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10 Things To Do in Hanoi: The Lesser-Known Attractions of The City

If you come to Hanoi for the first time, you will be treated to a feast of sounds and emotions. The city, its people, and stories are what you won’t find in any tourist guidebook.

Vehicle horn. Hanoi has 6 million motorbikes. Not to mention, vehicles from other provinces pour into the city during the day.

Women wear conical hats, ride bicycles, or walk carrying baskets filled with fresh vegetables, flowers, and fruits on their shoulders. They go around the city from morning to night to sell goods. Walking ten kilometers a day must be our desired exercise, but with them, it’s living. There are up to 2,000 street vendors in Hanoi. Most of them are small-town residents who come to Hanoi to make a living. Each person has their own life story.

Traffic follows a rule that is Not A Rule. I have seen many tourists trying to cross the street. Giving way to pedestrians is not popular in Hanoi, even though it is written in the law. 

First-time tourists may comment that Hanoians are rarely cold and reserved, but once you know us better, you will see that we’re some of the most hospitable and loyal friends. 

Hanoi has tree-lined streets, quiet temples, cafes hidden discreetly in small alleys that are not easy to find, and public lakes with many stone benches for tired walkers to stop and rest.

And most of all, Hanoi is beautiful and never boring.

Food is one of the necessities of life. In Vietnam, food is more important than that. It represents a close relationship with culture, tradition, and lifestyle. The connection between food and culture is very strong in our country.

In Vietnam, we rank “Eating” as one of the Four Pleasures of Life. We love eating well and eating with pleasure. Food is good when its flavor fills your taste buds and satisfies your senses, but it’s best when we share it with a soulmate.

Vietnamese people eat to enjoy the taste and aftertaste, bond with family members, and learn more about the person they share their meal with. Whenever we want to celebrate a special occasion, the first question that comes to mind is “What To Eat.”

For these reasons, food takes center stage in Vietnamese culture. But first, let’s discover nine main things that define Vietnam Food Culture.

How To Enjoy Hanoi At Its Best?

If you are looking for famous attractions in Hanoi, you won’t find much information in this article. Famous names such as the Opera House, Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum, Temple of Literature, St. Joseph’s Cathedral, Hoa Lo Prison,… are all well worth a visit. But why do you need another list when there are many out there?

I just thought that, rather than me giving you another list that you can easily find hundreds of by googling, I’d like to inspire you to explore the city differently. A list of things to do in Hanoi that reveals the secret sides of Hanoi and helps you understand Hanoi more deeply.

Even though I was born and raised in Hanoi, I have never stopped being amazed by my city. There are still days when I discover a new story or place about the town I thought I knew, like the back of my hand.  

Hanoi has many hidden gems. I want you to see those gems as much as I do.

Here is my advice: You don’t need to check out all the famous names (unless you have time.) Slow down to enjoy the atmosphere, listen to the sounds, taste the food, and try to read a story between locals through their facial expressions, even if you don’t understand a bit of their language. Enjoy this city instead of passing by it. After all, a trip with the most memories is the one that brings you the most emotions.

You will find many more tips below. Scroll down to continue reading.

10 Things To Do in Hanoi: Suggestion from A Hanoian Addicted to Hanoi

1. Learn Hanoi’s History at Thang Long Imperial Citadel

I said I wouldn’t list Hanoi’s famous attractions. But Thang Long Imperial Citadel is the place that provides you with the long history of Hanoi. So a visit will give you a brief introduction to the city.

Hanoi is not a young man. The city has more than 1000 years of history. It became the capital of Vietnam in 1010 under the Ly dynasty. When King Ly Cong Uan first came here, he saw a dragon rising from this land, or so legend told. He moved the capital from Hoa Lu to Hanoi and named the new capital Thang Long, meaning “Flying Dragon.” (Oh, you might find it interesting if you know that Ha Long Bay means Descending Dragon.)

In December 2002, archaeologists excavated an area of about 19,000 square meters, revealing a complex of relics of the ancient Thang Long Imperial Citadel, associated with the history of Hanoi throughout 13 centuries. The relic site is between Hoang Dieu, Hoang Van Thu, Doc Lap, and Bac Son streets. This is one of the most important historical sites in Vietnam.

In July 2010, Thang Long Imperial Citadel was recognized by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site. (Now, you understand why visiting the imperial city is absolutely worth it.)

Note: Thang Long Imperial Citadel hosts a 1.5-hour night tour starting at 7 p.m. During the tour, a 30-minute performance recreates the story of King Ly Cong Uan’s moving the capital to Thang Long.

2. Spot The Real Architectures of Hanoi Old Quarter

The Old Quarter is an essential area of the city. It covers an area of 0.38 sq mi and is bordered by the streets of Hang Dau, Phung Hung, Hang Bong, Hang Gai, Cau Go, Tran Quang Khai, and Tran Nhat Duat. Although the area is small, the old town has the largest concentration of restaurants, hotels, bars, and cafes. 

The most famous feature of the old town is the craft streets. In ancient times, artisans from surrounding villages gathered here. They created neighborhoods specializing in products. The type of products traded on the street is used to name the street, starting with “Hàng.” Many streets retain the old-world vibe, for example, Hàng Mã, Hàng Tre, Hàng Thiếc, and Hàng Đồng.

Architecture also makes Hanoi’s Old Quarter unique (google “Hanoi streets by Bui Xuan Phai,” a great Vietnamese painter, to see what the quarter looked like in the past). Ancient houses were mainly tube houses with tilted tile roofs that were uneven in length and height. During the French war, Hanoians drilled holes in the walls so they could move from house to house.

Since the late 20th century, old houses have gradually disappeared, but some still preserve the soul of Hanoi, such as the ones at 42 Hang Can and 87 Ma May Street. The latter is open to visit.

French architecture also adds beauty to the Old Quarter. These houses are often painted yellow and have elaborate decoration. The year of finishing is embossed on the wall, usually in the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s. Some significant examples are houses at 42 and 56 Tran Xuan Soan, 26 Hang Ngang, 38 Hang Bong, 73 Ha Trung Streets, and so much more. 

3. Indulge in The Full-on Street Food Scene

Among the countless little things that create a wonderful Hanoi, street food is definitely one. Especially for people born and raised in Hanoi like me, Hanoi street food is a happy part of our childhood. When the city was in the post-war period and the beginning of the socialist process, good food was only available on special occasions or holidays. To this day, I still remember the sweetness on my lips of an ice cream my mother bought for me when I was eight years old or the rich taste of a bowl of pho that my parents tried to afford when I was sick.

Many people from other provinces think that Hanoians are conservative about Hanoi food. Yes, many of us insist that some Hanoi specialties like Phở and Bún Chả are the most delicious when eaten in Hanoi. In fact, we don’t just eat the food; we savor the aftertaste of the past years. Whether those years were happy and beautiful, sad and tough, or both, those memories are always an inseparable part of our lives, which build us into the ones we are now.

Therefore, indulging in the street food scene is one of the most profound ways to learn about a city, its people, history, and food culture. Don’t be afraid to stop by a sidewalk restaurant for a Vietnamese dumpling (Bánh Gối), bite into its golden, crispy crust, and savor the filling filled with minced meat, ear mushrooms, vermicelli, shiitake mushrooms, eggs, and carrots. Adjust the spices (lemon, vinegar, chili sauce) in a bowl of beef Phở to get the flavor that best suits you, and taste the broth with a slight herbal flavor. Sitting among the passionately local eaters to understand that, in every bite, Hanoians eat to be happy.

4. Enjoy Local Life in Hoan Kiem Lake in the Early Morning

The nice thing is that Hanoians aren’t nosy people. You can freely walk on the street and enjoy observing everyday life. 

One of the best ways to see local life is to experience the city before it has had its morning coffee. So get up early and walk to Hoan Kiem Lake. 

Hanoians love morning exercise. Interestingly, older people exercise more than younger ones. Hoan Kiem Lakes, as well as many other public parks and lakes in the city, is a favorite place for people to warm up. 

The lake is peaceful from 5:30 to 6:30 a.m., with only pedestrians and cyclists. People are cycling, walking, jumping rope, doing push-ups, and practicing Tai Chi. You can sit on a bench to catch the dim rays of the first sunlight filtering through the leaves or join the locals. In front of Trang Tien Plaza, Hanoi’s most luxurious shopping mall, about 30 women dance to Zumba music. Next to Hapro Food Square, a few men sit on low chairs playing Chinese chess. Some others enjoy a cup of hot Vietnamese tea. The area behind Ly Thai To Monument is filled with badminton players and fan dancers.

 Hanoi’s early morning is clean, peaceful, and poetic—a Hanoi you won’t want to miss.

5. See A Hanoi of The Subsidy Period

The period of the Subsidy Economy (Bao Cấp) is a dramatic period in Hanoi’s history that is bitter but unforgettable. It started in 1964, when the war had just ended in the North of Vietnam, and continued until 1986. The North lived in a planned economy, a characteristic of the economies of socialist countries at that time. Food and other basic commodities were controlled and supplied by the government. 

I still vividly remember those days when I, a seven-year-old girl, queued up in line for hours to buy rice, kerosene, pork meat, or fish sauce. My hand gripped a small piece of paper called a “Food Coupon,” which recorded the amount of food distributed each time, depending on the household size, jobs, and even positions of the coupon’s owner in government. My brother and I hardly had enough food, let alone good food. Only during the Tet holidays did we have new clothes and candies. Strangely, the neighbor’s relationship was full of love, and the children were always happy despite hardship and poverty.

The subsidy period remains in subsidized public housing estates (Nhà Tập Thể) built by state-owned companies to provide to their employees. They were “ideological” housing types, only about 30 to 45 square meters, designed for small families but became too cramped when the children were born. With their flexibility and ingenuity, Hanoians had found a way to extend their living space. Overhang tiny “rooms” were created from light materials after demolishing the external infill of window sills or balconies. These modules – are known as tiger’s cages or Chuồng Cọp in Vietnamese.

These are the names of some of the most popular blocks in Hanoi that you can visit: Thành Công, Kim Liên, Giảng Võ, and Nguyễn Công Trứ. When your legs are tired, sit at a cafe in the open space between the blocks, designed to host leisure activities and socializing. Sip a cup of coffee and listen to these half-century-old buildings tell stories about the old times of Hanoi when it was deprived, unkempt, but full of pride.

6. Take An Adrenaline Rush on The Train Street

Train Street is a unique lifestyle in Hanoi – a testament to the fact that anything can happen in this city.

While the railway is considered the nation’s private property, it is the residential communities’ living area in Hanoi. In some locations on the street, houses are only about two meters from the tracks. Train tracks are a place for children to run around, for homemakers to dry food under the sun, and for idle elders to sit and talk. People put away their personal belongings, pull their motorbikes inside, and ask their children to go home when the train is about to pass.

Challenges create opportunities; nowhere is that saying more true than here. Hundreds of cafes have sprung up, serving drinks for curious visitors. They come here to take pictures, walk on the tracks, and enjoy the adrenaline rush as the metal monster, weighing hundreds of tons, thunder passes only about two feet away from their seats.

Trains pass here 6-8 times a day from morning to midnight. But the most suitable times to watch are 11 AM, 3.30 PM, 7.15 PM, and 9.10 PM. It’s best to arrive about half an hour early because the time may vary depending on where you are on the 2-kilometer street.

7. Shop at A Wet Market

No place better reflects the bustle of city society and living habits in Hanoi than a wet market. You find real-life chaotic yet authentic sounds in the market: heavy traffic, chopping knives, and sellers greeting regular customers.

The market is not merely a crowded commercial point but also a cultural place in Hanoi. By observing the purchasing habits, types of goods, and prices, you can tell about the residents’ educational level, community cohesion, and average income. 

Wet markets in Hanoi are open anywhere a residential area exists, so it’s easy to see one no matter where you stay. But if you stay close to the Old Quarter, you can visit Thanh Ha Market, Dong Xuan Market, or Hang Da Market. They have everything demanding housemakers want, from raw meat, seafood, freshwater fish, and vegetables to pre-cooked food. Be aware that you might see unexpected sights of rare animals and animal parts making their way to the kitchen, such as frogs, silkworms, dog’s heads, and pig’s organs.

Many people like to go to the market early in the morning as they prefer fresh ingredients. Experienced buyers test meat quality by pressing their fingers on the surface to determine the texture and the freshness. On the way home after working, busy office workers stop their scooters in front of piles of vegetables or baskets of fish displayed on the sidewalk. Still sitting on the saddle, they name the food while the sellers pick, weigh, and calculate the price. The coordination between two people is smooth and professional, making the purchase finish in less than one minute. 

A decade ago, the government decided to build commercial centers on the ground of wet markets. Ô Chợ Dừa and Hàng Da Market are two examples of the transformation. They reserved the first two floors for the market. The upper floors are shops, kiosks, and offices for rent. However, this module doesn’t work because it’s not suitable for the shopping habits of local people. Small markets quickly opened around the area, bustling with sellers and buyers again.

8. Attend Cultural Activities in The Old Quarter

With a rich history of more than 1,000 years, Hanoi has 1,793 intangible cultural heritages. You can explore our city’s vibrant culture without traveling far. Every Friday, Saturday, and Sunday evening, 26 streets of the Old Quarter become walking streets where visitors can find restaurants, bars, cafes, a night market, and various attractive cultural activities. 

My favorite music performance is a band of five people with a visual impairment playing traditional Vietnamese musical instruments on Hàng Buồm Street. Their music is so captivating that I can see a happy light in their eyes. I can never ignore the young girl who plays the Tranh Zither. Her face brightens with beautiful smiles when her magical fingers glide over 16 zither strings.

The two Cultural Exchange Centers at 50 Đào Duy Từ Street and 22 Hàng Buồm Street are also worth visiting. The first one was originally a Chèo theater, while the latter was the Cantonese Assembly Hall. Both of them often host exhibitions of high cultural and aesthetic value. Phuc Kien Assembly Hall, located at 40 Lãn Ông Street, has opened to the public from the end of March 2023. This building, built in 1917, still retains beautiful ancient architecture.

All cultural activities in the old quarter are free.

9. Take A Train Ride on Long Bien Bridge

Long Bien Bridge was established with the Vietnam Railway. When Governor-General of Indochina Paul Douer arrived in Vietnam in 1897, he had the ambition to create a network from South to North, connecting the sea with the rich valleys of the Central region and the Mekong. Inter-provincial roads and steel bridges crossing rivers were built simultaneously with the railway network.

Long Bien Bridge—Hanoi’s iconic symbol—operated in 1902 to cross the Red River and connect Ha Noi with Hai Phong City. The bridge is used for both roads and railways. Initially, it was called Doumer Bridge, named after the governor-general of Indochina. By 1945, Hanoi Mayor Tran Van Lai changed the name to the one it is today. Vietnam’s turbulent history of 90 years of colonialism, 30 years of devastating wars, and 50 years of reconstruction still leaves traces on the bridge.

Take a short train ride if you want to do something different in Hanoi. Every day at 8:00 a.m. and 1:20 p.m., the train departs from Hanoi Station (at 42 Lê Duẩn Street) to Hai Phong, but you can always stop at Gia Lam Station, which takes you only 25 minutes and VND40,000 for the ticket. When the train goes on the Long Bien Bridge, you can observe the life under the bridge, the greenery, and the beautiful river that originated Vietnam’s wet rice civilization.

10. Flag-Raising Ceremony at Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum

Many people have heard about Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum – one of the most popular attractions in Hanoi. Still, few know that twice a day, there is a 15-minute flag-raising ceremony (6 AM in summer and 6.30 AM in winter) and a flag-lowering ceremony (9 PM).

In the two ceremonies, a battalion consists of 37 soldiers, of which three are responsible for carrying and raising/lowering the flag; the remaining 34 represent the first 34 members of the Vietnam Liberation Propaganda Team. At the right time, the soldiers will raise the national flag to the 29m high flagpole (pull it down in the lowering ceremony). When marching past the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum, all the soldiers raised their guns in salute, expressing respect for the national hero.

To see the ceremony, go to the 344,445-square-foot Ba Dinh Square in front of the mausoleum. People also come here to enjoy the cool air in the evening. Due to the scarcity of public playgrounds in Hanoi, this is also a favorite place where families like to take their kids to run and play.

My son loved to come here when he was a little boy. Like many other children his age, he stood at attention and raised his hands to salute the national flag simultaneously with the soldiers. That was when love for the country and national pride were built up in the hearts of young generations.

How To Get Around Hanoi

Hanoi is very convenient to move around. The Old Quarter is small, so you can explore it on foot. The high number of high-tech taxis and motorbikes at inexpensive prices makes this the most popular mode of transportation for tourists in Hanoi. You can download the Grab, Be, or Xanh SM app (similar to Uber) to book a ride 24/7. In particular, Xanh SM provides electric vehicles.

You can also rent a motorbike to explore the city’s other attractions. Hanoi just introduced e-bikes to the public in August 2023. 79 stations in populated areas and city landmarks provide bicycles at low prices, about VND50,000/day or VND5,000 for 30 minutes. Stations and detailed instructions on renting and using are found on the TNGo app.

Day Trips From Hanoi

I would recommend Ha Long Bay, Tam Coc, and Duong Lam Village. Thousands of islands make Ha Long Bay surreal, but I must admit that a day trip to Ha Long is quite a rush, considering two and a half hours traveling from Hanoi. If you have more time, it’s best to take a three-day, two-night trip to Ha Long. 

80 kilometers from Hanoi, Tam Coc is closer and much more leisurely. You can cycle through the village before drifting along the peaceful river on a small boat. 

One hour’s drive from Hanoi, you will see well-preserved ancient houses and take a relaxing stroll on narrow alleyways in Duong Lam. This 1200-year-old village is considered one of the oldest villages in Vietnam and home to two Vietnamese Kings, Phung Hung and Ngo Quyen.

FAQ About Hanoi

Is Hanoi Safe?

Yes. Hanoi ranked fifth among the safest tourist cities in Southeast Asia. The crime rate and worries about being attacked physically because of skin color, ethnic origin, gender, or religion are low. Walking alone in Hanoi, even at night, is safe.

Hanoi vs Ho Chi Minh City: Which Is Better? 

Both cities are interesting and have different characteristics. HCMC is generally a more zestful-looking city, while Hanoi is very Vietnamese. The streets in Hanoi are more organized and accessible, and as I mentioned above, you can easily take a day trip to other famous destinations.

Hanoians are proud of their city (and they should be). They retain a traditional way of life within the development of a modern city.

What Is The Weather Like in Hanoi?

Fall and Spring can be wonderful but short-lived. Winter is chili; some days, it’s cold to the bone, and summer comes with crazy amounts of heat. The high humidity makes you feel like the temperature is colder or hotter than it actually is. 

Hanoi’s biggest problem might be its air quality. The hazardous air makes it one of the most unhealthy places to live. Over 8 million motorbikes and cars and a lot of construction contribute to this situation.

Is Hanoi Worth Visiting?

Still, ‘Yes’. If you want to try the best Vietnamese food, learn about thousands of years of history, and experience authentic culture, you don’t want to miss Hanoi.

How Much English Is Spoken in Hanoi?

Most people speak some words of English. Young people study English at school but are reserved about using it. Hanoians like to say “Hello” as a foreigner walk by.

How Many Days in Hanoi Is Enough?

It’s hard to say, but stay for at least three days. That is enough for you to try the delectable street food, experience the local life, and see some places.

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