Good morning Vietnam! Good morning Hanoi!!!
Welcome to this beautiful country with so much to offer! But what happens if you don’t have as much time as you hoped but still want to get a good feel for it?
We spent 10 days just in Hanoi, the capital of Vietnam!
Why didn’t we travel around more? Why did we stay in a big city when we don’t love cities? Let me start explaining!
Why just Hanoi?
Originally we planned to spend a month traveling around Vietnam. However, we could not stay longer because since reopening to tourism after Covid, they have reduced their visa time to only one month without a chance of renewal. So anyway, we were going to make the best of it!
While exploring Mongolia, Luca broke his leg just before heading to Vietnam. Here is the full post: Luca broke his leg on the road!
This new situation forced us to change our plans. We were not concerned about traveling to Vietnam with a broken leg, but we didn’t want him to be stuck in a warm place and unable to go to the beach and have fun. So we extended our stay in Mongolia, where the weather was cooler. Initially, they had given us 2 months with the cast, so we decided to fly to Vietnam (because we had tickets already) and take advantage of the 15-day visa-free time with our Italian passport.
So here is explained why we stayed in Hanoi. However, we didn’t just sit around and do nothing; we planned our exploration and managed to do most of everything with Luca in a wheelchair. So here are the things we did and recommend for you to do with your kids!
A bit about Hanoi first!
Hanoi, which means “city inside rivers,” is built on the bank of the Red River. Dozens of rivers still flow around the city, forming lakes such as Hoan Kiem Lake, Ho Thien Quang Lake, Truk Bach Lake, Bay Mau Lake, and Tu Le Lake. These lakes are peaceful spots to visit while you’re in Hanoi to get away from the hustle and bustle of the city. An interesting fact about Hanoi is that even the locals often call it the “city of lakes.”
Hanoi is a 1,000-year-old city and has spent much of its time as Vietnam’s political center. In 1010 it became the capital of Vietnam’s Ly dynasty and was the primary capital until 1802. Then the Nguyen dynasty transferred the capital south.
Hanoi again became an important administrative center under French rule, and in 1902 it became the capital of French Indochina. Finally, after the French defeat in 1954, it became the capital of North Vietnam.
Unfortunately, during the Vietnam War, many of its monuments and palaces were destroyed by U.S. bombing; however, in 1976, it became once again the capital of a united Vietnam, and it has been rebuilt and grown since then.
1. Walk around Hoan Kiem Lake in Hanoi
Make sure to go for a walk around Hoan Kiem Lake. This is the heart and soul of Hanoi.
It is a true oasis of tranquillity in the heart of the busy Vietnamese capital. It is one of the city’s most famous spots and is said to be a mystical body of water. Why? It is believed that a mythical resident turtle lives in the lake, the hero of a Vietnamese legend. The islet in the middle of the lake houses the square-shaped Turtle Tower, which pays homage to the sacred animal. Locals believe that the turtle still swims in the lake.
While strolling around the lake, you will also find Ngoc Son temple. This temple, built in the 15th century and located on a green islet of the lake, is dedicated to Confucian and Taoist geniuses.
All day long, the shores of the lake are full of locals and tourists who like to go for a stroll and seek relaxation and freshness. The locals also meet there at dawn to play sports. A great spot to experience some local life!
2. Stop at the Note Cafe in Hanoi
While walking around Hoan Kiem Lake, look for this original cafe: The Note Cafe!
The entire coffee shop, over four floors, is plastered with thousands of small cute sticky notes written by visitors worldwide. Most notes have inspirational quotes and life lessons, with the odd one or two rude funnies to make you giggle. You could easily spend hours roaming the cafe and reading the wise words of fellow travelers worldwide. While at it, create your mark by writing your mantra to share with the world.
Once you get your drink, the staff puts a new note on each cup, making the experience more inspirational.
3. Visit Lotte Tower Observation Deck in Hanoi
If you want a good feel of how big Hanoi is, take the elevator up to the 65th floor of the Lotte Tower and enjoy the view all around this city. There is also a scenic rooftop which we could not visit because we went in the early afternoon, so it was closed.
You will also find a hotel, a few restaurants, a mall, and a grocery store in the same building.
The capital of Vietnam is a very picturesque city, mainly due to the Old Quarter, with its narrow buildings and pastel colors. But do you know the reason behind that look?
Apparently, due to the taxation law introduced in the 19th century by the French, Vietnamese pay house taxes, not on the size of the house but on how wide it is, so the Vietnamese started building their homes long and narrow, saving money in the process, due to this characteristic, they are called ‘tube houses”.
For more information about Lotte Tower, click here!
4. Try the egg coffee at Giang Cafe in Hanoi
Before coming to Hanoi, I had never heard of such a thing as egg coffee. However, once I tried it, somehow, it reminded me of eggnog but with coffee and so much better!
Egg coffee is made of egg yolks beaten up with condensed milk until they are thick and fluffy, then it is poured over a shot of traditional Vietnamese coffee; it is delicious!!!
No worries, plenty more options are available if you don’t drink coffee. For example, egg hot chocolate or egg beer. All just as good!
But why go to Giang Cafe?
Because the owner was the one that invented this coffee, he was the chef in the first 5-star hotel in Hanoi, The Sofitel Metropole, built by French people. One day in 1943, a group from France stayed at the hotel. Everyone ordered coffee with condensed milk, which is typical Vietnamese coffee. At breakfast time, the chef found out he had finished the condensed milk, so he decided to try the yolk of the egg with vanilla and sugar and poured it on coffee, and he realized it wasn’t bad. Everyone loved it!
Doesn’t this give you a reason more to go here?!
For more information about Giang Cafe, click here.
5. Go to Train Street
Whether you are lucky to see the train come by or not, it is still worth a visit!
We went there during the day and walked, pulling a wheelchair, too, along the railway. It is so tight! It is hard to imagine a train going through this small space, but it does every day!
Since it is now a hot spot for tourists, many locals have opened small restaurants and cafes, where tourists will sit and wait for the train or enjoy a very different place to have a meal.
Our kids had fun playing on the railway. However, once the train comes, everyone must get off and stay on the side. The train doesn’t come by often during the day, especially since COVID, so unfortunately, we missed seeing it. Trust me, though; just being there is worth it!
6. Visit the Temple of Literature in Hanoi
This temple represents the spirit of learning and education in the country. It was originally built in 1070 and dedicated to Confucius and scholars. It also shows the characteristics of ancient architecture in Vietnam.
The temple is considered the first national university of Vietnam since the Imperial Academy, where royal members studied in the past was here.
Locals often visit the temple before important exams as students and their families believe that the temple brings good luck and helps students do well at exams.
Another interesting fact is that it is proudly illustrated on the backside of the VND 100,000 banknote.
7. Admire Tran Quoc Pagoda in Hanoi
Tran Quoc Pagoda is the oldest pagoda in Hanoi, dating back over 1,500 years.
It was built in 541 under the reign of King Ly Nam De and was initially located on the Red River bank. However, once the river bank crumbled after more than 150 years, it was moved to the Kim Ngu (Golden Fish) Islet, a small peninsula on the West Lake. Since then, its name changed into Tran Quoc (National Defense), with the hope that Tran Quoc Pagoda would be a place to help people repel natural disasters and also bring them a peaceful life.
The highlight of the pagoda is its garden, with many ancient towers dating back to the 18th century. The most monumental one is the lotus-shaped stupa built in 1998. The stupa is 15m high and composed of 11 floors. Each floor has a vaulted window holding a statue of Amitabha made from gemstone.
The Tran Quoc Pagoda remains special to Vietnam and is a beautiful symbol of Buddhist philosophy. People continue to visit it in large numbers to admire its architecture, history, and culture and to celebrate important festivals.
8. Take a trip to the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum in Hanoi
Ho Chi Minh was the first Communist leader of Vietnam; he was a beloved leader and an important political figure in world history.
Ho Chi Minh defeated the French in 1954.
Before he died in 1969 due to heart failure, he asked that his ashes be scattered. However, the government had other plans. They wanted to ensure he would set an example for future generations. So they built this mausoleum where his people could see him and pay their respects. It was modeled after Lenin’s Mausoleum in Moscow, and visitors can see Ho Chi Minh’s preserved body in a glass case.
Remember that the mausoleum is closed on Mondays and Fridays and for 3 months during the summer to restore and maintain the body. We were there on the first re-opening day, so there was an extremely long line under the beating sun. However, we did not need to see his body, so we walked the grounds.
9. Try crossing the street in Hanoi
One of the biggest challenges in Hanoi is crossing the streets!!! Yes, cars or motorbikes will still keep driving because they don’t stop, not even on crosswalks; however, they will avoid you!
To cross the street, you must time it perfectly and not fear being hit!
Plus, let me tell you something essential if you hate traffic and busy roads, then this is not the place for you! The city is flooded with motorbikes; sometimes, that is all you see on the streets. There are 5 million motorbikes in Hanoi! Owning a motorbike is typical in Hanoi since owning a car is considered a luxury. However, the government already has plans to ban motorbikes by 2030. I can’t imagine it will happen, but seeing it would be interesting! We will keep you updated!
10. Cyclo ride in the Old Quarter in Hanoi
This was one of our favorite ways of exploring Hanoi, especially with a child in a wheelchair. We all jumped on 3 cyclos, like Tuk Tuk but on bikes. They took us around the Old Quarter for one hour to admire much French colonial architecture.
France conquered Hanoi in 1873, and for more than 60 years, it was the administrative center of the colony of French Indochina. So, of course, the French left their mark all over the city, one of the most famous being the Hanoi Opera House.
I must admit, in some moments, it was a bit breathtaking to watch these cyclos get through traffic because, as I mentioned before, traffic is crazy in Hanoi!!! They don’t stop; they avoid you, so in some moments, I wondered if they could!
11. Watch a performance at Thang Long Water Puppet Theatre in Hanoi
Luca’s favorite moment in Hanoi was the puppet show! Thang Long Water Puppet Theater is the best show in Hanoi and Vietnam’s most traditionally significant show. Water puppetry dated back 1,000 years ago. The Ly Dynasty introduced it.
Originally the shows were performed in the rice paddies of the Red River, where the expert puppeteers stood in waist-deep waters and entertained the local rice farmers.
Today, the shows have become universally entertaining for everyone visiting Hanoi because rural Vietnamese customs, culture, and traditions like fishing, harvesting, and village folklore are represented, giving people an insight into their world through this original way of representing it.
7 to 11 puppeteers work harmoniously to keep up with this ancient art.
For more information or tickets, click here.
12. Take a food tour in Hanoi
Hanoi Street can be qualified as having the most authentic street food in the world. Many chefs cook their dishes right there on the street. They cut out chickens, peel onions, and stir their caldrons right on the sidewalk. Once you purchase your food, you can sit on tiny plastic chairs and enjoy your meal!
Of course, we had to try street food, but we wanted to do it with some locals to understand better what we were eating and how to eat it right! We found Hanoi Kids. They are a voluntary English tour-guiding club run by young, friendly students who love Hanoi and bring some insights into Vietnamese culture and tradition through local curation. Our two guides were fantastic, and we had a fun evening walking around the streets and tasting various foods. Check out our video to better understand the food and the experience. Check out the Hanoi Kids website to find all the tours they offer in Hanoi!
13. Go to the street market in Hanoi
Before meeting our guides for the food tour, we walked around the street market and saw some pretty interesting foods. Fruits, veggies, frogs, chicken, fish, and more! Of course, to get around, we had to avoid the many motorbikes squeezing their way through the crowds. It is an authentic experience in itself!
There was also an actual building to explore inside, full of stalls, but we arrived in the evening, so that was already closing down for the day; we did take a peek!
We love buying fresh fruits and veggies, but we also enjoy walking around these markets surrounded by locals and watching as daily life unfolds.
14. Side trip to Halong Bay
To complete our time in Hanoi, we also decided to take a few trips out of town to get a better feel for what this area of Vietnam was all about.
Halong Bay is a famous UNESCO World Heritage site with thousands of beautiful limestone karsts and around 2000 islands and islets. It is incredibly touristy, with millions of people visiting it every year. However, we were determined to get Luca in the water again since his cast was off, so we booked a wooden boat for the day.
The tour took us to a couple of islands, where we explored an enormous cave, which was used as a safe house, shelter, and a bomb-proof hospital during the war between America and Vietnam. Finally, we went to another little island where we could swim in the water, although it was not the sunniest day.
Ha Long Bay means in Vietnamese “The bay where dragons landed.” Legend says that Vietnam was under attack by invaders in ships. To help, the gods sent dragons to help the people. These dragons dropped jewels into the ocean (the Ha Long Bay islands) and created a barrier that prevented invaders from reaching the shore, thus protecting Vietnam. These dragons are said to still reside underwater at Ha Long Bay.
15. Side trip to Trang An
Trang An was our next adventure out of town and our favorite!
We drove out in the countryside and enjoyed a very active day!
The first stop was at Bai Dinh Pagoda, the largest complex of Buddhist temples in Vietnam! We walked around and enjoyed the slow pace of the area compared to the hustle and bustle of Hanoi.
Next, it was time to go on a little boat ride and navigate along the Trang An Landscape Complex, which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site for both nature and culture. The boat ride comprises three routes depending on the length and what you want to see. You are surrounded by a spectacular landscape of caverns and tunnels among limestone karsts, rice paddies, villages, and historic sites. It is truly magical and so peaceful!
We ended the day by hiking up to Mua Cave. To reach the top, we need to climb about 500 stone steps. It is not easy, but it is worth it after you reach the top and are surrounded by the most stunning views!
Here is Hanoi in a nutshell!
We truly enjoyed our time here and would recommend exploring this city and the outskirts for at least a few days. If you need to find a tour to take you around the city and the Northern part of Vietnam, check out this link for some options! Enjoy Hanoi, and enjoy Vietnam!