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Hanoi: your guide to escaping the crowds

| Words by Zoe Crane |

Our insiders guide to Hanoi

No holiday or getaway in Vietnam is complete without seeing the ancient capital of Hanoi. With an old quarter resplendent with French-colonial buildings and markets that surge into the cities backstreets, Hanoi is correctly revered as one of Asia’s finest cities, which blends a dynastic past with a thirst for development and commercial progress.

For early risers

  • Flower market – To really see this market in action you need to arrive early, very early. Starting at 3am and winding down by about 7am, early risers will be rewarded with stunning colours and smells as thousands of flowers emerge from the darkness. Vendors are always willing to try their English and can normally cater to small orders!
  • West Lake (Hoan Kiem Lake) – although enjoyable throughout the day, arriving early morning at Hoan Kiem lake you will see locals practicing Tai Chi, playing Chess, dashing around on Badminton courts and joining you in watching local life unfold on the promenade.
  • Raising the flag – each morning at about 6am, the Vietnamese flag is raised in the front the revered Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum. This long standing tradition is one of Vietnam’s most ceremonial of occasions. As this is an important state ceremony, always dress respectfully with covered knees and shoulders.
  • Laughing Yoga – At 6am, about halfway down Hoan Kiem Lake by the statue of Ly Thai Tho you’ll find a group of locals practising laughing yoga, you are welcome to stay and watch, or join in if you like, just for a laugh.
  • For Foodies

  • Chau Long market - This local market sells all kinds of produce from fresh vegetables to meat to “fast food” such as pre-cooked noodles, pancakes and Hanoi’s signature dishes like Cha ca La Vong. Wandering through the market, find some weird and wonderful local food which ranges from the enlightening to a little confronting.
  • Dong Xuan food alley – Escape the hustle of Dong Xuan markets on this tiny pedestrian alleyway filled with Hanoi street food. Some has been served for generations with authentic recipes and traditional Hanoi dishes. There are also buffet style stalls where you can choose your own ingredients. A Hanoi speciality is Bun Cha. Grilled pork, in a light broth with fresh salad and egg noodles (around $3.50).
  • Egg coffee – Ok, it sounds strange, but this Vietnamese delicacy is utterly divine and a must try for any self-proclaimed foodie (around $1.50 a glass). Locally known as Ca phe trung, you’ll find it at the local coffee shops, which can themselves be pretty hard to find. Try Cafe Pho Co behind the silk shop at 11 Hang Gai. Finding this treasure is worth the effort. Go up a couple of floors past an amazing family altar to a rooftop with a great view of Hoan Kiem Lake.
  • For Theatregoers

  • Water Puppets – This tip comes from Audrey of That Backpacker."If you are looking to soak up a bit of Hanoi's traditional side, I recommend going to a water puppet show. Water puppetry is a tradition that originated many centuries ago in the Red River Delta region of northern Vietnam, where villagers would put on shows in the flooded rice fields as a way of entertainment. Today, you can catch a performance at the Thang Long Water Puppetry Theatre, which is located in the northeast end of Hoan Kiem Lake. The skilled puppeteers are accompanied by a live orchestra and it truly is a unique way to experience a piece of Vietnamese culture."
  • For people watchers

  • Bia Hoi – Pull up a plastic stool and order one of the cheapest beers around. These street-side bars serve alongside what passes in Vietnam as bar snacks. A beer costs between $0.20 and $1.00.
  • Lake view cafes – From one of our tour leaders, Matthew Reeves, this is a great tip for spending a few lazy hours in the afternoon. Cafes with plastic chairs and lovely views Line West Lake. Matthew says “I like to go and sit at one of little places with plastic tables and chairs right on West Lake and have a few beers and a bit to eat. You might find the odd expat there but it’s very local”.

All of our Indochina tours that visit Hanoi include a Water Puppet performance. The flexibility of our itineraries gives you the chance to discover some of these hidden gems in your own time, or you could try a tailor made tour of Vietnam including Hanoi.