As any one of my past tour guests will tell you, my favourite thing to do in any city is to get lost. I love nothing more than simply walking the streets, taking in the different sights and smells and truly absorbing the city that I’m in. I love discovering new pockets of activity and watching people in their local environment, observing how differently we live.
But I also know, that you can’t truly experience a city simply by meandering through its streets. There are always highlights, must-sees, things you’ll kick yourself for missing if you get home and someone asks “did you go to…?”
And so it is with Hanoi. As much as I love wandering through the city streets and exploring the back alleys, there are some things I just wouldn’t miss. Hanoi is a city rich in history, culture and, well, food, so to get the most out of your stay make sure you take in these five experiences.
Take a cyclo tour
The streets are hectic, crammed with motor vehicles, most notably motorcycles. And the best way to experience it is to get amongst it.
A cyclo tour gives you a fully immersive experience of the traffic, better than from a bus or car it gets you at street level so you can feel the intensity of the motorcycles as they whizz past. It will also give you an appreciation for the flow of the traffic, and how absolutely aware of each other Vietnamese drivers are. From the footpaths the street traffic can look like one chaotic mess, but in reality it flows, drivers are very aware of how much space there is and anticipate how pedestrians and drivers are going to manoeuvre.
A cyclo tour is also the perfect way to check out the lane ways and districts of the old city. Each district is divided into areas based on what it sells, there is a fish section, a car parts sections, a party goods section… the list is seemingly endless.
Go to a water puppet show
Don’t think the puppet show here is just for children, the water puppet show in Hanoi is beautifully executed. The craft, in which puppets dance on water, is said to have originated in the northern provinces of Vietnam back in the 11th century.
The puppets are made from wood and lacquered and as well as dancing across the water can often be seen lurking underneath the water. Listen out for the beautiful singing of the Vietnamese musicians and the stunning music from the accompanying orchestra. It’s a delight for the eyes and the ears.
Walk around Hoan Kiem Lake
Cities in Vietnam can feel chaotic, the traffic and sidewalks are generally packed and the constant sound of horns blowing can have you craving a peaceful sanctity. Hoan Kiem Lake provides that sanctity in the middle of Hanoi. Visit in the morning for a spot of tai chi or in the evening for an ice cream, regardless of when you go, it’s sure to provide a moment of tranquillity in your day.
Hoan Kiem Lake roughly translates to Lake of the returned sword. According to legend the emperor was given a magical sword, which helped him defeat the Chinese Ming Dynasty enabling the Golden Turtle God to return to the lake. Apparently there are still a few turtles in the lake, but you’ll have to look hard to find them.
Make sure you walk over Huc Bridge and visit the small island in the centre of the lake, home to the Temple of the Jade Mountain.
It’s worth visiting the Lake during the day but also at night when the lights of the temple and bridge create a truly vibrant display.
Take a street food tour
Let’s face it part of the appeal of Vietnam for many people is the food. The mix of cultures and regional influences has resulted in a cuisine that is among the world’s finest. And Vietnam is definitely one place where it’s the street food that shines. Tour through the back streets of the city to try the local delicacies; don’t miss the banh mi or the local pizza.
You’ll stop at a local pub and sit on “kids’” table and chair settings just like the locals do.
Trust us, this is something you won’t want to miss, it’s always a favourite for our solo travellers.
Hoa Lo Prison
Generally referred to as Hanoi Hilton, Hoa Lo Prison was built by the French between 1886 and 1901 to house political prisoners. It was named Hanoi Hilton by American Prisoners of War held there during the American – or Vietnam – war (depending on where you’re from).
Today the prison is a museum, a memorial to those that were held there and a reminder of days past. It’s not a pleasant experience, but then most museums of this kind aren’t, the feeling of oppression, of crowding and trauma still hangs in the air. But it provides a fascinating look at a small – and relatively recent part of the country’s fascinating history.
Want to experience this for yourself? Check out our next tour to Vietnam here.
Diane Squires is a tour host with Two’s a Crowd