Ready or not Hanoi will pull you right into their culture. A simple walk around town can turn into an adventure of dodging traffic and exploring the street vendors that fill the sidewalks with their carts and aromas.
Eating in Hanoi is not only a culinary treat for a few dollars, but also an experience. Watching David (who is 6’5”) working hard to fit his long legs under small plastic tables made for a lot of great laughs with the locals. These tables were clearly made for pre-k children, but are everywhere in Hanoi due to small spaces.
With so many delicious things to try we wanted to compile a ‘don’t miss’ list. We included specific restaurants as well as some popular food items that you can grab anywhere!
1. Bun Cha
Bun Cha or BBQ pork noodle soup is served with crab egg rolls and best enjoyed with a cold beer (or coke for me). You will want to have this several times while you are in Hanoi, so make it the first thing you try. Hit up Bun Cha Dac Kim for the best pork and crispy egg rolls.
Tip: We recommend loading the soup with tons of herbs, noodles, and a few red peppers (for flavor). Dunk the egg rolls in soy sauce and place it in the bowl with with all the other yummy ingredients – our favorite dish to date!
2. Papaya Salad
A refreshing and crispy salad, perfect dish to enjoy during the warm afternoons. This is made up of thin papaya and carrots slices, seasoned with soy and fish sauce with a dash of vinegar.
I saw this served several ways in Vietnam our favorite was with herbs and dried beef. Take a walk and find one that looks good to you.
3. Ice Cream Bars
When it comes to food, if we see a long line of locals – we jump in! This is how we discovered Kem Trang Tien, a small joint right by Ho Hoan Keim Lake. A dessert with a view, yes please!
We went there a few times and our favorite flavors were coconut and banana. If you like to experience a locals favorite spot, this is a must try.
4. Egg Coffee
Made famous in Hanoi when a barista ran out of cream and got creative by whipping an egg instead. Placing a large dollop on top of an espresso shot Hanoi now had its own way of taking the bitter out of coffee. This dessert-like-drink was most enjoyed at Doong cafe. Not only does the cafe have a unique name (named after Vietnamese money) but they also have a pet bunny (see later in this post)! Each cafe has a slightly different take on the drink, enjoy one a day, available all over Hanoi.
Tip: I recommend enjoying a bit of the whip before stirring it into the coffee. The yolk is beaten together with sugar and condensed milk and is a treat on its own.
I feel like I need to include pho on a highlight of Vietnamese dishes, however I didn’t find a spot I personally loved. We had so many recommendations to try Pho 10 that I want to include it (who knows you may love it)! Pho 10 is very popular and is said to be one of the first Pho restaurants and it keeps true to the dishes’ original flavor.
David and I were told you can tell a great restaurant in Hanoi if they 1) have trash bins on the floor with napkins over flowing and 2) the service is terrible. These were true of Pho 10, and many small vendors in Hanoi. Napkins are often filling the floors here, and service is only being provided when your hand is waved in the air. With this criteria, this restaurant must be fantastic, we just missed our Sriracha and hoisin sauce that are served with pho back in California (but not originally intended to be added).
Links Kitchen (in the middle of the night market) has great BBQ, plus you can people watch like the locals. Enjoy the hustle and bustle of the street as you wait for the meat to cook in front of you.
Enjoy an egg coffee or two for dessert from Doong Cafe, located right across the street. Pair your coffee with a few mini chocolate donuts from the walking vendors in plaid shirts, you won’t have to look for them, trust us, they’ll find you.
(we actually opted for Linh Kitchens Korean bbq option. Their Vietnamese bbq was similar with just a few different veggies/spices)
Now that you have eaten your way through the city, it’s time to go do something. Simply wondering the streets can keep you entrained for days, but here are a few items to check out if you are looking for a destination.
Jog Around the Lake
Ho Hoan Keim Lake is a perfect morning jog. Go around a few times and enjoy watching the city come alive in the morning. If you are lucky you may see classical dance classes, women playing badminton without a net, and locals practicing Tai Chi in its many variations.
Old Quarter Night Market
Enjoy the night market Friday-Sunday starting at 6pm. The city blocks off several streets to allow vendors to set up their local nick-nack filled booths. The whole city comes alive these evenings as locals and travelers alike flock to the streets.
Enjoy dinner on Hàng Buồm street where vendors and restaurants put additional seating out during Market night. Pedestrians and patrons are crammed together and energy is high, we loved it!
Water Puppet Show
Looking for some older Vietnamese culture? Head to Long Water Puppet Theater where you will watch a traditional show in its original location. The best part is the live orchestra playing vietnamese instruments. There are several short folk tales covered and although it is a bit quirky, it is definitely unique to the area.
Halong Bay Tour
Halong Bay is known for its 1,900 limestone islets that offers caves to be explored and beaches to relax on. This area is gorgeous and puts Phi Phi to shame (shh…don’t tell Thailand).
Most tourist head to Halong Bay for a junk boat tour. There are a few ways you can spend time in this area. David and I took an over night cruise with Viola and enjoyed two days aboard the boat. Each cruise ship offers simliar tours, the main differences between the boats are the interior comfort level. Viola was 4 stars and we personally would not go lower than that for a night cruise. However there are also day trips which were really affordable that we heard great things about.
During your time in Halong you will enjoy sailing between the islands, visiting a floating fishing village, and the best part – kayaking through the inland lakes. Because this is so popular the beaches were often packed and the caves were tight. I recommend finding a boat that leaves really early from Halong Bay to be the first group to these sights.
Want a local to show you around their favorite spots? Make a reservation with Hanoi Street Food Tour. For $20 USD you are given a guided tour around some hidden local gems and more food and drink than you can finish. Several of our favorite dishes were savored on this tour.
Kick Back at a Coffee Shop
Joma Bakery is an amazing place to spend the afternoon, so we did – a few times. This bakery is more like a Panera Bread (no Vietnamese culture), but the food is yummy and the chairs are comfortable. Take a break from the heat and enjoy a book or work on your blog from this cozy shop. Also we mentioned Doong cafe earlier, another great spot to relax – especially with a fluffy friend.
Get a Massage
Take a break from the busy streets and stop by for a massage. I recommend going to Hanoi Marguerite Spa and getting their shoulder, neck, and back message. If you are going with your partner request a room together, they are happy to accommodate.
Tip: I had other services done here, but I would only highly recommend their messages.
If can be tough finding the “perfect” place to stay. Balancing location, price, and ratings can be a long and tiring game. We stayed in a few places while in Hanoi and had an amazing experience at Serenity Villa for $30 USD/night! The front desk was beyond helpful and generous, plus there is a fantastic breakfast that is included. You and your wallet will love it here!
Tips for Vietnam:
- only eat soup that is boiling (sitting soup at vendors is likely not fresh).
- careful crossing the road, keep a steady pace and be weary of cars. The motorbikes will swerve around you – seriously.
- only ride in green taxis – other companies have been known to tweak prices for tourists.
- you can barter for hotels and hostels, they don’t expect you to pay list price.
- purchase tours (such as Halong Bay) from a travel stand or at your hotel. Barter, barter, barter be persistent and kind. The list price is often marked up 20%-30%.
Come ready to dive in, and enjoy the surprises only Vietnam can afford you.