Hanoi, like much of Vietnam, is a city that fires up the imagination. Narrow streets, hordes of motorbikes, and there’s always a plastic stool somewhere to grab a seat and have a bite.
It’s beautiful. But it can also be cacophonous to the uninitiated. And unless we’re born immersed in the synchronized chaos of Hanoi, we all enter the Vietnamese capital uninitiated. This includes Vietnamese travelers and transplants as well, as our street food guide later confirmed.
After a few days, I felt I got my Hanoian equivalent of sea legs and was able to confidently strut about the city. So in this guide, I’ll share some of the key details about travel in Hanoi that ought to cover you for three days. How to get there, how to travel around the city, the best time of year to visit, and some of the things to do in Hanoi.
Where is Hanoi?
Hanoi sits inland in northern Vietnam. You’re not too far from the Chinese border, all things considered, and you’re just a couple of hours’ drive to popular coastal destinations, like Hạ Long on the South China Sea.
Zooming out a bit further (as I did when planning the trip) you’re just an hour-long flight from Luang Prabang, Laos and you could easily extend your trip to the rest of Vietnam’s Southeast Asian neighbors (Cambodia and Thailand).
How to get to Hanoi?
The best way to get to Hanoi is to fly unless you’re already traveling around Vietnam. There is a train that traces along the spine of the country, starting in Ho Chi Minh City (or Saigon, if you prefer).
Best time of year to visit Hanoi
Autumn (September to November) and Spring (March through April) are generally considered the best seasons to visit Hanoi. You get milder temperatures and the rain is manageable.
I traveled in late February, just on the edge of March. The temperatures were pleasant enough for long days outside, walking around the city, and we never had to worry about getting stuck in any kind of torrential downpour.
Things to do in Hanoi
You can find travel guides stuffed to the gills, laying out all of the exciting things to do in Hanoi. I won’t blab about anything I didn’t experience for myself. I’ll share what I’d recommend and let you do with that what you will.
Vietnamese Food Tour in the Old Quarter
We spent our first afternoon and evening in Hanoi aimlessly wandering around Hoan Kiem Lake Park just outside of the old quarter. Luckily, we were there on the weekend when apparently they blocked off the streets to traffic. So it was a rather pleasant introduction to Hanoi, almost as if we had a safe corner to retreat to as we got used to the traffic.
On our second day, we headed out to the Old Quarter for a street food tour with a local guide from a small village further to the north. You can watch a breakdown of the tour in the video below.
Throughout the tour, we made stops for all kinds of Vietnamese treats. Bánh cuốn (Vietnamese rice roll), bánh rán (fried rice ball), bun cha (traditionally grilled pork and noodles but I got a veggie alternative), and spicy papaya salad. Then there was a short break for Vietnamese egg coffee before moving along for some coconut ice cream, pho (noodle soup), and banh mi.
Hoan Kiem Lake Park
This is the aforementioned park I mentioned earlier that closes off to traffic on the weekend. I really would recommend staying around here and doing so on the weekend. It was such a lovely respite from the traffic to just walk (or even go for a short run) around the lake. There’s also Ngoc Son Temple you can visit on the northern end of the lake.
Tran Quoc Pagoda
We went on a long jaunt up to the 6th Century temple. It gets a little crowded with tourists, but it was manageable in February. Do take note of the opening times. As of this writing, it opens every day at 7:30 a.m. and closes fo two hours at 11:30 a.m. before re-opening until 5:30 p.m. Of course we arrived during the afternoon break. Fortunately, we found some of the best pho we had just around the corner at Com Pho Chay Tu Bi –– a vegan restaurant.
Hoa Lo Prison Relic
Americans might better know this place by its sardonic nickname, the Hanoi Hilton. This prison was built by the colonial French rulers to terrorize the Vietnamese before the Vietnamese took control and eventually housed it to house American POWs.
It honestly did not even cross my mind to visit until we were actually in Hanoi and my wife mentioned it. I’m glad we went. The propaganda is strong in this place and it’s difficult to make out facts from embellishment. (You get the sense that the Americans weren’t even really prisoners by the way it describes their treatment.) But that’s also part of travel, coming face-to-face with things you aren’t so sure about and making up your own mind.
Where to eat in Hanoi
I beg you: Do not read any recommendations of where to eat in Hanoi and follow that list exclusively. Take note, sure, but allow for plenty of spontaneity in your eating. Walk around, often, and let your nose pull you into the countless restaurants you’ll find spread across the city.
Now, in case you’re curious, here are some that I particularly enjoyed.
Bún chả Hương Liên (aka the Boudrain – Obama Summit)
Though there are as many restaurants and vendors in Hanoi as there are stars in the sky, many tourists make a point of coming to this bun cha spot solely because it’s where Anthony Bourdain and President Obama sat down for a meal.
I’ll admit, I rolled my eyes when my wife first suggested going. But in the end, I’m glad we made it the last thing we did in Hanoi (besides catching the train).
Reviews will have you believe it’s a tourist trap. It was busy when we arrived in the early afternoon, but we were the only obvious tourists (camera around my shoulder) in sight. We squeezed into a seat between two groups of diners. One politely mocked Melanie when she struggled with the chopsticks. It was, I think, rather wholesome.
The meal was great, the beer cold, and I had no complaints. It also took us to a part of town we hadn’t been to yet.
That said, just as we were leaving, a bus pulled up and a stream of (I’m guessing… Norwegian?) tourists came into the restaurant and went straight upstairs where Obama and Bourdain sat. So maybe we just got lucky with the timing. Decide for yourselves! You’re big kids.
MẸT Vietnamese restaurant & Vegetarian Food
Do I remember what I had here? No. That’s because we ate lots of small plates and I was buzzing too much from the excitement in Hanoi to be a good writer and note down every single dish. I do remember, though, that there are a few of these in Hanoi. So every time we saw one, we’d happily point to one another, “Look! There it is again.” (Then again, that was before we knew there was more than one, so it was more out of confusion because it wasn’t where we remembered it being.)
Also, it’s a vegetarian restaurant. And probably what I hate most about being a vegetarian is having to ask questions. I don’t know why, but it makes me feel like a putz. So if I can go in someplace and just be confident it’s vegetarian (or that they gave it their best shot), my conscience is happy.
Katze Vegan & Vegetarian
This place was perhaps the most memorable restaurant for us in Hanoi. We walked up to the front, saw a couple of Vietnamese eaters sitting inside on some plastic stools. I was excited. But the host had one look at us and pointed us down the alley where we followed a sign up a narrow stairway and into, presumably, the second floor of the restaurant. It was almost exclusively white people.
So yeah, we got profiled a bit. And you might think, “I don’t want to eat someplace where it’s only tourists.” And I get that. But this is a Vietnamese family-run spot, not a Hard Rock Café. We ate phenomenally well and the host shares a laminated printout of his story (from poverty to meeting President Bill Clinton and starting his restaurant) before he allows you to pay for the meal. Highly recommend.
Banh Mi 25
This is one of those spots you’ll read about on the internet, as we did, prior to your trip. I mean, I’m writing about it, no? I’m mainly writing about it because I want to let you know that there’s a reason folks mention it. It was a damn good banh mi, better than the one we had on the food tour (which was still good!). The bready was crispy but not so much that I felt like I’d chip a tooth.
But because it is written about, you will wait in line. Nothing too painful, and that’s coming from someone with a comically low tolerance for lines. But a line nonetheless.
Com Pho Chay Tu Bi
As mentioned above, we came across this spot while waiting for Tran Quoc Pagoda to open back up. It’s way outside of the old quarter, so far less foot traffic. It felt like we were getting something that not every tourist gets (unless, like me, you search for “vegetarian restaurants” in Google Maps).
And like I said before, this was some of the best pho (if not the best) that we had on the trip. Go to Tran Quoc Pagoda before it closes for the afternoon, then stop here for lunch. It makes all the sense in the world.
Pasteur Street Craft Beer – Hoan Kiem Taproom & Restaurant
No, this craft beer restaurant is not particularly Vietnamese. And we didn’t even eat here. But I don’t know, part of me just enjoys seeing a little bit of what’s popular where I’m from in a place where I’d least expect it. The beer is good and the rooftop is a nice spot to have a drink in fresh air.
Where to stay in Hanoi
I’m including this section, not because I’m an expert on Hanoi lodging, but because I can happily recommend where we stayed: The Scent Premium Hotel.
Look, I know it sounds like the name of a questionable spa. Anything calling itself “premium” is suspicious in my eyes. But the staff couldn’t have been more welcoming, friendly, and helpful. Plus, it’s just down the street from the aforementioned Hoan Kiem Lake Park. It’s a comparatively quiet street with a handful of restaurants and only the occasional passing motorbike. I’m glad we started our trip with them.
Want more Vietnam travel tips? Check out my tips on things to do in Ninh Binh.