There’s more to Vietnam’s capital than pho and the Old Quarter. Blogger and travel writer Rose Munday sought out the up-and-coming city’s best off-the-beaten track finds…
There’s no doubt about it – Hanoi offers something for everyone. From cheap and cheerful street food to fine dining, and hostels to 5* hotels, you won’t be short of variety. But what about lesser known attractions and opportunities to meet the locals?
By my third trip to Hanoi, I’d done most of the ‘must-see’s already – some of them twice! Wonderful as excursions to Ha Long Bay and day trips around the central museums are, I was left wanting more. Surely this sprawling city of 8 million people had more than the activities mentioned in 48-hour city guides, right?
As I found out, it does! Hanoi is a fantastic city to get immersed in local markets and discover hidden, colourful corners. If you ever get bored of the Old Quarter (though frankly that would be hard!), there are plenty of other neighbourhoods that most tourists don’t make it to. If you have some spare time and fancy seeing a different side of Vietnam’s capital, I’d highly recommend the following spots to beat the crowds and experience the ‘real’ Hanoi.
Unlike the tourist markets you find all over Southeast Asia, there was a distinct lack of elephant pants and a strong focus on fresh, local produce.
Long Biên Market
For this attraction, you’re going to need to set an early alarm and pack your adventurous spirit! A trip to Long Biên is best completed before 7am when the vendors begin to sell out and pack up. The purpose of this early morning market is to equip local shops and restaurants with their goods for the day before they open up shop. This means the market gets into swing around 3am and continues until an hour or so after sunrise.
Every day, just a small handful of tourists make it to Long Biên. When I visited, I was the only one there. While the wakeup was painful, the time spent there was… well, also a little painful as people jostled by in a busy crush. What I saw and experienced made up for it though: a taste of the real, gritty Hanoi. Unlike the tourist markets you find all over Southeast Asia, there was a distinct lack of elephant pants and a strong focus on fresh, local produce. When I say fresh, I really mean it! Much of the seafood was still alive and well (though I fear not for long), splashing in plastic tubs on the ground. Long Biên may not be a relaxing or calm spot to visit, but it’s certainly an experience – and a very local one at that.
One of my favourite areas of Hanoi is quirky Train Street. Here, locals live along the lines, washing, eating, playing and selling goods. A few times a day, an enormous train screeches through the streets, sending everyone scattering and showing no mercy for those remaining on the tracks. While this attraction was once totally unknown to tourists, it’s recently collected a small amount of attention, partly thanks to social media. You’ll now find a couple of railway cafes selling iced coffee and pho – the perfect accompaniments to a session watching the old-fashioned red steam train rubble by.
To see the train passing, your best bet is to visit on the weekend. On weekdays, it passes at 6am and 7pm – neither ideal – and the second session in darkness. However, on Saturdays and Sundays, it arrives at 9.15am, 11.35am, 3.20pm, 6.40pm and 7.10pm. Plenty of opportunity! For more details on when and where to find Train Street, plus which cafes, shops and homestays to visit, click here.
Ngoc Ha (neighbourhood)
Not many tourists visit the sleepy neighbourhood of Ngoc Ha – and that’s exactly why you should! Northwest of the Old Quarter and away from its hustle and bustle, you’ll find a peaceful oasis of temples and lily pad ponds. Take a morning to wander aimlessly; you never know what you might find. I befriended smiling locals, took a lot of photos, and bought an entire jackfruit which dripped down my arm and set me back mere pennies.
Start your Ngoc Ha adventure at Dinh Ngọc Ha where you’ll find a gorgeous temple flanked by stone dragons and vats of incense, yet almost totally abandoned. Head clockwise around the pond and take a journey through the sheltered alleyways. I promise it will be totally local experience and one that will likely stay with you a long time.
Binh Minh Jazz Club
Vietnamese jazz – did you know it was a thing? I certainly didn’t know before coming! Quyen Van Minh is a musical legend who became inspired by jazz music when he heard it on the radio many years ago. Since then, he’s met the American greats and opened up his own jazz club in Vietnam’s capital. The walls of the venue are decorated with photos of him with Miles Davis and John Coltrane, yet not many tourists know his story, or that of Vietnamese jazz!
I’d highly recommend an evening visit to Binh Minh Jazz Club which is located close to the Hanoi Opera House. In an otherwise opulent neighbourhood, the bar is smoky and dimly-lit. Sip on whisky or a cocktail and get ready for one the most energetic and unusual performances of your life!
Phung Hung Public Art Project
Street art fans should pay attention, because one of the newest and least ‘discovered’ spots in Hanoi is just a 15-minute walk from the Old Quarter. Decorating the otherwise unexciting arches of the railway, the Phung Hung Public Art Project depicts scenes of daily life with eerily lifelike urban murals. Alongside sepia images of Hanoi’s history, you’ll see colourful paintings of women wearing rice hats and carrying baskets of flowers: a familiar sight to those who have strolled the Old Quarter.
While the spot is yet to be listed on Google Maps (head to 29 Phùng Hưng Street) or widely mentioned online, I managed to glean some facts about the creative, colourful corner. Painted in 2017 as a collaboration between Vietnam and South Korea, the project celebrates 25 years of diplomatic relations between the two countries. It also replicates an unusual trend in South Korea – entire street art villages in even the most rural of areas.
To my knowledge, Vietnam only has one other similar location, Tam Thanh Mural Village which lies an hour outside popular Hoi An. If you’ve enjoyed these Hanoi hidden gems, you might want to take a visit there. Use this blog to plan your trip!
Have you heard of or been to any of Hanoi’s hidden gems before? This hectic, urban city may be a lot of things but there’s one thing it will never be: remotely boring!
For more Hanoi ideas, check out Trip Guru’s Hanoi activities!