This Friendly, Lantern-Lit City of Southeast Asia Is Having a Comeback
May the streets overflow with food stalls.
On the streets of Hanoi, a torrent of motorbikes wind between dragon-throned temples, winged-roof pavilions, colorful colonial buildings with French doors, and modern glass towers. People chatter around wooden tables crammed under balconies strung with glowing lanterns. Roadside stands sell banh mi, banh xeo, mangos, haircuts, knockoff North Face jackets, air for your moto tires, and much, much more everywhere you look. And generous bystanders are more than willing to point you in the right direction (the right direction, if you’re wondering, is always toward delicious food).
The lively capital of Vietnam is an intoxicating mix of wandering travelers and welcoming locals. Beware of locking eyes with any grandma-types taking shots, as it will be exceedingly difficult to get out of joining them. Actually, this goes for pretty much all Vietnamese people. One minute you catch someone’s eye and smile and nod politely, and the next thing you know it’s 3 am and you’ve been drinking rice wine called “ruou” for hours.
Vietnam and its capital city of Hanoi have come a long way from a not-so-distant past. It’s a complicated history that has already been well documented (Ken Burns’ epic, 10-hour documentary The Vietnam War is a good place to start), but suffice to say that it’s gone through plenty of change over the past half-century. Fifty years ago, Hanoi was one of the most geopolitically isolated cities in the world.
Then, like the rest of the world, Vietnam closed for business in 2020, isolating itself more extremely than most other countries. Though I’d been living in Hanoi when the pandemic hit and fled at the last possible minute, now Vietnam is open once again, many like myself are chomping at the bit to get back. Today it’s becoming one of the most popular destinations in Southeast Asia, drawing backpackers, slow travelers, and so-called “digital nomads” from all over the globe. Here’s what to do in Hanoi.
Find your neighborhood hang
The French Quarter is without a doubt the city’s principal tourist region, for good reason. Located along the eastern side of the central, tiny lake of Hoan Kiem, there is an absurd amount to do and, especially, eat here. With its blend of Vietnamese design and French-colonial architecture, it’s a photographer’s dream. We’ll get to restaurants in a moment, but suffice to say that you’ll likely spend much of your time wandering around eating and sipping delicious Vietnamese coffees. The walk around the lake is delightful, and the temple Ngoc Son on the little peninsular island is a must-see.
To the north is the Old Quarter, where the markets are the principal must-do. Did I mention the French Quarter was where all the tourists end up? Well, the Old Quarter rivals it in terms of tourist attractions. The weekend night market is great, though you can wander its handicrafts and vendors any day of the week. On the border between the Old and French Quarters is Dong Kinh Nghia Thuc Square, where you absolutely must go to one of the many restaurants in the old Toa Nha Ham Ca Map building, find a seat on one of the upper balconies, and watch the street-life boil down below.
The more medium- to long-term visitors tend to congregate on the north edge of the city along the bigger lake in a neighborhood called Tay Ho. Here you’ll find an international hodgepodge of restaurants launched by immigrants from Mexico, Russia, France, Italy, and so on and so forth. There is, of course, an abundance of incredible Vietnamese food to be had in Tay Ho, but cuisine from around the world abounds.
As far as specific accommodations go, the Lakeside Lotus Hotel, is located conveniently on the border between Tay Ho and Old Town. Many of its rooms provide balcony views of the lake, and they boast a 1950s French colonial era aesthetic.The owners hosted me during the early days of the pandemic lockdown and are tremendously kind people.
Eat street food and banh mis
For starters, street food. All the street food. Don’t be shy—the less regulated a place looks, the better the food will almost certainly be. It’s impossible to pick a favorite, but twist my arm and I’ll say Cua Hang Nem Nuong Yen Phu in Tay Ho. A little family-run spot that’s been around since the early ‘90s, it’s a delicious place to stop for a banh mi sandwich.
Speaking of banh mi (pronounced “bong me”—yes, really), eat them every opportunity you get. Made with either pork, chicken, or egg along with pate, pickled veggies, and a delicious sweetish, vinegarish, spicyish sauce all served on a fresh French bread bun, this is one of the tastiest foods on Earth and I will fight anyone who says otherwise.
Another must-eat is bun bo nam bo. Delicious options are all over the city, but I’m particularly partial to Bun Bo Nam Bo Bach Phuong in the Old Quarter.
In the lower French Quarter is Quan Bun Cha Huong Lien, which became famous after Anthony Bourdain took Barack Obama there (which is about as much cred as a destination can get). However, some locals insist that the food is pretty uninspiring and you always have to wait in a crazy line to get said uninspiring food. Instead, I recommend Nom Nguyet just down the street. Order anything at all and it will be delicious. If you’re unsure about the extensive menu and want something familiar, look for the word “ga,” which means chicken.
If you end up wanting a break from Vietnamese food (which is hard for me to comprehend, but hey, to each his own) Anita’s Cantina in Tay Ho has tasty Mexican food and a lively atmosphere. Nearby, you can also find the French spot Cousins, which has rich meats and a pleasant garden space.
Check out the pagodas
After all the war stuff, you might be in the mood for something decidedly more peaceful.
Buddhist pagodas abound all over the country, and they represent some of the most beautiful architectural and artistic works in the world. You seemingly can’t walk two hundred meters without coming across one.
There are a lot of stunning examples throughout Hanoi, but Tran Quoc is a popular, central option.
Booze up with some bia hoy and laughing gas
“Bia hoi” is a beer made daily and served fresh the same day, and a “bia hoi” is also a bar where they serve said beer. It’s a light, endlessly drinkable brew that’s typically available with food. These establishments tend to be outdoor garden settings, and there are many to choose from. I’m partial to a little dive called Quan Bia 99.
In the upper part of town, sort of between Tay Ho and the Old Quarter, is the Venue, a bustling little bar where you can take in live music and socialize until daylight. While you’re there, you might as well inhale a balloon of nitrous oxide, aka laughing gas. These balloons are common in bars all over Vietnam, and making proper use of them becomes a frequent occurrence after midnight.
See the city (and beyond) via motorbike
Motorbikes and scooters are the ubiquitous method of transport in Hanoi and, indeed, the rest of Vietnam. While navigating Hanoi traffic isn’t for the faint of heart, it’s also one of the most exhilarating (and downright practical) experiences to be had.
Rent a bike from Stone, a local guy who provides truly outstanding service. I once got a flat in the middle of the night, and he popped right out and got it fixed for me in less than an hour while I kicked back at a bia hoi. He also gives tours of the countryside in fluent English. And he’s just an all-around nice dude.
Speaking of the countryside, definitely moto out of town or really anywhere in Vietnam. The roads are in great shape, and everywhere you go you’ll find gorgeous views and friendly, helpful people. If you’re looking for a quick day drive near Hanoi, head out to Thay Pagoda, a dazzling thousand-year-old temple nestled in a charming village, where you can enjoy a profoundly beautiful afternoon.
Another great ride is the little road around the Tay Ho lake. Spend a couple hours buzzing around it, stopping occasionally for bia hoi beer, tasty food, and strong, delicious Vietnamese coffee. The views all around the lake are gorgeous. Historical note: It was in this lake that John McCain crashed in 1967.
Visit Uncle Ho and see the war sites
While the famous Vietnamese leader and military strategist Ho Chi Minh’s legacy is somewhat complicated in the US, he’s pretty widely hailed as a hero in Vietnam. You can visit his mausoleum in a pleasant park in the center of the city.
That’s just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to war-related sites worth visiting. Near the top of your list should be the infamous Hanoi Hilton. This was not a hotel, but rather a prison that was originally founded by French colonizers (who did some pretty horrible things there) before becoming a POW camp.
Have a late night out in Old Quarter
Sometimes Old Quarter is too touristy for my tastes, and sometimes it’s just touristy enough. The simple fact is that it’s very easy to go out in this wild neighborhood and have a really great time.
Wander around during the day to shop the extraordinarily diverse range of wares. Sit at an intersection restaurant for dinner, eat (delicious) things at random, and watch the street life pass by. Drink cheap Tiger beers, bar hop, and stumble into conversations with people from all over the world until deep into the morning. Sometimes the crowd here is too much, but sometimes it’s just right.