Hanoi, the capital city of Vietnam, is the country’s second largest city after Ho Chi Minh city. It is where the traditional Vietnamese culture blend with the French, so they said.
This city offers a LOT more than I imagined before. I went there on January 2014. I can’t believe the fact that I’ve been postponing on writing this for nearly a year! So, before these precious memories of mine got lost forgotten, I want to share let’s say, a mini travel guide about where to go, what to do, and what to eat in Hanoi. And not to forget, my bad experience in Hanoi! You’ll find it at the end of this post so keep reading!
I’m not a travel-expert, not even closed to be one. I don’t get to explore every inches of the city, that’s obvious. I just happened to live there, enjoying the city the way I like while I had the chance. So here I present to you, a Mini Travel Guide about Hanoi which, to you, might look just like many other informal travel guide you can easily find on the internet. But hey, mine is a personal one since this one is written based on my own personal experience. So, let’s go!
Where to go?
1. Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum
If there’s one place in Hanoi I still remember clearly, that would be Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum. This is the place where the body of Ho Chi Minh, the leader of Vietnam, is preserved. The fact that we could actually see the body ourselves really excited me! So without waiting any longer, we joined the line and went inside, walking following the line, without really knowing what to expect. It’s quite cold inside, as you can guess, and really really quite as well. Kinda creepy. And Uncle Ho’s body lies just in the middle of the central hall of the mausoleum. You could really see him like, sleeping in peace. It was interesting and I spotted some locals were being really emotional inside.
Please note that to come inside, you have to dress properly. No shorts and tank top is permitted. And A BIG NO for taking picture. So don’t bother to try taking your camera or cellphone out from your pockets since the guards will escort you immediately. It happened to my friend!
Anyway, if you are lucky, you can watch the ceremony of the guards changing outside the mausoleum. Some said it’s similar with the famous ceremony at Buckingham Palace, which I’m not really sure of since I’ve never been to the UK myself. But still it worth a shot!
2. Water Puppet Show at Vietnam National Tuong Theatre
Another thing you wouldn’t want to miss when you’re in Hanoi is to watch this Water Puppet Show. The show itself is more like about the daily life of Vietnamese farmers. The puppet was cultivating, catching fishes, riding the buffalo and so on. And they literally danced in the water.
Since it’s a dancing show, there was also music. Some Vietnamese played the cymbals, gongs, flutes, and many other traditional instruments to create the music for the show. There were also some ladies singing. I couldn’t understand what they were singing or saying, since they talked in Vietnamese. But I could really enjoy the show, despite of the language barrier.
And you know, this water puppet show is a traditional art from Vietnam and it has existed for about 1000 years or so. So you don’t want to miss it.
The theater is located just nearby the Hoan Kiem Lake and the ticket costs around 60.000 – 100.000 VND. I personally didn’t book my ticket online, I don’t think I need to back then. I just simply purchased mine right at the theater. But if you go there on peak season, you might wanna book it online, just in case.
3. Hoan Kiem Lake
Hoan Kiem Lake which is also known as the Lake of the Returned Sword (sounds a lot like a Chinese movie, doesn’t it?) is my favorite public spot in Hanoi. I really enjoyed walking around the lake, sitting at the bench while sipping my coffee or licking my ice cream. It really is a nice place to spend your afternoon. Or morning, if you prefer since there are so many people doing exercises in the morning and you could watch them or even join them for free.
There were also this interesting temple in the middle of the lake. And there’s this bridge which take you to the temple. The bridge looks charming at night, don’t you think?
4. Hoa Lo Prison Museum
Hoa Lo Prison or (Maison Centrale as it is called by the French) used to be a place where the French took Vietnamese prisoners during the colonial era. It is the place where they tortured and executed the prisoners.
It’s sort of dark in there and most of building of the prison is gone. But some cells are rebuild so you could see and feel what it is like to be a prisoners during that time. It’s a nice place to learn about the history as the story are explained with photographs and artifacts so it’s not boring at all. It feels tense inside. And I felt emotionally sick. But it’s a must visit place when you’re around!
5. St. Joseph’s Cathedral (Nha Tho Lon)
Here’s the oldest church in Hanoi which is also served as a cathedral. Again, it’s located just nearby the Hoan Kiem Lake, at the west side of the lake I supposed.
The main gate is usually closed except when the cathedral conducts mass. I went there on Sunday during the Sunday morning mass and heard how they broadcast the hymns.
From outside, it might look like an old unattractive church. But the interior of the cathedral is actually stunning!
6. Hanoi Flag Tower
We found Hanoi Flag Tower accidentally during our way back home. I remembered I was looking for a coffee shop around that area, until I found one named Highland Coffee. But that particular coffee shop is located next to the tower. And it makes me wonder what’s up there, so I walked into the coffee shop, and walked through to the tower (sorry!).
We went up stairs and got to see the view of the city from above. It’s located just opposite Lenin Park and next to Vietnam Military History Museum. Later I found out that it’s actually a landmark of the city.
7. Vietnam Military History Museum
Next to the Hanoi Flag Tower, there’s this Vietnam Military History Museum. It’s so easy to spot as there were so many huge tanks and planes are being displayed out front.
There are two part of the museum : the indoor and the outdoor part. The indoor part did not excite me as much since mostly you could only see documents, clothes, and stuff. And there’s a lot of explanations which is not written in English so I couldn’t understand at all.
But the outer part of the museum is so interesting. There were a huge collection of heavy weapons including tanks, planes, bombs, etc being displayed. And there’s also an explanation of how the Vietnamese shot down the American plane and took their weapon. It’s a place which make me forgot about my craving for coffee.
What to eat?
One of the food I miss the most from Vietnam is obviously Pho. It’s a rice noodle with clear chicken or beef soup, meat, and a few herbs. I like the way the serve it with a lot of cilantro. It gives that stronger smell and taste.
You could easily find Pho at the street vendors or even at the restaurant.
2. Gỏi Cuốn (Vietnamese Spring Rolls)
This particular Vietnamese food is soooo good that I could not contain my excitement when I got a chance to make it myself at Signature Cruise Ha Long Bay!
It’s Vietnamese spring roll or sometimes called as Summer Roll as it is served cold and best eaten in summer. It’s basically fresh veggies (lots of cilantro, again) and shrimp wrapped in a veeery thin rice paper. I like to eat it with dipping sauce and fresh chili, to add some kicks to the flavor.
3. Nem Rán
This reminds me of what my mom usually made at home It’s ground meat with mushroom and veggies and then wrapped up with a sheet of thin rice paper. And unlike Gỏi Cuốn, this one is deep fried until the rice paper turns golden brown and crispy outside.
It’s served with a sweet spicy sauce as the dipping sauce.
4. Bánh Cuốn (Steamed Rolled Rice Cake)
I found this food when I was about to go home from Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum. It’s made of thin rice batter which is steamed for a couple of minutes and then filled with seasoned ground pork and other stuffs. I like how they put a generous amount of fried onion as it really blend well with the ground pork.
Later I found out that people usually eat it for breakfast in Vietnam. This one is very addictive, I warn you.
5. Ice Vietnamese Coffee
Here comes the best part. Vietnamese Coffee! Well, Vietnamese does not simply call this “Vietnamese Coffee”. They just call it ice coffee or Ca Phe Da but you should know that they refers to the coffee with milk. A condensed milk to be exact. I like how the dark roast coffee blend with the sweet condensed milk. It create a strong sweet and bitter kind of flavor you can’t get if you use a normal cow milk.
They usually brew the coffee using this so called Vietnamese coffee drip. I even had one back at home. You know, the small one. Just for fun.
Where to stay in Hanoi?
Nah! I won’t write about this one since you can just easily search that one place that suits you best from Agoda or somewhere else.
But I’d recommend you to live just around Hoan Kiem Lake or St Joseph Cathedral, since you could just walked around easily if you lived there.
How to get around the city?
If you’re traveling to a far place, taxi is the best one you could take. But be careful as the taxi fares are sometimes not consistent. They might overcharge you for no reason. So the best way is to ask the driver first about the fare before getting in. Or, if you could ask some locals you can trust to talk to the driver, that would be great! That’s what we did, anyway.
Other than that, I prefer exploring the city by walking since Fred is pretty good at reading map although it’s written in Vietnamese. *hand’s up*
When is the best time to visit Hanoi?
You know, although Vietnam is located at Southeast Asia, Hanoi which is located at the North side of Vietnam has four seasons. Surprise surprise!
December to February is the coldest time of the year. (I went there on January!) There were no snow obviously but the temperature is always around 10 degree Celcius or so. And sometimes it drops below that. You would think that 10 degree celcius is just chilly, but there were strong wind. And there’s not much place with heater. So it might make you feel much much more cold than what you expect.
April to May is like the spring season. The temp is ranging from 20 degree Celcius and above. But it’s not as hot as summer. If you’re coming over on April to May, make sure you take your umbrella with you anywhere you go since it’s drizzling a lot on that season.
June to August is the summer time. Some said it’s hotter than the south part of the country. It could be almost 40 degree Celcius. Bang!
Then it comes autumn on September to November which is more like the spring season on April to May.
Since I live in a tropical country, and it’s summer all year long. I went there on January just to experience the cold weather. I might say it’s a perfect time to explore Hanoi since you could just walk without sweating. And you could eat whatever you want without feeling guilty since you have to warm yourself up. Is it just me? Or… anyone?
I can’t believe you’re still reading this.
So ya! I had this traumatic experience in Hanoi and my mind still couldn’t accept the fact that it occurs to almost every tourists in Vietnam. So it was on the first day of my arrival in Hanoi. I decided to take a walk around the hotel just to figure things out – what’s around there, where to eat for dinner, and stuff. Then there’s this lovely lady selling snacks which looks more like a traditional cake to me. (No, she’s not the one on the pic above). Then she noticed that I was somehow a bit interested on the stuffs she was selling. Guess what happened next?
As many other tourists can guess, this thing also occurred to me even though I look just like a normal Asian girl. But once they noticed that you’re not from Vietnam, then you better get ready. That lovely lady I was talking about suddenly take SOOO MUCH cakes and put it in the plastic bag and ask me to pay for it. I tried to say ‘stop!’ several times. I mean, I just want to buy 3 or 4. But then she took more than 10 or even more. She refused to take back the excess cake and keep mentioning the price I had to pay.
It felt like…. (and it still feels like) you were being ripped off right in front of your face. It’s like you’re being treated badly without any reason. You went there and you expected to have a nice vacation overseas but then you found those annoying street sellers trying to overcharge you in every corner of the city. If there’s one thing I hate about Vietnam, that would be it! That would be it.
But don’t worry. I met a lot of honest street vendors as well. All you’ve got to do is ask the price before you decided to buy the things from them. As simple as that. If the price doesn’t make any sense to you, just walk away and let them know that they’re doing it wrong.
Basically I just tried everything I could, go everywhere I could and eat anything that looks interesting to me. And I think you should too! Don’t be hesitate to ask someone for help if you need some. Although there’s not much people speaking English in Hanoi, you’ll be surprised (and very happy) when you find one! And don’t forget to smile! 😉
Been there before? Tell me more about your experience since I’d like to hear it from you too!!!
You might also wanna check out the other Mini Travel Guide I wrote before :