the capital city of Vietnam, is an explosion of old and new. There is a ton of history and culture here which is also beginning to mold with a fresh, modern, hipster vibe. There is a lot to do in the Capital and here are some of our most noteworthy experiences:
Temple of Literature (Văn Miếu)
The Temple of Literature is recognized as the oldest university in all of Vietnam dating back to 1076. To date, you can find locals coming back to the site to make offerings and pray for their academic success while others come back to take graduation pictures and give thanks for their blessings.
The grounds offer ample Insta-opportunities and an inside look into the Vietnamese culture. There are five levels of courtyards filled with religious and symbolic figures representing wisdom, life, and more. Take the time to read the placards and soak it all in!
- Bring a camera and umbrella – the rains can come out of nowhere sometimes
- We recommend spending about 2-3 hours here strolling at your own pace with an iced Vietnamese coffee
Hanoi Hilton (Hỏa Lò Prison)
According to Wikipedia, Hoa Lo translates to "fiery furnace" or even "Hell's hole". Aside from the tropical temperatures and humidity, the street is appropriately named after the countless stores located on the same road that specialize in the sale of stoves. It was later given the “Hanoi Hilton” designation from American POWs during the Vietnam War.
We won’t dive too much into politics here, but the general public is torn on the treatment of American prisoners at this institution. There are countless accounts of poor sanitary conditions, lack of food, and prisoner torture/abuse on one side. On the other side, the now museum, displays pictures of American soldiers playing basketball, gambling, and creating Christmas crafts portraying an entirely different experience.
Regardless of your take on the American experience, there is no doubt that throughout history, a lot of bad things happened here. There are harrowing stories of prisoners from past wars that were bound, beaten, and tortured to death. There are also exhibits displaying the few that were able to escape via the sewer tunnels through the smallest of spaces like human rats. This is a place we will never forget.
We always feel it’s important to visit these historic reminders of human tragedy to comprehend the real impact of war and ensure that we do not repeat upon our mistakes. Let’s end the human torture of each other and embrace the differences we have to offer to create a paradise on Earth!
- Take the time to carefully read the signage and walk through all of the exhibits
- Make sure to check the operating hours as it is not open late into the evenings
- We recommend approximately 2 hours here
Hanoi Train Street
We definitely didn’t do a lot of research on Hanoi as it was near the end of our trip and we were just so beat! Instead, we decided to leave our hotel and just wander – we love to get lost in new places to discover things we may not have been able to if we adhered to a strict itinerary/route.
We were so blessed to simply stumble upon the infamous Hanoi Train Street. We couldn’t believe what we were seeing – there were railroad tracks sandwiched smacked in the middle of a very narrow alley with homes and businesses on either side – you have to see it to believe it!
During the day, there are pedestrians, scooters, and animals alike straddling the tracks on their merry way going about their day. We came across a small café which even setup little plastic chairs and tables right on the tracks for its patrons.
We were bummed that the train didn’t come by while we were there but from what we read afterwards, there are at least 2 trains that pass through every day!
- Do some research to determine the train times during your day of visit
- Bring a good camera with a tripod to capture the epic footage
- Be alert and don’t do anything crazy – it is a train after all!
Water Puppet Show
Water puppetry is an age-old ritual in Vietnam that is often performed in the homes of locals or small theaters. Wooden puppets dance around in shallow pools of water controlled by puppet masters that often inherit the traditions from generations past.
The show can be symbolic of the local life and folklore adored by children and the inquisitive from all around. Our experience felt a bit commercialized and catered primarily for tourists so we would recommend finding a more authentic option. Sometimes, it’s just better to ask the locals once you’ve arrived at your destination rather than a search engine.
- Many theaters offer the props for purchase after the show
- If you receive quotes in USD rather than the local currency, that’s a pretty surefire sign that you are going to get gipped. Negotiate in VND and always start at least 50% off the ask price
- The show takes about an hour to enjoy
Bún Chả Hương Liên
This is the iconic blue, plastic stool diner where former President Barack Obama met travel enthusiast Anthony Bourdain to enjoy delicious noodles and beers! We were disappointed that we couldn’t recreate the experience for ourselves as the menu is primarily pork only (one of the few things we don’t eat).
If you enjoy the pig, do not miss your chance to enjoy a meal at this fine establishment. If it was good enough for the President of the United States – I’m sure it will not disappoint!
Le Hanoi Gourmet
This is a solid restaurant we enjoyed after a trip to the Temple of Literature. We went with a small group and everyone seemed to enjoy their dish (seafood, pork, chicken, and beef)!
We had a delicious chicken, cashew stir fry with rice. Vietnamese food is extremely tasty but not nearly as spicy as neighboring Thailand. We did find ourselves adding some heat to most of our dishes (I think we were born Thai in another life) throughout the trip but it was still very good. The egg coffee here is also great so make sure to try it!
Hanoi Social Club
This is a hipster’s brunch paradise with a twist of Vietnamese and Western dishes. There are 3 floors decorated with funky art and pumping with great tunes. Our meal was delicious and the coffee hit the spot providing the caffeine jolt needed for an entire day out and about.
I believe they also have live musical performances during the week so check out their Facebook page before you go.
Popeyes, but Vietnamese style, shall I say more? The entire menu was in Vietnamese so point, order, and enjoy. There was a variety of fried chicken in a radioactive red sauce which is what I thought I had ordered, but I got normal fried chicken instead. I created my own pool of hot sauce, dipped, and enjoyed my piece of heaven.
They don’t speak much English here but do take credit cards. If you’re running low on VND, pull out the Visa and enjoy a solid meal or at least a snack to hold you over a few hours like we did!