Oh Hanoi where do we start, we fell in love the first time we travelled here. What’s not to love about this vibrant and colourful city, the locals are friendly, the food is amazing, everything is so cheap and there is so much history and things to do.
Hanoi was the first place Ray and I ever travelled to together as a couple. I had been a number of times before on my own and was already in love with the place but Ray took a little more convincing as he’d had a bad experience on a previous trip to Saigon. I promised I would change his mind and wanted him to experience the Hanoi that I loved so much.
Most foreigners coming to Hanoi are either budget back packers on their South East Asia gap year tour, rolling into town after an overnight sleeper bus from Laos or Cambodia sunburnt and rocking their elephant pants or middle ages retirees wanting to see all the sights and experience all the history and culture that Hanoi has to offer… and it has a lot. Not that we are middle aged retirees but we kind of fit into the latter and we’re not that into balloons and drinking ourselves into an oblivion all night on phố mã mây in the old quarter.
For first time travellers coming to Hanoi you will undoubtedly want to stay either in the Old Quarter or Hoan Kiem district. Its here that you will find the majority of the tourist attractions and everything that all the other travel blogs will tell you to check out. But there is so much more to this amazing city than this area.
We love the Old Quarter, there is so much to see and do there but to really experience Hanoi like a local the best thing is to stay out in one of the many districts around the city. Hanoi is actually a huge city and has 5 main districts within the city limits, which are ideal for travellers, each of them offering a different experience. But what they all have in common though is that, you will really get to experience the real Hanoi.
Hoan Kiem District
Hoan Kiem is home to the famous Old Quarter and is located smack dab in the centre of the city. Here you will find most of the tourist attractions like Hoan Kiem Lake, St Joseph’s Cathedral, Dong Xuan Markets, Bach Ma Temple, Hoa La Prison and the Weekend Markets. Also loads of accommodation from backpacker hostels to 5 star hotels.
Hoan Kiem is great for a few days but can get quite overwhelming after a while with all the traffic and noise of the streets, so our best advise is to stay for a day or so and then maybe look at staying in one of other districts below for a more relaxed vibe.
Ba Dinh District
Ba Dinh is a huge area that’s about a 10-15 minute drive out of the Old Quarter. It is one of the greenest districts in Hanoi with big wide streets lined with centuries old trees, like the famous Phan Dinh Phung Street. Since the French occupation Ba Dinh has been the political hub of Hanoi and is home to many embassies and where Ho Chi Minh declared Vietnams independence in 1945. Its home to many historical sights to see as well like the Ho Chi Minh mausoleum, Imperial Citadel, Presidential Palace, The Vietnam Military History Museum, The One Pillar Pagoda, the Vietnam Fine Arts Museum and the famous Truc Bach Lake.
Truc Bach Lake is one of our favourite places to stay. It’s calm, quiet, safe and feels so local. There are people going on about the daily life, and so many little coffee spots and restaurants located around the place serving up some of the best Vietnamese food Hanoi has to offer. Try and get over to Truch Bach Island and try to local delicacy Pho Cuon, thin pieces of rice paper with a mixture of fillings, they are amazing and only found here.
Tay Ho District (West Lake)
Tay Ho is home to Hanoi’s largest fresh water lake with a circumference of about 17 kms. It’s also a 10-15 minute drive from the Old Quarter and is a place that locals and tourists come to relax and escape the hecticness of the city. It’s extremely beautiful here especially at sunset and is great for photography.
West Lake is home to some pretty swanky accommodation options and is also home to a lot of the expat community. That being said you can also find some great Airbnb options here for the same as you’d pay for a mid range hotel somewhere else. Life here is nice and relaxed.
There’s also a few historical places to see here as well, like the Tran Quoc Pagoda built in the 6th century, the Quan Thanh Temple which is one of Vietnams 4 sacred temples and the beautiful flower village and markets.
Dining options here are great but being quite an affluent area filled with expats prices will be higher than normal. Great seafood can be found at the southern side of the lake and on the northern end is where you’ll find most of your western options.
Dong Da District
Dong Da is right next to Ba Dinh and is probably the most populated district in all of Hanoi. Here you will get a real sense of what life in Hanoi is really like. Filled with many local markets that sell everything from fruits and veg, all kinds of meats, home wear and an array of other things you could ever need. Like we said if you want to see real Hanoi this is where it’s at.
There are fewer hotel accomodation options here but mostly homestays and Airbnb, which is a great way to feel like your living the local life. Dong Da is home to Hanoi’s most famous tourist sight though, the Temple of Literature which was founded in 1070 by the emperor Ly Thanh Tong and is dedicated to Confucius, sages and scholars. It’s here where young students will come before big exams and pray for success. There isn’t a huge amount of other attractions here but a good area to stay and see real Hanoi life whilst still being a 15-minute taxi ride away from the action.
Hai Ba Trung District (The French Quarter)
Hai Ba Trung is one of our favourite places to stay as well. Located on the south eastern side of Hoan Kiem lake 5-10 minutes from the centre, here you will find an amazing mix of things from local markets like Cho Hom Market, colonial French architecture, local and upmarket dining options, shopping malls, bookstores, art galleries, and great small local boutique shops. Also home to the Hanoi Opera House, the Vietnamese Woman’s Museum, the National Museum of Vietnamese History.
Hai Ba Trung is a very local area and get quite busy and chaotic but that’s what’s fun about it. Life happens on the street here just like in all other areas in Hanoi but this area just has a feeling about it that we’ve never quite been able to put our finger on but we love it here, its just so vibrant.
Some of the best meals we ate were also found here in Hai Ba Trung, the local stores usually specialise in one or two things but damn do they do it right. Our favourite Pho stores are here.
Accommodation is either high end if you’re close to the Hoam Kiem end, or you can get some amazing Airbnb’s if you delve deeper into the suburb.
All of that being said our favourite areas to stay in while were visiting Hanoi would have to be Truc Bach and Truc Bach Island with its laid back sleepy vibe, clean air, great local markets and chilled out lake side restaurants that are great to sit back, relax, do some work and just watch the local life just pass you by. It’s also only about a 10-15 minute walk into the Old Quarter or a 5-minute drive.
Hai Ba Trung is also our other top pick to stay with its amazing mixture of things to do and see, whilst only being also a 10-15 minute walk into the Old Quarter and all of the main attractions. The food options here are also second to none with the streets coming to life usually from 3pm with an array of street vendors selling almost every type of Vietnamese food you can imagine, plus a huge selection of small family run restaurants.
Depending on what your budget is whether its budget or upmarket, if you want to experience what local life you’re not going to experience it in a hostel or hotel. We always stay in Airbnb while we’re in Hanoi and found it to be amazing. With options to suit every budget and the options are amazing. Ranging from homestays for people on a budget, amazing one-two bedroom apartments, to amazingly restored French colonial villas with pools and beautiful gardens. Not to quote Airbnb’s motto of “live like a local” but why not. You’re in a city that is undoubtedly one of the most vibrant and colourful places you can be, why not mix in with the locals and see what their life is truly like instead of being locked away in a hotel. Wake up in the morning and go for a walk around the streets and see what Hanoi really is all about, visit the local markets and eat some pho for breakfast on a tiny blue stool on the roadside. You will have a way better experience mixing with the locals we promise.
Hanoi has a multitude of transportation options available. From local taxis, Grab taxis (just like Uber) motorbike taxis, bus services, traditional cyclo bikes or renting a scooter.
If your staying for more than a week we would recommend renting a scooter and just making your own way around, its cheap, quick and effective. Although if your not a confident rider maybe this isn’t the place to try and get your practice in as Hanoi’s traffic can be crazy and people here drive by their own set of rules. But if you are a capable rider and ready to take on the chaotic ballet that is Hanoi traffic we say go for it, it’s so fun.
Grab taxis are probably the easiest, safest and one of the cheapest ways to get around the city. You just download the app and off you go, it’s the same as using Uber and you have the option of paying by credit card or in cash. You also have the option of typing in the English equivalent to what your destination is and the app will just translate it into Vietnamese for your driver. The street names in Vietnam can be really tricky and we have ended up in random locations when trying to tell regular taxis where to go. Also your normal fare from the airport into the city should usually be around 200,000-350,000 vnd ($10-15) depending on time of day and traffic.
Local taxis and motorbike taxis can also be a good option but sometimes like we mentioned is the language barrier. Most drivers don’t speak English and some or a lot of confusion can be had. Also we have heard of some travellers and some expat mates being scammed and ripped off.
Buses are also a good option if you’re not in a hurry and you know where you’re going. They are also extreme cheap ranging anywhere from 20cents to $2 to get across the city. Just download Tim Buyt app
Crossing the Road like a local
The first time I visited Hanoi and also when returning with Ray we were wowed at how crazy the traffic situation get from time to time. 80% of the traffic is scooters and they drive with their own set of rules. Coming from Australia where we have proper rules and a lot of regulation on driving, Hanoi is a total other kettle of fish and it can be scary the first time you step foot off the foot path…well even the footpath can be scary lets be real.
Traffic lights are rarely observed and pedestrian crossing just don’t exist. Traffic moves like a graceful flock of birds just following one and other and when one goes they all go. The locals are really used to people just walking out onto the road in front of them. They don’t panic, they just keep walking with confidence and the drivers just slow down and weave around the pedestrians. So panicking, dodging, and running is the worst thing to do and will more than likely put yourself and the drivers in more danger. Just be confident and look for when you see a small break in the traffic and just walk slowly, be aware of what is around you and keep walking, no one is going to hit you we promise.
What to eat in Hanoi
Eating out in Hanoi isn’t so much a daily ritual but more of a national pastime. Walk down any street in the city and you will no doubt see groups of Vietnamese people with tables full of an array of dishes, all sharing, chatting and just enjoying their time together. The Vietnamese really embrace their cuisine and meal times and so should you; don’t be shy or scared to order something other than a pho or vermicelli salad. Vietnamese food in our opinion is some of the best in the world, vibrant, healthy and extremely delicious.
Street food is also everywhere in Hanoi. You will see street vendors peddling around tiny carts from spot to spot, or small shops set up either by the roadside or in front of someone’s house.
Some people get funny about trying street food and we understand why. We’ve all heard the old story of Johnny went on holidays and ate from that little stall and ended up with food poisoning, spending the rest of his holiday on the toilet. Yes it does happen but for the most part Vietnam is a really safe country to eat street food and if you don’t eat on the streets here you are definitely missing out on some of the best food you’ll ever eat. Our best advice for everyone and it has never served us wrong, is that if there is a line of locals all gosling to put in their orders, then it’s a sure bet that its safe and delicious. The locals wont eat where the food isn’t fresh and good.
Foods to try
Bún chả – A Hanoi speciality, usually served on a small plater with a large amount of rice vermicelli noodles paired with fresh herbs, pickled radishes, char grilled pork belly and lemongrass meatballs.
Bánh Cuốn – Thin rice noodle filled with fried vegetable, onions and minced pork. The only place to get these is on Truc Bach Island.
Phở – The most famous Vietnamese dish, a rich bone broth filled with rice noodles, herbs, bean sprouts with either rare beef (phở bò) or chicken (phở gà)
Bún Riêu – My all time favourite dish, a rich tomato based broth filled with rice noodles, crab meat, mixed herbs, bean sprouts, fresh tomato slices, shredded lettuce and lemon to squeeze over the top. Sometimes it can also come with additional beef in betel leaves to make it extra good.
Bún thịt nướng – Another one or our favourites, cold vermicelli noodles topped with char grilled lemongrass pork belly, fresh herbs, salad, fresh roasted peanuts and nuoc cham sauce.
Bún đậu mắn tôm – vermicelli noodles wit fried tofu and fermented shrimp paste.
Bánh Xèo – The famous Vietnamese pancake, its huge crispy and delicious. Rice pancake batter with turmeric to give it its golden colour, spread super thin and fried to perfection, filled with bean sprouts, shallots, pork or chicken and prawns. Then folded over and served with thing rice paper and a mountain of herbs. Wrap it up in the papers and enjoy.
Gỏi cuốn – Fresh rice paper rolls, filled with almost anything you want but normally with vermicelli noodles, grilled pork or beef and fresh mint.
Cà phê trứng – Vietnamese egg coffee. Strange but true, just humour us and try it. Its next level good. Vietnamese coffee, whisked together with condensed milk and egg yolk
Our favourite spots to eat in Hanoi
Nha Hang Mr Bay Mien Tay
This is our favourite place to eat in Hanoi; it’s located in Hoan Kiem district at the back of the old quarter. The food here is amazing and we have never had a bad meal here. If you do a food tour in Hanoi this place is usually on the itinerary because they specialize in Bánh Xèo and Bánh khọt (Dragon egg pancakes). The Bánh Xèo is the best we have had in Hanoi and they are massive. Everything else on the menu is good to and they also do a mean Bún thịt nướng.
Serving up just beef pho and located in a tiny street in Hai Ba Trung this place is definltely worth a try if you can find it. Even though you can find beef pho everywhere in Hanoi this place is the real deal and is usually full with a line of locals waiting to get in.
This place is directly opposite Pho Suong and serves up nothing but Chicken pho in lots of different variations. The aunties running the place are so sweet and will be amused that there is a foreigner in their shop but don’t be put off, their pho ga is next level good and the most authentic in Hanoi.
Bun Cha Hanoi at Lane 74, Hang Quat street
Ask any local in Hanoi where their favourite bun cha place is and most of them will answer this place. A tiny stall on 74 hang Quat Street in Hoan Kiem district. If you didn’t know it was there you wouldn’t even know it existed. The first time we tried it here I thought the meat was burnt but it wasn’t, it was just a different marinade with more sugar cane used which gives it an incredible flavour that’s hard to forget. Just follow the smell of grilling meat and join the line.
Some useful words to help get you by with the locals
Vietnamese is one of the hardest languages to learn and with all its little nuances and slight variations of the same word it would take years to master it, if ever. But here are a few words to help get you by when trying to go somewhere or order something from a restaurant. Usually the locals will just look at you blankly or laugh because you’re saying it completely wrong but hey at least you’re trying.
- Hello – xin chào
- Goodbye – tạm biệt
- Thank you – cảm ơn bạn
- Yes – vâng
- No – Không
- Excuse me – xin lỗi
- Can I please have – tôi có thể có
- Can I go to – tôi có thể đi đến
- How much for – bao nhiêu cho
- Rice – cơm
- Rice noodle – phở
- Vermicelli noodle – bún
- Beef – thịt bò
- Chicken – gà
- Pork – thịt lợn
- Vegetarian – ăn chay
- Coffee – cà phê
Hanoi is one of the most amazing places you will ever visit, the city just has a pulse that other places just don’t have or have lost over time due to modernisation and over saturation of tourism. Hanoi and Vietnam as a whole have definitely held onto this and we love it and hope you will too. Remember they key to a memorable trip to Hanoi isn’t all about staying in that shiny new hotel in the centre of town. It’s about getting to know the locals and see how they live their lives, the culture, the local customs and definitely the cuisine and there is no better way to experience all of that than staying in a local area and to experience life like a local.