Exploring the Old Quarter
The buzzing heart of Ha Noi for more than 1,000 years, the Old Quarter is still a hub of everyday life for locals. Its 36 streets were originally named after the goods once traded there, and a few still specialise, such as Hang Gai Street, lined with shops selling textiles. It’s a fascinating area to wander around, whether you’re haggling for souvenirs or people-watching over a cool Ha Noi beer.
Discovering Ha Noi’s history
Having endured Chinese and French occupation, as well as the chaos of the Viet Nam War, Ha Noi has a rich heritage. Recent excavations at the Imperial Citadel of Thang Long have uncovered artefacts dating from the 7th century AD; check out the on-site museum for beautiful terracotta phoenixes and dragon heads.
Paying respects to Uncle Ho
The Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum is a place of pilgrimage for many Vietnamese to pay tribute to the man who led the fight for a unified Viet Nam. Queues to see his corpse can stretch for hours, and once inside, talking, photography and hands in pockets are banned. Free entry.
Lapping up the coffee culture
Coffee was introduced here by the French in the late 19th century but Viet Nam quickly started to grow its own crop and put a unique spin on the drink.
A must-try is the local egg coffee (cafe trung). Somewhere between a beverage and a dessert, it involves beaten egg whites poured over an espresso, resulting in a sweet mousse.
Visitting the Women’s Museum
The Viet Nam Women’s Union decided to establish this museum, exploring women’s contribution to the country’s culture. Admire elaborate bridalwear, learn of the toil of women’s agricultural labour and discover the female fighters who played key roles in the Viet Nam War.
Sampling the street food
You’re never far from a street-food vendor here, incredibly low prices mean it seems rude not to try every dish. Make like the locals and sit by the roadside at Bun Cha Nem Cua Be Dac Kim (87 Duong Thanh Street), where you can enjoy bun cha; barbecued pork and rice noodles in a tasty broth.
Visitting Hoa Lo Prison
Grim but absorbing, Hoa Lo was originally a French prison built in 1896. Only a small section of it remains but it’s enough to display gruesome examples of the torture and squalid conditions endured, plus a chilling French guillotine. Hoa Lo eventually became the detainment site for American POWs, and was jokingly known by prisoners as the Hanoi Hilton. Among the misery there are tales of hope, including the captives who managed to escape by tunnelling to freedom through tiny sewers.
Strolling around Hoan Kiem Lake
One of the city’s more serene spots, the lake draws locals from dawn - when tai chi practice occurs - to dusk, when the lake’s illuminations glimmer into life. Visit the Municipal Water Puppet Theatre, where musicians and puppeteers keep the 1,000-year-old Vietnamese art form alive.
Indulging in some relaxation
Many high-end hotels have in-house spas, such as the Mövenpick Hotel Ha Noi. If you’re in budget accommodation, head to the SF Spa, an oasis of calm in the middle of the bustling Old Quarter, for a traditional massage.
Be enchanted by Ha Long Bay
Perhaps Viet Nam’s most magical sight, Ha Long Bay is dotted with tiny islands, caves, grottos and fairy-tale forests. It’s just over 100 miles from the capital. There are tours for about $120 per person, including bus transfers from Ha Noi and a private room aboard a boat, which moors overnight in the blissful waters of the World Heritage site.