Some people say that after visiting Hanoi once, they never need to go back. I totally disagree. I love visiting Vietnam’s capitol. Even though there’s traffic and a ton of motor bikes, it is a respite from the hustle and bustle of Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City). You can cross the street in Hanoi with slightly less caution than you would in Saigon!
Hanoi is more conservative, traditional, and graceful than Saigon. I was just there last week on a press trip, courtesy of Sofitel Hotel and Cathay Pacific. After posting my initial impressions and photos, I wanted to offer a few solid tips for those of you who’d like to visit Hanoi.
What to See in Hanoi?
Lots. If you’re into Vietnamese culture and traditions, head to the Temple of Literature, stroll around Hoan Kiem Lake, get lost in the maze of the Old Quarter (get a taxi back to your hotel!). Go early in the day when things are less crowded. Hanoi sites are small, well maintained, and doable in a couple of leisurely days. The water puppet show is a must-see once in your lifetime. It’s amazing how they move the puppets underwater and you’ll hear classic Vietnamese music too.
Saigon’s sites, with exception to the Reunification Palace, are less charming. Hanoi is the seat of Vietnam’s government and they make sure that things look good. It’s national pride.
Find out when you can visit the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum. It’s closed many days and the hours are limited. However, to stand in line with school kids and country people wearing their best outfits is to understand Ho Chi Minh’s place in modern Vietnam. Don’t wear sleeveless shirts and leave your camera behind. The first signals disrespect and the second is a no-no. Once inside, you’ll see him in everlasting peace as you steadily march around the body. There are only 4 embalmed leaders in the world and Ho Chi Minh is one of them. (Apparently his real body is rarely shown but I like to take part in the pomp and circumstance any way.)
Hanoi is slow paced compared to Saigon. I love to sit back and watch the parade of Hanoians and visitors. People from all over Vietnam converge on Hanoi to visit the historic sites.
Last week, there was a group of women decked out in their finest ao dais. They were properly coiffed and wearing high heels. They fanned themselves in the heat, all the while being led by a tour guide through the Presidential palace grounds. I nearly wilted just watching them bear the 40C/105F temperature so well.
What to Eat in Hanoi?
Compared to Saigon, everything is served in smaller portions in Hanoi. That means you can eat even more food! One morning, I had a bowl of pho on the street then a tiny bowl at the Metropole Hotel’s breakfast buffet!
If you’re staying around Hoan Kiem lake, walk over to Hang Be market to survey Hanoi fare. It’s not the best but is a good primer. I started off my first morning with banh cuon steamed rice rolls. If you want those funky handmade knives I spoke about a few weeks ago, they are sold at the Hang Be market.
Cha Ca La Vong restaurant on Cha Ca street in the Old Quarter is famous for its rendition of the turmeric catfish dish. That’s all they serve. Sit down and order it. They’ll being a brazier and skillet of fish. You put the dill and scallion into the skillet. Then assemble little bowls of fish, mint leaves, noodles, sauce (get the shrimp (mam tom) one for authenticity) and peanuts. I missed not having the toasted banh da rice crackers but they don’t offer it with their version. Don't forget the beer, whether you're at Cha Ca La Vong or eating at home!
There are many other Hanoi specialty foods, including: green papaya salad with beef jerky, bun cha grilled pork and rice noodles (assemble all the stuff in a bowl and eat), and bun thang rice noodle soup (a surf-and-turf combination). (See Into the Vietnamese Kitchen for my family recipes of these specialties.)
Where to Stay in Hanoi
On my first trip in 2003, I stayed at the Hilton Opera hotel. That is not the “Hanoi Hilton” where American soldiers were kept. It remains a wonderful hotel.
This time, I was a guest at the Metropole, a historic and lovely establishment. The Metropole recently expanded so you can pick from the chic, new Opera Wing or the historic wing with its well-worn wood floors. You can’t lose with any of the rooms.
The service is a terrific hybrid blend of Vietnam and France. If your Vietnamese language skills are rusty(!), the Metropole’s staff speaks English well. Note the Vietnamese clientele at the hotel restaurants; most of them are locals. There are many other options in Hanoi too so book as your pocketbook allows!
Wherever you stay, ask the staff for recommendations on where to eat. Tell them you're interested in good food, not just the stuff printed in travel books!
I flew Dragon Air, the baby version of Cathay Pacific. The Hanoi airport has vastly improved over the years – it’s cleaner and much more modern — but it’s got terrible air flow. The Dragon Airlines staff joked that they are used to working in a sauna. It’s an hour drive to Hanoi central so plan accordingly.
Got some tips or favorite places to visit in Hanoi? Don't keep them to yourself!
- Travel tips to Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City)
- Tips for getting a Vietnam travel visa
- How to eat safely and stay healthy while traveling in
- Food souvenirs worth bringing back from Vietnam
Preview travel and eating in Vietnam through these Vietnam travel series
by these culinary experts: