10 Free Activities to Do in Hanoi for First-Timers
Alright, so you’ve finally set your foot in Hanoi and wondering what to do or see in this chaotic, but unique and lively city? Believe me, you’re definitely not the only one, especially if that’s your first time in Hanoi. I’ve been traveling and living in Hanoi for a while and there are moments when I wonder the same.
It’s not a lack of things to do, but rather the opposite; an abundance of activities which creates endless opportunities.
Let’s say a word or two about beautiful Hanoi. It’s the capital of Vietnam with roughly 8 million citizens and who knows how many tourists. The city is a constant hustle and bustle in almost every aspect – from chaotic traffic to lively night markets. Locals tend to call Hanoi a ‘big village’ since no matter the size, the city still radiates with an authentic and traditional vibe.
Since Hanoi is such a massive city offering (too) many options, I’m going to share with you my favorite free activities to do in Hanoi.
Let’s dive in!
- 1 Wander Around Colorful and Lively Old Quarter
- 2 Eat Everything You See (Even If It Doesn’t Seem Delicious)
- 3 Join a Free Hanoi Walking Tour
- 4 #4- Enjoy a Cup of Strong Vietnamese Coffee
- 5 #5- Walk Around Train Street
- 6 #6- Go to Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum
- 7 #7- Explore Every Corner of Dong Xuan Market
- 8 #8- Enjoy a Drink and View From Rooftop Bar
- 9 #9- Taste Bia Hoi with Locals
- 10 #10- Explore West Lake
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Wander Around Colorful and Lively Old Quarter
It’s old-fashioned, but Old Quarter never stops to surprise positively. From tiny streets flocked with friendly (and drunk) locals all the way to vibrant nightlife, live karaoke and attractive smell of local cuisine, this magical place has it all!
A beautiful Hoan Kiem Lake sits in the middle of a busy Old Quarter which definitely provides a balance. The furnished paths around the lake and benches are ideal for a romantic night or relaxing with a taste of Hanoi beer. If that sounds boring, don’t worry as Hoan Kiem Lake is the place where locals usually relax after a long working day, so prepare for seeing unusual and exciting things. A Zumba-like dance, all kind of street artists (scammers too), kids playing the balls, karaoke performers, and much more will keep you wandering around the lake.
Did you know that Old Quarter features thematic streets? For example, in one street you can find only shoe shops while other street features only beer places. You don’t need to be a genius to figure out the names of these streets.
Street food and fresh Vietnamese beer is a must thing to do while wandering around Old Quarter. Get your crew together and hit the streets for an unforgettable experience that will serve as an introduction to rich Vietnamese culture.
The best time to visit Old Quarter is at night time since the place totally transforms compared to day time. It’s so colorful and many things are happening at once, so you might experience sensory overload. I encourage you to visit the place during day time too since it’s not so busy and allows you to have a more personal space and time to relax.
Eat Everything You See (Even If It Doesn’t Seem Delicious)
It may be a bit harsh, but believe me on this one – locals definitely know how to make a mouthwatering dishes from simple ingredients. Street food is a staple of Vietnamese culture and it makes the country recognized around the world.
Street food is delicious, fresh, diverse, and extremely affordable. Many first-time travelers are scared to try food from the street because of concerns about cleanliness and safety. My personal opinion is that you should definitely keep your guard up, but don’t restrict yourself from enjoying delicacies. I’ve never had a problem with the food on the street and my advice is to always eat at places where locals eat.
As Vietnam is very long (geographically) country and it’s been influenced by many countries through history, the cuisine radically changes from place to place. Every place has an authentic food, so Hanoi’s authentic food is by far a hot bowl of Pho.
It’s tough to write about the food since I can write a whole book about diversity and of Vietnamese cuisine. Anyway, along with Pho, there are a few dishes worth mentioning.
Bun Cha is a bowl of soup filled with fresh vegetables like cucumbers, lettuce, onions and fish or meatballs. It’s a very refreshing and delicious dish. Com Rang is an iconic food of north and it’s basically fried rice with eggs, vegetables and meat. Also, don’t forget to try iconic Banh Mi e.g. baguette sandwich.
The portion of street food usually costs from 20,000 – 50,000 VND (equivalent to $2.5).
Join a Free Hanoi Walking Tour
You might be skeptical when you read the words ‘free’ and ‘tour’, but believe me (non-promotional), free Hanoi walking tour are one of the best experiences in Hanoi.
The whole concept started in 2011. as the initiative of locals students who’ve enjoyed Hanoi and they wanted to share its hidden beauty with travelers. If you’re traveling alone, jumping on a free walking tour can be an amazing way to meet active and positive people, learn about the culture and explore hidden places around Hanoi.
There are many tailored or thematic tours where locals show you around the city’s attractions, museums, street food places, lively bar scene and many other things. You can also connect with one of the guides and ask them for personalized tours. They really won’t mind and they will give their best to show you their culture and city.
As I mentioned, it’s a free tour, but donations are acceptable since these people are students who usually combine a few jobs at the same time to support their studies.
#4- Enjoy a Cup of Strong Vietnamese Coffee
Whoever traveled around Vietnam will probably mention delicious and diverse food along with a strong traditional coffee. I was always a coffee lover, but once I’ve arrived in Vietnam, my passion for coffee became a way stronger.
Did you know that Vietnam is the second world’s coffee exporter? Majority of Vietnamese coffee is brewed using robusta beans that are a way more potent in caffeine than arabica beans. Coffee is a vital part of the culture and daily lives of Vietnamese people.
Vietnamese people will never reject the invitation for a cup of coffee.
Unlike other Asian nations, Vietnamese love their coffee strong, sweet and cold. Usually, sweet condensed milk is added to a coffee, which results in a creamy texture and distinct aroma.
Nowadays, there are so many coffee types you can order on the street and you should definitely try Ca Phe Sua Da (iced coffee with milk), Ca Phe Dua (coconut coffee) and Ca Phe Trung (egg coffee).
Don’t miss egg coffee since it’s a specialty in Hanoi and it’s scarce to find a good egg coffee anywhere else. Some people love it while some people hate it, so I’m going to leave it to you to rate that coffee.
#5- Walk Around Train Street
There is a huge possibility that you’ve heard about the famous train street in Hanoi that stretches from Kham Tien and Le Duan street. Train street became a desirable location for travelers since it shows you the lifestyle of families who live literally a meter from a speeding train. It’s a very dangerous environment, but it’s awe-inspiring how locals adjust their lifestyle to a train schedule.
Only two trains pass through that patch during the day; one at 3:30 pm and another at 7:30 pm. Be sure to arrive at the spot at least 30 minutes before since it locals seize the opportunity and put coffee and street food stalls around. You can enjoy a cup of delicious Vietnamese coffee while waiting for a train. A few minutes before the train arrives, locals will urge you to move away so they can move tables and chairs.
And there it goes, the train passes at high speed. It’s a great place to take some stunning photos, but use your common sense and don’t risk your life for that perfect shot. Keep in mind that train won’t and can’t stop, so just move away.
#6- Go to Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum
Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum is named after the famous revolution leader Ho Chi Minh. Vietnam was unified under his reign and that’s the place where he read the Declaration of Independence in 1945. The remarkable fact about the iconic mausoleum is that the whole complex was finished in two years. The construction started in early 1973., and materials were collected all around the country.
Lenin’s mausoleum in Russia inspired the construction and design. Outside walls are grey and made from granite while around inside, the iconic red color dominates. The whole square is home to colorful and diverse trees and plants all over Vietnam.
What’s unique about mausoleum you may ask? Well, Ho Chi Minh’s embalmed body lays in a glass cubicle and it’s sent to Russia every year for maintenance. The entrance is free of cost, but donations are accepted.
It’s essential to be respectful, dress properly, not taking photos and just follow the crowds. Everything is strictly guarded, so just follow the rules and enjoy this iconic place.
#7- Explore Every Corner of Dong Xuan Market
Dong Xuan is the largest indoor market in Hanoi and it’s definitely a place where you can wander for a whole day. There is probably nothing you can’t get your hands on. Are you looking for souvenirs, fresh food from other provinces or the newest smartphone? Don’t worry, the chances are one of the vendors will have it all.
The whole market takes place in a huge four-floor complex that is organized to tiniest details (uncommon for Vietnamese culture). For example, lower floors feature delicacies from all around Vietnam and it’s a perfect place for degustating Vietnamese cuisine. If you’re not into tasting the food, but looking for souvenirs or handcraft or something completely different, just head over to upper floors. This market is extremely organized and it’s not hard to find things.
With basic knowledge of Vietnamese language and good bargaining skills, you can get crazy good deals. Don’t forget to bargain as it’s the fundamental part of Vietnamese culture.
The whole ‘show’ takes place from Friday to Sunday. During mornings, the market serves as a wholesale supplier for local vendors, but during the night, the atmosphere totally transforms into a colorful, lively and cultural place you want to be.
Take a visit to night market during Saturday’s night since you can experience a traditional singing even Hat Xam.
#8- Enjoy a Drink and View From Rooftop Bar
Vietnamese people are known to be hard workers and it’s nothing surprising to see them work from mornings all the way into nights. But again, Vietnamese people are experts in balancing things out, so it’s not a strange thing to see cafes and bars flocked with friendly locals.
Hanoi is very popular for its rooftop bars and cafes where you can relax after a hard day of exploring and enjoy the vibrant and colorful city. I recommend visiting rooftop bars at night time since Hanoi totally changes the vibe during the night. It’s one of the most colorful and lively Vietnamese city filled with millions of lights.
The first suggestion for rooftop cafes is by far picking one at Dinh Tien Hoang roundabout just next to Hoan Kiem lake. My personal favorite is vintage Cong Cafe that gives you a direct view to the lake and flocks of people below you. Enjoy a robust and tasty Vietnamese coffee with stunning views there. And yeah, it’s very hard to find a seat on any rooftop cafes around that area.
There are probably hundreds rooftop bars, but my recommendations go to Summit Lounge and Diamond Sky bar. Both bars will provide you with stunning 360-views of Hanoi including Hoan Kiem lake, Red River, bridges and much more. Relax with a cocktail and chilled music while overlooking beautiful Vietnam’s capital.
#9- Taste Bia Hoi with Locals
The chances are you’ve already heard about iconic Bia Hoi or fresh Vietnamese beer. The history of this refreshing and ultra cheap beverage dates from the Vietnamese war. During the war, the rice production was scarce and officials banned producing any alcoholic drink from rice. At that time, Vietnamese people were mainly enjoying rice wine, a strong and homemade alcoholic drink. Vietnamese people are known to be passionate drinkers, so they figured out to make an alternative, a fresh beer that became a hit around the country overnight.
I’ve already mentioned visiting Old District, so once you’re wondering these tiny streets, don’t forget to head over to Bia Hoi Junction. It’s a lively street with dozens of tiny chairs all over and iconic Bia Hoi on each table.
As the name suggests, Bia Hoi is Vietnamese draft beer, usually homemade, that is stored in huge kegs. The beer is served in special pints made from recycled glass and one pint costs anywhere between 5,000 – 10,000 VND. Beer isn’t very potent as other Vietnamese beers you can find around, and it contains on average 4% of alcohol.
Anyway, head over to the junction between Ta Hien and Luong Ngoc Quyen and try to find an empty table (it can be a challenge if you arrive after 7 pm). Enjoy a pint of fresh beer with usually spicy beer food they serve.
#10- Explore West Lake
What could be a better way to explore Hanoi than renting a bicycle and drive around the largest lake in Hanoi? West Lake is about 15 km in circumference and it’s surrounded by upper-class districts including an expat area which will give you an exciting insight on differences between the lifestyle of classes in Hanoi.
There are countless coffee shops and tiny street food vendors on the way selling delicious food and refreshing drinks (Nuoc Mia is a way to go!). There are a few pagodas on the way that you can visit for free. Not to forget, it’s tough to find a better place to watch a breathtaking sunset. Head over there and have an active afternoon.
Have you ever been to Hanoi? What’s your favorite free activity to do?