7 Must-Do Activities In Hanoi, Vietnam

Vietnam runs along a narrow strip of land in SE Asia, 1000 miles long, containing 100 million people! But the bulk of them live in the cities, with Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh (formerly Saigon) being the two largest.

With a country this vast, with different weather patterns, landscapes, tribes and food, there’s so much to see and do, and this post couldn’t possibly do justice to all that is possible. But here is a list of seven must-do activities in Hanoi:

7 must-do activities while in Hanoi

  • Hoa Lo Prison, aka, “Hanoi Hilton,” the infamous prison where US GIs were imprisoned during the Vietnam war, most notably the late Senator John McCain. While prisons aren’t the most thrilling of tourist attractions, this was an eye-opener for me, with a rich history I was unaware of, beginning way before the Vietnam war.
  • Food tour. If you want a taste of real Vietnamese food, you can’t go wrong here! There are many walking tours available that take you to local shops and introduce you to local delicacies. Not to miss: Pho, a commonly found dish consisting of broth, herbs, some sort of meat and rice noodles; Bun cha, a dish of grilled smoky pork or meatballs served over a bed of rice noodles, with fragrant herbs; and banh mi, a Vietnamese sandwich starting with crusty (yet soft) baguette smeared with pate, mayo, some sort of meat, pickled vegetables, green onion and cilantro. Yum! You can find these in shops or along the street.
  • A great place for this food tour and cultural introduction is in the Old Quarter of town, a lively area, roughly one square kilometer. Great for exploring on foot, or by cyclo. You’ll find cafes, restaurants and various merchant shops throughout. Chaos abounds, with businesses spilled out onto the sidewalk, motorbikes parked everywhere and traffic congestion consisting of cars, bikes, motorbikes and pedestrians at all times of day.
  • While touring the Old Quarter, be sure to stop by Train Street, an area made famous for (by?) Instagrammers. It consists of a railroad track (and trains go through multiple times per day) where businesses spill outside, right up to the track. Vendors must pull their wares back as the train approaches. You might see social media posts of people huddled next to the building as a train whizzes past. In reality, while I was there, pedestrian access was carefully controlled. As it approached time for the train to come through, all people were pushed back from the area by the track, businesses were shuttered up and the tracks were monitored by the local police.
  • Try different coffees. Believe it or not, Vietnam is the second largest coffee producer in the world, and they make a robust cup of coffee! To temper the strength, they’ve devised different ways of adapting it. Must try: the original black coffee, strong and bitter; iced coffee, with varying proportions of condensed milk, sugar and ice; salt coffee, (no, it’s not salty, which I thought it might be) rather like a salted caramel; and egg coffee, another coffee that I put off trying, but was amazing! Read more in my post: 5 Fantastic Coffees You Must Try In Vietnam!
  • Water Puppet show, a concept that’s hard to grasp until you see it. The show dates back, some say 1000 years, and consists of 7 to 11 masterful puppeteers working in unison, with traditional Vietnamese folk music throughout the show. Most of the scenes depict rural life in Vietnam, farmers with their water buffalo, planting and harvesting rice, and traditional village folklore. Believe it or not, the entire show is held in a “stage” of water, with the puppets controlled by long poles and strings, with the puppeteers barely visible behind a screen.
  • Museum of Ethnology, a full-sized museum packed full of information detailing traditional Vietnamese ways of life, showcasing the 54 different ethnic groups that make up Vietnam. This amazing collection features art, artefacts, traditional clothing, everyday objects gathered from across the nation, and examples of traditional village houses. Two gift shops will be sure to delight after making your way through the entire museum. A bonus for us: as we were finishing touring, a couple women identified us as English speakers and asked if we’d be willing to speak with several girls wanting to practice their English skills. I always love creating these connections!

3 tips When getting around Hanoi:

  • How to cross the street, a seemingly impossible task: think “sticky rice”! When there are a group of you, cross as a mass, not one after the other. Walk across, not too quickly and not too slowly. The cars and motorbikes will adjust their speed and trajectory to enable you to get across. One vehicle I would yield to: a bus. They don’t seem to care who’s in front of them!
  • Watch your valuables. When going into the Old Quarter, Night Market, etc., Be careful with your bag, phone, wallet… Always ask for a better price when making purchases and beware of fakes. As our tour guide liked to say, “it’s a ‘genuine’ fake that will last the length of your trip.”
  • Watch the cabs. “Grab,” a cab company, is everywhere, and you do well to download the app. You can get Grab as a cab or a motorbike. They even deliver food! Other reliable taxi brands are Mai Linh, Vinfast and Taxi Group. Don’t do what we did, which was take what seemed like a nice cab. It was nice, however afterwards, we determined the rate was roughly double what we should have paid. She had a meter running so she didn’t scam us; this company was just much more expensive.

Also, don’t allow the cab driver to take the money from your wallet. The bills can be difficult to differentiate until you are very familiar with them, so be sure to be the one to initiate payment.

Enjoy the city and all it has to offer! With all these must-do activities in Hanoi, you’re sure to be kept busy. Enjoy!

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