“Why,” you might wonder, “should I visit Hanoi? What are the best things to do in Hanoi?”
Well, Hanoi is often called the city of a thousand lakes with hundreds of historic buildings that still stand majestic today. Its meandering backstreets coupled with the bustling life along its wide boulevards make for a lively, interesting and fun trip, provided you are adventurous enough! Whether you are a foodie, coffee addict, culture traveler or thrill seeker, Hanoi offers it all. Here we offer Hanoi’s best things to do, from the usual attractions to the interesting backstreet experiences you can get!
1. The Old Quarter
Photo credit : itourvn.com
Hanoi’s Old Quarter is an area with over a thousand years worth of history. The architectural styles are a mash of the cultures that have influenced Hanoi over the years, from Chinese traders to French colonial buildings, it’s literally a visual history of Hanoi. The old quarter used to be one of the main commercial areas during the Vietnamese dynastic period, and each street used to specialize in a type of commerce, such as copper wares, bamboo wares, food commodities and the like. Many of these road names still live on today and some streets even continue to sell the wares the street was named after!
The most interesting parts of the old quarter are however its little backstreets. You can find hidden cafes selling egg coffee only locals know about, or alleys that lead to a long queue of people waiting for their bowl of pho – It’s full of hidden treats! However these are also the most inaccessible as there are no signs and you need to speak Vietnamese to get around effectively. Take our Discovering Old Quarter tour to find out the best of what it has to offer, with the convenience of a local guide to show you the best food and coffee in the nook and crannies of the old quarter!
2. Hoa Lo Prison
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Hoa Loa Prison was also famously known as the Hanoi Hilton, where American POWs were imprisoned during the Vietnam war. Famous prisoners even included former US presidential candidate John McCain. Its history actually extends even further to the French colonialist period where many of Vietnam’s leaders in its independence movement were imprisoned. Today, most of the prison has been demolished, with the gatehouse being converted as a museum.
3. Water Puppet at Thang Long Theater
Photo credit : vietnamawesometravel.com
Puppet shows are all over Asian cultures, from the shadow puppets of Cambodia to the Wayang of Indonesia, but the Vietnamese ones have their own claim to fame, as they are mostly done over water! The historic significance of puppet performances being on water was because it was traditionally played in rural rice fields when the fields were flooded with water for planting rice. Today it is still practiced in rural areas of Vietnam, but in Hanoi you can catch it in the famous Thang Long theatre complete with a musical ensemble!
4. Cook a Typical Hanoian Meal
Chances are you’ve heard of Pho and Banh Mi, the poster boys of Vietnamese cuisine. However there are a million more variations of these dishes, just like how you can cook spaghetti in dozens of ways. Vietnamese cuisine also tends to be very complex with lots of flavours hitting you in a layered fashion, and it utilizes a lot of fresh vegetables. To fully appreciate its intricacies, the best way is to visit Ms Pham, a home chef who is extremely passionate about cooking and carrying on the family recipes. having hosted chefs from even as far as Europe and South America, this is the quintessential Vietnamese cooking experience and one of the best things to do in Hanoi, done right in the hospitality of her traditional home. If you’re interested in discovering how Vietnamese food works, book the Typical Hanoian Meal with Ms Pham!
5. Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum
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Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum is a monument cemetery dedicated to the first president of Vietnam, Ho Chi Minh. It’s unique architectural style is inspired by Lenin’s mausoleum in Moscow, with just a couple of Vietnamese tweaks. With Ho Chi Minh being regarded as the father of the nation, strict rules are enforced here regarding attire and photography. It is however a beautiful piece of history and imposing memorial worth a visit.
6. Hanoi Street Food Tours
Street food is famous in Vietnam, but also infamously difficult to find! The best street food places are almost always located in some hidden alley or doorway where it almost looks like you are entering someone’s house, and at the last moment there is a little nondescript entrance with a little sign that is the sign of the restaurant/cafe. With the multitude of Vietnamese food unknown to foreigners, we are sure you will be blown away by our street food tour! Trust us, and hundreds of travelers’ reviews on this, and we bet you won’t regret it!
7. Vinh Quan Quyen Kung Fu Class
Vietnamese Kung Fu is a blend of various types of martial arts, although predominantly with Chinese Kung Fu influence. Interested in learning some traditional hand to hand combat with Vietnamese master Vinh Xuan Quyen? Take the chance to join our Kung Fu class located in a local gym where locals gather to practice kungfu and have a complete Vietnamese experience to bring home!
8. Imperial City of Thang Long
Photo credit : hoangthanhthanglong.vn
As Hanoi is the capital of the Dai Viet dynasty between the 11th and 18th centuries, the Forbidden City center and the Imperial Citadel of Thang Long is located here. It used to serve as a residence and workplace for the kings and royal families during the period of five dynasties. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, this is one of the must-visits in Hanoi!
9. Preserving Ancient Heritage: Paper Mask Workshop
The various masks of Sun Go Kong, the mask of the Land god, the masks of the characters in the story, the lion mask, the dragon heads made from paper are the most famous toys for many Vietnamese children (at least before the smartphone came along!). During the Mid-autumn festival these will be all over town with children wearing their favorite masks and toting paper lanterns to celebrate the festival. The Paper masks workshop is a great family activity to engage your children who can make their own paper masks the traditional way!
10. Calligraphy Class
Vietnamese calligraphy is an interesting mix of both Chinese and English influences. The techniques are all unmistakably chinese, but Vietnamese characters are all in English alphabets with french looking accents! That’s what makes Vietnamese calligraphy one of its kind! Book a Calligraphy Class with master Ha Linh Pham to understand the intricacies and make one of your family name to bring home in a scroll!
11. Fear Factor Challenge
Besides amazing food, Vietnam also has its own series of ‘fear factor’ foods! From raw geese blood to live coconut worms, prepare yourself to taste the most bizarre and scary-looking-food you will ever see and taste. However, Once in a lifetime, you should try this kind of food. You know… just for fun. This is usually the truest taste of a culture! Take our Hanoi Fear Factor Challenge and we bet you’ll never forget Vietnam!
12. Leather Workshop
Leather crafting is an amazing skill that has been present in many cultures throughout the ages. Valued for its tough exterior and smooth interior, it is valued as a luxury item for most of time. Always wanted to create a customized piece of leather craft for yourself? Book a Leather Crafting Experience with local artisan Dzung, who left the corporate world to pursue his passion in leather crafting at his atmospheric little workshop!
13. Wooden Stamp Making Class
Wooden stamps have been traditionally carved with family names for the purpose of validating agreements and stamping official documents. Today however these are hardly relevant anymore and many skilled artisans like Mr Quoc are trying to stay relevant with ‘newer designs’ like the one you see in the picture. Book a Stamp Carving Workshop with Mr Quoc to try stamp carving for yourself before the craft disappears for good! Besides, won’t it be cool to stamp your family name instead of the boring signature? 😉
14. Coffee Appreciation Workshop
Vietnam is one of the biggest producers and exporters of coffee in the world, and its coffee is truly one of a kind. Easily 2-3 grades beyond the darkest roast you can find in any western country, the smoky, intense aroma is what sets it apart. Almost exclusively drank via ‘phin’ metal filters placed on top of a cup, these are special drip coffees that milks the most intensity out of the beans. The Vietnamese also like to have their coffee with condensed milk, giving it a thick, creamy flavour that stays in your mouth for a long long time! There is even a dessert coffee called egg coffee where a raw egg yolk is beaten with condensed milk to create a creamy froth that is placed on top of hot black coffee, giving it a taste profile and smoothness you will never have tasted before. There are also a ton of coffee shops available in Hanoi, but the best are again, hard to find, so why not get a local coffee connoisseur to show you around with this Coffee Appreciation tour?