A Nomad’s Guide to Hanoi, Vietnam
"Don't tell me how educated you are, tell me how much you traveled." - Mohamed
Vietnam was my first taste of Asia, a whole new world to me, and I completely fell in love. In Hanoi, the pace is rushed and there is chaos everywhere, but it is an incredible city to experience culture. Women carry giant, hanging baskets of fruit around the city, entire families pile on to a small motorbike, and street food is everywhere.
The architecture varies greatly throughout the capital from the times it was occupied by the French and Chinese governments. I was in awe of how an old cathedral could sit right next to a giant pagoda and neither seemed out of place. The cultures just blend together.
Plus, the countryside and nature in Vietnam is absolutely stunning. Every weekend that I ventured out of the city, I was memorized by the landscape. I found myself thinking, this is the most beautiful thing I have ever seen, only to hear myself repeating the same thought the following week. From the rice fields in Sapa to the thousands of islands in Ha Long Bay, Vietnam is such a treasure to behold.
I hope my suggestions prove useful to you on your upcoming journey to Hanoi. If you aren't already planning a trip, you should seriously consider it!
Things to do in Hanoi
Visit Hoa Lo Prison - This is also referred to as the "Hanoi Hilton" and is famous among Americans for housing John McCain as a POW. The prison has a long history and was originally built by the French in the late 19th century to house political prisoners. Only a portion of the original prison remains and it has been renovated into a museum that shares the history of the prison, the heroes of the communist party, and more. It is a short visit and I encourage you to keep in mind that there are always two sides to a story as you explore their history.
Get clothing made - Vietnam is a wonderful place for transforming your wardrobe. There are custom tailors all over the city who can create new articles of clothing tailored to your custom body size and at a bargain price. I went to a place called Bambou Silk and had a romper and maxi dress made for me at the cost of about $85. It costs more than I expected, but the items I had them copy were both priced at $120, so it was a great deal in that respect. Pro-tip: Make sure you leave enough time for alterations to be done before you leave. It was rare for our group to have something made that did not require alterations.
Enjoy the parks - On the weekends, the streets around Hoàn Kiếm Lake shut down and families come out to enjoy street performances, games, and more. I loved how much the people of Hanoi enjoy their public space. Children are riding around in mini cars and couples are dancing and laughing to live music. It's definitely a fun place to be!
Get a blind massage - And support a good cause at Omamori Spa. This spa works with a nonprofit in Hanoi called Blind Link and helps blind individuals learn how to give massage and make a living. Their prices and their service is incredible and you can help support people who are often treated like second-class citizens in Vietnam.
Take a coffee tour - Vietnam has some amazing and unique coffees. If you can handle the caffeine, you can spend an afternoon exploring some of the famous coffee styles in Hanoi (or space it out over a few days, of course). If you want to stop at the same places I did, here was my tour:
- Take an Uber Moto - you have to try it!
- Visit the Opera House
- Explore the women's museum
- Walk around the Old Quarter
- Visit the night markets
- Visit a tea plantation
- Wonder around the big lakes
Things to do outside of Hanoi
I took a number of side trips while I was in Hanoi, as the city is very busy and can be a bit overwhelming and chaotic. Opting to leave the city each weekend, I explore the gorgeous countryside and islands in Northern Vietnam. My article on these side trips that includes details about Sapa, Ninh Binh, and Ha Long Bay:
Where to eat?
Street food - You are in Hanoi! You have to be brave and grab a plastic stool and some street food during your visit. If you aren't vegetarian, it is absolutely necessary to grab Pho during your stay. (If you are a veg head, there are some vegan restaurants that serve it, but it is harder to find on the street.) I would be weary of any kind of special requests with your street food because very few people speak English. However, it is the best way to live like a local and it is very cheap.
Om Hanoi - I loved this place because it is vegan and had a yoga studio at home! The vibe is really great. You take off your shoes and venture up a set of stairs into the kitchen of the restaurant where you meet the family of people who own it. The seating is chill and the menu is huge! I would definitely suggest their mango avocado spring rolls.
Xofa Cafe - I was here nearly every day... They are open 24/7 and have a nice variety of Vietnamese and Western food. The staff is friendly and you can hang out for a long time reading one of their books or getting some work done. The only downside is that their prices are closer to Western meal prices than some of the more local food places. Pro-tip: Order the vegetable sandwich. It sounds boring but it is delicious!
Hanoi Social House - This place is another one with chill vibes and great atmosphere. Their menu is also labeled for vegetarians, which makes ordering easy for me. They have live music some nights of the week and make pretty great cocktails. My only downside to this place was that it is nearly always filled with expats and hardly any locals. My fave? Black bean burger!
Other suggestions: My friends enjoyed Pizza 4P's a lot while they were in Hanoi and they will serve you free champagne while you wait for your table or to-go order. If you are looking for a nicer dinner with an unlimited buffet option, I really enjoyed the food and service at Ngon Villa Restaurant.
Where to drink?
Nê Cocktailbar - I had the best cocktail of my life. Seriously. Do not miss the Pho cocktail at Ne! It is not just a drink, it is a work of art. They mix amazing ingredients and then light the cocktail on fire a couple of times to get this amazing smoky flavor. It is a magical sight to see and will do wonder for your Instagram game. Best honestly, I don't think there are any cocktails from this bar that taste bad. They know what they're doing!
The Rooftop - I went here for a fun ladies night where we got dressed up and enjoyed the night time views of the city. We also did some great dancing because their Saturday night lady DJ was amazing. I stopped by a couple other times for a night cap off on the patio and they sometimes had live music. It's a great atmosphere.
Hero Club - While I never went here myself, some of my friends really enjoyed late night dancing with the locals at Hero Club. If you like to get your dance on, this is definitely one of the places to do it! It's loud, full of lights, and people dancing in cages.
Other suggestions - Do you like free beer? Stop by Bar Bettas on Wednesday and Sunday nights for free beer from 9-10:00 pm. We also spent a considerable number of evenings on the patio at Puku Cafe and Sports Bar which is also the most likely place to be showing western sporting events. Lastly, you can always venture to the typical drinking spot for tourists and locals alike, Beer Street, which is a blocked off street of bars.
Nomad life - Work & Stay Fit
Work - Our office space for the month was located at a co-working facility near the smaller lake, called Toong. It was a nice space and had a cafe open during the day, which was a great added bonus. If you are looking for cafes, I mentioned Xofa earlier for food, but it was also a common place for me to work. Additionally, my friends really enjoyed working from a coffee shop called Lifted and a dessert cafe called Aroi. I had pretty good connections at most of the places I stopped by in Vietnam, so there are really plenty of options.
Stay Fit - I was very happy to find a yoga studio I loved while I was staying in Hanoi. Om Factory has two locations in the city and offers a variety of classes, including Hatha, Vinyasa, Yin, Aerial Yoga, and more. I really enjoyed the teachers who challenged me and learning new styles on the silks. I also liked the class I took at Hanoi Om, but decided to get a memberships that offered more variety. My RY friends were absolutely obsessed with Monkey Boxing and really tried to get me to go. They rave about the instructor, so I would highly suggest that if you're interested!
Hanoi was a great city for digital nomads and was full of expats exploring the culture of Vietnam. I really want to encourage you to live like a local as much as you can while you are there. You should get a ride on an Uber Moto or Grab Bike, drink some strong Vietnamese coffee, enjoy street food, and exploring the lake side activities on the weekend!
Do not forget to leave time for exploring outside of Hanoi, as I cannot describe the grandness of the Vietnamese landscape!
Do you have any questions about Hanoi? I would love to help! Comment below and I would love to answer your questions, offer my advice, and chat about your favorite spots.
Whelp, this digital nomad needs to get back to work... Thanks for reading!
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