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8 tips for exploring the Hanoi capital

Being a prominent city in terms of cultural history as well as cuisine, Hanoi has become a place where culture, progression and creativity thrive.

Hanoi, the capital of glorious Vietnam! What an exciting city to explore! It’s full of action, rooftop bars, gorgeous street food and zillions of bikes whizzing back and forth. We run thought it all in our Hanoi city guide right here.

It seems like it’s trying to catch up, and very fast, with the rest of the world after decades of setbacks such as the devastating Vietnamese (or American as the locals call it) War.

With a place as vibrant as Hanoi, you will not be short of historic sights to explore, museums to visit and cultural monuments to admire. With vast history and modern approach, the city has something for everyone.

For those travellers want to explore Hanoi capital, here are eight tips for discovering Vietnam's capital at its best.

1. Don’t stop drinking coffee

Coffeeholic? Then you are in the right place! Hanoi is the place to visit if you love your coffee. With cafes scattered on every corner you will soon be sipping one cup after another, losing count of how many you already had!

8 tips for exploring the Hanoi capital
Photo by David McKelvey
It can be said that the story about Hanoi coffee is an unique one. Its own features can make you feel the soul of Hanoi once you taste it. Compared to the millennial history of this city, Hanoi coffee is just an exotic cultural which has been there for nearly one century.

But with an essence of the city that always refines the identity of one’s own, Hanoi coffee has gradually been replacing the tea in the daily beverage culture, turning the street shops into an interesting corner in all kinds of coffee shops or restaurants.

So no matter wherever a Hanoian goes, what that man who grew up in the heart of Hanoi remembers the most is the street stalls, and coffee. The smell of coffee is the compass that leads us to the soul of Hanoi.

Egg coffee – the creative beverage of Hanoians, has become famous around the world by the foreign guests after passing along the story about that drink. Someone said, only by drinking hot egg coffee in a simple glass cup once can make you hardly forget Hanoi.

2. Explore the old quarter

The first thing on your agenda after dropping your bags at your hotel should be to explore the historic Old Quarter, preferably on foot. Granted, this is easier said than done since the sidewalks in Hanoi are nothing more than parking lots for motorbikes, but it’s essential if you want to get comfortable with the chaos sooner rather than later. Most hotels in Hanoi are located in the Old Quarter and many of the city’s sights are, too, so this is likely where you’ll be spending a good portion of your trip. Best to get your bearings early on.

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Photo by Richard Mortel
Besides hotels, restaurants, and sights, the Old Quarter is also the prime shopping district. If you’re looking for those now rather iconic ‘I’ve been backpacking through Asia’ pants, this is where you’ll find them. For like the equivalent of $2 USD. Everything here is so delightfully cheap by western standards that even if you don’t like to shop, you’ll still probably find yourself shopping. And haggling is the name of the game, so prepare yourself.

3. Shop Hanoi's night market

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Photo by Greg Willis
The night market in Hanoi is only open on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday nights. It’s all the same stuff you’ll find during the day, though, so don’t despair if you’re not in Hanoi over a weekend. If there’s nothing there you can’t buy in the daytime, why go to the night market at all? Because the atmosphere is better. The streets are quieter. There’s less insistence from shopkeepers that you look through their wares. And, in my experience, you can often get better deals. It’s just a more pleasant shopping experience in general. Plus, there’s food – loads of choices cooked fresh right in front of you while you shop.

4. Street Food

Ah, the most important point on the list, and pretty much my favorite thing about visiting anywhere – food. Eating may be one of life’s necessities, but in Vietnam it’s one of its greatest pleasures, too. There are so many foods to try here, and like everything else, it’s all incredibly cheap. A few things you must try – bun cha (BBQ pork and noodles), pho xao (stir fried noodles with beef), bun nem (spring rolls), banh mi (Vietnam’s version of a sandwich), and of course, everyone’s favorite – pho (beef noodle soup).

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Photo by katiebordner
Despite my infatuation with food when we travel, I’m not so great at remembering to take photos of what I eat or writing down exactly where it was I ate it. I do, however, remember where it was I ate the best pho of my life and it was at a little place on Bat Dan Street. I swear I will never forget that meal, and not just because it tasted out of this world. Our food at Pho Bat Dan was served to us piping hot outside on communal picnic tables as we sat in flimsy plastic chairs elbow to elbow with strangers. Unusual, maybe, but a part of the charm of eating in Hanoi, nonetheless. Besides these outdoor cafe-style places that you will see all over the Old Quarter, another place to get delicious and cheap food is from the street vendors. They move from place to place, but you won’t have any trouble finding them.

5. Make a pit stop at Bia Hoi corner

Beer drinkers, you’re going to want to pay attention to this one. There is literally a place where beer costs less than a gumball from a machine (wait, do those things even still exist?) and it’s right here at the intersection of Ta Hien and Luong Ngoc Quyen. Known as Bia Hoi Corner, the “pubs” around this intersection in the Old Quarter serve freshly-made local beer, without preservatives, for just 20 cents (5,000 VND) a pop.

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Photo by Greg Willis
But what if you don’t drink beer, should you still stop by? YES! I don’t drink beer either, but loved the atmosphere at Bia Hoi Corner. This is one of the best places to come if you want to meet other travelers, expats, and locals. Everyone sits on little plastic stools on the edges of the streets (that eventually become impassable for cars as the night goes on) and it’s easy to strike up conversations and meet people. I can’t speak for the late night hours, but before 9pm, the environment is kid-friendly and all sorts of non-alcoholic drinks and street food are available in addition to cheap beer.

6. Walk aroung Hoan Kiem lake

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Photo by Jorge Láscar
The Hoan Kiem Lake is also known as the Turtle Lake is located in the center of the city and it is a popular hangout place for locals and tourists. A bridge leads to an island in the middle of the lake where the Ngoc Son temple can be visited. They charge VND 20,000 to visit the temple, but it is worth it. It is a wonderful spot to watch the sunrise or the sunset from. You can opt to bike around or take a romantic stroll with your significant other and enjoy the views of the lake.

7. Visit the Temple of Literature

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Photo by chuoibk
It is a beautiful temple complex in the center of Hanoi that was built to be the center of learning dedicated to Chinese sage and Confucius. In the last 1000 years, many buildings were added and today it is a beautiful park filled with pavilions, shrines and a rich garden. Graduating doctors always visit the temple of literature after their graduation. The temple is open every day except Monday until 4:30 pm.

8. Watch a Water Puppet Theatre Performance

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Photo by kkinjo
There are several theaters in Hanoi, where tourists can watch this uniquely Vietnamese performance. The most famous theater that showcases a water puppet performance is the Thang Long Puppet Theatre that has five shows a day. Here, puppets dance and slide over the liquid stage. The puppets are controlled by a group of puppet masters hiding behind the scenes. Most shows tell the tale of Hoan Kiem Lake and the giant tortoise.

Hanoi is an interesting city that has many diverse sites to visit. It has a long, fascinating history, many tasteful dishes to try, and great cultural performances to see. It’s an ideal destination for solo travelers as well as couples or families. Hanoi is also a great base to do trips to the nearby Halong Bay or Sapa tour.
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