday, Saturday and Sunday and stretches 3km along Hang Dao from the lake all the way to Dong Xuan Market.
It’s closed to traffic and occupied by many different stalls one after the other.
Get A Birdseye Perspective From The Observation Deck At Lotte Center
For an even better view of the city, head over to Lotte Center Hanoi, hop on their high-speed elevator and zip your way to the 65th floor in just 50 seconds.
The panoramic view of the city looks even better at night with all the twinkling city lights.
The Lotte Center Hanoi is Southeast Asia’s first skywalk entirely made of glass adjacent to the observation deck. Check out the Bamboo Path, a simulated walk through bamboo trees with a starry sky overhead.
The observation deck also has a coffee shop and restaurant. Events such as dance contests, live acoustic performances, and magic shows take place here especially over the weekend or during holidays.
Stay At The Sheraton West Lake
Exploring Hanoi’s numerous hidden gems can enjoyable but you will be tired at the end of the day. Worry not, if you need a comfortable place to lay your head, book your stay at Sheraton Hanoi located on the shores of peaceful West Lake only 10-15 minutes away from busy downtown.
Surrounded by lush gardens, the Sheraton offers an outdoor swimming pool, fitness centre, spa as well as transportation and limousine service. With 229 rooms and 7 different room types, the choice is really yours.
Make sure you wake up early to just sit and devour the delightful breakfast buffet!
Bonus: Go On An Early Morning Adventure To Long Bien Market
Fancy getting up at 3.30 am? Call me crazy but an early morning city tour is definitely worth dragging yourself out of bed. One place to go to in the early hours is the Long Bien Market as it’s main produce are fresh fruits and vegetables.
If you think getting there at 4.00 am is an ungodly hour, the market vendors actually arrive here as early as 1.00 am to sell the freshest produce. The place can be very crowded and congested not just with people and produce but with huge trucks and motorbikes too so watch your feet.
Remember the delicious Pho, Banh Mi and Bun Cha you had for lunch? The fresh ingredients to make those most likely were bought at Long Bien Market.
Lastly, all you need to do is enjoy exploring Hanoi, wandering its paths less taken, getting a taste of their cuisine, visiting authentic places and diving into culture and Vietnamese quirkiness.
Let Hanoi’s pace take you in and throw you out richer than you thought you could ever be, no matter if you spend a day or two or three.