Do you know what a Southeast Asian city smells like?
Having spent most of my life in Manila, I never really thought about it until my Japanese friend visited me a couple of years ago. I had just picked him up from the airport and we were on our way to dinner when he said: “I haven’t smelled that in a long time man. That smell of a Southeast Asian city.” I took a whiff and I couldn’t really smell anything, but I understood exactly what he meant.
Before our trip to Vietnam, I fully expected to find that same smell in Hanoi. I envisioned it to be just like any other big city in Southeast Asia – hot, chaotic, crowded, and noisy – not much different from my home city of Manila. Apart from the stream of motorbikes flowing through its streets, it did feel a lot like home. Streets were paved with asphalt grey. The sky was a tangled mess of power lines. Many buildings were besmirched with the same grey-black water streaks typical of Southeast Asian cities.
But for all its similarities, it was different in many ways too, differences that made it distinctively Hanoi.
Compared to Saigon, I found Hanoi to be a surprisingly walkable city. We stayed in the Old Quarter with its many cafes and tree-lined boulevards. Most buildings have seen better days but if you look past their weathered exterior, you’ll find a Southeast Asian city with its own unique story. Obscured by power lines are French windows, decorative ironwork, and vernacular shophouses that narrate Hanoi’s rich history. It’s an interesting story, if you have time to read the clues.
Unlike Saigon, where we took an Uber or Grab to go anywhere, Hanoi is a city that begs to be explored on foot. Here are some of its highlights.
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Old Quarter, Hanoi
As described, we stayed in Hanoi’s Old Quarter which is arguably the best and most convenient place to stay in the city. Around since imperial times, it used to be a commercial center where every street specialized in one specific type of manufacturing or commerce. Some areas are still like that today but much of it has been taken up by hotels, shops, restaurants, and cafes. There are countless hotels in the Old Quarter for you to choose from but we stayed at this charming bed and breakfast called Hanoi Little Town Hotel.
The Old Quarter is a street photographer’s paradise. There’s an endless supply of interesting subjects to photograph here. Notice all the French windows and balconies on the buildings? Rich in French colonial architecture, most of the buildings in the Old Quarter are old and dilapidated but riddled with character.
I don’t know much about architecture but the buildings in Hanoi seem to represent different architectural styles. Take this one for example. The windows and ironwork look French but the roof and details, especially in that central section, look more Chinese or Vietnamese. This seeming mishmash of architectural styles reminded me in many ways of George Town in Penang. Looking up in Hanoi is rarely boring.
Notice how narrow that building is at the end of the street? Most of the buildings in Vietnam are narrow and long because property taxes used to be calculated based on a structure’s width. Nicknamed “tube houses”, many of the buildings in the Old Quarter are built like that.
I was pleasantly surprised by how many tree-lined streets there are in Hanoi. It makes the city all the more conducive to walking. If I remember correctly, we passed this one on the way to Hoan Kiem Lake.
Like any major city in Vietnam, Hanoi is a sea of motorbikes. I don’t remember the numbers but one of our tour guides told us that motorbikes in Vietnam are considerably cheaper than iPhones.
St. Joseph’s Cathedral
West of Hoan Kiem Lake is this 19th century church called St. Joseph’s Cathedral. Built in 1886 by the French colonial government, it’s the oldest church in Hanoi and is said to be patterned after Notre Dame in Paris. I read that there are an estimated four million Catholics in Vietnam.
Hoan Kiem Lake and Ngoc Son
This picturesque red bridge is one of the most popular Instagram backdrops in Hanoi. Called Huc Bridge, it takes you to Ngoc Son Temple in the middle of Hoan Kiem Lake. The lake is a popular hangout for both locals and tourists.
There’s an interesting myth surrounding Hoan Kiem Lake. Legend has it that Emperor Lê Lợi was boating on this lake when the Golden Turtle God surfaced and asked for his mythical sword. Dubbed Thuận Thiên or Heaven’s Will sword, it was once given to the emperor to help him defeat the Chinese Ming Dynasty. Emperor Lợi obliged and renamed the lake Hồ Hoàn Kiếm or “Lake of the Returned Sword” to commemorate the event. I watched a water puppet show at nearby Thang Long Water Puppet Theater reenacting this legend.
We didn’t go but Ngoc Son Temple or Temple of the Jade Mountain is said to be dedicated to General Tran Hung Dao. He’s a war hero credited for defeating an invading army of 300,000 Mongolian soldiers sent by Emperor Kublai Khan in the 13th century. You can freely visit Hoan Kiem Lake and Huc Bridge but entrance to Ngoc Son Temple is VND 20,000.
Thang Long Water Puppet Theater
If you’re interested in catching a cultural show unique to Vietnam, then you may want to visit the Thang Long Water Puppet Theater near Hoan Kiem Lake. It’s one of the most famous places to watch a water puppet show in Vietnam.
Dating back to the 11th century, the tradition of water puppet shows began with the flooding of rice paddy fields after monsoon rains. Villagers would entertain themselves by standing and performing with puppets in waist-deep water. Today, shows are performed mostly indoors in large custom-made pools. Puppeteers stay hidden behind screens while manipulating puppets like these using long rods.
I read that water puppet shows are unique to Northern Vietnam but I remember catching a small-scale show in Saigon a few years ago. I guess it originated in the north but can now be seen in other parts of the country as well.
Puppet show performances are accompanied by a Vietnamese orchestra playing traditional music with drums, wooden bells, horns, bamboo flutes, and cymbals. Shows are entirely in Vietnamese but you can kind of follow what’s going on. Like the myth of Hoan Kiem Lake, most shows reenact Vietnamese folk tales and legends. Tickets are VND 100,000 per person with shows lasting about an hour. I’ll post clips from the show in a video I’ll be making about Hanoi.
Hanoi Opera House
Southeast of the Old Quarter and Hoan Kiem Lake is this beautiful building. We were on our way to get some of Hanoi’s best phở at Pho Thin 13 Lo Duc when we walked by it by chance. Built in 1911, the Hanoi Opera House is one of the most striking buildings in the city. Modeled after the Palais Garnier – the older of Paris’ two opera houses – it’s the biggest theater in Vietnam and considered an important architectural landmark of Hanoi. We didn’t go inside but the Hanoi Opera House is a fully functional venue staging concerts, symphonies, and ballet performances in addition to opera.
Hoa Lo Prison (Hanoi Hilton)
Southwest of Hoan Kiem Lake is this infamous prison. Built by the French colonial government in the late 19th century, Hoa Lo Prison was originally used by the French colonists to house political prisoners, but it became better known as the “Hanoi Hilton” – the prison where American POWs were held captive during the Vietnam War. You often hear about Senator John McCain being a former prisoner of war in Vietnam. This was where he was kept.
I had plans of visiting the War Remnants Museum in Saigon so I skipped the Hoa Lo Prison. I read that much of the prison was destroyed in the 1990s, so mostly on display here today are exhibits from the French colonial period, like the guillotine room pictured below. Entrance to Hoa Lo Prison is VND 30,000.
These next four attractions are farther west. If it’s a nice day and you’re in the mood for a stroll, then it’s possible to get to them on foot. It’s roughly the same distance to these four places as it is to the Opera House from the Old Quarter (about 30 mins). If you’d rather not walk that far, then you can take an Uber or Grab. They’re cheap in Vietnam and very convenient. The great thing is that these next four attractions are clustered in the same area so you can easily get from one to the other on foot.
Temple of Literature
Built in the 11th century, this Confucian temple west of the Old Quarter was home to Vietnam’s first national university – the “Quốc Tử Giám” or Imperial Academy. Today, it’s largely a memorial to education and literature in Vietnam, not to mention a good example of traditional Vietnamese architecture. Entrance to the Temple of Literature is VND 30,000.
Imperial Citadel of Thang Long
Also known as the Hanoi Citadel, the Imperial Citadel of Thang Long is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and home to the Flag Tower of Hanoi, one of the city’s most popular symbols. Entrance to the Hanoi Citadel is VND 30,000.
Presidential Palace of Vietnam
We drove by the Presidential Palace on a tour bus and like the Hanoi Opera House, it’s so beautiful it’s impossible not to notice it. Built in the early 20th century to house the French Governor-General of Indochina, this strikingly yellow and distinctly European building unfortunately isn’t open to the public, but you can explore its gardens and Ho Chi Minh’s house for VND 25,000. For symbolic reasons, the former Vietnamese leader refused to live in the palace so he had a traditional Vietnamese stilt house built on the palace grounds.
Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum
The Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum is one of the most visited sites in Hanoi. More than a tourist attraction, it’s also the final resting place of the beloved Vietnamese leader. His embalmed body lies preserved in a glass case under the watchful eye of the military honor guard. Vietnamese pilgrims and visiting foreign dignitaries pay their respects here every day. Entrance to the mausoleum is free but you’ll need to pay VND 40,000 to visit the museum.
An imposing concrete structure, the mausoleum was modeled after Lenin’s tomb in Moscow and enforces the same strict set of rules to see Ho Chi Minh’s body. Legs must be covered (no shorts or miniskirts), visitors must walk silently in two lines, and your arms must be by your sides at all times (no crossed arms or hands in pockets). Photography and videography is strictly prohibited anywhere inside the mausoleum. I visited Lenin’s Tomb almost thirty years ago and it was exactly like that. The experience was amazing but pretty intimidating.
Bia Hoi Corner
We started this post in the Old Quarter, so it’s only fitting that we end it there as well. After a long day of walking in Hanoi, there’s no better way to end the day than at one of the city’s most beloved and refreshing tourist attractions – Bia Hoi Corner.
But before we get to Bia Hoi Corner, let’s have a look around the neighborhood. I loved exploring this small network of alleyways packed with cafes and street food stalls. See that shop on the left selling prints? That’s a great place to buy souvenirs in Hanoi. More on that at the bottom of this post.
This was taken at sunset, just a few hours before this little corner of Hanoi really comes to life.
This is Bia Hoi Corner. It’s located at the corner of Ta Hien and Luong Ngoc Quyen Streets in the Old Quarter. This junction is busy any time of the day but at night, it turns into an electric mix of locals and foreigners drinking beers by the side of the road. It was still early in the evening when I took this picture so people were just starting to stream in.
By nightfall, the alleyways are filled with people drinking beers and eating snacks on these low plastic stools. The term bia hoi refers to a specific type of Vietnamese draft beer. Often marketed as the “cheapest beer in the world”, bia hoi is an unbranded draft beer that costs anywhere between VND 3,000-7,000 (around USD 0.13-0.31) per glass. It was invented by local breweries to compete with cheap imports and has a relatively low alcohol content of about 3%. Brewed daily and without preservatives, freshly made batches are delivered in steel barrels during the day and typically consumed that same evening.
With beer costing as low as 13 cents a glass, we saw more than one tourist stumbling his way home at the end of a long bia hoi night. This corner of Hanoi is lively and super fun.
As you can see below, the beer-drinking crowds often go beyond the sidewalk and spill onto the street. On our second night there, we were sitting on the curb drinking beers when the bar’s boss lady started yelling something in Vietnamese. Everyone went scrambling while her bar girls took our drinks and quickly stacked away the plastic stools. Everything was happening so quickly we had no idea what was going on. Even the customers who ordered food were left standing with plates in hand and still eating!
Moments later, a patrol car came riding by. I’m not sure what the commotion was about, but my guess is that it’s illegal to be seating customers too far out into the street. Whatever the reason, things quickly returned to normal and we were back on our stools drinking beers like nothing happened. Did I say Bia Hoi Corner is super fun? 😉
There’s the boss lady keeping tabs on everyone’s drinks. This woman knew what she was doing.
Hanoi Night Market
As much fun as Bia Hoi Corner is, Ren and I are closer to 50 than we are to 30 so we don’t stay out too late. 😛 On the way back to our hotel, we walked by this night market which is held every weekend in the Old Quarter. It starts from Hang Dao Street and goes all the way to the edge of Dong Xuan Market. If you’re on the hunt for cheap sunglasses and iPhone cases, then this is probably a good place to find them.
Vietnamese Propaganda Posters
Ren and I rarely shop when we travel but these poster stores caught our attention. They sell prints of vintage Vietnamese propaganda posters. Available in different sizes, the big ones pictured below cost around USD 7 apiece. 😯
I love these French-inspired vintage posters so we wound up buying over twenty pieces, some to give as gifts and others to keep for ourselves. If you’re looking for a more meaningful souvenir, something you won’t just stick in a drawer and forget about, then I suggest bringing home a few of these beauties. Printed on rice paper, they look amazing framed. Someone on TripAdvisor mentioned that she brought home a few of these posters and found out that they sell for no less than USD 35 in the US. She wishes she had bought more.
As eventful a day of walking as it was, this is by no means a definitive list of all the things you can see in Hanoi. These are just some of the most popular places you can visit in and around the Old Quarter. As described, all the attractions listed above are accessible from the Old Quarter on foot. If you enjoy walking, then you won’t mind the distance. There are many interesting things to see walking around this city.
Hanoi may be a big bustling metropolis but I also found it to be endearing and full of character. I preferred it to Saigon which felt more like your typical modern Southeast Asian city. Hanoi, at least in some pockets, feels like a throwback town. It isn’t as transportive perhaps as a George Town in Penang, but it will take you places if you let it.
For travel tips to Hanoi, check out our First-Timer’s Travel Guide to Hanoi, Vietnam
JB and Renée are the Traveleaters behind Will Fly for Food, a travel blog for the gastronomically inclined. They enjoy experiencing food from different cultures so they’ve made it their mission to try every country’s national dish. Read more about them and their National Dish Quest here.