7 Days Off the Beaten Path in Hanoi, Vietnam

How to travel like a local in Vietnam’s capital city

Hanoi is one of those cities where you can immediately feel the pulsing energy. When you step out into the city air, it assaults your senses. The sights, smells, sounds, and feel of the air around you come together to create a wonderful rush of excitement. After a week spent immersing ourselves in Hanoi, we think the best way to experience this city is to venture off the beaten path.

Hanoi is a city full of tourists with a thriving hostel culture, so if you wanted, you could spend a week only hanging out with Westerners and eating hamburgers and French fries the whole time. Don’t get us wrong–sometimes we definitely want our creature comforts! But for this trip, we wanted to experience local Hanoi to the greatest extent possible. Here are some ideas to help unlock the richness that Hanoi has to offer.

Book your lodging outside of the Old Quarter (we chose Ba Đình)

A typical intersection in Ba Đình

Hanoi’s Old Quarter is the most exciting place in the city, and every visitor should definitely spend time exploring the incredible winding streets and fascinating markets of this ancient neighborhood. However, it’s also the central hub of Hanoi’s tourism industry, filled with hostels and restaurants advertising in English. This is very convenient when you need to book a bus up north to Sapa or a Halong Bay cruise. But for us, wanting to avoid the tourist masses as much as possible, we found that you don’t have to stay in the busiest part of town to enjoy all the sights and sounds of the city.

For a more authentic Vietnamese experience, we recommend staying in the Ba Đình district, which is the area north of the Old Quarter and south of West Lake. We stayed in a quiet alley just off Quán Thánh street, one of the main streets in Ba Đình, and we loved it. It was only a mile into the action of the Old Quarter, which was the perfect distance to walk or take a taxi.

Within a handful of blocks in each direction of our apartment we found excellent phở places to eat breakfast each morning sitting on low plastic stools surrounded by locals on their way to work (and not a tourist in sight). We also stopped at a few clothing and food stores while walking around, and didn’t encounter any tourists there either. We loved being able to escape the hectic and foreigner-heavy Old Quarter and walk through quieter, and oftentimes more interesting, tree-lined streets in Ba Đình, without seeing other Westerners around.

Stay in an AirBnB

The hallway leading from our AirBnB into the courtyard

Anyone worth their two cents as a traveler will tell you that staying in AirBnBs is the best way to live like a local when you’re visiting a city, and Hanoi is no exception. Fortunately, it’s easy to find AirBnBs scattered across Hanoi, the cheapest of which can be $20 a night (or even lower if you don’t mind sharing a home). We found a great place for $25 a night – complete with a minifridge, stovetop, A/C, and 1.5 bathrooms.  

AirBnBs work particularly well if you want to stay somewhere with a kitchen—like we do—as hostels in Hanoi don’t always have them. However, if having a kitchen is important to you, be sure to double check with the AirBnB host that the kitchen supplies are sufficient before booking. Some listings we saw in Hanoi advertised a kitchen, but turned out to just be a microwave and a sink. We recommend checking the photos carefully and messaging the host to confirm that there are basic cooking supplies, like a stove top, refrigerator, pots and pans, a knife, and a cutting board.

Walk Everywhere

Hanoi is a pretty walkable city if you’re willing to navigate the ubiquitous motorbikes that don’t really understand concepts like “right of way.” But, Hanoi does have an Uber-equivalent: it’s called Grab, and it’s so ubiquitous and cheap that it’s tempting to want to rely on it to hit every site. When it costs about $2-3 to get pretty much anywhere, why not sit back and relax when you’re doing so much walking and traveling anyway?

We urge you not to fall into the temptation before trying some pedestrian exploration first. You can walk to most of the central locations in Hanoi, even if you stay outside of the Old Quarter (like we did). We would have missed out on so many experiences, like shopping at local markets and buying street food from friendly vendors using our best sign language, if we had simply taken a taxi every time we wanted to explore. Walking around a city forces you to slow down and appreciate the finer details that you never would have otherwise noticed, like the ancient archways or interesting French architectural touches we constantly saw on our walks.

Eat Like A Local

A streetside bowl of phở, the most common breakfast dish of Vietnam

You’ve heard this advice before, and you’ll hear it again: you have to eat like a local to really experience a place. But what does that mean in Hanoi?  For us Type-A folks, who love doing extensive research on our meals and cross checking everything with TripAdvisor, we found it hard at first to resist looking up every restaurant we passed. We like to rely on things that have been well-reviewed, because that’s the easy approach.

Though the prospect of not planning our meals in advance was scary, we really tried to break free of that habit in Hanoi. Hanoi offers some of the world’s best street food, which we knew we’d want to try on this trip. By putting away our guidebooks and phones and just wandering the streets, we ended up finding some of the best food we’ve ever eaten, in some of the most authentic settings.

For example, for breakfast we’d often leave our apartment and wander the surrounding streets looking for something tasty. Hanoi is riddled with tiny food stalls, often no more than a few feet wide crammed between bigger buildings. So when we spotted a crowded-looking, interesting place, we’d pull up a tiny plastic stool and sit down next to the locals eating their breakfast before work. There were no menus in English, so this requires some improvisation and perhaps Google translate, but the experience was fun and much more interesting (and oftentimes much more tasty!) than eggs on toast at a hostel.

For dinner one night we wandered towards West Lake looking for restaurants with no specific destination. We happened upon an intersection with a few lively-looking restaurants, but I hesitated to go in. I was nervous that because we were outside of the tourist area, the servers wouldn’t speak any English and it would be too hard to communicate my vegetarian needs.

Jeremy convinced me to step inside, and of course once we did we found extremely friendly waiters, menus in (broken but decipherable) English, and an extensive vegetarian section with some of the most delicious cooked vegetables I’d eaten on our trip.

To make the best of eating spontaneously, we tried to watch the locals to see where they stop to eat. If you observe which food stands and shops are crowded and which ones have few customers, you can figure out which ones serve reliable, sanitary, and delicious food.

Book a Street Food Tour

A street vendor mixes tofu pudding, a classic Hanoian treat, for us on the back of his bike during our food tour

For an even more in-depth (and adventurous) exploration of the local food scene, we recommend that you invest in a food tour guided by a local. We used Backstreet Academy, a company recommended to us by a DC neighbor. We expected a group tour but had the English-speaking guide all to ourselves—a pleasant surprise that allowed a tour tailored to our preferences. At our first stop our guide asked us what Hanoian street food we had tried so far (36 hours into our trip: only pho) and whether we had dietary restrictions or allergies. When traveling in a place where you don’t know the language and have food restrictions, a guide can be extremely helpful for navigating culinary adventures.

Our guide took us all over the Old Quarter of Hanoi, including to back alleyways and narrow streets we never would have found on our own. She showed us a number of local specialities we’d never heard of (and couldn’t name), including a unique fried fish noodle soup; a surprisingly delicious rice/mung bean/pickle/peanut dish that Hanoians buy on the street in banana leaves on their way to work; and a challenging (ahem) tofu/jelly/jasmine syrup dessert. Towards the end of the tour, our guide brought us to the square in front of Hanoi’s main cathedral, where we sat on low stools outside a shop drinking tea, eating sunflower seeds, and watching the world go by. We had a fascinating conversation about the government, day-to-day life in Hanoi, and Vietnamese views of the U.S. She told us she and her friends love the States and watch tons of Netflix and American movies.

For our final stop, our guide brought us to Cong Caphe. In addition to having the best coconut coffee in Hanoi, Cong has grown to be one of the main coffee chains in Northern Vietnam. It’s themed around the Vietnam war, with employees wearing replica army jackets and war-related murals painted on the wall. It’s also, unironically, a main spot for tourists to relax after a long day sightseeing. Go figure.

Buy Groceries at Đồng Xuân Market

A small selection of the food you can buy at Đồng Xuân Market

Đồng Xuân Market is one of the largest markets in Hanoi, and it’s where many Hanoians shop for their produce, spices, fish, and clothing. In some ways outdoor markets are universal across the world: merchants shouting their wares, people haggling over spices, the smells of fish, herbs, and sweets wafting through the air, and anything you could possibly want for sale. If you relish walking through markets like that, you’ll feel at home at Đồng Xuân Market. While the enclosed market is primarily for clothing, if you venture outside toward the back you can find stall after stall of fresh fruits, vegetables, and other treats.

To figure out how to buy something without getting charged tourist prices, watch the locals first and see how much they pay. In doing so we learned that someone will pick up a bunch of herbs, for example, and instead of asking how much it costs, she’ll simply hand money over to the proprietor that she thinks is a fair amount, and they’ll negotiate from there. Once we starting doing the same, the negotiation process became much easier than typing numbers into our iPhone calculator.

We recommend going on a food tour or cooking class before doing your shopping, so you can learn about a dish or two before attempting to cook the native fruits and vegetables.

Head to Hoàn Kiếm Lake on the Weekend

Every weekend, starting around 7pm on Fridays, parts of the Old Quarter get closed off to traffic and the streets become pedestrian-only. This includes the area around Hoàn Kiếm Lake, where you can find a big stage set up and performances happening on the weekends. We weren’t sure what to expect when we came here on a Saturday, thinking it would be overrun with tourists. We were pleasantly surprised to find a lot of locals, especially families, strolling with their babies and young kids, taking in the traffic-free streets and nice scenery around the lake.

Learn about History and Culture at Less Frequented Museums

Traditional ethnic dress at the Vietnam Museum of Ethnology in Hanoi

Do you like museums? We definitely do! We appreciate getting more background on a location we’re exploring, especially the history. It provides helpful context and a more complete understanding of a city or country.

We visited three museums (well, technically, four) during our stay in Hanoi: The Vietnam Museum of Ethnology, the Fine Arts Museum, and the National Museum of Vietnamese History, which includes the Museum of Vietnamese Revolution. We went to each one during the week, which meant there were very few tourists, particularly at the Revolution Museum.

The Museum of Ethnology provides an excellent background on the dazzling array of ethnic minorities in Vietnam, most of which live in the northern mountainous areas. One of the highlights includes an outdoor park where about a dozen traditional tribal village houses from different ethnic groups have been constructed, generally out of wood and bamboo, with thatched roofs. You can walk inside each of them to explore the rooms and what it might feel like to live in one. The museum is located just outside the main downtown areas, so you have to take a taxi or Grab to get there. We felt it was worth it to go, however. The slightly removed location also means fewer tourists and a quieter experience.

The Fine Arts Museum hosts objects dating from the 12th Century, and includes a number of extremely impressive wood carvings from the 16th and 17th centuries. It also houses a number of more contemporary (and to us, less interesting) pieces that seem to have been selected more for their placement in the government’s propaganda narrative than their artistic merit. Still, the impressive older collection and location in central Hanoi make this a great way to explore Vietnam’s history while missing the crowds.

The National Museum of Vietnamese History and the adjacent Museum of Vietnamese Revolution provide a historical background of the country, starting from pre-history through the modern day. Both are located in dusty buildings at the edge of the French Quarter, with very few other tourists, especially the Revolution museum. We found both museums slightly confusing as the plaques mostly describe the artifacts themselves, with little context of the era or time period to which they belong. Overall, though, they contain fascinating and beautiful artifacts, including carvings that rival or exceed anything from Europe during that time.

Inside the National Museum of Vietnamese History

The Revolution Museum covers the history of the most recent wars in Vietnam, starting with the liberation movement against French occupation and moving through the Vietnam War. If you’re interested in learning about the Vietnamese government’s perspective of these conflicts—complete with plaques referring to the US-supported “puppet government” and “western oppressors”—this is the museum for you.

Propaganda leaflets in the Museum of Vietnamese Revolution

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We loved our week in Hanoi, and we primarily credit that to how we approached the city. If you’re willing to venture even slightly off the beaten path, there’s so much more to unlock in this magical city.

One thought on “7 Days Off the Beaten Path in Hanoi, Vietnam

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