1. Mai Chau
Located a mere 3 hour drive from Hanoi, Mai Chau is one of those rare places in Vietnam that still retains its natural charm – in both its scenic beauty and in the warmth and easy-going character of the locals. Accommodation here is mostly run by ethnic minority families who have worked and lived off the land for generations. Stilt houses purpose built to give tourists a ‘home stay’ experience is on offer throughout the villages.
Ban Lac 1 and Pom Coong are among the more popular villages but the offerings in all home stays are homogeneous and they are close enough to each other. Its a great place to spend a day or two, be warned though, you might find yourself tempted to stay longer. Imagine living among local farming families, eating home cooked meals out in the open countryside, the sounds of the city far behind you and enough time in hand to soak up the idyllic countryside and rejuvenate. Its one of those off the beaten track experiences in Hanoi worth exploring if you have an extra day or two in hand.
2. Discover the back alleys of Hanoi’s Old Quarters
At face value, Hanoi’s Old Quarters appears to be a network of narrow streets beating in a rhythmic chaos of traffic, tourists, street vendors and businesses all concentrated into a small area. However, if you start peeling off the layers and start exploring the hidden spaces within the impenetrable facade of the shop-houses, there is a parallel world merely meters away teeming with life where local residents live in tiny dwellings and crammed neighborhoods.
At the epicenter of a city that boasts a thousands years to its age, Hanoi’s Old Quarters is packed with history within its narrow alleyways and neighborhoods. Dont expect to find any one particular attraction, instead, the charm lies in exploring and standing in bewilderment of the historic hidden away neighborhoods. Luckily, there is a guided tour offered by a local resident that aims to explore the hidden backstreets of the Old Quarters.
3. Le Mat Village (Snake Village)
This is one of those experiences that ultimately transforms into a great tale to tell friends and family back home. Le Mat village (Snake Village) across the red river houses The Hung restaurant where a variety of dishes made out of snakes have been served for decades. Legend has it that the princess of King Ly Tong was saved from a giant sea serpent by a local resident, who was then rewarded land (now Le Mat village). If you are up for a adventurous and unforgettable Hanoian experience, take a trip down to Le Mat. Don’t miss out on the beating heart snake served with rice wine.
4. Train Tracks
You might have witnessed the railway food market in Thailand where a train literally passes through a local market, well, if you find yourself in Hanoi, here is another urban oddity you can feast your eyes on. Twice a day, at 4 and 7 pm, the local train passes between a narrow residential neighborhood. Just inches from their front doors, the train has become a way of life for the local residents who live here.
One minute you will see children playing among the tracks and the other a giant steel vehicle rushing through that very spot. It’s bewildering to think that the front yard of somebody’s house is an actual train track. Nevertheless, it makes for a great photography spot, one of many among Hanoi’s urban attractions.
For the curious, the train station is located at the corner of Tong Duy Tan and Dien Bien Phu Street or corner of Tong Duy Tan and Tran Phu – Near Aptez Holiday Hotel Hanoi.
There is a certain sense of satisfaction when you’re in a city for a few days and you get to hang out in the coolest spots around town frequented by expats and locals alike. And Hanoi has no shortage of such venues. Perhaps you just want a night out by the lake with some peace and quiet, or a live jazz band might just be the perfect remedy to wear off that travel fatigue, whatever you might find missing as you travel through Southeast Asia, Hanoi has it all.
Minh’s Jazz club: Best in town. Daily live band. Drinks are a tad bit expensive.
Polite Bar: Great jazz and blues live band during the weekend. Also a fantastic place to get a cocktail.
Comedy nights at House of Son Tinh: The Hanoi Comedy Collective has shows every fortnight at the House of Son Tinh. If you manage to catch one of these shows, it’ll make for a great evening out.