Five Quintessential Experiences in Hanoi

(Last Updated On: July 4, 2023)

The bustling capital and cultural heart of Vietnam, Hanoi is known as the ‘Paris of the Orient’. And with its charming French colonial architecture, ancient pagodas and delicious cuisine, it’s no wonder Hanoi recently ranked as one of the world’s ten fastest growing travel destinations. But as Hanoi modernises, with an increasing number of hotels and restaurants popping up, the city’s more authentic charms can seem harder to find.

Therefore, to help you explore Vietnam’s second largest city and discover the local way of life, we’ve compiled a list of five quintessential experiences in Hanoi.

Quintessential experience in Hanoi of travelling by cyclo through the Old Quarter
Image courtesy of Graeme Newcomb

Cyclo through Hanoi’s Old Quarter

Crammed with street stalls, artisan workshops, cafes, shops and motorbikes, Hanoi’s Old Quarter retains the city’s authentic charm. A labyrinth of ancient streets, the area was once occupied by traders who served the nearby imperial citadel. Streets were traditionally named after the product sold there and today there is little that you would not find. Seemingly unregulated, whole streets are dedicated to medicine, tin, silk, headstones and more.

Explore the ‘36 Streets’ by cyclo, the best way to navigate this vibrant maze, and stay safe amongst the whizzing motorcyclists. Observe the locals going about their day’s business and embrace the beautiful chaos of the heart and soul of Hanoi.

Quintessential experience in Hanoi of a traditional water puppet show

Watch a Traditional Water Puppet Show

There is no better place than Hanoi to experience traditional Vietnamese arts. Besides opera and theatre, Hanoi is famous for its water puppetry performances. Dating back to the 11th century, when farmers were making entertainment in their flooded rice paddy fields, this art form has stood the test of time.

Wooden men, women and dragon puppets reveal various Vietnamese folklores and myths alongside traditional live music. Shown at the Thang Long Water Puppet Theatre, performances usually last around an hour. The show provides the perfect respite from the Vietnamese heat, especially as it only costs 100,000 dong (about $4.50 USD).

Quintessential experience in Hanoi of trying traditional street food

Sample the Delicious Street Food

Hanoi’s food scene can seem overwhelming with its exotic mix of tastes and smells. But the Vietnamese capital is home to some of the world’s best (and cheapest) street food. Sampling these delicious offerings is a must if you want to really understand the Vietnamese people and their culture.

Originating in Hanoi, pho (pronounced fuh) is the quintessential, must-try dish of the city. This much-loved chicken or beef soup is traditionally eaten for breakfast although, eaten on a daily basis by the Vietnamese, it is served throughout the day.

Dong Xuan, the city’s largest covered market, makes an excellent starting point for exploring the city’s food culture. And be sure to also check out the local specialities on offer in the atmospheric Old Quarter.

Quintessential experience in Hanoi of drinking Bia Hoi in the Old Quarter on plastic furniture
Image Courtesy of Prashant Ram

Drink Bia-Hoi on the Curb-Side

Swap your barstool for the curb-side for a truly quintessential experience in Hanoi. Local beverage bia-hoi (translating to ‘fresh beer’) is brewed daily and must be drunk within 24 hours as it spoils quickly. A night spent drinking bia-hoi will be as memorable as it is cheap. Start at 4pm and watch the rest of the city go about its business as the sun goes down.

Not just home to food-vendors, the pavements of the Old Quarter are the perfect place to brush shoulders with the locals over a glass. Bia Hoi Junction, the quintessential night-life spot in Hanoi, is an intersection with five different establishments all offering this much-loved brew. Pull up one of the little plastic stools in this ever-bustling beer-haven and gain a vivid taste of local street life.

Quintessential experience in Hanoi of exploring Hoan Kiem lake

Wander around Hoan Kiem Lake

Just south of Hanoi’s Old Quarter is the scenic Hoan Kiem Lake. Legends state that the magical sword Emperor Ly Thai To used in the 15th century to drive away the Chinese is deep within its waters. Therefore the lake’s name roughly translates to ‘Lake of the Restored Sword’.

Local residents can be found practising tai chi during the early mornings by the water. The lake is a popular gathering spot and place of respite for all Hanoians during the humid afternoons. Wander around the shores and cross the scarlet bridge to visit the delightful Ngoc Son Temple. Resting on a small island in the northern part of the lake, the temple provides a peaceful escape from the rest of the city.

Want to explore quintessential Hanoi yourself? Travel on our Vietnam group tours to experience the country’s vibrant capital!