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First Time in Hanoi – What to Do & Where to Go in Vietnam’s Capital

Last update: Aug 05, 2019

If this is your first time in Hanoi, planning a complete trip can be challenging. The capital of Vietnam is like any other Southeast Asian metropolis which is busy, chaotic and teeming with character. As the antique capital of Vietnam, Hanoi is an important part throughout the history of Vietnam. There is much to love and much to see about Hanoi. It fills with both ancient and modern features enthralling people to come and stay. From vibrant culture, rich cuisine to breathtaking nature, there is seemingly nothing this city does not have.

This entry hopefully will help you get the most overview about Hanoi history, culture, attractions and activities, so you can unravel the secrets of this city from all of its hidden corners and even beyond.

Hanoi General Info

Location: Hanoi is situated in northern region of the S-shaped Southeast Asian country – Vietnam.

Weather: The city has a typical climate of northern Vietnam, featuring with 4 distinct seasons: summer (from May to August), fall (from September to October), winter (from November to January), and spring (from February to April). Covered an area of 3,328.9 km2, Hanoi is the harborage of about 8 millions of populations.

Best time to visit: The climate in Hanoi is characterized by a humid tropical monsoon climate, with a hot summer accompanied with lots of rain and cold winter with little rain. From May to September, the average temperature is about 29.20C and it is about 15.20C from November to March. It can be said that the best time to travel Hanoi is the fall, from August to October. At this time, Hanoi does not have much rain, and the sky is clear while the sun is not too strong. In case you cannot visit Hanoi in the fall, consider traveling to this city from February to April.

Hanoi History

Hanoi was proclaimed as the capital of Vietnam in 1945. It is situated in northern Vietnam on the bank of the Red River. Throughout the history, Hanoi has many names, including Dong Kinh (Eastern Capital) and Thang Long. It has undergone a number of fierce wars against countries like China, Japan, France and America.  For a long time, Vietnam formed part of French colony of Indochina, in addition to Laos and Cambodia. The French left behind buildings with curled eaves and tile roofs, an opera house, villas with green and yellow stucco facades, and pleasant verandas.

For many years after the war, Hanoi maintained a reputation as an austere city, which was unwelcoming to visitors since life was hard for local residents because the whole country rebuilt itself. The city celebrated its 1,000th anniversary in early October 2010 by holding a series of events though it is said to be older than that. Vestiges of Chinese as well as French colonial influence could still be seen throughout this city. Nowadays, the elegance of old colonial buildings along with the mish-mash of narrow streets in Hanoi’s Old Quarter makes the city’s beauty.

Hanoi’s Culture

First Time In Hanoi - Hanoi Culture

The cultural scene on Tet holiday in Hanoi

Hanoi is home to a multi-cultural community made up of Chinese, French, and Russian influences. Not only is Hanoi the center of culture and politics of Vietnam, but it is also a communications center. It was supposed to be a stopover, which is also a base for other points of interest in the North of Vietnam like Sapa, Halong Bay, and Ninh Binh province.

Often touted as the city of motorbikes and steamy Pho, Hanoi has surprises tucked down every alleyway. When it comes to Hanoi’s culture, there are many things to talk about. The initial famous cultural thing of Hanoi is a series of traditional handicraft villages, like Hang Bac silver-making street, Bat Trang ceramic and pottery village, Dong Ho pictures, Yen Phu incense, Ngoc Ha Flower villages, etc. They have all existed for centures, and are still famous for natural-handmade and originated products. 

Another great thing about Hanoi’s culture is that Hanoians are very excellent at making and tasting food. Specialties of Hanoi, like Banh Cuon (rice roll steamed), Pho (noodle with beef or chicken), Cha Ca La Vong (La Vong grilled fish), Nem (spring roll) to name a few. They are amongst the most attractive things for expats to come and feel such a “special Hanoi through Hanoi food”.

If food was not enough to inspire you to visit Hanoi, the capital of Vietnam is also famous for different kinds of arts. The renowned culture of Hanoi lies in Folk performances, which are Cheo, Tuong, Water Puppet, and A Dao (a traditional type of music performances), etc.

What to Do & Where to Go In Hanoi

Rather different than hyperactive, bustling Ho Chi Minh City, Hanoi has been a slightly careworn, quite city with a lot of parks and palm trees, colonial buildings, pagodas and temples, oddly angled streets, and lakes. In spite of going through destruction, natural calamities, and wars, Hanoi still preserves many valuable ancient architectural works, including more than 600 pagodas and temples and the famous Old Quarter. With our guide on first time in Hanoi, you can easily navigate through your days in this unique city and get the most out of your time. Let’s check out!

1. Stroll Down The Old Quarter

Hanoi is interesting and full of characters, though it might be old and dilapidated in parts. Used to be a commercial center, the Old Quarter nowadays is the most touristy district of Hanoi and considered a street photographer’s paradise since there is numberless supply of interesting subjects to take pictures. It is plentiful in French colonial architecture and most buildings are dilapidated and old but riddled with character.

On your trip to Hanoi, it is advised to spend at least a day to two on exploring Hanoi Old Quarter. There are 36 streets that are home to French colonial architecture and a rich history, cultural heritage showcasing timeless beauty of this ancient city. Here, you can find travelers as well as backpackers of different races and colors from corners of the world. It is a place worth visiting whenever you visit Hanoi since it brings to life what many people imagine Hanoi to be. Regardless of your business upon visiting Hanoi, the Old Quarter is something that you don’t want to miss.

Hoan Kiem Lake

Hoan Kiem Lake

2. Visit The Iconic Hoan Kiem Lake

Hoan Kiem Lake, also known as Guom Lake (Sword Lake), is the heart of Hanoi. Located at the center of Hanoi Old Quarter, this iconic spot is not too big, but it is where the Golden Turtle God appeared and also home to a unique specie of large softshell turtles, in accordance with the legend.

The lake is peaceful and quiet, which is ideal for both tourists and locals who want to get away from the hustle and bustle pace of Hanoi city. Hoan Kiem Lake surrounds Ngoc Son temple – a pagoda situating on a small Jade island, in the center of the lake. This island is accessible by scarlet-painted wooden The Huc Bridge with classical Vietnamese design.

Simply put, Hoan Kiem Lake and Ngoc Son Temple are probably the most famous sites in Hanoi for tourists to rest and enjoy the view, sit back and watch locals’ life.

3. Temple Of Literature

This is one of highlights of every trip to Hanoi as it is probably the most picturesque tourist site. Dating from the 11th century, Temple Of Literature was built to serve as the first national university of Vietnam. Nestled in the west of the Old Quarter, it is a memorial to literature and education in Vietnam, not to mention a great sample of traditional Vietnamese architecture.

Visiting the temple, you can see many big stoned turtled and stone carvings that were engraved with graduates’ names. They were first university students in Vietnam.

First Time In Hanoi - Watch A Water Puppet Show

Water Puppet Show

4. Watch A Water Puppet Show

During your trip in Hanoi, what can be greater than getting to know more about Hanoi’s culture by enjoying an hour-long cultural show at Thang Long Water Puppet Theater? Actually, this tradition is unique to Vietnam, but has recently found fame on worldwide stages. Performances are carried out by a Vietnamese orchestra who plays traditional music that uses wooden bells, drums, bamboo flutes, cymbals, and horns.

Also, there are authentic Vietnamese operatic songs that tell stories acted out by puppets in the show. Today, the performances of shows include short sketches instead of long stories like in the past, taking the audiences to go on a journey of learning about agricultural harvests, ancient village life, and dances of mythical creatures. Performances of water puppet will help you partly understand Vietnamese history and culture. This kind of art is particularly attractive to kids since they will have a chance to watch lively dolls on water with traditional music background.

5. Enjoy Bia Hoi Corner

After a long day of walking on Hanoi streets, there is no better way to end your day at one of the most refreshing and beloved tourist attractions of Hanoi – Bia Hoi Corner. This small network of alleyways is located at the corner of Luong Ngoc Quyen and Ta Hien streets in the Old Quarter and packed with street food stalls and cafes.

This junction is busy at most time of the day but at night it becomes an electric mix of locals and foreigners descending on makeshift outdoor bars in the Old Quarter to sit on small plastic stools, drink beers by the road’s sides and watch the city rush by. This corner of Hanoi is super lively, fun and perfect for drinking beer on a budget and experiencing Hanoi nightlife. 

First Time In Hanoi - Hanoi Cuisine

Hanoi Cuisine

6. Taste Hanoi Cuisine

Cuisine is among things drawing people visiting Hanoi. Indeed, there is nowhere else in Vietnam but Hanoi that cuisine becomes the topic of all time for famous journalists and writers. The most special characteristics of Hanoi cuisine culture are sophistication and deliciousness.

Exploring local specialties in the thousand year of culture land is reckoned an indispensible part of your first time in Hanoi. Some typical foods of Hanoi that you should not miss are Pho (Noodle with Chicken or Beef), Bun Cha (Grilled Pork and Noodle), Banh Cuon (Rolled Cake), Bun Thang (Rice Vermicelli with Chicken, Pork, and Egg), Cha Ca La Vong (Turmeric Fish with Dill), etc. Foodies can easily try out these dishes at various restaurants and vendor food stalls.  A trip to Hanoi will not complete without tasting those traditional delicacies.

7. Make Time For A Museum Visit

Hanoi has a lot of museums scattered around the city. Those visitors with first time in Hanoi who are into museums should check out Hoa Lo prison, Fine Arts Museum, and Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum. Up to now the capital of Vietnam still preserves marks of its history with strong intruders like French or Americans and one of the most impressive is Hoa Lo Prison, also called as Hanoi Hilton. This notorious prison has housed lots of tough and torture times. Visiting here will help you have an insight of how Vietnam has changed throughout decades.

8. Venture To The Snake Village

Hanoi has so much to offer travelers. For people loving adventure out there, there is a village located about 7 miles northeast of Hanoi named Le Mat, which particularize in selling snake. A large number of restaurants around the town serve snake at their table. Tourists can walk inside the village and choose the snake you want out of the cage and locals will kill it at the table prior to cooking it in the kitchen. The snake is often served in a dozen of gourmet-style dishes such as fried, soup and fry.

Hanoi Night Market

Hanoi Night Market

9. Shop At Hanoi Night Market

As much fun as the Beer Corner (Bia Hoi Corner), Hanoi night market is held every Friday, Saturday, and Sunday and opens from 7 p.m. to 11 p.m. It is a busy, bustling gathering of local food vendors and roadside stalls which attract huge crowds of both Vietnamese locals and tourists.

It runs through the Old Quarter district and is decorated with lights along pedestrian streets and historical sites, making this a popular spot for traveling photographers. The overall environment is lively. However, upon shopping at Hanoi night market, don’t forget to bargain with a good start of about 75% of the opening price.

In addition to shopping, you can enjoy some cultural performances at Hanoi Weekend Night Market, where locals wear Vietnamese traditional costumes and play traditional Vietnamese music and classical tunes.

A thing to note is since the market is designated as a pedestrian zone, you should not be surprised if a motorbike passes you when you go down the street.

10. Soak Up Culture In Hanoi Opera House

Hanoi Opera House is the majestic beige yellow and white rectangular establishment which was built in 1911 by the ruling French. It is the biggest theatre in Vietnam with the interior being more magnificent than the exterior. Many people argue that it is aesthetically even more appealing than the Paris Opera House.

Actors, musicians, and dancers play to an auditorium of 600-strong audience which delivers powerful classical and operatic performances, making it the first choice for international conferences and meetings.

In addition to the recommended top things to do in Hanoi above, if you trip in Hanoi is long enough, join in some other interesting activities like attending a cooking class, taking part a food trip around Hanoi, and visiting other tourist spots like Bat Trang pottery village, Thang Long Royal Citadel, Hanoi West Lake, Vietnam Museum Of Ethnology, etc.

Hanoi Travel Tips

1. Prepare a Pocket Wi-Fi Device

Having Wi-Fi connection is a must nowadays. It is even more important for travelers since they need it to do research, learn how to say the local language, and book rides through Grab. Thus, a tip for travelers with first time in Vietnam is to rent a pocket Wi-Fi device to support your trip in Vietnam the best way.

2. Check For Any Possible Discount Tickets

There are a lot of tour operators providing tours in Hanoi. They offer a wide range of tour options with best prices. Thus, do a research beforehand so you can save money for your trip.

3. Get Travel Insurance

Travel insurance is essential for travelers who are going to do physical activities during their journeys. However, if all you are going to do is shopping and eating for several days, then you may not need it as much.

4. Let Motorbikes Avoid You

To the outsider, Hanoi may look like a blur of motorbikes. Motorbike traffic in Hanoi is insane like a never-ending flow flying down the streets. If you are tentative, you will not be able to cross the street.

A tip for expats is to let motorbikes avoid you. Walk steadily and slowly, cross with confidence, and avoid doing anything unexpected. This surely works. Just try it for the first time in Hanoi!

5. Pay Only in VND

You may read that hotels, shops, restaurants, etc. in Vietnam also accept payment in USD, but don’t do it. You had better pay only in VND to avoid losing money on unfavorable rates. Look for jewelry/gold shops and banks to exchange currency in Hanoi.

6. Don’t Be Confused By The Currency

For travelers with first time in Vietnam, Vietnamese currency could be highly confusing. Not to mention the multiple zeros on banknotes, some denominations look rather similar to each other. So, be mindful to clarify between VND 100,000 and VND 10,000, and between VND 500,000 and VND 20,000.

There you have grasped a general guide on first time in Hanoi. Wish you have a memorable trip in the capital of Vietnam.

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