Your first impression of Hanoi might be a little intense from the dizzying array of motorbikes zipping past. But behind the traffic is a fantastic city full of hidden cafes, artisan craft stores and cultural heritage. It’s possible to experience Hanoi on a budget, without missing out on any of the excellent local dishes or experiences.
Hanoi is a great starting point for exploring Northern Vietnam or heading along the coast towards Ho Chi Minh City. I’d recommend spending two days there before taking the overnight train to continue your adventure, or going to Ha Long Bay for a couple of days.
Hanoi is easiest explored on foot, although if you get tired, there’s even Uber! I’d budget $30-40 AUD per day, although if you’re frugal with your food and accommodation, you could do it for less.
Temple of Literature
Entry fee: About $2
The Temple of Literature is Vietnam’s first national university, built in 1070. Walk through the carefully tended gardens with topiary bushes, relax by the pond and watch people make offerings at the temple.
Ho Chi Minh Mauseoleum and museum
Cost: About $4
The mausoleum is the resting place for Ho Chi Minh. Start by taking in the impressive mausoleum building, then visiting the museum to learn more about his life. The complex also includes the one-pillar pagoda, and the stunning surrounding gardens. Note there is a dress code for this area which absolutely must be observed. Covered shoulders and knee length skirts/pants are a must.
Ride the West Lake
Cost: Approx $2
If you’re feeling energetic, hire a bike and ride around West Lake. While traffic on the main roads can be hairy, once you get further around the lake it’s fairly quiet. Make sure you stop at local temples along the way like Tran Quoc Pagoda. If you ever feel unsafe, walk across intersections with your bike.
Bike hire is available from the Hanoi Bicycle Collective for 20,000 VND per day.
Explore the Old Quarter
While you try to navigate Hanoi’s somewhat terrifying traffic, take a wander around Hanoi’s Old Quarter to peruse the local shops. Each street in the area sells a different product, from homewares to toys. As you head south through the area, take some time at the rooftop cafes to enjoy an egg coffee – yes, that’s a coffee with a raw egg in it. Grab some tasty street food at the market and try to guess what all the dried products are.
Hoan Kiem Lake, Turtle Island and the Temple of the Jade Lake
From the Old Quarter, head south and you’ll hit Hoan Kiem Lake. Stroll around the lake, a social centre for Hanoi, where people meet friends and practice activities together. While you need to pay an entry fee if you want to enter the temple, it’s worth coming here at night when the lake glows with the lights of the city. Branch off from the lake to explore local art stores, including ceramics, stationery and prints, and St Joseph’s Church.
Water Puppet Theatre
Cost: Approx $6
At the northern end of Hoan Kiem Lake is the internationally renowned Water Puppet Theatre. I wasn’t sure what to expect going here, but it’s really good fun, especially if you’re travelling with kids. The puppets dance on water and get up to mischief while musicians perform traditional songs. You’ll need to pay extra if you want to use your camera.
Where to next?
The great thing about starting your trip in Hanoi is how connected it is to the rest of the country. From here, you can get on the overnight train to Sa Pa or head down the coast. Make sure you book your train tickets in advance.
If you’re on a budget you’re in luck – Vietnamese street food is fresh and delicious. Get a hearty bowl of Pho or a chilli spiced Banh Mi for a few dollars. Make sure you try Hanoi’s special dishes like Bun Cha, cooked beef with vermicelli noodles and leafy herbs.