One booming destination: Vietnam. Certainly worth visiting is the Vietnamese capital Hanoi. Let me share with you some Hanoi travel tips, so you can explore this beautiful city.
Hanoi old quarter, outside the Imperial Citadel of Thăng Long
Of course, your Hanoi trip starts here. Make sure you get a hotel over here if you want the ultimate city ambiance. Many (motor)bikes, shops, street vendors, and street food. All of your senses will be tickled in these busy streets. The smell of food, the sound of traffic, colorful products in the shops. Hanoi old quarter is pretty overwhelming.
So, what to do? I suggest you just want to take time to wander around. In the old quarter, the particular craft workers stick together in different areas. For example, you see parts were they sell only religious statues, art, and relics. Similar to sweets and candy as well as fabrics and clothes. Not only this is a nice way to discover the Vietnamese way of life, it also makes it easy to navigate the streets. Just remember the kind of street of your hotel. A lot easier than recalling the names of the streets!
Since the old quarter is not so big, you will never get lost too far. So, you don’t need to look at a map all the time. Just explore! And if you don’t feel like walking anymore, a taxi (car or bike) or rickshaw is never more than a few meters away. Just like everything in Vietnam, transport is rather cheap. A rickshaw is nice for a small distance, they elegantly blend into the busy traffic. Although the drivers ring the bells a lot, it is a fine piece of work crossing the larger junctions.
Hanoi Hoan Kiem lake is what you need to see
On one end of the old quarter, you find Hoan Kiem Lake. If you like a stroll, just walk around it. On your way, you can admire the beautiful trees around the lake. Therefore many couples shoot their wedding pictures here. At the center of the lake is the Turtle Tower and at the north end, you can visit a small museum on Jade Island.
In the museum, you see one of the three tortoises of the Hoan Kiem legend. In my opinion, however, it is not too special. Rather, if you like to see the legend explained in an arty way, cross the street. Here you find the famous water puppet theatre. They perform a marvelous show about many Vietnamese legends and stories. Another must-see in Hanoi!
Do you notice the many benches near the lake? If you ever feel lonely, take a seat. Instantly people come by and talk to you. Mostly students who like to practice the English language. So, if you travel alone or like to meet up with locals easily, this is the place for you to hang out.
How is the Hanoi traffic?
Walking in the city center, especially towards the Hoan Kiem Lake, can be seen as difficult. First, you think it goes well, but then you come to the point where you have to cross the street. An endless stream of bikes, cars, and buses comes your way. You don’t see any possibility to cross. How can you cross safely?
There is only one rule: do not hesitate. Crossing Hanoi’s’ streets is therefore quite easy: just walk. The traffic will slow down or slightly change lanes. The bikes are viable and the drivers will take care of your safety. Maybe, if you’re nervous about it, stick close to a local. Next time, you cross the street confidently by yourself.
Go visit Hanoi Museums
Okay, you explored some of the city centers already and figured out the traffic. Time for some more Vietnamese culture. For instance, visit the Women’s Museum. This is near the Hoan Kiem lake in downtown Hanoi.
Don’t think it is only about fashion or other typical women things! Women are important in the history of Vietnam, like in the war and in many jobs. For example, the position of women street vendors is explained. Mostly they are not from Hanoi. Yet, to make a living they stay here for weeks and work long hours. Getting up early to go to the market. Finishing a working day only when the baskets are empty. After visiting the museum, you will have a different feeling passing these women on the streets. If you buy a souvenir in the shop, you support local women!
Another interesting place is the Vietnam Museum of Ethnology. Learn all about the people of Vietnam and their origin. Special about this museum is the large garden. Here you find several houses, so you can see the many differences in architecture. If you don’t have time to visit every part of Vietnam, this offers you a glimpse of what you miss out on. For children (and active adults) it is nice, they may enter most of the houses.
Since the museum is quite a few kilometers from the city center, traveling to it makes you see more of Hanoi. You can make a small tour and combine it with a visit to the botanic garden and site seeing at the Ho Tay Lake. Also, on the major streets, you see the barbers on the pavement. Just a mirror and a chair, do you dare to get a haircut here?
Hanoi’s Vietnamese massage
A relaxed way to embrace a foreign culture. Lay yourself on a massage table and relax. But that’s not the way you feel during a traditional Vietnamese massage. Because the Vietnamese massage is pretty firm and involves some slapping. Also on the head. So, mention it before the massage starts if you don’t like this. After the massage, you probably do feel relaxed.
There are many places to get a massage. I can recommend the SF Spa Hanoi Lakeview which is a nice and quiet place in the old quarter. First of all the ladies are great. Second, the spa is very neat and the interior is appealing. Third, the luxury feeling it gives is expanded since they pay for your taxi to get there. So, if your feet hurt: don’t hesitate. Just grab a taxi and drive to the spa! (If you are with multiple persons or want a long massage, making reservations is clever.)
Hanoi has beautiful Temples
Another part of the Vietnamese culture in Hanoi is the temples known as the Temple of Literature. This is not only a large temple complex with a magnificent garden. Moreover, it is a classic example of the Vietnamese temple architecture. When you see temples in other cities, you will notice the strong resemblance. This “mother of all temples” is firmly decorated. All the details add up to a major piece of art.
If you like it less crowdy, there are many other, smaller temples to visit. In this case, make sure you skip the “one pillar pagoda”. This small temple is often too busy and not so special. Best thing to do is ask your driver or guide to show you one on the route if you are going to visit an attraction you certainly don’t want to miss out on. All temples are pretty, well maintained and make sure to enjoy the calm Buddhist atmosphere. The less known temples form peaceful places in Hanoi.
The food you need to try in Hanoi
Feeling hungry already? Food is never far in the streets of Hanoi. As mentioned before, you find a lot of vendors walking the streets. From their baskets, they sell for example fruit, vegetables, and snacks. It is cheap and a nice way to support locals. Mostly the fruit is tasty and safe to eat. Due to the major traffic, Hanoi suffers from air pollution. Hence better wash the fruit before eating it.
Also, you find a lot of street food in little ‘shops’ at the streets. Like Banh My, one of the best places to buy a sandwich. The ‘petit pain’ is a legacy from the French times. So, if you want to skip noodles, this is your chance! The menu is in the Vietnamese language, but no problem. Just point at the ingredients you like on the sandwich. Maybe you like a fried egg, that’s possible! Because there is one small stove and there is one baking pan. Of course, you eat your sandwich on the small stool. And, make lots of noises while eating, just like the Vietnamese do!
If you are on a budget, pho is your best friend. Pho is a noodle soup. Everywhere on the menu, by far the cheapest dish available. There are also special pho bars. You can order it either veggie or with meat. You eat this dish with chopsticks and zip in the fluids. If you are an advanced pho-eater, you can do this at the same time. Just study the locals while they eat, and you will learn it quickly.
If you are not on a tight budget, rather try everything else on the menu. There are many restaurants to visit, and so many dishes to try. Hanoi is – by Vietnamese standards – an expensive city. Yet for about €5 can you have a perfect dinner.
Some trips we recommend in Hanoi
Hanoi is a great city to stay for a couple of days. Although there is much to see in the city, a tour abroad makes a fine change. Tours come in many variations such as trips for one day or longer. Also, the larger, organized tours with groups as well as private tours, either by large organizations or not.
To Sapa and the Halong Bay, the offered tours are mostly for two or three days and you travel in a large group. Or, at the Halong Bay, you go on a boat with a group. In my opinion, these tours are too crowded and to slick. You pay quite a lot of money. Yet, on tour, it’s hard to meet local people (except when it’s their job to receive tourists every day) or experience the true local culture.
Same goes for highly organized day tours such as the tour to the Perfume Pagoda. Of course, this is a great monument, however, I personally don’t like to visit it with such amounts of people at one time. Realize your bus is not merely the only bus from which a herd of tourists gets released.
So, if you also like it true and personal: book a private and unorganized tour to a not-so-touristic place. It’s easy to arrange if you get to know some locals. I met a salesman of postcards near Hoan Kiem Lake who happened to be a great guide. He took me on his bike for a day tour to a nice village with an ancient church and a modern temple. He also showed me some real local markets and we ate a traditional lunch. It’s as easy as that. Social media like Facebook is a nice way to check reviews. In this way, you know if you can trust the guide.
Next destination: Halong Bay or Cat Ba Island
Although Hanoi stole your heart, your wanderlust makes you want to travel further. Perhaps your next destination is one of the most impressive sites of Vietnam: the Halong Bay. The limestone karsts and islands form a distinct scenery of great beauty.
Roughly, you can choose to explore the Halong bay from two directions. In the harbor of Ha Long, you enter a boat. So in this way, you float one or several days around the bay and see many highlights. The other opportunity is staying at Cat Ba Island. From here, many short trips to the western part of the bay are possible.
I can recommend Cat Ba Island because the atmosphere there is wonderful. Not only is it nice to go on the water. Also, on the island, there’s a lot to see like a hospital cave and a national park with great possibilities for hiking. There are amazing sand beaches with a nice view on the bay. You can choose one of many hotels and hostels, and same goes for restaurants and bars.
You get from Hanoi to Cat Ba Island easily by bus and boat (and bus again on the island). The boats set off at the harbor of Haiphong. At the bus station of Hanoi, you can buy an all in one ticket. It’s cheap and well arranged.
Next destination: Ninh Binh
If you don’t like Halong Bay or have been there already, consider traveling south to Ninh Binh. Similar to the Halong Bay, many limestone karsts fill the landscape. Just not on the water, but on land.
There’s enough to explore around here. For example, go on a boat tour through some caves. Or get up to one of many viewpoints. Also, Ninh Binh is a nice place to see more or the Vietnamese rural life. Try to find a homestay and enjoy the contacts with the local people. In addition, try local food. It’s even better than in the city because the food is ultimately fresh. You can eat together with local people at their home by ResiRest.
You travel best from Hanoi to Ninh Binh by train or bus. From Cat Ba Island, you can also travel in a direct connection (bus, boat, bus) to Ninh Binh.
Enjoy your stay in Vietnam! Please share your questions and tips in the comments below.