While there’s plenty to see in Hanoi, for people like us who have visited all the major tourist attractions, we’re always on the lookout for something different.
Too many times have we read guides who claim that seeing the Temple of Literature, the Water Puppet Show and the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum are “hidden gems” (seriously!). You barely have to open a guidebook to see that these are some of the city’s top attractions and are in no way hidden.
This year Mom and I wandered around the city with no goals in mind. We went to discover Hanoi at our own pace. When we say, Hidden, we don’t mean that they’re undiscoverable but more that they might offer you a more relaxed, authentic or different aspect of Hanoi that doesn’t focus on the touristy.
We’ve mentioned this before in a previous piece, but this is a real gem. Run by BlindLink, a social enterprise that gives opportunities to the visually impaired, this spa offers incredible massages. Masseuses are visually impaired themselves and we had the most amazing experience with them. It used to be that you’d have to get a taxi to their spa at No 102, Alley 5, Huynh Thuc Khang Street, but they now have a much closer one on 52A Hang Bun, Hanoi. Both are still in operation.
We actually passed by this café on Mã Mây street because the sign was tucked away. This gorgeous café is oozing character and it really feels like you’re hanging around someone’s house. For the best seats head to the window and watch the world go by down below. The café is open late and is the perfect spot to meet up with friends without the fear of being interrupted.
Egg coffee with Hanoi’s best views*
*Ok so maybe we’re a bit biased with the “best” but it’s certainly one of the chilled views you can get of the lake! You actually have to head through a shop to get to this café which used to be tricky to spot but these days they have a sign on the shopfront for Café Pho Co. You can still pass by without noticing though.
If you’re not into its famous egg coffee (like me) then the views on the top floor are still glorious. By the way, they have an incredible family altar that’s worth checking out and a resident ginger cat that likes to chill and have its tummy rubbed.
As a warning, Google Maps won’t always give you the right address but it’s on 11 Hang Gai. See map below:
Newspapers by the Post Office
Head to Hoan Kiem Lake in the early morning between 5.00am – 7.00am to see the city come alive. Newspaper sorting mightn’t sound like the most exotic of things but when you see it all being done manually on the steps of the post office and then being stacked high on xe om (mopeds), you might end up, like us, mesmerised.
It’s no secret that Hanoians get up incredibly early to beat the heat of the day but did you know that they partake in a particular type of yoga by Hoan Kiem Lake? Apart from being a great place to people watch, there are at least two Laughter Yoga Clubs in the early morning and we were delighted to give it a go.
You can spot the Laughter Club about halfway down Hoan Kiem Lake by the statue of Ly Thai Tho (sometimes on the bank of the lake). It doesn’t matter that we didn’t speak Vietnamese, we were still welcomed into the circle like old friends!
Learn how to make traditional Paper Masks
We arrived in Hanoi during the Mid-Autumn Festival, where there’s a big focus on children and fun! During the festival, you’ll often see Vietnamese children donning these colourful paper masks. Why not do something different and learn how to make them? This is also a kid-friendly activity.
Long Bien Bridge
You’ll often see Long Bien bridge mentioned in guidebooks but we’ve found that for some reason tourists rarely head onto it and instead admire it from a distance. It was designed by the architects Daydé & Pillé of Paris and opened in 1903. Today trains, mopeds, bicycles and pedestrians use the bridge, while all other traffic is diverted to the nearby Chương Dương Bridge. It’s also a favourite local spot for couples at night.
Hanoi’s Banana Plantation
Continuing on from Long Bien, if you’re feeling confident on a bike, make your way further to the outskirts down the concrete ramp on the bridge to the hidden banana plantations. (If you’re unsure of cycling alone, take a trip with Urban Adventures like we did!). The island on the Red River is beautiful to cycle through and chances are you’ll be the only tourists there. But it’s also a somber reminder of how some of Hanoi’s poorest live. Based in little shacks with often no running water, sometimes we feel it’s important to realise that we have so much and others have so little.
Forget Hanoi’s beer corner, I’d rather load myself up on dessert! Head the small but bustling To Tich street at night and enjoy sitting in the dessert zone where each shop offers various delights. It’s always packed with locals which is definitely a good sign. We recommend Tào Phớ, Che Ba Mau or Hoa Quả Dầm (Mixed Fruits Dessert).
Connect with students
As tourists Mom and I are easy to spot. If you’re looking to give a little back, you’ll nearly always find students roaming around Hoan Kiem Lake looking for someone that they can practice their English with. Students, we found, are also very open to chatting about the reality of what’s going on in Vietnam. They often will ask if they can record the conversation through video but if you’re not comfortable with that they will respect your wishes.
Are you into your art? Then Manzi on 14 Phan Huy Ich, is somewhere you should head to. An escape from the chaos of Old Town, at Manzi’s café and art gallery you can purchase art from up and coming Vietnamese artists with most of the proceeds going to the artist. The rest goes towards supporting the movement of contemporary art in Vietnam. And, if art isn’t your thing, it’s a great spot to simply just chill in and read.
If you head to the intersection of Tran Bình Trọng, Nguyễn Du close to Thien Quang Lake you will come across an amazing image of people showing off their elegant and rare songbirds. Lined up in their cages, bird ownership and subsequent showcasing has become quite the hobby of Hanoians. They even host voice competitions – you can see what it looks like here.
While it’s become a staple to see birds in cages, we can’t help but think that birds are better off free.
Remnants of war are scattered throughout Vietnam and Hanoi has its fair share of memories. If you head to the Ba Dinh district and the quiet neighbourhood of Ngoc Ha, you can come across the wreckage of a B-52 bomber plane. It was shot down during the American War. Huu Tiep Lake where it sits is a bit out of the way but there’s a stillness in the air once you find it. Rarely if ever crowded, it’s a stark reminder of the horrors of war with the tires of the plane bleached white by the water and the bomber exactly where it was shot down on December 27th, 1972.
Hanoi is a city that continues to surprise us each time we visit and we’re looking forward to heading back there in 2019 and finding more hidden gems.