Arriving at Noi Bai Airport after a short 2-hour flight from Hong Kong, we were looking forward to exploring Vietnam’s capital city and discovering what made Hanoi such a popular place for travellers.
Ancient temples, bustling markets, serene beauty spots, and, of course, the famous Vietnamese egg coffee were all on our list of things to experience in Hanoi, and while Hong Kong had been an assault on our senses, we wondered how our three nights in Hanoi would compare. Would we prefer Hanoi or Hong Kong!
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Getting to Hanoi from the airport
With a tremendous amount of traffic on the roads getting to the hotel from the airport was an eye-opener.
Families squeezed onto mopeds, teenagers weaved in and out of the traffic – often in the wrong direction and huge loads ranging from plastic chairs, empty water bottles and goats were balanced precariously on the back of mopeds!
Add to that the constant sound of horn honking – something you have to experience to believe – and we knew our Vietnam adventure had begun!!
The Hanoi Pearl Hotel
2 nights in Hanoi – 2 nights in Halong Bay – 1 night back in Hanoi – Flight to Hue
We arrived in the early evening for our three-night stay at the Hanoi Pearl Hotel. Besides exploring the city, Hanoi would work as a base for our cruise in Halong Bay. We stayed in Hanoi for two nights, went to Halong Bay for two nights, and then returned to Hanoi for one night.
By doing this, we could check out and leave our suitcases at the hotel without having to pay for the 2 nights we wouldn’t be there. When we returned from our cruise, we booked back in for 1 night and reclaimed our left luggage. It is worth noting that you can only take overnight bags onboard your cruise, not suitcases, due to storage space.
The Hanoi Pearl Hotel was even better than I expected and was located close to Hoan Kiem Lake. We both had our own rooms rather than sharing, and they were large, nicely decorated and with comfy double beds, everything a weary traveller could want. And they only cost us £60 per night for a room; a complete bargain. There was also a spa in the hotel where we treated ourselves to a full body massage (well it would be rude not to!)
The only frustrating element I encountered in the hotel was that there were security alarms on the room doors. If the door hadn’t wholly shut itself, then the door alarm would be set off. It became apparent how many guests couldn’t manage to close their doors properly, adding to the perception of just how noisy Hanoi would be.
Check out my full two-week Vietnam itinerary guide to help you plan your trip.
Day One – Evening in Hanoi
How to Navigate the Roads
After freshening up, we left the hotel and headed towards the lake, where we immediately heard the “honking of horns”; a trademark of Hanoi. Bike and car horns are used to warn other road users of incoming traffic, and as there are so many vehicles on the road, all weaving in and out of any vacant space they can find, it becomes something of a necessity!
Driving is crazy in Hanoi, so you need to be very vigilant when crossing the road as the vehicles will not stop for you. You must be confident, stride out and keep walking until you get to the other side of the road. Sounds hair-raising, but after you’ve done it a few times, it becomes second nature.
Hoan Kiem Lake
Having safely made it to the other side of the road, we were greeted with the sight of Hoan Kiem Lake, the place where lots of local activities take place.
The elderly showed that they “still had what it takes” with an energetic workout routine while a group of men watched chess players deep in thought over their next move.
Young lovers held hands and gazed affectionately at one another while nearby a group of young boys, in their martial art kits, were doing some impressive high-flying backflips and all while they were brandishing swords. Not the usual thing you expect to see on a leisurely lakeside stroll, but this is why we were here, a different culture, a different understanding, and a different experience.
We sat for a while and just absorbed all that was going on around us until Dominic uttered the words, “mum, shall we get a cocktail?” Perfect. We found a lovely bar/restaurant with views of the lake and finished our evening with a bowl of noodles and several very inexpensive cocktails before wandering back to our hotel.
Day Two – Morning in Hanoi
This morning we had to find the Indochina Cruise HQ and pay the balance for the cruise tomorrow. We walked out of the hotel to the most torrential downpour, which was frustrating as we had picked April to travel as it was the dry season, someone hadn’t told the rainclouds that!
Google maps pointed us in the right direction, and we headed down the winding back streets to find the Indochina office. The news was not what we wanted to hear; there was a chance that the cruise might be cancelled tomorrow due to bad weather.
I immediately kicked into my “Mrs Organised Mode,” Where would we go instead of the cruise? Where would we sleep? Would we get a refund? How would I cope with my disappointment?
Dominic told me it would be fine and not to worry, the calm wisdom of a 19-year-old, and with that, we left the office. We prayed that the weather would be beautiful in the morning and that our tour guide would turn up.
St Joseph Cathedral
Opposite the office was St Joseph Cathedral looking slightly out of place with its Notre Dame-like facade and almost worn exterior, but this was a Roman Catholic Church that dominated these tiny backstreets of Hanoi.
Constructed in 1886 and providing a place of worship for the four million-plus Catholics in the country, this is the oldest church in Hanoi and is named after Joseph, the patron saint of Vietnam and Indochina.
We went inside as a reprise from the rain and also to light a candle in remembrance of family members we have lost (I have done this in every church, in every country I have ever visited and it makes me feel like the spirits of my loved ones are enjoying the journey with me)
Wandering around the streets, we noticed some of the French colonial buildings in the city centre. They are so full of colour and character you can’t help but like them.
Vietnamese Egg Coffee
We were cold and wet and now in need of a hot drink. There a quite a few great coffee shops in Hanoi but after previously researching the best place to try the famous Vietnamese Egg Coffee, we headed back to the lake and the Note Cafe, located just by the roundabout.
The Note Cafe is covered in travellers’ messages written on post-it notes and stuck on tables, walls, the ceiling and even in the toilet! It is a fun concept, and we made sure that we added our own messages to the cafe interior. It became apparent that Vietnamese buildings’ ceilings are lower than at home, and we laughed as Dominic tried to stand up straight!
I ordered Vietnamese egg coffee, a recipe tweaked slightly depending on where you get it. Made with coffee, condensed milk, sugar, and raw egg, it tastes like thick coffee custard. I really enjoyed it but Dominic took the safe route and stuck to a milkshake.
Ngoc Son Temple
We left the cafe and went across to the Ngoc Son Temple, an 18th-century Buddhist shrine known as the Temple of the Jade Mountain. It is dedicated to General Tran Hung Dao (who defeated the Mongols in the 13th century).
Ngoc Son Temple sits on a tiny island accessible via a bright red bridge connecting the island to the lake’s northern shore. There is a nominal fee to enter, and it is small but still worth a visit. Inside the temple are artefacts and offerings and outside are giant bonsai trees.
Despite the rain, our spirits were not dampened as we wandered along the streets of Hanoi taking in the sights of the local vendors going about their daily business.
I loved seeing the ladies in their traditional Vietnamese conical hats called non la (leaf hat), handmade using palm tree leaves with bamboo, and perfectly designed for the rain.
The noisy and frenetic markets of Hanoi have to be experienced to understand what they are actually like. Hawkers call out to shoppers, dogs and cats dart between your feet and vehicles zig-zag along the roads honking as they drive.
Don’t expect to have much pavement to yourself in Hanoi as the shops and stalls spill out onto them. You will find yourself on the road most of the time trying to avoid mopeds crisscrossing between the pedestrians, but this all adds to the experience.
Ancient street names indicate what product is sold there. You will find one road selling only kitchenware, one selling shoes and even one selling fish tanks! It makes shopping easy as you only have to shop in one street to find exactly what you need, but you also need to translate the road name!
If you are going to buy, then it is worth putting your bargaining skills to the test. However, as shopping in Hanoi is so inexpensive, please don’t insult the shopkeepers by offering them a pittance. The ones we encountered were all amicable and happy to offer us a “good price”. If you are in Hanoi at the weekend (Fri-Sun), go along to the Night Market, where you will find everything at even lower prices.
Day Two – Afternoon in Hanoi
Temple of Literature
Our next stop was the Temple of Literature, which is slightly further out of Hanoi’s Old Quarter and not far from one of Vietnam’s Unesco World Heritage Sites – Thang Long. If you fancy a long walk to immerse yourself in Hanoi’s surroundings, it will take around 30 minutes. Alternatively, hail a taxi and for only a few dongs (the Vietnamese currency is Dong), you will be there in no time.
Originally built in 1070 the temple has been rebuilt over the centuries by the ruling Vietnamese dynasties. Its ancient style has been preserved and now houses Vietnam’s first national university.
Traditional Vietnamese pavilions, statues, and halls are dedicated to the scholar, Confucius. A small fee will gain you entrance, and although it will not take you long to look around, it is worth immersing yourself in Vietnamese history and imagining life within its walls throughout the centuries.
Dominic realised that a theme was beginning to emerge relating to his height!
From the Temple of Literature, we set off to find One Pillar Pagoda and Ho Chi Minh’s mausoleum are situated. It was getting late by now, and these would be the last monuments we would visit while in Hanoi.
One Pillar Pagoda
One Pillar Pagoda was just that – a pagoda balanced on one pillar in a garden setting. To express his gratitude for having a son and male heir, Emperor Ly Thai Tong constructed the pagoda between 1028-1054. It is regarded as one of the best temples in Hanoi.
A small Buddhist shrine just at the temple entrance is to the deity Quan Am, Goddess of Mercy. There is no admission fee, but correct attire must be worn and shoes removed.
Don’t arrive expecting a landmark similar to other temples in Hanoi, as this one is more of a small room. I was a little disillusioned with it, so I would advise you to skip it if you are short on time.
Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum
Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum is one of the most visited attractions in Hanoi and is the final resting place of the most popular leader of Vietnam. He was president from 1945 to1965 and founded the Communist-ruled Democratic Republic of Vietnam.
We arrived after closing time so we could only walk around the grounds, but we still got a feel for the importance of this monument as the security guards in their pristine white uniforms were watching us closely.
Loved and respected by his people and affectionately called ‘Uncle Ho‘ inside the mausoleum is Ho Chi Minh’s preserved body, laid to rest in a glass case. Vietnam’s second city, previously known as Saigon, is now named Ho Chi Minh City.
Day Two – Evening in Hanoi
Hanoi Old Quarter
With tired legs and aching feet, we headed back to the Old Quarter of Hanoi for dinner and cocktails at Luc Thuy, a beautiful restaurant with a large outside terrace across the street from Hoan Kiem Lake.
Even as a seasoned traveller, I’ve never eaten street food. I have a delicate stomach and don’t want the risk of being ill while travelling. I know I’m missing out, but I’m afraid I will always stick to prevention rather than cure!
Hanoi’s Weekend Night Market
Feeling replenished, we wandered back to the main thoroughfare in Hanoi by Hoan Kiem Lake and suddenly realised there were no mopeds or cars on the road. What had happened? Where had they gone?
Dominic suddenly realised that it was Friday night, which meant one thing, the start of the Weekend Night Market. Market stalls were set up, and the normally hazardous roads had been closed to vehicles until Sunday evening. One of the best things to do in Hanoi at night is to visit the weekend markets, so this was going to be fun. We had thousands of Vietnamese dong in our pockets, worth about £50, and we were ready to do some serious shopping.
Authentic or counterfeit?
There is debate on whether the designer labels on sale are fake or authentic. Still, whatever the answer is, it looks like the real deal and along with beautiful silk kimonos, sunglasses, incense burners, and ornaments we were in our element bartering with the vendors and experiencing a Vietnamese night market.
It is hard to put into words how lively it is. The colours, the smells, and the sounds from the streets are very immersive, and the realisation that you are thousands of miles from home and witnessing a completely different culture to your own becomes a reality.
Shopping is thirsty work, and there are plenty of bars lining the streets and located above the shops. We wandered into a bar selling Hanoi-brewed pineapple cider, which we didn’t expect but thoroughly enjoyed, and discussed our thoughts on whether tomorrow would bring good news for our 2-night cruise to Bai Tu Long Bay.
Day Three – Morning in Hanoi
Heading off for our Bai Tu Long Bay cruise
Devastating news circulated around the hotel the following morning. Torrential storms had cancelled all cruises from the previous day. It seemed no one knew what would happen today, and my stomach sank.
The cruise was a highlight of our trip to Vietnam, and now we may not get to go. The reception staff tried calling my cruise company but to no avail. Other guests sat looking bewildered, waiting for some news from their cruise companies. And then it happened.
A tour guide for another group walked in and called some names out from a clipboard. Surely this had to be good news for us as well. Finally, the last tour guide arrived, and he was for us. Jumping for joy, we headed into the waiting vehicle where Dominic calmly said, “Mum, I knew it would be ok!” and with that, we were off on our journey to Halong Bay to join Indochina Junk for our 2-night cruise out to Bai Tu Long Bay.
Night Five – Our Last Evening in Hanoi
We returned from our cruise feeling very happy. It had been an amazing experience and one that I would recommend to anybody considering doing a cruise in Vietnam.
Our last evening was rather chilled. We had a final wander around Hoan Kiem Lake and treated ourselves to dinner and delicious ice cream for dessert. Tiredness had caught up with us, and we retired to our hotel in anticipation of our early morning flight to Hue for the start of our next Vietnamese adventure. And the answer to whether we preferred Hong Kong or Hanoi – it’s a big thumbs up for Hanoi, we loved everything about it.
Tips for planning a trip to Hanoi
What month did I travel? I travelled at the beginning of April and encountered rain and sunshine. The months of March/April are high season due to less rainfall and a more comfortable climate; however, this also comes with higher prices for accommodation and flights, and as I found out, you can still expect showers.
November/December are the other two months that will offer you the same weather pattern.
In Vietnam’s summer – May to October – you will need to be prepared for a fair amount of rainfall; however, you will also see prices for hotels decrease.
What to wear in Hanoi?
It can be humid so wear breathable cotton clothing. Make sure you have something with you to cover your shoulders and legs during temple visits.
Pack a small umbrella for unpredictable rainfall.
Would I recommend the hotel? Yes, I would. The Hanoi Pearl was located several roads back from the lake and was quiet considering the noise outside. The rooms were comfortable and nicely decorated, and the breakfast buffet was excellent. The staff were all friendly, and the hotel was spotless.
An alternative suggestion is the five-star luxurious Apricot Hotel located opposite Hoan Kiem Lake and boasting a rooftop pool. Perfect for cooling down after a day of sightseeing.
Would I recommend three nights in Hanoi? Definitely. What we loved about Hanoi both in the day and at night was how safe we felt. The local people are friendly, and there is no pressure from vendors, which we found refreshing.
It is incredibly noisy and chaotic on the streets, but that’s what makes it different and adds to its character. It is like stepping into a different time in history, and it is a place that I would return to in the future but maybe for longer.
Cool Things to Do in Hanoi
Check out some of the best street art in Asia at Phung Hung in Hanoi’s Old Quarter. See how the train arches have been transformed with beautiful murals telling the story of Hanoi through the ages.
Enjoy a great example of the typical architecture of Hanoi’s Old Town at the Ancient House of Ma May. Explore a traditional 19th-century Hanoian tube house built in a long tubular form subdivided into sections to be used for family living and as a business. Large gaps in the road signify where trade would take place.
Step back in time to the Unesco Citadel of Thang Long constructed in Hanoi in the 11th century as the Vietnamese royal court’s centre and regional political power. 21st-century excavations have uncovered many artefacts and the foundations of ancient roads and palaces.
Take a stroll around Hanoi’s green spaces at one of the best botanical gardens in Asia. The Hanoi Botanical Gardens is located around the Ho Chi Minh Presidential Palace with flower borders and winding pathways leading to the central koi carp pond; a Vietnamese symbol of good luck.
Join a cookery class and learn how to cook a traditional Vietnamese dish.
Watch a traditional Vietnamese water puppet show at Thang Long Theatre.
You may have heard of “Train Street” – this has been closed down by the Vietnamese government since October 2019 due to the number of tourists it attracted wanting to capture photos of themselves on the tracks.
EXPLORE MORE OF VIETNAM WITH ME
- Vietnam’s Hidden Gems: 10 incredible destinations off the tourist trail
- Vietnam’s 8 Unesco World Heritage Sites