Attracting visitors from all over the world, Vietnam’s capital city, Hanoi continues to enthrall the curious and seekers of old Asian charm. Situated in the northern bit of the country, Hanoi currently stands as the second largest Vietnamese city by population. According to Wikipedia, the population total was 7.7 million in 2015 and continues to grow along with the rapid progress of the city.
Conquered by the French in 1873, it became the administrative centre of the colony of French Indochina. And like all former French colonies, the city was given a French ‘make-over’ when the colonisers built a modern administrative city south of Old Hanoi, creating broad, perpendicular tree-lined avenues of opera, churches, public buildings, and luxury villas.
These changes have turned Hanoi into the popular tourist haunt it is today, attracting thousands each year. And if you have just a few days to spare, Hanoi may just be the place for a quick extended weekend getaway.
Demanding a flight time of about three hours from Kuala Lumpur, Hanoi’s Noi Ba International Airport greets international visitors with a seamless arrival process, bearing friendly immigration officers and helpful locals at hand.
And to kickstart a tour of Hanoi, it is best to begin by exploring the Old Quarter of the city situated about 30 minutes from the airport. With the convenience of ride-hailing applications like Grab, drivers can easily pick up passengers at the arrival gate without any hassle.
The airport has Wi-Fi connection, but just in case there are portable internet connection providers that can help tourists stay connected on-line. Roaming Man for instance, is one of the best and most efficient internet connection providers that tourists can consider when travelling around Asia and other parts of the world.
Within half an hour, first-time visitors should be able to see the myriad of colours that make up the Old Quarter of Hanoi. From street vendors selling food and drinks, to motorcycles filling up the streets and sidewalks along with trishaws and rickshaws, the old city truly depicts a glimpse of what could have been the original Hanoi from yesteryears.
Take a walk within the streets of old Hanoi and you will see flourishing businesses housed in the old buildings surrounding the city. Apart from the usual shops and cafes which Hanoi is famous for, the Old Quarter is also home to countless new age boutique hotels offering unique, attractive and affordable lodgings and other services.
The pulse or heart of the old city is said to begin at the Hoan Kiem Lake where locals usually flock to hang out during the evenings of most weekends. Naturally it is also where most tourists go to take pictures of the buildings and cafes circling the lake. Several restaurants around the area also provide a nice view of the lake after sunset.
Also found within the Old Quarter is the Al Noor Mosque which is open for daily prayers everyday. There is also a Halal restaurant right next to the mosque for the ease of Muslims in Hanoi.
Right next to the lake is also the famous Thang Long Water Puppet Theatre, which stages the world renowned one-of-a-kind water puppet show. The Thang Long Water Puppet Theatre in Hanoi has its roots in an art form that dates back to the 11th century. The tradition of water puppet theatre stems from a time when rice paddy fields were flooded and villagers would make entertainment by standing in the waist-deep water with the puppets performing over the water. Using large rods to support the puppets it appeared as if they were moving across the water with the puppeteers hidden behind a screen.
This tradition is unique to North Vietnam but has recently found fame on stages all over the world; so it’s a rare treat to see the puppets perform in their original location at the Thang Long Water Puppet Theatre. Performances are accompanied by a Vietnamese orchestra playing traditional music using drums, wooden bells, horns, bamboo flutes and cymbals.
After an entertaining evening of puppets and music, be sure to check out Hanoi’s famous night market which is held every Friday, Saturday and Sunday. It runs through the Old Quarter district from 7pm, starting from Hang Dao Street and goes all the way north to the edge of Dong Xuan Market.
Here you can find all sorts of items, from clothes to food and drinks, as well as various souvenirs consisting of local handicraft products.
If you wish to buy other goods like Vietnam’s famous cashew nuts, lotus or waterlily seeds and even dried fruits, then be sure to visit Dong Xuan Market which is also the main market of Hanoi. Apart from food items, it is also famous for clothing material that are sold according to the requests of customers. Cloths wielding a million colours can be found here to make an assortment of garments for both men and women.
For those who just love the idea of chilling by the street and find pleasure in people-watching, then head over to Bia Hoi Junction. This junction in the centre of the Old Quarter is the place to be with friends in the late evenings. Foreigners and locals alike spend time here drinking and socializing while ‘checking out’ people as they pass by this busy street filled with several shophouses turned mini bars and cafes with plastic stools spilling out onto the streets. Most of the shops are opened throughout the day and late into the night.
Be sure to try out their famous local delicacies such as the ever popular Vietnamese spring roll and of course Pho, traditional rice noodle soup cooked with different types of meat. And another favourite is Chả Cá Thăng Long, the celebrated fried fish with tumeric and dill, which is prepared in front of restaurant guests in a special wok. And coffee lovers, don’t forget to also try out their local Vietnamese coffee which is globally renowned to be one of the best!
The Halal version of these succulent dishes can be found at D’Lions Restaurant of the Cosiana Hotel within the Old Quarter of Hanoi.
Another must-visit site of Hanoi is the famous Hanoi ‘train street’ where an active train track in the Old Quarter has become the most popular selfie destination in Vietnam’s capital. The street which runs along this active train track sees several cafes allowing seats to be placed even on the train tracks for patrons to immortalize their moments in pictures on their cameras and mobile phones. These small chairs and tables are removed when the train approaches and are placed back in their original positions after the train leaves the street. The walls of the shops surrounding this train track are decorated with all sorts of paintings making it an ‘insta-worthy’ spot for many visitors.
Other places worth a visit would be the French Quarter where old buildings from the days of French Vietnam are preserved with the main Hanoi Opera House standing as a legacy of this colourful past. The Opera House’s architecture also bears a striking resemblance to that of the Parisian Opera House where it was modelled after. In fact, it was modelled after the Palais Garnier, the older of Paris’s two opera houses, and is considered to be one of the architectural landmarks of Hanoi.
Being the capital of Vietnam, Hanoi is also seeing rapid development with the new city taking centre stage, away from the Old Quarter. The new part of Hanoi shows a more contemporary landscape with tall high-rise buildings and shopping malls slowly congregating the large spaces found around the area. It is also complemented with the newly constructed Hanoi Metro, the city’s first internal train system set for operations this year.
If you like malls and would like to purchase products by local Vietnamese fashion brands, be sure to check-out one of their biggest shopping malls, namely the Royal City Vincom Mega Mall or even the Lotte Shopping Mall. The Royal City Vincom Mall is also quite unique as the mall is built totally underground and the exterior above the mall flaunts a beautiful landscape with a large fountain and several renaissance-like statues around it.
Truly, Hanoi is a beautiful city that blends old Asian charm and modernity. If you are ever in search of a city that preserves such balance so well, then this Vietnam capital must be on your bucket list!
Places to stay:
La Siesta Premium Hang Be
This newly opened hotel is one of the many boutique hotels of the Old Quarter that offers a slightly more luxurious experience than your average Hanoi Hotel. The imposing white façade of the hotel, overlooks one of Hanoi’s Old Quarter’s vibrant streets. Now Hang Be Street is buzzing with a myriad of cafes, restaurants, tailoring shops and traditional souvenir stalls. Embodying classic charm with Asian touches, the interior design of the hotel breathes traditional features and elegant period furnishings creating harmony and balance. With a gorgeously-designed lobby and tastefully-decorated rooms, this is one hotel that is worth a visit. Their Cloud 9 restaurant at the top of the hotel provides an excellent view of the Old Quarter and makes it a tranquil place to relax.
JW Marriot Hanoi
Accentuating luxury, the JW Marriott Hotel in Hanoi lives up to its international stature as one of the world’s best luxury hotel brands. Boasting a contemporary, artful design, the hotel rises above Hanoi’s new Central Business District. Located within the vicinity of the National Convention Center, it is perfect for corporate travellers, as well as those visiting Hanoi for pleasure. The 5-star accommodation is further enhanced with the pinnacle of luxury; state-of-the-art technology, sumptuous bedding and floor-to-ceiling windows including Japanese, Chinese, French and International cuisine available at their seven on-site restaurants. Not forgetting other amenities like a luxury spa, a pristine indoor pool and a 24-hour fitness centre all under one roof, it’s easy to understand why this hotel is the perfect choice.
Furthermore the JW Marriot Hanoi has another well-kept secret. Located on the 8th floor of the hotel, is a wellness complex named “Wellbeing on 8” which is designed to take you away from the hustle and bustle of life to a peaceful and inspirational place in the city. Wellbeing on 8 introduces a whole new concept of rejuvenating the body, relaxing the mind, and fulfilling the soul. It comes complete with the Spa by JW which features nine treatment rooms with full facilities, delivering treatments that are tailored to exact needs, a fitness center that offers a wide variety of cardio and strength equipment with professional fitness & yoga instructors in an inspiring space with a city view from above and of course a serene swimming indoor swimming pool which is also the first and only suspended swimming pool in Vietnam!
As a special addition it also features Milk & Co which provides healthy, nutritious food and drinks with a variety of different types of milk as they key ingredient, a Kid’s Corner, where kids can participate in fun and exciting activities with instructors while guests enjoy a relaxing time at Wellbeing on 8 and another special wing is the Dragon’s View, the most unique space with a city view and hanging chairs, giving guests a quiet place to simple switch off.