But let's set expectations first. Vietnam is sold to the world as a quaint picturesque slice of Asia, with romantic French influences. While that may be true in *tiny* pockets, mostly you're just setting yourself up for disappointment. Think a city that's in your face, hectic, brash and on the verge of development and you'd be on the right track.
But you really want to know is what to do right? Right. So here is my guide to things actually worth doing (in no particular order):
This is of the touristy things to do but worthwhile and very pretty. Don't bother with just a day trip - it's too far to go and come back without being completely exhausted.
Be warned, the drive there is a long one and not the most comfortable in the world. And even if your bus driver is driving on the wrong side of the road and you see another vehicle coming head on, don't worry, you're probably not going to die.
I went on the Bhaya and you can check out some photos here.
If possible make time to visit both HaLong Bay AND Sapa. Sapa is a bit of effort but worth the time. Laura was here for a week and we hectic-ly did both and she said it was worth it (especially coming from so far). There actually isn't very much to do in Hanoi itself so you can get away with only a night or two there.
To get to Sapa you need to take an overnight train there and back, plus do a night there. It's very mountainous and unlike anything else in Vietnam. It's filled with ethnic tribes who still live a relatively traditional way of life and trekking through it is amazing.
Book a tour through an agent, or other friends have recommended the Sapa Sisters.
Bay Mau Lake at 5am in the morning
You probably won't see this in any guidebook but to me Bay Mau Lake is the number one thing to do in Hanoi and an amazing insight into Vietnam. It is a massive manmade lake where early in the morning and in the afternoon you'll find it packed to the brim with people er... exercising, but nothing like you'll ever seen it before. There are people ballroom dancing, playing soccer, muscle men and my favourite- women of all ages doing booty dancing aerobics to booming 90's trance. I partook on a number of occasions and it's actually really hard!
Eat Eat Eat
There is so much amazing food in Hanoi. The Vietnamese food we have in Australia is from the south and before I moved there I didn't even realise there was a difference. It's a bit more plain (you have to reset your expectations for pho) and just...different. I can't explain it.
The absolute best way to try as many things as possible is Tu and Mark's Hanoi Street Food Tour. Even after living there I still felt intimidated going to some street food vendors and then there was always the stress of whether I paying the right amount.
Some may think it's bit pricey compared to other things (only by Vietnam standards) but it's worth it because it's a private tour and also includes all the food, drinks and taxi's so all you have to do is concentrate on eating. It takes the awkwardness out of navigating street food (i.e. language/where to go) and is really flexible. I love food way too much and even I was too tired and full to even keep going for the whole time allocated. Read more about what we ate here.
As well as the above, here are some other food I miss painfully and you should eat so I can vicariously through you:
- Bun cha: I think about/miss this on a weekly basis. My absolute favourite Hanoi food. Haven't found in Sydney at all!
- Pho @ 49 Bat Dan (with egg, remember it's a very plain version)
- Cha ca: Fried fish with dill. Dill in Vietnamese food! Who knew.
- Ban cuon: Every single I person I took here lost their shit
- Pho cuon: There are lots of places around the cute Truc Bach lake area.
Some really good Viet food where it's easy to order (i.e. English menus):
- Highway 4: The rice wine they make are great for presents. Trivia: I fell down the stairs at one of their restaurants.
- Quan An Ngon
- Chim Sao
Other random food:
- Khang is one of the best Japanese restaurants I've been to, ever.
- Sushi train hotpot. Yes yes yes.
- El Guacho does really a good steak
- My hipster cafe that gave me sanity was the Hanoi Social Club. SANITY.
- La Badiane is my favourite French restaurant and you get a big 3 course meal for around $50- amazingly worth it. Screw the Vietnamese food, if you have one night in Hanoi eat here!!
Have a yoghurt coffee at Cong Caphe . This is place is awesome and I was there way too much. It will change your life. The original is on Trieu Viet Vuong, the bigger fancy version is on Dien Bien Phu
Visit a rooftop bar for sunset
There's two awesome ones, Rooftop Bar (get there before it turns loud and smokey, lunch is okay too) and the one at the Sofitel Plaza (not Sofitel Metropole) which is pretty amazing in a different way.
Sunset bonus points: if you want a surreal experience you can also hit golf balls into the lake at the Hanoi Club.
Have a drink /Sunday brunch/chocolate buffet at Le Club at the Sofitel Metropole. This place is beautiful and my most favourite thing in Hanoi. I still think about the ceiling fans and the steak tatare. I would suggest you do this at the end of your trip for some calm closure and sanity from the city. Don't order the high tea- they just take items from the chocolate buffet and put it on a plate!
For the girly girlz
As you'll find out in the old quarter there are streets that sell very specific things. I forget which they are, but ask where you are staying where you can find party street, fabric/button street and also fake flowers corner.
Also, the fabric market is crazy/suffocating and fun to look at. I paid around $3AUD a metre for cottons, but be prepared to bargain (sigh) and that all the fabrics are stacked not in reams. Overall, it's SO much cheaper than Australia. It's on the corner of Pho Hue and Tran Xuan Soan.
And the rest...
- Our favourite bar was CAMA ATK and also Bar Betta
- The New Hanoian is crap looking site is pretty much the guide to all the events on
- Read what our visitors liked and didn't like
- Want more city reading?- my friend Tabitha pretty much wrote the best Hanoi blog of all time. Read about Chicken Moments.