Vietnam’s capital city, Hanoi is a bustling and buzzing metropolis quite unlike any other city in the world.
Proud home to one of the world’s longest running communist governments, Hanoi is visited by tens of thousands of tourists each year keen to soak in the Asian vibes, cheap beer, historical sites and healthy nightlife.
There are countless things to do in Hanoi but most visitors tend to stick to the ‘top ten’ lists on TripAdvisor and base themselves in the Old Quarter. Whilst it’s true that no visit to Hanoi is complete without a quick jaunt around the Presidential Palace, a peek at Hoan Kiem Lake and a wander around Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum, there are in fact a lot more places to visit in Hanoi than what immediately meets the eye…
There is another side to Hanoi, a mysterious underbelly of awesomeness, which most guidebooks are simply not aware of. Thankfully though, determined urban explorers like us have toured the backstreets, scraped the underbellies and gotten well and truly off the beaten track to find you the best alternative things to do in Hanoi.
Like all totalitarian regimes, officially sanctioned art and state propaganda have played a huge part in communicating the party message (or indoctrinating the people), particularly during the Vietnam War.
When people ask me what to see in Hanoi I tell them to simply keep an eye on the notice boards and government buildings as you can still see propaganda posters dotted all around the city. There are also some specialised galleries in the Old Quarter where you can see some vintage examples such as images of burning American B-52’s, and even shop for one or two; they do make great souvenirs after all.
The next of our places to visit in Hanoi is the 54 Traditions Gallery. It is a cluttered but utterly captivating space that packs in artworks, antiquities and everyday objects made by craftsmen from the country's ethnic groups (54 of them perhaps?).
Like much of the world, Vietnam is becoming ever more modernised, centralised and ultimately homogenous so it is easy to forget about the rich cultural diversity that exists in the country's jungles and villages – particularly when in cosmopolitan Hanoi. Therefore it is refreshing to get a little insight into these ancient traditions, beliefs and practices. There are wooden statues, fertility symbols and agricultural tools on display and many of the items are for sale. If however you buy an item that turns out to have a shamanic curse on it then we accept no liability.
The gallery is located at 30 Hang Bun which is a 20 minute walk or five minute bike ride from the old quarter. If you are lucky, or call ahead to arrange ((84)4 3715 0194/ 3715 1569), you may even get a free guided tour from the gallery owner.
Remember when we discussed the propoganda posters depicting burning B-52s? Well you can actually see the mangled wreckage of one which was shot down over Hanoi during the notorious “Christmas Campaign” of 1972.
A number of the iconic bombers were brought down in the campaign and the remnants of this one landed in the Huu Tiep Lake where it has been left. It now serves as a haunting monument and testament both to the terror unleashed on the innocent Hanoi-ians by the U.S. Air Force, but also to the resilience of the Vietnamese spirit.
Getting there from the Old Quarter is a 50 minute bus ride with a short walk to the lake at the end.
The Landmark 72 (or Keangnam Hanoi) building is the country's tallest building, clocking in 70 storeys at 345 meters (1,132 ft). Located on Phan Hung Boulevard in the city's financial district, the complex is home to the offices of some major international company (and you thought Vietnam was a communist country…) as well as a 5-star hotel which I have never been able to afford to check into.
You can ride the elevator to the top to scour the panorama (head for the hotel lounge and buy a drink) or if you show up at the right time of year you can compete in the stair race where you have to race up the 1,914 steps all the way to the top. Either way, it is a real Hanoi must-see.
The Vietnamese Women’s Museum tells the story of the women of Vietnam through various collections of items and artefacts drawn from across the ages and from all social stratas. It is a Hanoi must-see for anybody interested in the role the fairer sex has played in the country's development.
Broken down into family, history and fashion, the museum features clothing, jewellery, domestic tools, and letters to show how women throughout the country's history have lived. Of particular interest is the wartime collection which tells both inspirational and shocking stories of the role women played during the War of Resistance such as brave (or crazy) teenage girls running at armoured vehicles carrying grenades.
The museum is located on Thuong Kiet Street; it’s near both the tourist-friendly central Hoan Kiem Lake and the Old Quarter so you may even stumble upon this place without even meaning to.
Don’t let the shabby appearance put you off, this place is fascinating for anybody who wants to gain a better understanding of contemporary Vietnamese society.
The museum focuses on the struggle for independence (1858-1945), the War of Resistance (1945-1975), and the road to recovery (1975 to present). Exhibits include old photographs and letters as well as bombs, bullets and iron shackles used to imprison POWs.
To find this place head to the Tong Dan district or take a rickshaw to the gates to avoid getting lost.
There are so many things to do in Hanoi that trying to do them all may well tire you out. If that happens then head to Bridegroom field for some respite. Bridegroom Field, so called because wedding photographers regularly take their clients here to pose, is a place of peaceful repose a short distance from the bustling madness of the city.
Set along the banks of the Red River, the field is the nearest thing to being in the countryside without actually heading to the countryside. It’s a great place to chill on a sunny afternoon, to watch the sunset, or to people watch as Vietnamese newlyweds (or pre-weds) smile for the camera. It’s also reassuring to see that the annoying “jumping in the air” wedding pictures are as bafflingly popular in Vietnam as they are back in England.
As an extension to this I would also suggest that if you get the chance to attend a Vietnamese wedding you take it as the warm welcome and the free food you will receive will be overwhelming. Look out for a huge tent being erected in the middle of the street as a sign that a wedding is-a-happening.
The field is best reached by motorbike from the Old Quarter by heading along the North Dyke road.
Water Puppetry (where puppets move on yep, water) has flourished in Vietnam for over 1,000 years although of course it has ebbed and flowed in and out of popularity. Today the practice persists more as an obscure tradition as most Vietnamese get their entertainment fix from television. But the little theatre at Thanh Long does a fine job at keeping that tradition alive.
Performances are held twice daily (times subject to change) and generally last for around an hour although you can book a longer, special package that includes dinner. You can also buy yourself a puppet from the giftshop after the show.
The theatre is at Đinh Tiên Hoàng which is a 5 minute walk from the Old Quarter, making it one of the easiest to locate of our places to visit in Hanoi.
So far we’ve told you what to see in Hanoi but what about what to eat in Hanoi? Well the good news is that Vietnam’s cuisine is amongst the best in the world and there are great cafes, restaurants, and street vendors at every juncture; the bad news (at least for vegetarians) is that it’s all seriously carnivorous.
Finding a genuine Vegetarian restaurant even in Hanoi can prove challenging and there is only so much fried rice you can eat. However, Minh Thuy at Ngo Huyen is answer to your herbivorian prayers, offering a delicious mushroom sticky rice and an Asian twist on crepes.
The last of our things to do in central Hanoi is a humble bookstore. The Bookworm is Hanoi’s (and maybe Vietnam’s) leading English language bookshop with over 10,000 new and used tomes available for your perusal and purchase. I love flipping through used books and reading my way through quite a few on long bus rides, so The Bookworm is perfect for stocking up.
Like all the best bookshops, The Bookworm also has a cafe serving decent Vietnamese coffee which is a perfect place to try before you buy and to meet other English speakers. So of all the places to visit in Hanoi this one offers the ultimate cultural exchange. They also occasionally host talks and readings from authors and poets so it is well worth visiting their website to check what’s on.
The store is a few blocks from the Ho Truch Bach Lake, so unless you enjoy walking take a cab or rickshaw from the Old Quarter to Châu Long.
Getting out of the immediate centre now, there are also tons of great places to visit near Hanoi.
Bat Trang is where Hanoi’s ceramic artists ply their trade, manufacturing all manner of cute, quirky or plain tacky figurines, dining plates, and tea sets.
The village is 13km from Hanoi city so set aside at least half a day to get the most out of this and ensure you leave yourself with enough time to shop for the perfect Mickey Mouse figurine to give to your weird sister who still hasn’t grown out of Disney.
As well as shopping you can also take a stroll through the workshops, watch the kilns burning (be warned, it can get very hot!) and even have a go at painting a pot yourself. There is also a clay set and wheel which you can play with if you fancy recreating the famous scene from Ghost.
The village is reached by taking Bus 47 from Long Dien bus station for 15,000 dong. Head there early and you may even be riding with workers on their way to work at the workshops and factories.
Ever wanted to make your own knife?! Of course you have and now you can!
Another cracking place to visit near Hanoi is the blacksmith’s workshops in Ha Dong Town where you can watch traditional kitchen implements including Vietnamese cooking woks being made in the traditional way. You can also join a knife making course where, under expert guidance, you work with the master smithies to make your own knife – including forming the handle, sharpening the blade, and then testing its potency by slicing up a delicious mango.
It gets very hot so dress accordingly and bring plenty of water.
Ha Dong Town was once the capital of an independent district. It’s not connected to Hanoi’s central transport network, so you’ll need to walk to Tang Trien and catch the direct bus from there (it takes around one hour).
So that’s it for my round up of alternative things to do in Hanoi. Of course, there is so much to see in Hanoi that we couldn’t possibly fit it all in here, but I’m pretty sure that this lot will keep you in turn intrigued, shocked, wowed and hopefully sufficiently fed and watered!Until next time guys, see you on the road.
Will Hatton is a professional adventurer, digital nomad and freelance journalist. He is the founder of The Broke Backpacker, where he shares his knowledge and experiences traveling around the world for eight years and counting.
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