When we were planning our Asian vacation, Hanoi was the hardest destination to sell out of the four that we went to. Bangkok was easy because it is a world-famous city, Phuket because of the gorgeous beaches, Siem Reap because of Angkor Wat.
But Hanoi didn't have any obvious attractions that I could easily point to as evidence. Even with as many Anthony Bourdain recommendations and lists espousing the city's greatness as I could throw at them, the evidence was still a little lacking, but persistence paid off and we spent the first three days of our trip there.
Check mate. There wasn't a second that we didn't enjoy our time in Hanoi, and we left wanting more.
I still can't sell you on Hanoi's sights attracting you to the city; it's something you can't explain. But all four of us enjoyed the vibes of the city more than any other we've visited. I've seen it dubbed "Paris of the East" time after time, and I totally get that now. On the surface, the thousands of scooters sputtering by and the sidewalks packed with vendors give the illusion of a hectic pace rivaled only by Manhattan.
But dig a little deeper and you'll be rubbing elbows with locals sipping Vietnamese coffee, slurping pho, or enjoying Bia Hoi. And it seems like they do it all day, every day. I asked myself the same questions about Hanoi that I did about Paris. What do these people do all day? Do they have jobs? Or do they just hang out, eat, and drink all day?
You have to take in Hanoi similarly to Paris as well. If you sprint as fast as you can from the Museum of Ethnology to Hoa Lo Prison to the Temple of Literature without any time to reflect, then you're doing Hanoi wrong. Not that you shouldn't go to any of these places; they are all worth a visit. But slow down a little bit. The most enjoyable part of seeing the city is to just soak in the ambiance.
Some of the best places to slow down are one of the many lakes in the town. Hoan Kiem Lake, smack in the middle of the Old Quarter, is the most popular. It gives a Central Park like reprieve from the hustle and bustle. It is simply amazing how this slice of serenity exists just a few meters from some of the busiest streets that you'll find anywhere in the world. This is where Hanoians come to jog, do Tai Chi, or simply sit and take in the scenery.
West Lake is another, much larger lake a little bit out of the Old Quarter. This is another great place to soak in the scenery and people watch. And you can take a paddle boat out here if you need to get your sea legs a little workout.
You can also visit the Tran Quoc Pagoda on a small island in West Lake. This gorgeous temple is a great place to watch locals worship. The pagoda is the oldest in Hanoi and has been in this spot since the 15th century.
You also have to eat right to truly enjoy Hanoi. This isn't hard, because there's not a single block in the Old Quarter that doesn't have at least a couple of food stands.
Sure, there are sit down restaurants too, but to get a feel for Vietnamese cuisine, the street vendors are where it's at. Don't let the lack of western health standards keep you from diving in. Hanoi is a city of 7 million and the leading cause of death is not food poisoning. Get over it. Plus, there's something strangely refreshing about eating your dinner while sitting in a plastic chair designed for a four year old on a busy sidewalk. I can't explain why it is so enjoyable, but it is definitely part of the Hanoi experience.
The best way to get an overall picture of the food is by doing a street food tour. Our tour was $20 and included stops at 8 different stands. We sampled pho, bun cha, dry noodles, banh mi, coffee, dessert, and more. I highly recommend doing this on your first night in town; it gives you a great primer on the local food and helps you get your bearings amongst the streets in the Old Quarter.
Another must-do if you want to get a different perspective of Hanoi is to book a free tour with one of the many organizations that offer them (we used hanoifreetourguides.com). The tours are given by local high school and college students who are looking to improve their English and will give you a perspective of local life that you can't get at a tourist attraction.
Our guides, Minh and Gris, were completely awesome. Sure, they took us to see sights around West Lake, to the pagoda, and to the Museum of Ethnology. But they were extremely personable and open. We honestly had way more fun just chatting with them at the end of the day over a cup of coffee. We definitely will catch up with them if we ever make it back to Hanoi.
We also enjoyed Hoa Lo prison, the old French prison in the middle of town where the colonial government held political prisoners and later was used to house American pilots captured during the Vietnam War.
All in all, our brief visit to Hanoi was just an appetizer. It left us wanting more, and all four of us agreed to a future visit. The laid back vibe, interesting food, and friendly people made this one of my favorite destinations that I have been to. Hanoi, we will meet again.