After exploring the ancient city of Angkor Wat and relaxing on the beaches of Sihanoukville in Cambodia, I flew to the city of Hanoi in northern Vietnam.
My first impression of the place was that it seemed like a smaller and calmer version of Bangkok, yet better. The traffic was still crazy, the smells on the street were still sometimes overwhelming (and not always in a good way), and the people still seemed to always have smiles on their faces – just like the Thai.
I immediately loved it.
I found Hanoi to be the perfect combination of a bustling city, exciting nightlife, and a place to just sit and relax for a couple days.
So, if you’re planning to visit the northern Vietnamese city, here are 10 things to do in Hanoi:
1. Hanoi Hòa Lò Prison Museum
A historical landmark in Hanoi, the Hòa Lò prison was first used as a prison by the French colonists for political prisoners. Later, it was used by northern Vietnam for U. S. prisoners of war (POWs) – who dubbed the prison as the “Hanoi Hilton” – during the Vietnam war.
Although the prison was only meant to hold around 450 inmates, records indicate that there were close to 2,000 inmates by the 1930s. And it wasn’t a very secure prison, as prisoners frequently escaped, typically slipping out through the sewer grates.
2. Hoàn Kiem Lake
Located right in the historical center of Hanoi, Hoàn Kiem lake is one of the major scenic spots in the city and a popular place to relax at. And it’s pretty cool, having a little island in the middle with a temple on it.
Hoàn Kiem actually means “Lake of the Returned Sword” or “Lake if the Restored Sword.” Legend is that during the mid-15th century, the emperor was given a sword from heaven, which he used to drive the Chinese from Vietnam. He then returned the sword to a giant turtle that rose up out of the lake, who came to retrieve it, intending to give the sword back to heaven – hence the name of the lake.
Oddly enough, a rare giant turtle actually lived in the lake for decades – or longer – before passing away back in January of 2016. In honor of the turtle, the city covered the turtle in bronze and placed it in the temple that sits upon the lake (not the one in the middle though, a different one – I know, confusing).
3. Ngoc Son Temple (Temple of the Jade Mountain)
Located on Hoàn Kiem lake, this historic temple is only reachable by a bridge and is Hanoi’s most visited temple. It’s dedicated La To (patron saint of physicians), the scholar Van Xuong, and General Tran Hung Dao – who defeated the Mongols in the 13th century. Inside the temple, visitors can also find the rare turtle that was coated in bronze.
Entrance fee is 30k dong and visitors are required to cover their shoulders and knees – although the temple does provide some clothing to cover up with for free.
4. Women’s Museum
The Hanoi Women’s Museum is an modern museum dedicated to the Vietnamese women, showcasing their role in the nation’s development, society, and culture. Throughout the museum, visitors get some insight into the 54 Vietnamese women ethnic groups, as well as the progressive changes in how they lived, family culture, traditions, history, and fashion. And not only does the museum focus on their lives, but how their daily routines changed during the war.
Entrance fee into the Women’s Museum is 15k dong (last time I checked).
5. Weekend Market (Friday, Saturday, & Sunday)
The weekend market in Hanoi in nuts. Full on crazy… but sooo cool to walk through. No joke, the weekend market is about two miles long. Okay, that might be a bit of an exaggeration but it’s definitely at least a mile long. It’s huge. And it has everything; from knock-off (*shitty) electronics like iPhone cords and chargers to clothing stands with dresses and shirts to food stands selling a variety of odd-looking snacks.
6. Egg Coffee
If you aren’t vegan or eat eggs, head down egg coffee lane to the famous Giang Cafe to try some egg coffee. Started in the 1950s, egg coffee is a specialty in Hanoi and can be found throughout the city – but the best place to get it is definitely Giang Cafe. So what exactly is egg coffee? Brewed coffee topped with a mixture of egg yolk and sweetened condensed milk that’s whisked vigorously together to create a frothy, fluffy concoction. It’s more like a dessert than anything. Thick, creamy, and sickly sweet.
7. St. Joseph’s Cathedral
St. Joseph’s Cathedral is something you might find in Europe but here it is, in the middle of Hanoi. It’s a beautiful Roman Catholic cathedral with a neo-gothic style that was built about 120 years ago by the French. After the French army took over the city of Hanoi, the cathedral was constructed and finished in 1886. Although, rumor has it that when the Vietnamese took back the city, they wanted to destroy and tear down the cathedral but some ruler wouldn’t let that happen. So, to put back a little piece of their religion, someone hid a Buddha statue in the cathedral – although no one has found it yet. But who know’s if that’s actually true?! Cool story though.
8. Bach Ma Temple
Dating back to the 11th century, the Bach Ma Temple is said to be the oldest temple in the city of Hanoi. It was built by the Emperor Ly Thai To to honor a white horse that lead him to this site, where he chose to construct the city walls. Located in the heart of the Old Quarter, the temple provides a quiet and peaceful setting compared to the bustling atmosphere and cacophony right outside its walls.
9. National Museum of Vietnamese History
Located in the Hoàn Kiem (Lake) district, the National Museum of Vietnamese History is an architecturally impressive building in itself, constructed and designed by Ernest Hebrard. He was the first to combine Chinese and French design elements in Vietnam.
The museum is split into two different sites, although the best of the two sites is definitely Site One. It covers Vietnam’s prehistory through to the Nguyen dynasty in 1945. Site Two is just right across the road and houses various rooms talking about movements, resistance wars, and more. And your ticket is valid at both sites.
10. Venture Around the Streets
If you have some free time, just walk around the streets of Hanoi and experience the craziness of the place. You’ll likely see some strange things, like carts full of raw meat, maybe a whole pig, odd-looking food, motorbikes nearly hitting one another, and more. Hanoi is a pretty exciting place to explore!
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