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Unlike some of the other countries in South-east Asia, Vietnam seems to be cling to its past and its traditions a little more than its neighboring countries. For tourists coming to Vietnam, this is great news, as the mystique of the orient really shines through in Hanoi. The colonial architecture, the ancient temples, the silent tai chi routines and tranquil tea traditions make for an impressive travel destination.
At the same time, the traffic and the rapidly evolving economy are an indicator of what’s to come. Vietnam is catching up with the rest of the world, so come check it out before it’s too late. If you are wondering what things to do in Hanoi for 4 days, you will find some great tips in the article below!
One of the first things you will notice right away when arriving in Hanoi, is the traffic. With the abundance of motorcycles everywhere, and the tightly packed way they position themselves, Hanoi traffic can look like an organic creature, instead of the well-organized jams we know from other cities.
But contrary to popular belief, it is surprisingly easy to slip in- and out of Hanoi traffic and there are several rental shops in the city, encouraging you to get out on your own motorcycle. Of course it’s not for the faint hearted, but Hanoi traffic “works” much better than Bangkok for instance, where the locals prefer their cars, and effectively clog up the entire infrastructure two times day.
Hanoi at night
With a little over 2.5 million inhabitants, Hanoi is not a megacity and instead of looking for high-end venues, it is often best to hunt for local hangouts that aren’t necessarily part of the tourist trail. For instance, I know the “Water Puppet Theatre” is a big draw, but it is a little too contrived for the tourist industry and they won’t see me anytime soon. To get a good feel for Hanoi, I suggest starting of your nightlife experience at Legend Beer, as it brings together some of the main ingredients of the Hanoi experience. and feel free to go there if you like.
Situated right over a roundabout, with a view on Hoan Kiem Lake, you get to enjoy local beer and see how the locals like to unwind. I suggest eating elsewhere and coming here for a few beers to enjoy the view and the crazy roundabout below. Plus, Dong Xuan Market night market is nearby, so if you had a few drinks and are looking for a new impression, that’s your next stop.
It’s the biggest wholesale market in the country, and even though the shopping might be slim, the experience certainly isn’t. If you decided to buy something, be sure to drive a hard bargain, as there are no prices displayed and it is a tradition to quote a foreigner twice the price of a local. Souvenir stands are outside the market so you can still share your experience with the folks back home.
If you feel that nighttime shopping in Hanoi is not your thing, just walk out. The market is located inside the Old Quarter of Hanoi with lots of alleyways and little bars to explore. The first time I drove through Vietnam I couldn’t help noticing all the kiddie seats I saw littered all over the sidewalk. A few hours later I learned that these actually weren’t meant for kids, as the adults sit on them just as well while they are having a drink.
If you haven’t tried one of these little plastic chairs I encourage you to do so, as they are more comfortable than you think. As a matter of fact, you should take a seat, and order a Vietnamese coffee:
A rookie mistake in Asia is ordering a coffee without specifying the temperature. Chances are you will be served a big glass of ice-cold coffee, topped off with cream. In the tropics, people do like their caffeine shot but it has to be cold, and there is an entire market of ice-coffee brands.
I personally don’t drink them as I am a creature of habit, and as such, Vietnam is great. Their coffee tradition comes from their colonial history and took on a life of its own over the decades. The result is a great local coffee with a unique character. Note that there are many variations that you should try as well, but for a benchmark make sure to start of with the basics first. “Ordering a Vietnamese coffee” is a must-do item on your “Hanoi fun things” bucket list.
Being a big fan of strong coffee, French press normally doesn’t cut it for me, as I find the taste lacking and the characteristic bitterness seems to be watered down. Vietnamese Coffee is not brewed in the classic Italian coffee machine you see in cafes worldwide, but filtered through a tiny one-cup filter which takes about four minutes.
Now normally that doesn’t work so well, but Vietnamese coffee is considerably stronger than the regular “Arabica” you usually drink. I’ve heard its taste being described as “burnt tires” and rubbery, but I strongly recommend you have a taste yourself, and maybe even bring home a package or two of Vietnam’s “Robusta” coffee grind. If you like Espresso for its punchy wake-up call, you need Vietnamese coffee in your life – it has almost double the caffeine percentage of regular “Arabica” coffee the rest of the world drinks.
Pro tip: Leave the last sip in the cup, unless you want to pull a disgusting face, while you feel the coffee sediment slide from the cup into your mouth.
The Temple of Literature
As previously shown in the intro to this article, the Temple of Literature in Hanoi deserves your visit for a variety of reasons. Firstly, it is one of the cities oldest buildings and naturally there is a lot of history that comes with it.
I have seen it described as a temple dedicated to Confucius, but also as a University or an Imperial Academy, built in 1070. Under the French protectorate, the same complex was reinvented as a “Historical Museum”, and it also functioned briefly as a ward for injured soldiers during the 2nd world war.
The main attractions are the different courtyards and their architecture, the significance of the complex to the Vietnamese people and their history and the buildings themselves look interesting as well. More importantly, consider the temple an oasis of tranquility inside the bustling city, with locals coming in to pray and study.
So if you had a rough night before, and you are looking for piece and quietude inside the city of Hanoi, the “Temple of Literature”, also known as “The National Academy” is your best bet. If you want to get out of Hanoi entirely, there are options as well. Hanoi is surrounded by smaller villages that pride themselves on having a firm connection to the past and the different crafts they inherited from their forefathers.
Visit an artisan village
With the Vietnamese economy developing at neck breaking speeds, there are several communities around Hanoi that celebrate the old ways. It is debatable as to how much they do this out of National pride and how much of it is about getting tourists to their village, but in the end it doesn’t really matter.
Whether you want to see families caste bronze items or a mat-making community, there are tons of little villages around the city who are eager to show you their trade. Several of these tours include workshops as well, so if you want to paint a theater mask, weave your own basket or learn how to make paper flowers, one of these tours should be part of your itinerary.
There are countless examples of buildings in the city that are well-maintained and tell the story of Vietnam’s history with its foreign influences. The perfect example of this would be the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum, which is only open to visitors in the morning. In the afternoons, you can gaze at it from the outside, but nobody will be going in.
This Mausoleum and its architecture is a political statement, modeled after Lenin’s Tomb in Moscow. Its brutalist design is meant to impose and for the few people who are thinking this is not a place of worship or a tourist attraction, the local guards will come down on them hard, with an angry “shhh!” directed at them.
Never forget that the man is considered the father of modern Vietnam. The Mausoleum doesn’t pop up on my list of fun things to do in Hanoi, but the park around the Mausoleum, the atmosphere and seeing the locals revere this iconic leader is an interesting experience for Westerners, who are used to seeing their leaders structurally ridiculed.
A complete opposite architectural style comes from the French colonial/pre-communist era, with several Art Deco buildings in the city being well maintained. The French Colonial Post Office is a famous example, mirroring the straight lines of the Mausoleum with elegant curves, repeated decorations and an impeccable maintained façade in several colors. Once you are inside of course, there is a giant portrait of Ho Chi Minh in the main hall of course, just to make sure we are all on the same page – Vietnam is still a communist country.
These are just two examples, and the city has many more examples that are equally beautiful (or haunting).
Hanoi Vespa Tours
By now, you should have an idea of just how many things there are to see in the city. The strongest impression by far is created by the traffic though. Hanoi traffic seems to be a river of little motorcycles, snaking their way through every nook and cranny, always making progress, never getting stuck.
As I mentioned earlier in the article, motorcycles are really the best way to get around and I think driving around in a city you don’t really know is one of the cool things to do in Hanoi. If you are not an experienced rider or consider this simply too stressful, you can book a trip with one of the many Vespa Tours around the city.
First of, these drivers really know what they are doing, and since they are driving, you will have your hands free to look around, make pictures or grab on to the saddle. Unlike a bus trip, this is your driver, meaning you can ask them to go anywhere, and organizations like Vespa Tour Hanoi have several packages that will even take you out of the city as well.
Pro tip: Always check the weather report before booking anything.
I have never spent more than three days in Hanoi itself in one go, but whenever I was there, I always made sure I planned at least a few activities. By talking to other travelers and asking around at hotel receptions or local markets, you quickly get an idea of the attractions that are too “Disney” and others that are culturally and aesthetically important for your holiday experience.
Hanoi and Vietnam in general are amazing, and the country is so much more than just the Vietnam war. I have never made it out to one of the many war museums, but when I do I will be sure to write about it!
More Vietnam: Check out other amazing things you can do in Vietnam
Sacha Albarda is an copywriter/online media expert living in South-east Asia for the better part of a decade. Asked what he likes best about living there, he usually answers that it’s “the tightly organized anarchy”.