Hanoi is a city absolutely buzzing with energy. The sheer level of apparent chaos can be overwhelming for the uninitiated but it quickly becomes clear there is an order to the mayhem. There will almost certainly be an element of sightseeing to your visit – the Temple of Literature and Ho Chi Minh’s Mausoleum are unmissable – but it will be the Old Quarter at dusk, the taste of streetside pho and the thrill of crossing the road for the first time that live in your memory. This is a place to be experienced rather than seen, and this list will help you accomplish just that.
1. Cross the street
You can do all the bungee jumps and skydives in the world but you won’t know true adrenaline until you’ve crossed a street in central Hanoi. To do so will require you to temporarily abandon sanity and common sense. Zebra crossings exist, but they are ignored so completely their presence is obviously some sort of inside joke. The only way to get from one side to the other is to walk right into the swarming mass of oncoming motorbikes and cars.
The first two or three times will seem like you are beckoning certain death but gradually the system begins to make sense, and you will start relishing the buzz your newfound recklessness provides. The trick is to not hesitate while crossing; the riders and drivers are expecting you to walk out, and will calculate their direction and speed on the basis of you maintaining your pace.
2. Get lost in the Old Quarter
The historical centre of Hanoi – known locally as the Old Quarter – is one of the most charming and atmospheric places in South East Asia. It is made up of a dense jumble of well-preserved French colonial buildings, interwoven with a labyrinth of narrow streets and alleys, all sprawling out from the northern shore of Hoan Kiem Lake in the centre of the city. There are few better places in the world to get lost, so put the map away and wander randomly.
This is by far the best area in the city for shopping, and conveniently the shops are bunched together by theme. So, all the shops selling lacquerware will be next to each other, as will the ones selling silk, art, shoes, tools, embroidery, technology, crafts, wine, jewellery and other goods. At night, the atmosphere becomes even more beguiling, as lanterns cast a soft glow across the streets, and restaurants and bars spill out onto the pavement.
3. Visit the Temple of Literature
A serene respite from the urban chaos outside its stone walls, the Temple of Literature is almost as old as Hanoi itself. Established in 1070, it soon became the home of Vietnam’s first university, which educated continuous generations of the upper classes for more than 700 years. Although now mostly frequented by tourists, Vietnamese students still congregate there to celebrate their graduations.
The temple is laid out in a succession of courtyards – five in total – containing gardens, elaborate wells and beautiful buildings, gates and arches. One of the most interesting features is the series of 82 blue stone turtles between the third and fourth courtyards, erected to commemorate various royal figures (and their tutors) who successfully passed examinations at the university; there are 1307 names in total.
4. Take a cyclo ride
For a curious combination of pleasant and alarming, spend half an hour being trundled around the roads of the Old Quarter on a cyclo. The first thing you will realise is that it would be quicker to walk. The second thing you realise is that guardian angels must be real, for there is no other plausible explanation for your surviving every intersection.
Still, it’s an activity well worth your time, if nothing else to help you get your bearings. The riders are usually very friendly and will point out things of interest along the way.
5. Eat pho and drink bia hoi on tiny plastic furniture
Pho is Vietnam’s national dish, a ludicrously tasty noodle broth made with fresh herbs, a smidgen of chilli and either chicken or beef. Bia hoi – ‘local beer’ – is a fresh, draft lager, which typically retails at about 5,000 dong (£0.15).That’s not a typo, it really is that cheap.
Both are best consumed at local restaurants, which are characterised by small plastic tables and chairs spilling onto the pavement, and, more tellingly, an overwhelmingly Vietnamese clientele.
6. Walk round Hoan Kiem Lake
This large and somewhat unexpected lake in the heart of Hanoi’s densely built-up historical district provides an oasis of tranquillity from the franticness of the surrounding streets. An islet in the centre of the lake holds Turtle Tower, a tiny, inaccessible temple linked to local legends. Jade Island, in the northern part of the lake, can be accessed via the crimson Huc Bridge. Here, you will find the Temple of the Jade Mountain, built in the 18th century to commemorate a military leader who lived 500 years before.
The best time to visit the lake is in the early morning, when locals turn out in their droves to practise t’ai chi, a martial art revered for its health benefits.
7. Go on a moto taxi
Sure, you could take a normal taxi, with a normal meter, but where’s the fun in that? Do as the Vietnamese do and hop on the back of a scooter. There are riders on practically every corner willing to take you, and at all times of the day and night. Locally this mode of transport is known, rather sweetly, as xe om, which means ‘motorbike hug’.
Make sure you negotiate a fare in advance – don’t be afraid to haggle – but know that you’ll probably end up paying a bit more than a standard taxi would cost. A five mile journey shouldn’t cost more than 100,000 dong (about £3). It’s also a very good idea to have a card with your hotel’s address written on it, or a photo of your hotel, or even a picture of the sign of the street on which it sits. This can save you a lot of precious time when trying to get back to your bed at 2AM.
8. See the water puppets
Seeing a show at the Thang Long Water Puppet Theatre is one of the classic highlights of Hanoi, an absolute must-do. The theatre is just across the road that wraps around the north shore of Lake Hoan Kiem, on the edge of the Old Quarter. The show lasts 45 minutes and runs several times throughout the day, though it’s so popular you may have to book a day or two in advance.
True to name, the puppets splash around on their stage – a square pool of waist-deep water – rather than dangle above it. The puppeteers are hidden behind a screen, and manoeuvre their characters using bamboo rods. The scenes are based on Vietnamese legends and are accompanied by live folk musicians and singers. The whole thing is remarkably impressive and utterly charming. Once the show is over, look out for a counter selling lacquerware replicas of the puppets from the show – they make great souvenirs and the prices are very reasonable.
9. Eat in Old Hanoi restaurant
Vietnam has some of the best cuisine in the world, and if you want to sample the absolute pinnacle of it at affordable prices, head to this little gem of a restaurant. Nestled away in an old colonial building down a side street (Ton That Thiep) in the Old Quarter, Old Hanoi is run by one of the best chefs in the country: his English moniker is Mr Rice and Gordon Ramsey is one of his good chums.
There is a set menu with seven or eight courses, including the restaurant’s speciality: BBQ ribs, Vietnamese style. Other highlights include the tamarind prawns and spring rolls, but frankly every dish is a 10/10.
10. Visit the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum
Ho Chi Minh was an enormously important figure in Vietnam during the second half of the 20th century, and is portrayed in government propaganda as the father of the communist revolution which took place following the Second World War. His face is impossible to miss: as well as appearing in almost every public building of importance, he is featured on every Vietnamese currency note.
His final resting place, a granite memorial in Ba Dinh Square, is treated with the utmost respect and solemnity, and appropriate clothing will be required to gain entry. The embalmed body is inside on display in a glass case.