Wahooooo, we finally arrived in Hanoi! The last stop on what turned out to be the most amazing 6-week motorbike journey we could of imagined. As soon as we rode into Hanoi, we all noticed the same thing... Man, there is so much traffic! I don't think we need to describe how busy the city is, as you can imagine it quite easily. Nonetheless, the city is buzzing for one reason and that's because it is truly awesome! Thousands of travellers flock to Hanoi every year, many will start their journey through Vietnam here, many will finish it. Many will choose to stay and teach, many will choose to work in the ever-flowing bars and the many will just retire here to drink/eat/chillax till the cows come home (although, we think the cows would be coming home pretty early with the amount of smog that's in the air). Now, we met this guy in a hostel on our second day of being in Hanoi after spending the first day having a well deserved drink to celebrate the end of our road trip. He'd been there a week already, so obviously we were excited to hear about what he had done in the city. Do you know what his response was to our question?
"Nothing really, man. I'm pretty bored here, I think I'm gonna leave tomorrow. I've just been drinking every night and chilling in the hostel. There's nothing to do."
Can you imagine mine and Jac's faces when we heard this utter nonsense. Nothing to do?! In Hanoi?! He must be mental, we thought. And what a surprise, he was indeed talking a load of rubbish. We stayed in Hanoi for around a week altogether, taking trips to Cat Ba and Sapa in between. Below, is a list of 15 amazing activities that we did in Hanoi, a lot of them being unique and something you won't hear about from a lot of travellers (because they will be spending most of their days drinking in the old quarter instead.) Enjoy!
1 - Go to Snake Village and Chow down a Mountain Cobra
We couldn't wait to get to Hanoi because it had always been the place that we heard you could choose your own whole snake which you could then eat. We rode the motorbike around 40 minutes from the Old Quarter to Le Ma, which is more well known as Snake Village. We sat down in the restaurant and was greeted by the lovely owner, Dragon (cool name, even if it's not his real one).
There were 3 options of snake, we went for the middle option, which cost 1.2 million VND! It's crazy expensive we know, but for the experience and the 11 courses of snake cooked in different ways, we thought it would be worth it. The whole experience was a bit mad! Firstly, he led us to the back room where we watched the snake be killed and prepared for cooking. The owner put the snakes heart into a shot glass for Jac to drink (it was supposed to make him strong, but we have to admit it's not been successful, he's still got a skinny little pair of spaghetti arms - i can't wait for him to read this bit, he's going to kill me haha!) What was even more crazy is that he heart was still beating inside the glass! Next, he let us play with a friendly garden snake before we finally sat down for some food. The courses were amazing! The menu featured items such as snake porridge, crispy snake skin, grilled snake meat and more. To top it all off, we were given unlimited amounts of free rice/snake bile wine (lethal stuff) and beers. You can't go wrong with that!
COST: 1.2million VND for a medium sized snake (all drinks inc in the cost!)
2 - Walk alongside the Worlds Largest Ceramic Wall
Back in October 2010, celebrating the 1000th anniversary of the foundation of the capital Thăng Long, all kinds of wonderful people of Hanoi grouped together to create the worlds largest ceramic wall. This wall would run along the entire length of the Ly Thai To Road , which is located right next to the Old Quarter. Not only did this creation turn out to be absolutely amazing, but it only went and got itself in the Guinness book of World Records!
It's brightly coloured tiles displaying pictures, designs and scenes of all sorts look almost bewildering amongst the mass of grey concrete and black tarmac that surrounds it. The pictures are all unique. Some show the culture of Vietnam, others show the beauty of the country and the rest are just completely bloody random and you'll think "what's on earth is that doing on there?" But, what really shines through is that each one of those tiles was hand-pressed by somebody who was passionate about what they were helping to create, it's a truly beautiful thing to go and have a look at.
3 - Note Cafe
This place is AWESOME! It's literally the best cafes we've ever had the privilege of stepping foot in. This cafe is on Lương Văn Can Road, and well, the clue is in the name, it's full of notes! After you order a delicious coffee or shake, you're led to the seating area upstairs where there are literally thousands of multicoloured post-it notes, stuck all over the floor, ceiling and walls.
There isn't one little bit of the cafe that doesn't have layers upon layers of post-it notes stuck onto it. The post-it notes are supplied by the cafe and are written on by customers from all over the world and from all different cycles of life. This is what makes it so cool, every message is unique and you could spend hours sitting down, sipping a coffee and skimming over them all! Make sure you don't miss the opportunity to put one on the wall too!
COST: coffees start from around 30,000VND
(Top tip - their chocolate croissants are the ultimate hangover cure!)
4 - Burger Challenge
Now, as a couple, we're always up for a good challenge - especially if it's something to do with physical fitness! However, when it comes to eating and drinking challenges... I'm always happy to leave these in Jac's overly-capable hands. After having absolutely smashed a drinking challenge in Cat Ba, Jac heard that there was an eating challenge in Hanoi. We were heading back there anyway, so there was no doubt in his mind, he was going to do the challenge! The challenge is at a restaurant called 'Chops' in the Old Quarter (not to be confused with Chopsticks). It's called the Juicy Lucy Challenge and consists of following: the hopeful contender has to eat a burger which is made from 1kg of minced Angus prime steak, 400g of cheese, various burger toppings and a large burger patty, they have to eat this with a 400g side order of triple-cooked chips and then finally, they have to finish it all by downing a pint of IPA beer. (Heartbreakingly, on the basis this was a one person challenge, I wasn't even allowed to try a chip, let alone the burger. So I sat there with my chicken salad and a sad face!!)
Oh... And they have to complete all of this within 20 minutes. If you're successful, you receive the meal for free, you get a free top and you also get to put your picture on the winners wall.
If you lose... You have to pay for the meal, which is a whopping 800,000VND and have to go home with a probably very full, upset stomach. Fortunately for the sake of our budget and even more so for Jacs' pride, he smashed this challenge too! (In 16 minutes!) Go and have a go if you think your stomach's hard enough!
COST: 800,000VND or free if you can complete it!
(Top Tip - empty the chips out as soon as it comes to help them cool down!)
5 - The Flag Raising and Lowering Ceremony
Personally, this is well up there with one of our most favourite experiences on this list. It is also one that you will hear almost no one talk about, simply because they don't even know it happens. We read blog post after blog post about things to do in Vietnam and only managed to find out about this from our hostel owner. Every morning at 6AM, at the old parade ground in Hanoi, the Vietnamese Military Guards march across the parade ground to raise the Vietnamese Flag. We arrived at the Ba Dinh Square at around 5:45am to see that 100's of Vietnamese locals were already there, doing their funky morning exercises whilst walking around the field that's opposite the parade ground (we love this about Vietnam! They are mad on morning exercise and keeping fit!)
we stood in a line with about 100 other locals, about 50m back from the parade ground and the flag. At 6am, around 50 Vietnamese Military Guards, wearing pristine white uniforms, came marching out from the side of the parade ground. At first they were in squadrons, until they then split into single file, each taking position one after the other on the parade ground before standing to attention in silence. The guards gathered at the bottom of the flag, conducting their usual ceremonial practice to raise the flag. A piping call was sounded and instantaneously, the whole field of people stopped to salut as the flag was raised to the top of the pole. The atmosphere was incredible and we can't recommend you get up that little bit earlier (OK, so it's a lot earlier but hey ho!) and go and see this for yourself! We feel truly grateful to have seen it and especially, to have shared a salut with the locals to the Vietnamese Flag.
COST: free (EXPERIENCE: Priceless)
6 - Puppet Show
Throughout Vietnam, we had seen so many places that you could go to see the infamous Water Puppet Shows. However, we had heard that the best shows were performed in Hanoi, so we decided to wait it out until we got here. And how happy we were that we did so! We went to the Water Puppet Show Theatre, right next to the lake in the Old Quarter and had a brilliant night here. Water Puppet Shows are a tradition in Vietnam and date back to.... Water Puppet Performers work the water puppets from behind a screen which creates a whole show of different water puppets acting out scenes right before your eyes. If this night was anything, then it was absolutely hilarious because half of the time you haven't even got a clue what's going on or what planet you're actually on at the moment but the water puppets' actions are so funny that it doesn't even matter. It was such a good show and a must-do if you find yourself in Hanoi.
COST: 100,000 per ticket
7 - Sip a funky Pho cocktail at Unicorn Bar
The Unicorn Bar is around a 20 minute walk from the Old Quarter. Quaintly named, the Unicorn Bar, as the place is pretty darn magical. The interior is quirky, mystical and a little bit boudoir like. There have some super-comfy seats and low lightning tones, which make you feel so cosy as soon as you sit down. Now, we don't usually recommend expensive bars as they are not what we would normally go to. The menu is a little fancy and so are the price tags of their funky cocktails at 90-120,000VND. However, we can't recommend enough that you go and just have at least one cocktail here. Even grab a friend and share a cocktail as Jac and I did. Even more so, don't just sip any funky cocktail here, sip their country-famous "Pho Cocktail". Yes, you read that right. It's a cocktail, which is made and insanely ends up tasting exactly like the Vietnamese soup dish 'Pho'. It may seem really strange to have a soup favoured cocktail, but we chose this and it tasted absolutely amazing! However, by far the best part about going to this bar was the performance that came with the famous 'Pho' cocktail. The bartender poured the cocktail through a layered metal frame, which dripped the cocktail over and over, down through the layers of cups until it was finally settled in the bottom one. This was all topped off by the fact that the cocktail liquid was on fire as he did it! Blue flames lit up through the low tones and darkness of the bar, all the while transfixing mine and jacs' eyes in some sort of cocktail hypnosis. Absolutely incredible! Do not miss this!
COST: Pho Cocktail 120,000VND
8 - Egg Coffee and Ban Bo Nam Bo
Two things you HAVE to try whilst in Hanoi. Egg coffee is quite on trend in Vietnam, mostly in the North in places like Ninh Binh and Hanoi. Egg coffee is like a mix of creme brûlée and coffee all rolled into one cup. The coffee lies on the bottom, whilst a mix of egg, milk and sugar forms a sort of custard that sits on the top. You dip your spoon through the topping, down into the coffee beneath combining the both onto the spoon. It's simply delicious! In Hanoi, you will find a street that is of course, dedicated solely to egg coffee. There's an amazing little cafe called Giang Cafe With some tiny, little seat, head there and order one (for an amazing 30,000VND/£1)! You won't regret it.
Whilst you are there, take a 5 minute walk to a place called Ban Bun Nam Bo - 12-76 Hàng Điếu (or on maps.me). This popular restaurant in Hanoi sells one dish, Ban Bun Nam Bo. It's a sort of beef soup that tastes incredible, they are popular for just this one dish and we can definitely see why! It was over-flowing with people when we went there, with at least 60-70 people there chowing down on the same dish. Not to miss!
COST: Egg coffee - 30,000VND / Ban Bun Nam Bo - 55,000VND
9 - B52 Wreckage
Located in Ba Dinh district in Hanoi, the quite neighbourhood of Ngoc Ha displays a harrowing, yet victorious reminder of the Christmas Bombings that took place in December, 1972. During the Vietnam War, American Forces launched a bombing campaign aimed to drive North Vietnamese Leaders to sign a provisional peace agreement. Due to being a heavily populated area with military installations, Hanoi was one of the worst hit cities with a staggering 1318 civilians killed in the bombings. In retaliation, North Vietnamese forces launched over 1200 misled and shot down 15 B-52 bombers. One of which landed in the Huu Tiep Lake, where it has been kept in it's original landing position to preserve the victory of the Vietnamese Forces and commemorate the memory of those who tragically lost their lives. It's pretty fascinating to see the wreckage still in separate pieces, submerged in the lake (but maybe a little underwhelming). However, we recommend walking there because it is so worth it and only takes about 40 minutes from the Old Quarter. You see so many different styles of life as you walk there. We saw huge groups of women exercising in the parks, had the best donut ever on the way at a street food stall, and even went down some unbelievably narrow alleyways, full of locals and scooters whizzing everywhere. You'll also pass over the train line (see below) so if you time it well, you can see both! It was awesome!
10 - Train Street
Every day at 4pm and 7pm, a speeding train rushes over a pair of narrow tracks, located in the city of Hanoi. Sounds normal, ey? Well, what's unique about this train track is that it's located right in the middle of a residential street. The residents on the street ensure that all their belongings, pets, wandering children and bikes are off the track before the train comes speeding through. Train street is located between Le Duan and Kham Thin Street in the old quarter. If walking in between the streets at 4 or 7pm, locals/travellers have to pin themselves up against a wall whilst the train narrowly passes through, with little over 10 inches to spare between themselves and the train! Head there half an hour early to get some cool shots on the empty train track, it's such a cool sight!
11 - Hoa Lo Prison
Built by the French in 1886, Hoa Lo Prison was the place of nightmares for over 2000 Vietnamese Prisoners of War during 1930-1945. Hoa Lo (which is Vietnamese for "fiery furnace") saw the capture, torture and murder of 1000's and you can definitely feel that as you walk down its chilling corridors, reading accounts from the people who were held there. In 1964-73, it was nicknamed the 'Hanoi Hilton' as it was then used to detain American fighter jet pilots that had been shot down by the Vietnamese Military. The information in the prison exhibit states that all of the American Pilots were treated humanely, nursed back to health and released. However, personal accounts have told otherwise online... We'll let you be the judge of that. It's a really interesting place to visit whilst in Hanoi and a great way to experience a taste of Hanoi's history.
COST: 30,000VND per ticket (50% off for students too!)
12 - Get a Haircut on the Street
After Jac's previous disaster with getting his haircut in Mu Nei, I couldn't convince him to do this. This was quite a surprise and something, simple as it is, we've never seen before! A chair, a mirror and a makeshift little stand essentially creates a road side barbers. You'll see these all over Hanoi and although we didn't get one, we recommend you do and give us some feedback!
COST: This guy said 50,000 Dong for a crewcut - Jac ran
14 - Watch out for the 'Chair Police'
Honestly, this is one of the most bizarre things we've ever witnessed. I'll set the scene. So, it's day two, we're both nursing hangovers and decide to head over to a local street food burger joint for what we'd been assured was one of the best we'd have! Around 8 of us walk down, order our burgers (which were great), grab a plastic seat, sit down, start eating and have a chat! Now, if you've ever been to Asia, never mind Vietnam, its pretty much standard that people eat or drink sitting on tiny plastic chairs (the types you'd find in a primary school) outside bars and food joints - totally normal!
The next thing we know, a van pulls up, 3 police officers jump out and start literally pulling these plastic chairs from beneath us! Simultaneously, the owner, a little old lady, started grabbing the chairs the police didn't yet have and ran them inside! What the heck!
So from this we found out it's illegal to eat, drink or sit on chairs in the streets of Hanoi! Which is so weird because every street-food place and every bar lets you do so. Even though, every hour or so, the chair police will turn up so the staff have to have a frantic battle to get all the chairs back in before they take them away. We worked out that bars even have watchers that signal the area when the chair police turn up. You'll hear a whistle, a shout or see a flashing light. Suddenly, you're getting shooed off of your chair by the staff moments before the police arrive! We even witnessed some staff wrestling over the chairs with the police, like a game of tug of war - it's so weird, so pointless, yet so funny to watch!
COST - free (but not for the owner if they're too slow to get their chairs in)
14 - Go on a walking street tour
We didn't actually do this ourselves, as we just didn't have the time spare (as you can tell with the length of this list). However, we saw sooooo many people on these tours walking in single file behind a Vietnamese Tourism Student, winding in and out of the streets in Hanoi. The tours are completely free and are amazing as they are conducted by Tourism Students in Vietnam, working towards becoming fully qualified. They have to do these tours as part of their course, which is fabulous for travellers as it's a free way to find out loads of information about the city, straight from the mouth of a good English-speaking local!
15 - Last but not least.... Go out on the raz in the Old Quarter!
Now, I've put this one last because i wanted to show you all the things you could do to occupy your week in Hanoi, rather than spend all week drinking in the Old Quarter. But don't let this list fool you, we did our fair share of partying in Hanoi too. Probably more than any city we've been in so far in Vietnam! The nightlife is awesome. There are so many bars, clubs and more importantly millions of places to get that much desired Banh Mi (warmed up chicken toasted sandwich) on your way home. We went to a few clubs which were a little pricey, but the music was amazing! And it doesn't really matter if the club is a bit pricey, if you've managed to fill up on 5k beer beforehand! All over the streets in the Old Quarter, local ladies sell beer right from the barrel and charge you a minuscule 5k (15p/22c) per cup. We sank a few cups each whilst moving in between bars of course!
The clubs are great, but like with the chairs theres a pointless noise ban post 12pm during the week. So usually, you need to knock on a dodgy looking shutter and crawl under it when its lifted to get in. Not exactly inconspicuous, especially as you can hear the music from about 10 building down!
COST: We didn't even want to know what dent we had left in our bank account the morning after! (Top Tip - buy a bottle of rice wine, some diet cokes and get drunk in your hostel before you head out! The bars and clubs, if you're planning on a big night, aren't overly budget backpacker friendly)
So, there you have it. 1 week in Hanoi, 15 amazing things to do, even with 3 mornings spent with a sore head! Damn you, drinking in the Old Quarter! ;)