A lot has changed for Hanoi since it was besieged during the Vietnam War. Its residents are now keen to embrace modern life. Everyone in Hanoi seems to ride a scooter: elderly fishermen transport their catch in buckets wedged between their legs while the younger generations weave unpredictably around them. Art galleries, and fashionable cafes and restaurants serving innovative Vietnamese cuisine have popped up alongside the street-food stalls and pagodas.
Hanoi has been an important city for the Chinese, French and Vietnamese since 1050, collecting an assortment of architectural styles along the way. The Old Quarter is still partially surrounded by the original city wall, and if you wander its narrow streets you can spot well-preserved Buddhist temples and shrines. The wide boulevards of the French Quarter are lined with villas and mansions, as well as the imposing Hanoi Opera House.
Hanoi is a vibrant, busy city but I always manage to find a pocket of peace and quiet, enjoying a coffee — a drink the locals are obsessed with — in a Parisian-influenced cafe.
Vietnam specialist Stella
Things to see and do in Hanoi
Enjoy an interactive street-food tour
Hanoi’s residents don’t settle down for a large lunch, preferring to graze on snacks throughout the day. On a tour with a street-food aficionado, and experienced guide, you can discover some of the city’s best culinary spots. Starting at Thanh Ha Market, you’re introduced to ingredients that have been transported from across the Mekong Delta. Try the delicate stamens of the banana flower, often used in salads or sweet custard apple, which looks like a small artichoke.
Dong Xuan Market in the Old Quarter is crammed with stalls serving bun dau — hunks of tofu served in a hot noodle soup. Banh xeo — crispy fried shrimp pancakes — make a moreish accompaniment. Your tour will finish in the Cafe Giang, a coffee house that has been running since 1946. Its signature creation is egg coffee, which was conceived during the war when eggs replaced heavily rationed milk.
Rise early to see Hanoi coming to life
Emerge from your hotel early and you’ll catch the city at its most active. The local produce markets frantically trade fresh fruit and vegetables, which will be whisked off to restaurants and cafes across the city. The parks are full of local people participating in mass exercise classes, from the slow moves of t’ai chi to circuit training.
At 6am each morning a parade of smartly dressed soldiers from the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum Guard High Command makes its way to Ba Dinh Square. In front of the huge marble monument of the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum, a solemn flag-raising ceremony is performed. At the end of the ritual, you’re well-timed to join the queue to enter the mausoleum. Inside lies the leader’s embalmed body in a glass casket, which draws hundreds of visitors each day.
Tour the Hotel Metropole’s in-house bomb shelter
The Hotel Metropole (now the Sofitel Legend Metropole) was built in Hanoi’s French Quarter in 1901. It quickly became a draw for celebrities and diplomats — Charlie Chaplin honeymooned here, to name but one. Its white façade has gained a few more coats of paint since, but it’s now the longest running hotel in the city. Builders working on a new bar recently unearthed a 1960s bomb shelter in the hotel, used as a refuge for guests during the Vietnam War.
The shelter has been preserved and, on entering down a flight of stairs next to the pool, you can take a guided tour of the musty, narrow rooms. The only hotel in the city to have a bomb shelter, as well as an anti-aircraft gun on the roof, it hid officials and diplomats from the bombing.
Enjoy a beer in the old quarter
Across Hanoi you’ll see signs for ‘fresh beer’, or ‘bia hoi’. A foamy, low alcohol draft beer, it’s freshly brewed and delivered to each bar, restaurant and doorstep-stall daily. Visitors and locals converge at Bia Hoi Corner in the Old Quarter throughout the day to settle into low-slung plastic chairs at the open-walled bars.
The beer tends to be poured into plastic glasses straight from the barrel, served with an accompaniment of sticky barbecued chicken and fried rice. It’s worth trying the following day’s beer too, as each new brew is distinct.
Visit the Temple of Literature
Emperor Ly Thanh Tong built the Temple of Literature in 1070, dedicating it to Confucius. It became a haven for learning, attracting scholars to Vietnam’s first university within the grounds. Confucianism, literature and poetry were taught to the noble and elite until, in 1442, students were selected for their intelligence rather than lineage. In a city ravaged by war and natural disasters, the temple is a rare survivor of the Ly king’s original city.
Entering through the grey two-tiered Van Mieu Gate, you’ve seemingly journeyed further east. The temple complex was modelled on Confucius’s birthplace in Qufu, China. Five courtyards are set around manicured gardens, separated by wizened trees and gilded pavilions.
Scholars were encouraged to view their reflection, and thus clear their soul and mind, in the Well of Heavenly Clarity, which still sits in the third courtyard.
Festivals, events and seasonal reasons to visit
- On 2nd September, Vietnam commemorates two key anniversaries: the declaration of independence from France in 1945 and the death of Ho Chi Minh. Hanoi’s residents head to Ba Dinh Square to celebrate with a fireworks display and parade, and music in the streets.
- Vietnamese New Year, known as Tet, usually falls towards the end of January or the beginning of February. In the lead up, people spend a few days cleaning their homes and decorating them with foliage. Hanoi’s buildings will be decked in banners of red and yellow, considered to bring good fortune.
- The Mid-Autumn Festival occurs in late August or September each year. A time to celebrate the harvest and worship the earth gods, it has evolved into a festival focused on children, who enjoy lion-dance parades and carry lanterns through the streets.