Exploring Hanoi, Vietnam: Hidden gems, secret spots
Hanoi, Vietnam is an uncommon travel destination for many Filipinos, with Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) being the more popular destination for most. Most of us might assume that Saigon is the capital, when in fact, it's actually Hanoi.
This city’s got this Old-World, laid-back charm and was branded as the little Paris of the East (Ho Chi Minh City is the modern pulse of the country). It is also known as the gateway to Ha Long Bay, but what you’ll really like in Hanoi is the city itself.
It's full of romantic, poetic places – if there's such a thing. The locals always seem to put poise into things – nooks and crannies of a humble café located at a crumbling French colonial building are typically decorated with fresh roses in vases, and undisturbed locals drinking lotus tea in the afternoon pepper the sidewalks amid the traffic rush. There’s almost a feeling of contentment and solace in most of these places despite the chaos in the city.
These simple things are what make Hanoi charming.
Forget the usual touristy haunts – the Temple of Literature, Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum, or even Ha Long Bay. Enter the quiet and relaxing side of Hanoi and explore relaxing cafes, peaceful spots, and hidden gems which will lead you back to its old-fashioned allure.
Here is a sample itinerary together with some guides and tips for when you visit Hanoi. This was also inspired by a question randomly asked by a friend who's planning on going on a solo trip, but couldn't decide whether to see Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City) or Hanoi. Hopefully, this guide will help you decide in choosing if Hanoi is the best fit for your travel preference.
The goal of this trip is mostly to explore Hanoi’s quiet spots and quaint cafes, and photowalk at the Old Quarter.
Upon arrival at Noi Bai international Airport Terminal 2 at 12 midnight (I flew in via Cebu Pacific), the first few things you should do:
- Change money to Vietnamese Dong (VND)
- Buy a local SIM card. The Vinaphone sim card is priced at 200,000 VND (P450). Its connection was great and fast and the staff at the booth from the airport will have it set-up for you (booths are easy to find, located at the Arrivals area). Shops close by 1 am so you need to get these essentials quickly.
- Buy a snack if you’ll be sleeping at the airport and will be traveling by daytime (I slept at the airport and waited it out until sunrise to travel to the city center since I was traveling alone at the time).
Tips when sleeping at Noi Bai airport Terminal 2:
- Noi Bai International Airport Terminal 2 is not a busy airport; not many backpackers sleep here (only saw a couple of travelers during my overnight stay), but there were some locals sleeping there as well (mostly taxi drivers waiting for their passenger’s arrival).
- One quiet spot is at the second floor where the cushioned benches are, right across a restaurant above the Arrivals area.
- It is safe for solo female travelers to sleep overnight at the airport, but as in all places, be mindful of your belongings (you may use your hand-carry bag as pillow, and your luggage with one of your ankles just in case someone gets your bag, you’ll immediately be woken up).
How to go to Old Quarter from the airport via public bus. Just outside the Arrivals entrance doors is public bus #86 (color orange), which drops you off at the city center.
- Operating hours: 6:18 am – 10:58 pm
- Fare: 30,000 VND (P70)
- Route: T2 arrival terminal (ground floor) – Vo Nguyen Giap overpass – Vo Nguyen Giap street – T1 arrival terminal (ground floor) – Vo Nguyen Giap – Nhat Tan bridge – Au Co – Nghi Tam – Yen Phu – Long Bien transit station – Tran Nhat Duat – 142 Tran Quang Khai – Hanoi Opera House Trang – Le Thanh Tong – Hai Ba Trung – Ly Thuong Kiet – Le Duan – Hanoi Train Station
Bus # 86 stops nearest to Old Quarter:
- Tan Nhat Duat
- 142 Tran Quang Khai
- Hanoi Opera House
Other tips: If you have heavy luggage or are with a group, it’s better to get a taxi. Alighting from Long Bien station still requires a 20-30 minute walk going to Hoan Kiem Lake area, so it’s not a recommended stop and you’ll be dropped off at a bus stop located along a busy road with lots of tours. It's better to alight at 142 Tran Quang Khai or Hanoi Opera House which seems to be nearer Old Quarter.
- 7:30 am: Take bus #86 from Noi Bai airport to Old Quarter, alight at Tan Nhat Duat, 142 Tran Quang Khai, or Hanoi Opera House bus stop (depending on which area you’re staying at the Old Quarter) and walk going to the hotel.
- 9:00 am: Early check-in or luggage drop-off at your accommodation (stayed at Serenity Diamond Hotel on the first day).
- 12:00 pm: Have lunch at Bun Cha Dac Kim at Hang Manh street at the Old Quarter and get the original bun cha, Hanoi's signature dish with grilled pork patties served with a generous amount of white vermicelli and greens, fresh greens of mint, basil, cilantro, and a dash of bird's eye chili. One meal costs 90,000 VND (around P200 – a bit pricey for local standards).
What to eat:
- Bun cha: grilled pork and noodles, served with fresh herbs
- Nem cua be: square crab spring rolls
- 1:00 pm: Photowalk going to Hoan Kiem Lake and take a Grab or taxi (the most reliable taxi companies in Vietnam are Mai Linh and Vinasun) to Thang Long Royal Citadel. Entrance fee is at 25,000 VND, open Tuesday – Sunday, 8 AM – 5 PM, closed on Mondays. It’s a relatively large compound, there are some galleries and museums inside but not many tourists visit here.
- 3:00 pm: Ba Dinh district photowalk and stroll along its tree-lined boulevards (this area houses most of the government buildings boasting a colonial architectural style).
- 4:00 pm: Cool down at The Rustics Coffee or Highlands Coffee Flag Towerbranch (its tree-canopied grounds offer a refreshing respite from the summer heat). Photowalk going back to the Old Quarter (you may opt for a Grab or taxi ride if you’re too tired to walk going back).
- 6:00 pm onwards: Relax at Lutulata Desserts and Drinks (open: Monday to Sunday, 8 am – 11 pm) at Hang Ma street (paper lanterns street) as you savor the hours away late in the afternoon.
- 7:00 am: Breakfast at the hotel. Fill your hungry tummy with piping hot Pho Bo (beef noodles). Get the most bang for your buck by availing of the free breakfast offered at your accommodation.
- 9:00 am: Photowalk early in the morning and observe how the city and its locals wake up and get ready for the day. Hang Bo (Bamboo street) is a particularly picturesque street lined with bamboo shops. It’s best to go here in the morning where the sun’s rays give an ethereal effect along this lane.
- 9:30 am: Phan Dinh Phung street photowalk. The street is dubbed as one of the most beautiful streets in Hanoi and is especially romantic during autumn. It’s spilling with huge trees, which offers a refreshing canopy against the sun. The mix of blue, yellow, and green refreshes the eyes and the mind. You'll also see charming houses and buildings along this stretch. On your way back, take a detour along a neighborhood back alley, get a glimpse of the local life and discover a beautiful unobstructed view of…
- 11:30 am: Truc Bach Lake.
- 1:00 pm: The Bookworm Hanoi. Relax at this secret bookstore (44 Châu Long, Trúc Bạch, Ba Đình, open: Monday to Sunday, 9 am – 7 pm) and grab some books about Vietnam to immerse yourself in its history. The alley is a bit tricky to find but that's part of the adventure.
- 1:30 pm: Lutulata. Return here for a late lunch, then head to the hotel for check-out (if you’re staying at another accommodation) and check in next at an Airbnb.
- 3:00 pm: Late check-in at Silk’s Home airbnb along Dao Duy Tu alley, it’s connecting to Hang Buom (coffee street) where you can buy that popular fragrant Vietnamese ca phe (coffee). The airbnb is at a quiet compound originally built to house teachers working at a nearby school.
- 4:00 pm: Ancient House at Ma May street – visit this to get a glimpse of an ancient Vietnamese house which is also a breather from the afternoon heat and city noise (open: Monday – Sunday: 8:30 am – 5 pm, Friday – Sunday: additional opening hours from 7:30 pm – 10 pm).
- 4:30 pm: Spend the afternoon at La Place café (open: Monday – Sunday: 7:30 am – 10:30 pm) along Au Trieu street and get a seat overlooking Nha Tho Lon (St. Joseph Cathedral) with its baroque architectural style façade while drinking coffee and munching on some pastry.
- 6:00 pm onwards: Take an early dinner if you want to tuck in early for the night and head back to your accommodation. Else, the night is young and the city’s nightlife is yours to take – Ta Hien (beer street) joint is where you can gulp on bia hois or freshly-brewed local bia (beer).
What to eat:
- Bun bo nam bo (beef noodle salad)
- Pho bo (beef rice noodles)
- Nem cua be (square crab spring rolls)
- Goi cuon (fresh spring rolls)
- 9:00 am: Old Quarter photowalk. Explore more of the streets of the Old Quarter: Hang Buom (sails street), Hang Gai (silk street) and take a walk along serene Hoan Kiem Lake.
- 9:30 am: Grab a snack and drink at charming The Ylang: Cafe Gardenista (operating hours: Monday – Sunday: 7 am – 10:30 pm) then sneak a bit of souvenir shopping (get some Vinamit – dried fruit chips – which is an awesome pasalubong). Silk (airbnb owner) suggests buying from convenience stores since the prices do not largely differ from the ones sold at the shops along the streets.
- 12:00 pm: Lunch at Bun Bo Nam Bo Noodle & Roll.
- 1:00 pm: Explore the city streets some more. Dong Xuan street and Hang Chieu streets are also great for photowalks, it’s where you’ll find O Quan Chuong (known as The City Gate), one of the popular trademarks of Old Quarter.
- 4:30 pm: Slow down at the iconic Cong Caphe (operating hours: Monday – Sunday: 7 am – 11:30 pm) along Cau Go street overlooking the city center/square and Hoan Kiem Lake and observe the busy life down below.
What to drink:
- Ca phe sua da (Vietnamese iced drip coffee with milk)
- Ca phe sua chua (Vietnamese iced coffee with yogurt)
- Ca phe trung (Vietnamese coffee with egg)
- Vietnamese coffee with coconut milk (a personal favorite)
- 7:00 pm: Dinner (I stayed at the Airbnb because Prince Harry and Megan’s wedding was airing live at this time during my visit!).
- 9:30 pm onwards: Old Quarter night market, explore its bustling night market scene at Hang Dao and Hang Trong streets.
- 7:30 am: Hoan Kiem Lake early morning photowalk and visit Ngoc Son Temple (open: Monday – Sunday: 8 am – 6 pm).
- 8:30 am: Chase women flower vendors with their bikes along Hang Bac and Ly thai To streets then walk going to…
- 9:00 am: Hoa 10 Gio Floral & Book Cafe (open: Monday – Sunday: 7:30 am – 10:30 pm) at Ly Thai To street for that much-needed Sunday morning chillout.
- 10:30 am: Browse through beautiful paintings at Hang Trong street or do some souvenir shopping.
- 12:00 pm: Have lunch at Bun Bo Nam Bo noodle and Roll.
- 2:00 pm: Additional souvenir shopping. Buy fragrant coffee grounds at Hang Buom street, then pack-up for departure in the afternoon.
- 5:00 pm: Take a Grabcarfor Noi Bai airport (booking Grab is a cheaper option than hiring one from your accommodations, based on experience).
Despite the confusing buzz from countless motorbikes, at almost every corner there is grace and stillness in Hanoi. The locals sure know how to make use of every inch of space in Vietnam, and they don’t get so stressed about it!
Life goes on, the traffic flows, another ca phe pours. This capital is indeed a welcome relief from our stressful daily grinds. – Rappler.com
If you have other questions when traveling in Hanoi, feel free to send a message via Instagram (username: @janricasio).
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