Beautiful functioning chaos
How many times can you reinvent a city? Well, if your existence spans more than a millennium, quite a few times. For over a thousand years Hanoi has been in the crosshairs of Vietnamese, Chinese, French, Japanese and American wars and empires. Walking through the city, up narrow staircases, passed the Opera House, down narrow pathways, through ancient temples and thousand year old universities, or just having a drink in a former opium den, the layers of that history become apparent, similar to a sedimentary rock cliffs.
This list is hand-picked and curated from a combination of top ten lists and recommendations from the locals. All experienced first hand, so if it's a pricey spot it's worth the dong and if it's not, it's worth the walk. But always remember, "good food and good eating are about risk" - A. Bourdain.
From the outside Hanoi can look to embody chaos. Traffic is insane, retailers are constantly hustling goods, hundreds of power lines criss cross between buildings, bowls of pho are being eaten on every surface no matter how hot it is outside and it is all being done in very tight corridors. However, when you look closer the Motorbikes, taxis, bicycles and pedestrians flow through the Old Quarter’s narrow streets like a river. Somehow aware but oblivious of each other at the same time. Be careful when crossing the street but don’t become paralyzed, walk with confidence and know that the waters will adjust around you. It is beautiful functioning chaos and once you dive in you won’t be able to get enough of.
The Old Quarter: The old quarter is the buzzing hub of Hanoi, a congested square kilometer full of odiferous herbs, paper lanterns, grilled fish and handmade crafts all spilling out into the street. Look for banyan trees tucked between the temples, pagodas and 15th century architecture. Be careful when crossing the street but don’t become paralyzed, walk with confidence and know that the waters will adjust around you. It is beautiful functioning chaos and once you dive in you won’t be able to get enough of.If the gods of time allow, wander the stalls of the weekend night market when the streets are closed to motorists and the youth of Hanoi gather to shop and snack on moon cakes. In truth the best way to experience Hanoi is to take the time to get lost and enjoy what you stumble across.
Hoan Kiem Lake: In the middle of the old quarter sits a magical lake home to the Turtle God Kim Qui. According to the legend, in early 1428, Emperor Lê Lợi was boating on the lake when a golden Turtle surfaced and asked for his magic sword called Heaven's Will. Lợi concluded that Kim Qui had come to reclaim the sword that its master, a local God, the Dragon King (Long Vương) had given Lợi some time earlier, during his revolt against Ming China. Later, Emperor Lợi gave the sword back to the turtle after he finished fighting off the Chinese. Be sure to cross the red bridge to the Temple of the Jade Mountain, we are pretty sure it makes wishes come true (as long as those wishes involve more delicious Pho.)
Ho Chi Minh's mausoleum and grounds: The thing is, this might not be your thing but if you want to get a locals perspective, this is the place to be. Vietnamese people from around the country visit to show their respect to Uncle Ho. Expect long lines and be sure to check the hours ahead of time AKA get there wicked early.
The Temple of Literature: A Confucius Temple and Vietnam’s first National university, impressively preserved the temple lays out Vietnam's history of education and beautiful architecture. Walk under the large banyan trees and through the paths that have been used for nearly one thousand years.
Sapa + Fansipan: The surreal vistas of the Hoang Lien Son mountain range emerge from the dreamy mountain town of Sapa some 257 km northwest of Hanoi. In Hoang Lien National Park you will find the mountain of Fansipan-Vietnam’s highest peak, and unique flora + fauna exclusive to the range. Expect rough terrain and unpredictable weather on the trek up, but oh my god make it up there anyway. It's a 6hr bus ride on the Good Morning Express or the Sapa Express (both run 4 times a day) for $16, you will need to stay overnight in Sapa if you plan to summit Fansipan but thankfully there are plenty of cheap guest houses to stay in once your there, we like the Sapa Stunning view Hotel for $6.
Halong Bay: We specifically did not include Halong bay because it is a prime example of tourism gone-amuck. If you want to go the Halong Bay you had better be willing to pick up some trash. Here is an example of the good things that folks are doing to right the collective wrong:
Pick a hotel in the Old Quarter that fits within your budget. A decent Hotel will range between $30-$45/night depending on the timing of your booking and many include breakfast. The E Central Hotel and Bella Rosa are both locally owned. Another way to ensure you are supporting the people of Hanoi is to stay at an Airbnb, two wonderful options are bottom left.
The American War:
Spanning from 1955-1975 the American War, or as you might know it, the Vietnam War ravaged North and South Vietnam and a lot of the world. Hanoi was the capital of the northern army and home of the communist leader Ho Chi Minh. Today old opium dens, turned war strategizing rooms, turned cocktail bars can be found throughout Hanoi. At the end of the war the two countries became one communist country. Vietnam continues to be one of the few communist countries in the world and a one party government.