Hanoi, Vietnam’s capital, lies in the north of the country on the banks of the Red River. It’s a stand-out city on the Southeast Asian backpacker trail: home to European architecture, ancient artefacts, delicious food, and a buzzing nightlife.
Over the last thousand or so years Hanoi has been occupied by many different countries, leaving the city’s make-up as a mixing-pot of many different cultures. It was in 938 AD that Hanoi first became the capital of Vietnam, ending 1000 years of being ruled by ancient China. Temples to Confucius continued to be built throughout the city and remain some of its most visited attractions.
By the late 19th century the French had colonised the country and European influence began to spread. French architecture is can be seen throughout Hanoi and the city’s French Quarter remains a microcosm of Western style living, shops, and affluent lifestyles.
Like most of Vietnam, Hanoi became a battle-ground in the American-Vietnam war. Whilst swathes of the city were destroyed in the conflict these are long since rebuilt. Hanoi has moved on with grace – reminders of the war do still exist in the city including the Hoa Lo Prison Museum and American War Museum, both well worth a visit.
Things to do
If you’re traveling on our Southeast Asia adventure we like to pack in a combination of seeing the city’s historical sights, exploring its rich culture, and embracing its buzzing nightlife.
The Hanoi Citadel is one of the city’s UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Artefacts have been found there dating back to the 6th century, including the foundations of old palaces along with coins and pottery from throughout Asia. The citadel offers the opportunity to get a snapshot of Imperial Vietnam’s lengthy history all in one space.
To understand modern Vietnam’s identity, head to the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum and Museum. Ho Chi Minh, father of present day Vietnam, has his corpse preserved in a glass case in the centre of the mausoleum. It’s worth noting to dress respectfully, that means no shorts or sleeveless tops.
If you’re looking to delve into the heart of Hanoi, then the Old Quarter is where you want to be. Made up of narrow, intertwined streets and lanes it’s a maze of markets, cafes, and bars. It’s easy to spend a day wandering around it making your way through its bustling markets and appreciating its 13th century architecture. If you’re looking to relax there head to Hoan Kiem Lake, placed in the centre of the district. Sit peacefully on its banks and, if you’re lucky, get to watch Hanoi locals practicing Tai Chi.
It’s also the Old Quarter that makes for some of the best nights out in Hanoi. The winding, labyrinthian streets make for an exciting path for a bar crawl. With that in mind, it’s worth going on your night-time adventure as part of a group and with a Hanoi local. (On The Dragon Trip we like to go on our hostel’s free bar crawl.) If you’re looking for a less wild night-out, The French Quarter is a host to a plethora of up-market bars which operate at a slower pace.
What to eat
A must try whilst visiting is banh mi. A fusion-food influenced by French colonial occupation, this Vietnamese sandwich combines a French style baguette with a sticky Vietnamese sauce. We’d recommend Pateta Banhmi if you’re looking to grab one.
Pho (a rice noodle soup) is one of Vietnam’s most famous traditional dishes. It is said to have originated in Hanoi so it’s no surprise it can be found anywhere you go. If you’re looking to get good value, authentic pho the street food markets are a great place to head. Some of the best to explore are Dong Xuan market and Ngo Sy Lien market.
For more information on Vietnamese cuisine and other Southeast Asian culinary delights have a read of our Southeast Asian food blog.
When to visit
April and May or September and October are the best months to be in Hanoi for weather. Rainfall is relatively rare and temperatures are pleasantly placed between 20 and 30 degrees. It’s the perfect time of year to relax and enjoy the city.
June, July and August are the hottest months in which temperatures can reach up to 40 degrees. As much as some may love the sun, the high heat can make moving around Hanoi hard-work. Our advice in mid-summer is to take it slow and drink plenty of water. Unlike the south of the country Hanoi does become relatively cold in the winter months (around 10 degrees) so it’s worth remembering to pack a few layers if visiting at that time of year.