The Best Things To Do In Hanoi!
The city of Hanoi is absolutely jam-packed with memorable and inexpensive experiences. We’ve taken the liberty of listing a couple of our favourites, but at the end of the day, the City of Hanoi is yours to explore. Sure, we can help you along with some great half-day tours and experiences, but the best way to get to know a city is to get lost in that city. So my advice to you would be to pack your bags, put on your most comfortable walking shoes and head out into the beautiful symphony of chaos that is Hanoi. If that sounds way too daunting for you, first stop by our office at 62 Hang Buom, enjoy a delicious iced coffee and we’ll steer you in the right direction.
Drink some Bia at a Bia Hoi in the old Quarter
The Bia Hoi, literally translates to Fresh Beer, is a quintessential element of northern Vietnam. It’s also a very difficult concept to explain to someone who’s never been to one. It’s not a bar, it’s not a tavern, and it’s definitely not a pub. But in a way, it’s all three of those things, without entirely being one of them… Think of a Bia Hoi as a street food stall, but instead of artery-blocking deep-fried delights, they serve beer and loads of it. The beer is served as draughts from kegs, and it’s a welcome refuge from the Hanoi heat. The beer itself is a light beer when compared to the beers of Europe, but that’s a good thing; the last thing you want to be doing on a 40 C day is struggling with a dark and heavy Belgian beer. Given the lower alcohol levels of the beer the Bia Hoi isn’t created as a place to overindulge oneself, but rather as a meeting place for the locals, where they can share stories and meet up and touch base with their neighbours.
You’ll find a Bia Hoi on almost every street in Hanoi, normally indicated by little plastic tables and chairs and a, usually, big red and yellow banner with a keg on it. Feel free to stop by any of these fine establishments if you feel the need to be refreshed during your exploration of the city. But if you want to see the social lubrication that the Bia Hoi offers, you will need to visit Ta Hien Beer Street in the old quarter. Come 8 o’clock in the evening and this street transforms from a docile little alleyway into a fast-flowing river of beer, laughter, and stories! Make sure you get your table in time and sit back and watch the madness unfold while sipping on an ice-cold beer. As ever, when large groups of people get together the opportunity for something to go wrong increases, so be aware of your belongings and valuables, or better yet, leave them in the safe at your hotel and only bring along your essentials for your hoppy night of fun!
Experience Hoan Kiem during “walking street.”
The Vietnamese people really know how to make the best of the weekend. That’s why, come 6 pm on a Friday you’ll see some strange going ons around Hoan Kiem and surrounding areas. The first thing you’ll notice is green-clad policemen dragging barricades into the road – don’t worry, you’ve not walked into a high-security area, it’s just in preparation for the, soon to commence, weekend walking street that takes place each and every weekend around the lake. In about 30 minutes time the roads around the lake will be totally devoid of any cars or motorbikes. In their stead will be children driving around in toy cars, people playing badminton, street stalls with all kinds of wares, impromptu musical performances, and even some ballroom dancing – complete with suits and gowns!
The weekend walking street is the absolute best way of seeing how the City of Hanoi comes to live. The culture and living conditions in Hanoi means that people live their lives outwardly, spending as much of their day in front of their house, chatting to neighbours, as they spend inside of their house. Over weekends this custom reaches a new level, with the entire heart of the city being transformed into what feels like one giant neighbourhood party. Walking through crowds of children playing, lovers dancing, teenagers singing, and adults catching up with their friends over some Tra, you’ll realise that you’ll be hard-pressed to find this sense of community in any other city with a population of 8 million people. In fact, you’ll be hard-pressed to find it in a city of 4 million people. And it makes you realise that Hanoi isn’t as much a city, as it is a giant patchwork of small villages.
Explore the City by bike
So you’ve explored the city of Hanoi, you’ve seen all that there is to see and you’ve had all the guided tours you can possibly have… But you still have this nagging feeling, something telling you that there has to be more, there has to be a side of Hanoi that I’ve not yet explored. We agree with you wholeheartedly. That’s why we at Friends Travel Vietnam have invested over 1750 hours into crafting a uniquely authentic Hanoi experience: The Real Hanoi Bicycle Experience! The Real Hanoi Bicycle Experience was started in 2017 by the founders of Friends Travel Vietnam under a new company named “Biking Around Vietnam”. Sidney, a Dutchman, and his Vietnamese wife, Thao, decided to focus their expertise and passion on creating a tour that is both unique and environmentally sustainable.
Explore the city from the seat of your custom made European style bicycle as we take you on a 15km tour of the city of Hanoi, that even most locals seldom get to see. This experience is perfect for anybody who’s comfortable on a bike, whether young or old, in a group or alone, travelling with your family or friends. But be warned, if you want a standard exploration of Hanoi, you’ll need to look somewhere else, The Real Hanoi Bicycle Experience is anything but standard. Contact us today to book your bike!
Let your taste buds go on a meandering with a street food tour
Vietnam has one of the most intriguing cuisines on the face of the planet. It is hallmarked by its use of fresh and vibrant flavours, being paired with sweet, tangy, and sometimes spicy flavours to create something completely new and authentic. And Hanoi is one of Vietnam’s culinary epicentres, if not the centre when it comes to well-balanced tastes and flavours. Hanoi differs from the rest of Vietnam in the sense that this city puts a lot more importance on the subtlety of the flavours in the dishes, rather than going for in your face flavours that the south has become famous for. You do not need to go far to find an eatery in Hanoi. Almost each and every street is packed with them, whether it be in the guise of large restaurants, small family eateries, or the humble street hawker selling their mouthwatering wares.
But with so much on offer, where should you start? Nevermind the sheer amount of options available, the language barrier is also in your way. Then add onto that the knowledge of what it should actually taste like and how much it should cost, and you’ll find your quickly drowning in the murky waters of uncertainty.
That’s why we always advise guests travelling with us to make a street food tour the first thing they do after checking into their hotel. A street food tour acts as an invaluable crash course, allowing you very specific insights into the local cuisine. This is information and knowledge that won’t just be handy during your stay in Hanoi, but also throughout your travels in Vietnam. Book your Real Hanoi Street Food Experience now!
Take A Walking Tour Around all Hanoi’s major sights
A Walking tour is one of the best ways for you to see most, if not all, of Hanoi’s major sites. Depending on the tour you choose and the price you are willing to pay, the tour can vary from 1,5 hours to 3,5 hours, with the latter options usually including lunch or dinner, so they tend to give you more bang for your buck. Of course, as the customer, you have the final say about how much you want to spend on such an experience.
But we will not be doing our job if we did not at least give you the following piece of advice: When deciding on a walking tour either go for one that is completely free or be willing to spend a bit more money and go for one that is above the average going rate. The reason for this is quite simple; in Vietnam one tends to get what you pay for. This is a piece of advice that relates to almost each and every purchasable product, including tours and experiences. The reason why we feel comfortable in advising a free tour is that the free tour is usually operated by high school or university students, looking to practise their English language skills.
While they aren’t dedicated tour guides, they still have amazing knowledge, stories, and insight about the places that they take their guests to. Also, while the tour is free, a tip of gratuity rewarding good service or enthusiasm will be appreciated. If you join a free tour, not being led by a student, you should be careful, as these sometimes turn out to be a scam where the guides take their guests to shops and restaurants charging inflated prices.
As for the cheaper walking tour options, we do not advise these to our guests. Yes, of course, you may be one of the lucky few and get a great tour for a bargain price, but the feedback that we’ve received during our time as a leading tour operator has been overwhelmingly negative. Like we said, in Vietnam, you tend to get what you pay for and a bargain is only a bargain for so long. So, at the end of the day you have two options, go for free and support a local student with some highly coveted language practice, or pay a little bit more and have a truly unforgettable Hanoian experience.
Watch a Water Puppet show at Thang Long Water Puppet Theatre
Water Puppetry is as Vietnamese and Hanoian as Pho Bo and Bun Cha! This ancient art developed somewhere around the 11th century and it has been a proud part of the Vietnamese heritage ever since. Today there are various famous water puppet theatres where you will be able to appreciate this art form, with Thang Long Water Puppet Theatre probably being the most famous of the lot.
The art of Water Puppetry has very humble origins, with it originally being performed on/in actual rice paddies. A small temple would be constructed on the paddy, to obscure the puppeteers, while the front part of the paddy would be left open to serve as a watery stage. These shows were strongly linked to the recently completed rice harvest, and the themes of the shows would reflect as much.
The puppets themselves are extremely intricate with some of them weighing over 15 kilograms. Normal operation of such a large puppet could prove cumbersome, but the ability of the puppets to float in the water greatly reduces this effect and makes for delightfully lifelike performances from the wooden figures.
Today, these shows are much more intricate than their ancient counterparts, with each show being accompanied by a traditional Vietnamese orchestra to provide background music. The instruments are used effectively to help tell the story, with a light and noble bamboo flute being used to accompany figures of royalty, while drums and cymbals will be used to announce the menace of a fast-approaching fire-breathing dragon. Singers of Chèo, a form of opera from the North of Vietnam, acts as the narrative of the show with them singing the story that’s being acted out by the puppets. An interesting feature is that these singers would frequently break, what is known in western theatre as, the fourth wall to warn or encourage the characters, further highlighting the difference between this art form and its western counterparts.
The overall theme of the water puppet shows are one of an agrarian background, with the stories usually taking place against a rural backdrop. The themes also strongly focuses on Vietnamese folklore revolving around the harvest, fishing, or festivals. The most popular type of productions involves the retelling of normal day to day activities, oftentimes in a humorous style. Keep an eye out for the character of Chu Teu, or literally Uncle Laugh, who’ll be easily identifiable with his bald head and two ponytails standing out from each side. Chu Teu is a witty character, created to add comic relief and poke fun at subjects that would normally be seen as taboo, like corruption and other social ills.
These are just some of the things to do while you are in Hanoi, but trust us, if we had to list all of the possibilities in this blog, we’ll need a book deal. If you want any advice about what to do on your upcoming trip, please feel free to contact us, or if you are already in Hanoi, pop in for a delicious iced coffee at our office at 62 Hang Buom!
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