Hanoi, located in northern Vietnam, is the country’s capital and second largest city. It is an interesting mix of both Eastern and Western influences. Vietnam was at one time invaded by China, France and the United States. Each of these countries left their mark on architecture, as well as everyday life.
Between the crowded sidewalks, blaring horns and motorbikes zipping past, Hanoi can be somewhat overwhelming for the first time visitor. However, it is actually quite easy to explore on foot, after you get the hang of crossing the street. These are my picks for the top things to see and do in Hanoi:
Attend a Water Puppet Show
Water puppetry is an ancient Asian tradition that dates back to the 11th century. The puppets are made of wood and the show is performed in a small pool of water. The puppeteers, who are hidden behind a screen, use bamboo rods to control the puppets and make them appear to be moving across the water. The show is choreographed to music provided by a traditional Vietnamese orchestra and operatic songs tell a story that is acted out by the puppets.
The best place to go for a water puppet show in Hanoi is the world famous, Thang Long Theatre. Shows do sell out, so I recommend purchasing tickets in advance. Many of the hotels in the area can arrange tickets for you or you can visit the box office the day before or morning of the show. The show may seem quite touristic, but is actually quite special and I really enjoyed it.
Drink Egg Coffee
Egg coffee is exactly what it sounds like- coffee with an egg in it. Café Giang is the home of the original egg coffee. Nguyen Giang founded the cafe in 1946 and invented egg coffee during a time when fresh milk was hard to come by. Coffee was being served with condensed milk (and still is throughout Vietnam) and Nguyen decided he would substitute a whisked egg yolk. After getting the consistency right and the invention of the blender, egg coffee became extremely popular in the 80s. The drink actually doesn’t taste eggy. It’s frothy, sweet and really tasty.
Today, Cafe Giang remains popular and always seems to be busy. There are even numerous cafes in the area serving their own version of egg coffee, none quite as good as Cafe Giang though. Cafe Giang can be somewhat difficult to find for first time visitors. I walked right by it and had to double back. It’s hidden in what looks like an alley way and located up a flight of stairs. Don’t let the copy-cat cafe on the same block fool you either.
See the Hanoi Opera House
The Hanoi Opera House took 10 years to build and was completed in 1911. It was built by two French architects, who embraced a French Neo-classical design. The building eventually went into a state of decline before millions were spent on its restoration in 1995. The outside is painted a pastel yellow with shuttered windows and iron balconies. The interior has red carpets, crystal chandeliers, and marble staircases. Everything about the building is elegant.
The building is magnificent and it’s worth taking a walk to the area. If you would like to go inside, a ticket to one of its shows is required. Operas, symphonies and ballets are regularly performed. A calendar of performances can be found here.
People Watch at Hoan Kiem Lake
Hoan Kiem Lake can be found in the middle of historic Hanoi. It serves as a focal point and gives the otherwise busy city a sense of calm. It is also a social place where the locals gather and is an amazing spot to relax or hang out with friends. On the weekends, the surrounding streets are closed to traffic for the night market.
The lake surrounds Ngoc Son Temple, a pagoda that sits on a tiny island. It’s connected to land by a beautiful bridge, which is accessed by a gate with Chinese lettering on each side, meaning happiness and prosperity. I definitely recommend spending some time here and exploring the area.
Eat at Bun Cha Huong Lien
Being a huge Anthony Bourdain fan, I had to try Bun Cha Huong Lien, a tiny restaurant that he made famous when he shared a meal and beers with President Obama. The small, family run restaurant is is about a fifteen minute walk from the southern end of the lake and has a small, but delicious menu.
Bun Cha is a pork and noodle dish, but the restaurant does have a few other options. Being pescatarian, I tried their fried crab rolls, which were really good.
Visit Hoa La Prison
Hoa La Prison was originally used by French colonists to house and torture political prisons and later during the Vietnam war. It was referred to and became known as the “Hanoi Hilton” by U.S. prisoners of war. John McCain was one of these many prisoners captured and kept here.
The prison was demolished in the 90s, but part of it remains as a museum. The thought of what took place there is deeply saddening, but an important part of history. I’m glad I was able to learn more about it and the effect the War had on the world.
Enjoy the City from a Rooftop
If you’re looking for a place to escape the chaos of Hanoi’s busy streets, then I suggest a visit to a rooftop. One option is Cafe Phố Cổ, or the Old Town Garden Cafe. It is a hidden cafe that is accessed through the back of an art shop, located just north of the lake on Hang Gai street. I was able to find it fairly easily with the use of google maps.
They offer pastries, coffee, smoothies and one of the best views. Chirping birds and a rooster greet you upon entering and the staff will direct you to the way of the stairs, which you’ll climb for a few flights before reaching the top. It’s a great place to take a mid-day break.
If you are looking for an extremely affordable place to stay in Hanoi, I suggest the Hanoi Babylon Garden Hotel & Spa. It’s a a very simple, no frills hotel, but is clean and the location can not be beat. It’s located in the Old Quarter and is just blocks away from the lake. The staff is also incredibly helpful and friendly.