Hanoi Travel Guide for Backpackers – All you need to know
Hanoi is a very intriguing city. It combines the chaos of Asia and the Western modern way of living. There are districts in Hanoi, like the Old City, where people are cooking directly on the sidewalk and other districts where you can visit shops of luxury brands. However, the higher development level of Hanoi in comparison to other Southeast Asian cities has its good and bad sides. After travelling through more remote parts of Asia, Hanoi with its nice shops and fancy restaurants feels a little bit like home again. But this comes at a price – it’s definitely more expensive here than in other parts of Vietnam. Nevertheless, it’s still possible to see the city and its attractions without spending millions. Below you will find my Hanoi Travel Guide for Backpackers with budget travel tips and all the useful information about the city.
How to get to Hanoi?
You may already heard the saying All roads lead to Rome. Well, if you look at the map of north Vietnam you will have the feeling that in this part of the world all roads lead to Hanoi. Thanks to that, you shouldn’t have any issues getting into this city. Besides, it’s a very touristic city, so there are plenty of possibilities, by air and by land, to get there.
- Flights: from Europe the flights to Hanoi cost around 500 EUR. If you are already in Southeast Asia then a flight from one of the other capitals will cost you around 100 EUR.
- Bus: If you are already in Southeast Asia but you are travelling on a budget you can always take a bus. For example when going from Laos to Vietnam you can take the 24h bus from Vientiane to Hanoi. Check out here how such an adventure was looking like in my case.
What to do in Hanoi ?
A big city like Hanoi has a lot to offer. It’s famous for example for its Old Quarter, where you can feel the Asian atmosphere of the city. Besides shops with souvenirs, street food stands and a lot of scooters you can find there also the Instagram famous Train Street and the St. Joseph’s Cathedral. Not so far away there is also the Hoan Kiem Lake and the Ngoc Son Temple. Hanoi has also a lot of attractions with historical background, like Ho Chi Minh Museum and Mausoleum and the Hoa Lo Prison. You will find here a full list of places that I visited while spending 3 days in Hanoi.
But for me personally the greatest attraction of Hanoi was its unique European-Asian atmosphere, which you can experience by just walking through the city. Chaos of the streets filled with scooters and kitchens on the sidewalk is exactly the opposite of calm and modern interiors of shopping malls in the city. Young and fashionably dressed people with the newest smartphones are sitting on small plastic chair in the middle of the sidewalk eating their pho, moving just occasionally to avoid their brand new nike’s to get wet when swill is flowing down the street. Austere communist building are standing next to French villas and Asian temples reminding of the complicated past of the region. These are the pictures that make the atmosphere of Hanoi so unique. But in order to see them you have to get off the beaten path and mix the interesting tourist attractions with a few of alternative places in Hanoi. Only then you will get a glimpse of the everyday life of the city.
How to get around Hanoi?
Hanoi is definitely a city which you can explore by foot – we got to all the important places without using any means of transport. Most of the tourist attractions are in the Old Quarter close to each other but to be honest when counting the distances together it finally becomes a long rout, so you better be a fan of walking 😉 Otherwise you can use the buses riding through the city or order an Asian Uber called Grab. We had one occasion to use it in Hanoi in order to get back to the hotel after walking the whole day – it works pretty trouble-free and the prices are ok.
Driving a scooter in Hanoi may sound crazy for a foreigner but it’s definitely not impossible. Mainly in the Old Quartet the traffic is insane and it seems that there are no rules, at least not the ones we know from Europe or the USA. If this is not scaring you off then at least try to ride a scooter in Vietnam in a calmer place, before you will do that in Hanoi.
Crossing a street
In Hanoi you should be very careful when crossing a street. There are not always zebra crossing for pedestrians and even if there are this doesn’t mean in Vietnam that you have the right of way as an pedestrian. Almost nobody is stopping the let people cross the street – you can wait for hours for that to happen. Or you can cross the street, on the crossing or not, in a Vietnamese way: going slowly and evenly without any sudden moves. Thanks to that the drivers will be able to estimate where you will be on the street in a second or two and they can bypass you. A green light is also not always giving you the right of way. Many people stick to this rule but there are some that don’t and keep going even if it’s red, so you have to be very careful and look several times in both directions to make sure no scooter is coming.
Where to sleep in Hanoi?
Like I already mentioned Hanoi is a very touristic city. Almost every person visiting Vietnam is also visiting Hanoi. Because of that you shouldn’t have any problem finding an accommodation here, unless the problem is a too big choice 😉 In my opinion the best you can do if you are spending only few days in Hanoi is to find a place in the Old Quarter. From there all the interesting places can be reached by foot.
Like always we were travelling to Vietnam on a budget so we booked a 10 USD room with bathroom at the Thu Giang Guesthouse (the original price was higher but we negotiated). The place is owned by a senior exceptionally friendly lady and her son. Taking into account the high prices in Hanoi they have quite good references. The rooms are very simple but you will find there everything you need. A big advantage is the location in the heart of the Old Quarter. A small disadvantage may be the fact that some rooms are located on the very top of the building and there is no lift. So you will have to carry your luggage through the narrow staircase to your room. Another disadvantage that we experienced were very small but still irritating ants that were able to get inside every bag with food.
In Hanoi you will also find a lot of hostels but the prices are around 5 USD per bed, so if you are travelling with another person it doesn’t pay off.
Where to eat in Hanoi?
Sightseeing Hanoi can be exhausting but fortunately you will find there a place where you can rest a bit and eat or drink something delicious almost on every corner. Also, if you go to the Old Quarter late afternoon or in the evening you will understand the real meaning of street food. It’s not food trucks or bikes with small kitchens on them like in Bangkok. In Hanoi people cook, wash dishes and eat directly on the sidewalk. Such places serve mostly fired meat, small snacks or pho soups. Very popular are also the bahn mi sandwiches filled with meat, cheese, vegetables and a souce. Street food can be also found on the night markets. The main one in the city centre is offering different sea food snacks, snails, frogs and fishes.
Unfortunately, finding something vegetarian and cheap to eat is not so easy in Hanoi. Even the pho soups are cooked with meat. Sometimes we spend hours walking through the city and couldn’t find anything vegetarian. So if you are vegetarian always remember to go out of your hotel prepared – just mark some vegetarian friendly places on your map in case you can’t find anything on the way. But as soon as you will take the word cheap out of the previous sentence some interesting options will emerge in front of your eyes. There are really nice places serving vegan and vegetarian food in Hanoi but the prices are as high as the ones in Europe.
Vegetarian friendly restaurants:
Breadandmore – a place where you can eat very cheap the delicious bahn mi sandwiches also with vegetarian filling. EDIT: I can’t find this place o Google Maps anymore. It may be closed.
Banh Mi Hoi An – kolejne miejsce z bahn mi, tym razem głównie w wersji mięsnej. Z tego też powodu tam nie dotarliśmy, ale ma bardzo dobre recenzje.
Cơm Phở – great place owned by a senior couple. Prices are ok and the food is really tasty. They have a big choice of vegetarian dishes. A small disadvantage is that inside there is not much space but there are also tables outside.
Little Vietnam – an alternative to Cơm Phở (located on the same street). They have really good opinions and nice dishes in the menu. Prices are comparable to the ones in Cơm Phở.
V’s Home – a small restaurant with vegetarian ecological home-made food. It’s a little bit hard to find the entrance because it’s on the first floor of the building. Prices are pretty high, around 200.000 for a dish but the menu looks super interesting. They serve Asian fusion kitchen.
Sadhu Vegetarian Restaurant – one of the best places with vegetarian food I ever visited. You pay once and you can eat as many dishes from the menu as you want. They specialize also in Asian fusion kitchen. Dishes are very refined and beautifully decorated. An all-you-can-eat menu costs around 250.000 dong per person. A visit in this place is a really interesting experience. That’s why for me it’s one of the off-the-beaten-path places to visit in Hanoi. More about Sadhu and other alternatives to tourist attractions you will find here.
Vietnamese ice cream:
Trang Tien Ice Cream – great place to try home-made Vietnamese ice cream. You can choose between different ice creams and different flavours, also unusual ones like green tea or red beans.
KingRoti – Hàng Gai – in Vietnam roti means something else than in the rest of SE Asia. It doesn’t mean a pancake anymore but round sweet buns with such filling like coffee, match, vanilla. They taste great in the morning with coffee or tea. Price: 15.000 dong.
For those of you who are not eating meat I’m preparing a guide with vegetarian restaurants in Vietnam that I tried out and can recommend. It will include a map with the restaurant and some tips for vegetarians, which will help you to survive in Vietnam.
Where to go next?
After you finish sightseeing Hanoi you can travel from there in different directions:
- Sapa, a city in the northern part of the country where you can explore the Vietnamese mountains, visit remote villages in the jungle and admire cascade-like rice terraces.
- Halong Bay, an Avatar-like landscape with lime stones emerging from the emerald green water covered with exotic plants. A must-see place in Vietnam.
- Ninh Binh, a region with similar landscape to the one of Halong Bay but located on the land. The lime stones are surrounded by rice fields and rivers.
- Wodospady Ban Gioc they are very close to the Chinese border. Beautiful but also very far away in case you are not going to China next.
Here is a map on which I marked all the important places in Hanoi. It will help you to plan your stay in the city. Inside you will find the cheap guesthouse we slept in, restaurants that we visited and all the sights that we can recommend. By clicking on the star you can save it in your Google Maps Account under Your Places and use it later while travelling. Enjoy!