Earlier this month, I went on a solo trip to Hanoi. It was my Good Decision for the month, because I had tons of fun walking around Vietnam’s capital city and exploring its inner streets. As a curious cat who enjoys non-stop walking, traveling alone is the only way I can quench my thirst for adventure.
Hanoi is a beautiful city that still seems rooted to the past even if modern life has encroached on its citizens. Walking along its tree-filled avenues with French neo-classical structures feels like going back in time. But the city is so much more than that: it is a bustling and vibrant cultural city that teems with good food, history, and experiences.
Below are 7 things you should do #WheninHanoi:
7. Pay respects at the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum
Vietnam was built by Ho Chi Minh, the Communist revolutionary leader who led the Việt Minh independence movement, which established the Communist-ruled Democratic Republic of Vietnam. He was also responsible for driving out the French in the battle of Điện Biên Phủ in 1954. He is so well-loved that the city of Saigon was renamed Ho Chi Minh, and his face graces all the currency notes in Vietnam.
His embalmed body is in a mausoleum in Ba Đình Square, and is a large and imposing Brutalist structure modeled after the mausoleum of Vladimir Lenin in Moscow. At the back is the Ho Chi Minh Museum (also a beautiful Brutalist structure), but the day I went was packed and rowdy so it was hard to appreciate the exhibits.
Also in the area is the opulent Presidential Palace, but in his lifetime Ho Chi Minh stayed in a cozy stilt house nearby, just across a carp-filled pond.
6. See the Thang Long Water Puppet Theater
The Thang Long Water Puppet Theater is usually included in lists of must-visit places to Hanoi. I thought it was all right. Seeing the puppets flit across water can be an entertaining watch, but the production is in Vietnamese so you’re not sure what’s exactly happening. You could skip this, but consider that this theater has been performing its show since 1969, and it’s an art form that has existed in Vietnam since the 11th century. If you’re going to see this, expect skits on farm life, mythical creatures, and the famous Hoan Kiem Lake and its legendary tortoise, set to the tune of drums, wooden bells, horns, bamboo flutes, and cymbals.
5. Visit the Hoan Kiem Lake, especially at night
One of the highlights of my trip is walking along the peaceful Hoan Kiem Lake and sitting along its banks. The large lake is a hub for social activity in Hanoi, and in the many times I passed by, I saw people hanging out, jogging, exercising, and eating. The place truly comes alive at night when the lights form a gorgeous constellation and strategically-placed lamps add an otherworldly glow on the edge of the lake. The Huc Bridge is a splendid sight at night.
4. Appreciate the architecture
Vietnam used to be a French colony, and one of their indelible marks in this beautiful country is architecture. Hanoi is rife with neoclassical structures, even in rundown neighborhoods. The architecture is best appreciated on foot so you can soak in the beauty. My personal favorites are the Hanoi Grand Opera, the Sofitel Legend Metropole, and the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum, but there are elegant buildings wherever you go. My advice is to look up a lot.
Coffee with yogurt. At the back is my simot egg coffee. Wala akong balak matulog tonight. Cafe Giang has been around since 1946, and is known for its egg coffee (it’s so delicious). Its ingredients are chicken egg yolk, Vietnamese coffee powder, sweetened condensed milk, butter, and cheese #travel #hanoi #vietnam #foodporn
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3. Try the egg coffee
Hanoi is known for its coffee, and you can see this from the many coffee shops you’ll pass along the way. Just as many are the little shops and nooks that sell different kinds of coffee beans, including kopi luwak, which is made from civet poop. If there’s one coffee you need to try, it better be the egg coffee. And not just any egg coffee. It has to be the one from Cafe Giang. The cafe has been around since 1946, and still uses the same recipe today. It’s an interesting blend: chicken egg yolk, Vietnamese coffee powder, sweetened condensed milk, butter and cheese. If you’re wondering how this magic in a glass came about, Cafe Giang founder and egg coffee creator Nguyen Giang used egg yolks as a substitute for milk, which was scarce at the time.
2. Go on a museum tour
The best way to get to know Vietnam is to go on a museum tour, which Hanoi has a lot of. Below are some of the museums I went to:
- The Vietnam Military History Museum has an impressive collection of aircrafts used during the Vietnam War. The entrance leads you to a little room playing a documentary, but make sure to go down to see the planes, choppers, cannons, and tanks.
- The National Museum of Vietnam History had a lot of historical artifacts, but my favorite exhibit was the one where they featured books made of gold
- The Vietnamese Women’s Museum was beautiful and offered an in-depth look at how women live in Vietnam. In the National Museum of Vietnam History, I was surprised to see so many women in the guerrilla movement, so I was curious to learn more about them in the Women’s Museum, but that section of the museum was closed. Instead I learned about the life cycle of women, from birth to giving birth. The section on fashion was really beautiful.
- The Vietnam Fine Arts Museum has an impressive lineup of pieces dating back centuries to ones made today. The prevalent theme switches between the provincial life and the warring years.
- The Hanoi Police Museum is a new museum that highlights the history of Hanoi’s police force. Very interesting stuff!
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1. Eat street food
Here’s the thing you should do the most: eat, eat, eat! Vietnam has a very nuanced cuisine and is known in the global menu for obvious reasons. Everything is delicious! Take your fill of pho, banh mi, and my favorite: the bun cha. But don’t just eat in any restaurant. Choose the holes in the wall, or the cluster of tables that spill down the sidewalk. I had a very good bowl of pho for P80 on the edge of a sidewalk in a busy intersection. I had three banh mis during my stay, and my favorite is the one from Banh Mi 25. As for my favorite meal, it’s the bun cha from Bun Cha Huong Lien, the same place where Anthony Bourdain took US President Barack Obama. Bun cha is a grilled pork soup served with vermicelli noodles and vegetables. It was so good I had it twice. For desserts, I highly recommend Kem Trang Tien, an ice cream parlor that’s been around since 1958. The language barrier can be tough, but I advise you to simply signal “one,” which I assume you’ll be given their specialty.
Have you been to Hanoi? What other things would you recommend?
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