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12 best things to do in Hanoi (or not)

Some things you absolutely must do in Hanoi, maybe

Carlos Ottery

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1. Drink bia hoi

Top Things To Do Hanoi Bia Hoi Beer

Chào likes beer. You like beer. Everyone likes beer. So go ahead and drink beer. Go to the Old Quarter, pull up a tiny plastic stool, sit on it and drink beer. Order some snacks, watch the various loons, locals and tourists wondering around looking confused. Drink some more. It is cheap- like 5,000 VND (20 cents) per cup cheap. It is about 4% alcohol. Deliciously cold. Don’t like beer? Then sorry, there is nothing we can do about that. Drinking local bia hoi while sitting on a plastic chair is the best thing to do in Hanoi. Done.

2. Swim in one of Hanoi’s many beautiful lakes

Top Things To Do Hanoi Swim Lake

Seriously, don’t do this. The lakes are amazing (to look at). Tay Ho lake is a great place to sit down and drink a beer. Hoan Kiem Lake is a great place to take a date or practice your English. But don’t swim in the lakes. They are full of dead fish. You might get sick.  Much like an American Football match, Hanoi’s lakes are best appreciated from the sidelines where it is safer.

3. Take a Grab bike

Top Things To Do Hanoi Grab Bike

Grab is like an Asian version of Uber. It is useful for those not crazy enough to have their own bike here (like this writer).  A Grab will take you anywhere you want in and around the center of the city for about 2 dollars tops (double this for the car option). This is very cheap. If you do not have friends, it will feel very briefly like you have your very own friend (with wheels). The driver will pick you up, give you a shiny green helmet, and take you wherever you like. Sometimes I imagine the driver is my boyfriend and he is taking me on a romantic journey around the city. You, of course, do not need to do this. If you are drunk take a Grab car not a Grab motorbike. We no do not need to explain why.

4. Risk your life on Hanoi’s Train Street

Top Things To Do Hanoi Train Street

Standing 6 inches away from an ageing train as it whizzes past you is quite a rush. Yes, 6 inches of manliness and fear. It is the sort of thing that would give ‘Health and Safety” nightmares in your home country, well, almost any country really. Nobody cared about Hanoi Train Street three years ago. It was just some place some people lived. Now it is a di rigueur tourist hotspot. Go now, because in the future it will be banned.* Someone will get hurt, and people will decide it is not a good idea to have lots of tourists sitting on a functioning train track. Sit by the tracks and drink a coconut, or an ice cold coffee, or a craft pomegranate cider. We recommend the first cafe to open on the street. Also, just go once. You really do not need to go more than once, unless you are a train fetishist.

5. Huff a balloon full of laughing gas

Balloons Hanoi

Apparently, rich dudes started doing this in the 1790s, and now everyone is doing it. Do NOT do this. You will probably fall off your stool and hurt your head. Nobody likes falling off a stool and hurting their head. It is not a good look. Drink a beer instead. Alcohol is a better (and cheaper) drug than Nitrous oxide. This was decided many years ago.

6. Hang out in Hanoi Old Quarter

Top Things To Do Hanoi Old Quarter

A guy will try to sell you a cheap lighter. Another guy will try to “fix” your shoes. Another guy will try to get you to visit a prostitute. This will probably all happen at once, while you get steadily lost. Such, such are the joys of the Old Quarter. Simply put, it is the best place in the city to people-watch and take in a bit of local life, despite its reputation a tourist trap. Do you want a Tin Tin in Hanoi t-shirt? Do you want to have a lengthy chat with a Vietnamese teenager about your favorite color? Do you want to drink endless bia hoi over plates of crispy spring rolls and chicken feet? Yes, yes, yes you do. So go and have a wander around the district that is truly the city’s heartbeat.

7.  Eat a banh mi

Top Things To Do Hanoi Banh Mi

Sandwiches are the best things ever invented. This is not a point of debate. Know anybody that has never eaten a sandwich? Exactly. People have been eating them for thousands of years (no, the sandwich was not invented by an English Lord in the 1750s, though he did like them). The Vietnamese version of the sandwich is superb. It will be a baguette type-thing filled, if you are lucky, with some meat, some pate and perhaps some vegetables. Do not listen to people who tell you what is and what is not an “authentic banh mi.” Eat what you like. No, we do not know the best place to get a banh mi in Hanoi. Just try some places. I quite like this place. But then I like McDonald’s, a lot. So maybe don’t listen to me.

8. Make friends with people from Hanoi

Top Things To Do Hanoi Making Friends

If you are visiting or living in Hanoi, then you are probably in to making friends with people that are actually from the city. If not, then you probably should be. Hanoians are fun, friendly people, generally happy to show you around and help if you get into trouble. They will also know really cool places that you would never have heard of otherwise, like the best place to drink beer until 6 a.m., or where to find a really good S&M dungeon on a Tuesday night (ok, maybe not that). In fact, if you make a friend from Hanoi you have probably made a friend for life. So go say chao, and break bread with the people that live here. You will be rewarded.

9. Wear a traditional conical hat

Top Things To Do Hanoi Vietnamese Hat

If you are walking around on a hot day, then this type of hat will keep you cool (not that type of cool) and shaded. It was designed that way and is really, really effective. Do not worry about if it is cultural appropriation or not (nobody cares). It will keep you cool. If you are a white dude wearing one of these, you will look (and probably feel) a bit stupid. Sometimes looking stupid is ok. It is up to you. If looking cool is very important to you, maybe do not wear a conical cat. Try a Panama paired with sunglasses instead.

10. Drink an egg coffee

Top Things To Do Hanoi Egg Coffee

Look, this is not the beverage version of pho. It is a relatively new thing. People started drinking it in the 1940s because there was a milk shortage due to war. So yeah, it is not that different to the way my grandmother made mashed turnip with sugar during WWII because there was a banana shortage (all true). The thing is, somewhat counterintuitively, egg coffee tastes pretty luxurious – it is rich, sweet and fluffy. Also, when you tell your parents you like drinking egg coffee, they will be baffled. Confusing your parents for no good reason is fun.

11. Watch a traditional Vietnamese water puppet show

Top Things To Do Hanoi Water Puppets

This is genuinely awesome. It was started many centuries ago by farmers to amuse themselves in the flood season, and it is still entertaining today. There are colorful puppets shooting shimmering fireworks at each other whilst splish-splashing in a man-made pond. There are dragons that breathe fire. The music and mood lighting is excellent. Also, it only last about 40 minutes, which is perfect in a day and age when people do not have long attentions spans. And let’s face it, the fact you are reading about the 12 best things to do in Hanoi and not, say, something by Proust, probably means you do not have a long attention span. Go watch a water puppet show. You will enjoy it. Guaranteed.

12. Have a cocktail at the Metropole

Top Things To Do Hanoi Cocktails

Some of you like to class it up now and then, and it does not get much classier than the Metropole. If there is anywhere classier in Hanoi than the Metropole do let us know. Also, their cocktails are exquisite – it is quite possible they may have even been made by a mixologist, which is like a DJ but for drinks. We recommend a whiskey sour – because nothing quite says neo-classical aristocratic luxury like a whiskey sour. Another upside is that Graham Greene used to hang out here. Yes, the second best British novelist of the 20th century (Orwell is first, if you are asking).  Having a drink in the same hotel that Greene drank in is pretty neat. Also, try not to wear flip-flops; as mentioned, it is a really smart place.

So, there you go. The 12 best things to do in Hanoi, or perhaps not. Disagree? Of course, you do. What are your must dos in Hanoi? Let us know.

*Update: Too late. Hanoi Train Street is now closed. It got killed. Probably by Instagram.

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