Thousands of scooters criss-cross each other through the streets. Street names don’t match the ones on your map. Asking the locals for directions is pointless, as most of them speak only Vietnamese. Hanoi is craziness. But we’ll guide you through it. In this guide we’ll tell you how to get around in Hanoi and what to do and see.
Hoan Kiem District
The Hoan Kiem district (yellow area on the map) is the place to stay in Hanoi. The district encompasses The Old Quarter (red area on the map). Most of the things you’ll want to see are located in this area or can easily be reached with a cyclo from this part of the city.
Hoan Kiem Lake
The Hoan Kiem Lake is located in the centre of the district and an easy landmark for navigating yourself around the area. The lake also comes with a cool legend involving a turtle and a magic sword. Here is the short version: Emperor Le Thai To was given a magical sword by the gods to drive the Chinese from Vietnam. After the war he was sailing on the lake when a golden turtle took the sword from Le Thai To to return it to its rightful owners. Hence the name Hoan Kiem lake or lake of the restored sword.
The lake is a very popular place among locals who come here for a morning session of tai chi. But there is more to see. There are two little islands that are worth your time. The first island is home to Thap Rua or the Turtle Tower, one of city symbols. The second island can be reached via the Huc bridge or bridge of the rising sun. The bridge is a beauty and leads you to a little temple called Ngoc Son. It’s not that amazing except for the big golden turtle.
Thang Long water puppet teatre
If you cross the street from the lake you’ll find the water puppet teatre also called Roi Nuoc. Attending a show is a very touristy experience but we absolutely recommend it. You’ll get to see 14 different short stories which were invented by farmers ages ago. The stories were made to entertain the common people so you can expect a lot of slapstick humour. Imagine a fisherman who traps his wife in his net instead of a fish. You’ll also be treated to some old myths such as the tale of the legend of the Hoan Kiem lake and the dance of the magical creatures. The spectacle involving fairies, dragons, unicorns, and phoenix will make it worth the ticket price. Try to get seats in the front rows.
Hungry after of before the show? Grab a bite at Wrap & Roll. They sell spring rolls and nems combined with anything you can think of. Or try some street found from one of the sales ladies at the lake. There are plenty of strange snacks to give a go.
Hoa Lo Prison
South of the lake lies the Hoa Lo prison which gives you an insight on two important periods in Vietnamese history. It starts with how the french built the prison to imprison Vietnamese revolutionaries. It shows how the Vietnamese were tortured and even decapitated. The french guillotine is still on display. The story also puts a strong emphasis on how the french were unable to break the Vietnamese spirit. They allegedly turned the prison into a secret education centre for socialist ideas by hiding articles and lettres behind the bricks in the walls. The second period tells the tale of the American war in which the sides were flipped. The Vietnamese owned the prison and used it to imprison US pilots. This time they show how well they treated these soldiers who were allowed to play basketball, get medical care and receive supply packages from their families. The soldiers even nicknamed the prison Hanoi Hilton. Clearly, it’s hard to tell truth from propaganda at this place but the prison is definitely worth the visit.
The Old Quarter
The old quarter is a fascinating district to go for a stroll. Every street has it’s own particular items on sale. There is a street with nothing but shoe shops, a street with blacksmiths and a street with silk clothes. Our favourite however was P Luong Van Can street which was crammed with party attributes and stuffed animals.
Walk up to the Eastern gate, Cua O Quan Chong and sit down at a café to watch crisscrossing motorbikes, men on bicycles wearing dark green pith helmets and street vendors carrying all kind of goods. Just order some spring rolls and gasp at the spectacle.
Or sit down on a plastic chair and order some street food. There are plenty of food stalls and bars around the backpacker streets of Ma May, Hang Bac and Hang Be. A must try is the Bahn My sandwich, a french baguette filled with meat, vegetables and herbs such as cilantro. Try some at Bahn My P.
Another must try is Vietnamese iced coffee, ca phe sua da. Head to Cong Caphé if you would like to try a deluxe version with coconut ice cream. The place has a Viet Cong army styled theme and is one of the hipster places to go. It was our favourite coffee place in Vietnam!
If you want to wash down all the craziness grab a beer at a Bia Hoi. If there’s only men sitting at the bar and almost all of them are locals, you’ll have found a true Bia Hoi. Simply sit down on a plastic chair and you’ll be served half a litre of draft beer for 5000 dong or a mere € 0,2. They’ll keep track of how many beers you have had by drawing lines on a beer felt. And trust us, they’ll make sure the beers keep coming. But can you go to a Bia Hoi if you’re a woman? Sure you can! The men will probably pull off some surprised faces which makes it all the more fun. And no worries, the beer is very light and quite good.
The Long Bien Bridge
The Long Bien bridge connects the city with outskirts. It is said that the iron bridge was designed by Gustave Eiffel. The bridge is completely rusted and even though it feels a bit shabby when you walk across, the view from up there is quite something. Especially when the night falls and thousands of motorbikes start speeding across it.
Dong Da District – West of Hoan Kiem
There is just one major sight to see in Dong Da District (orange area) so make sure you don’t miss this one.
Temple of literature
The temple of literature is a well kept example of traditional Vietnamese architecture. It was founded in 1070 and dedicated to Confucius. It was the city’s first university. Inside you’ll find stone pillars with names of exceptional students in literature and poetry. The peaceful garden with water ponds make it a very calm place to stroll around. We were lucky to witness a graduation celebration. All of the women were dressed in traditional Ao Dai dresses.
Da Dinh District
The Da Dinh district (blue area) houses some of the current and former power houses of the capital.
Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum
Uncle Ho still is a national hero in Vietnam and so he was given a tomb to impress. As a firm socialist, Ho might have wanted a simple grave but instead he got a monumental marble cube with a parade road in front of it. It’s a must do when in Hanoi. If you want to pay tribute to the great leader make sure you aren’t wearing shorts or a sleeveless t-shirt.
One pillar pagoda
The One pillar pagoda was built by emperor Ly Thai Tong in honour of the goddess of mercy. As the name migt give away, it’s a cute little temple built on one pillar. It’s a short walk from the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum and worth a quick peak.
Vietnam military museum
The Vietnam military museum is a display of Vietnamese victory over the French, Chinese and Americans. Expect a chaotic setup of airplanes, helicopters, tanks, etc. Don’t come here if you’re looking for a historical built up of the events. You’ll even notice that some of the signs contain the wrong information. Climb the hexagonal tower to get at least some overview. No need to say that the museum wasn’t one of our favourites.
The imperial citadel used to be former hub of Vietnams military power. Much of the citadel was destroyed by the french and despite the fact that it’s a UNESCO world heritage site, there isn’t much left to see. We only recommend it if you’re a bit of a history buff. Tip: Enter all the side buildings to see some Vietnamese ornaments on display. We went there on an excruciating hot day and totally missed out on the bunkers.
We recommend you to take your time to walk around the old quarter. Observe the traffic, the locals and their daily routines. End your day with street food and a bia hoi. Most of entry tickets for the museums are very cheap so you can make your own selection. Our picks would be: The Hoa Lo Prison, the temple of Literature and the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum. And don’t miss out on a water puppet theatre performance.
Schedule at least 2 to 3 days to see the city.