Within the riverside city and capital of Vietnam, there are many fascinating ways to get in touch with local culture in Hanoi. Ha means river and Noi means inside, but don’t worry, you won’t have to actually get in the river–and probably shouldn’t! The city has been populated for over 1,000 years, an ancient history which can easily be explored by following this culture guide to Hanoi. Here are 10 ways to get in touch with local culture in Hanoi.
VISIT THE HERITAGE HOUSES
Scattered around the Hanoi Old Quarter are a few preserved heritage houses which have been restored to their original glory to give guests a glimpse into the past through exploring these ancient homes. Unlike Hoi An, where many have a steep ticket price to enter, most of the heritage houses in Hanoi can be visited for about $1. As they all can start to look a bit the same for me so I decided to visit the house located at 97 Pho Ma May (Google Maps). This family home was erected around the end of the 19th century and was occupied by one family until 1945 when the property was sold to a merchant family who started to sell Chinese medicine. The shop was at the front of the tubular building and would be locked up at night with a wood panel fence. Eventually, the government requisitioned the historic building and moved in 5 families who stayed here in the railroad-style house until 1999.
LOCATE THE STREETS BY PRODUCT
If you decide to walk around and explore a few other of their heritage houses be sure to pay attention to the products being sold various streets. In Hanoi, during the glory day of the heritage houses, each street had a purpose–either for a specific craft and service or a product. There were streets for rattan, bamboo products, votive candles, silver, etc. The streets have moved around a bit over time but there are still certain areas within the Old Quarter that are dedicated to a single item.
HAVE A COCONUT COFFEE
Vietnam is known for their incredible coffee culture! It’s not super vegan-friendly though as it almost always requires a hearty dose of condensed milk. It can be a challenge to find places that haven’t already mixed the condensed milk with fresh coconut milk (the famous Cong Cafe chain is not vegan-friendly as they always premix the milk). However, the quirky The Note Coffee (Google Maps) makes all of their caffeinated drinks to order and made a delicious iced coconut coffee that was vegan! This spot is absolutely adorable and actually quite inspiring as the floor to ceiling is covered in handwritten notes. Most boast travel quotes or love letters and nearly all are motivational! Who doesn’t their coffee with a side of positivity?
SCOPE OUT THE CERAMIC MOSAIC WALL
This not so hidden, hidden gem is actually quite massive, but if you aren’t paying attention, you might just miss it!
The Hanoi hidden gem that’s biggest in size might receive the smallest amount of attention. The Ceramic Mosaic Wall (Google Maps) goes around the ring road freeway that surrounds Hanoi. The outdoor museum is about 7km long, it took me two days to walk most of it, and I didn’t even get to the end! The project required artists to hand lay mosaics for 3 years, from 2007 to 2010. Once it was completed, it received the Guinness Book of World Records for the longest mosaic wall.
The wall was built to celebrate the millennial anniversary of Hanoi. The murals vary from depictions of life in Vietnam, world monuments, to special installations from Spain! If you’re a street art fan you’ll enjoy strolling along the Ceramic Mosaic Wall looking for favorite pieces and guessing what messages they’re meant to convey.
SEE THE ONE PILLAR PAGODA IN THE CITADEL
I found the wooden One Pillar Pagoda (Google Maps) to be the most fascinating aspect of the Hanoi Citadel. The pillar is a remake, as the French destroyed the original. It was designed to replicate the original structure and is still an active Buddhist temple in Hanoi. The original temple was built by Emperor Lý Thái Tông in the 11th century to commemorate a romantic dream.
STROLL PAST LIFE-LIKE STREET ART
The Phung Hung Public Art Project is located on walls of the train bridge near (Google Maps) to the Long Bein Market. The area boats life-like massive murals of the Vietnamese at various stages of history.
Similar to the Tam Thanh street art project near Hoi An, this outdoor art gallery was also brought to life by Korean artisans. All of these artistic collaborations stem from a quarter of a century of diplomatic peace between the countries. Be warned though, across the street from this area was a woman selling grilled cats and dogs.
My favorite mural is the Street of Flowers piece. Hanoi is the land of flowers and the painting brings to life the floral laden ladies who carry massive baskets of flowers on their head or on their bikes around the streets of the capital city.
SHOP AT THE DONG XUAN MARKET
The Dong Xuan Market (Google Maps) is a photographers dream. Here you can enjoy a traditional produce market. I found the vendor presentations here to be some of the most photogenic, many of my Vietnamese street lady vendor shots were captured around the market.
REFLECT AT THE OLDEST TEMPLE IN HANOI
The Tran Quoc Pagoda (Google Maps) is the oldest temples in Hanoi as it dates back to the 6th century. The beautifully tiered pagoda is nestled on the Tay Ho Lake. I wasn’t able to go inside as the temple closes during the afternoon, so try to coordinate your visit for sunrise or sunset so you can go inside and also get beautiful pictures of the lake reflection.
CHECK OUT THE TRAIN STREET
The Hanoi train street is probably already on most travelers to-do list. But, few know to follow the tracks along for a few blocks to see the authentic way of life on the train route, rather than the touristy cafes and such in the central area where everyone waits to see the train pass.
EXPLORE THE TEMPLE OF LITERATURE
The massive Temple of Literature (Google Maps) reminded me a lot of the Hue Imperial City, but not quite as grand. None-the-less, it’s worthwhile to visit as this was the first university in Vietnam which was built over 1,000 years ago and has withstood many conflicts. Today the sacred grounds still hold importance for students, they come here to pray before important exams.
The Temple of Literature has transformed into a temple for Confucius over the years.
If you’re looking for further ways to immerse in culture in Vietnam’s capital city check out the Hanoi Responsible Travel Guide. Be sure to fuel up with loads of vegan food in between explorations of Hanoi!
Have you learned about culture in Hanoi, or elsewhere in Vietnam? Tell me about it in the comments as I’m heading back to the country in 2019!