The start up costs of moving to Vietnam exceeded my original expectations and to top it off, my first salary was less than half as I only started half way through the financial month. Needless to say, I’ve been on a tight budget. So, I challenged myself to try and stick to doing the free activities that Hanoi has to offer. It’s safe to say that I haven’t been disappointed in the least!
Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum
This is one of the most interesting yet strange experiences I have had. Ho Chi Minh was the first communist leader of Vietnam and is held in high regard all over the country. Hence, Saigon is now named Ho chi Minh City. The experience is highly controlled with no talking or photos allowed. As you are escorted in conveyor belt fashion, you will walk past his glass encased body for approximately 30-60 seconds. Although short, it is well worth it. It is only open in the mornings and is closed for a few months of the year when his body is sent away for maintenance (check beforehand).
St Josephs Cathedral
Built in 1886, the cathedral has been attracting visitors from around the world for many years; and I was no different. The cathedral is located in the old town and is surrounded by trendy cafe’s with beautiful balcony views overlooking the cathedral and local eating places. If you want to enter the cathedral (which I suggest you do), it is open all day except between 11:00am and 2:00pm.
Hanoi Mosaic Wall
According to Guinness World Records, this beautiful creation is the largest ceramic mural in the world . It runs along the Red River Dyke, which runs parallel to the high way, so it is quite difficult to view from a wider angle. However, it is SO worth seeing. It was completed in 2010, which coincided with the celebration of Hanoi’s 1000th year. The concept of the wall was initiated by Nguyen Thu Thuy, who wanted to revive Hanoi’s urban center and bring the local community together.
Tran Quoc Pagoda
After numerous repairs and restorations over the years, one would never say this Pagoda was built in the 6th century. As it closes between 11:30 and 1:30, I would suggest either arriving when it opens or at 1:30 to avoid the tour groups that arrive soon after. I was the first person to enter and had the area to myself for a few minutes. Even if you aren’t broke like me, I would suggest going to see this snippet of Vietnamese history. Afterwards, take a stroll along the lake. The views won’t disappoint.
Phung Hung Art Project
This art project isn’t just any art project. The Phung Hung Art Project was initiated as a commemoration of 25 years of diplomatic relations between Vietnam and South Korea. Through a collaboration between Vietnamese and South Korean artists, the arches in the walls leading up to the Long Bien Bridge has been brightened up with art depicting the lives of those living in Hanoi. The aim of the project is to create a community and cultural space that can be enjoyed by locals and tourists. In my opinion, they have definitely succeeded as there were both locals and tourists marveling and taking pictures of and with the artworks.
Location: 29 Phung Hung
Down the road from the Phung Hung Art Project, you’ll find one of the famous train streets in Hanoi. There is more than one area where you can view the train thundering between local homes. The one I visited is in the Old Quarter and is probably easier to get to than the other one, which is located further away from most of the tourist attractions. At the Old Quarter location, you can enjoy a coffee or fresh fruit juice along the tracks and browse the local shops that have opened their doors along the tracks.
Long Bien Bridge
Long Bien Bridge opened for use in 1903 and has been of strategic importance to French colonists and the locals of Hanoi as it connects the districts of Hoan Kiem and Long Bien. The bridge has seen it all in Hanoi, even making it through bombings during the war. (Although, it was damaged). You can either drive over the bridge on a motorbike/bicycle or walk over it, but no cars are allowed. The best way to get onto the railway tracks is to enter from the Long Bien Train Station. There are no barriers or guards around to stop you from simply stepping onto the tracks and straight onto the bridge.
Old Quarter Free/Self-Guided Walking Tour
The Hanoi Old Quarter is probably my favourite space in the city. Between the crumbling French colonial buildings, the bustling streets, the cute cafes and places of cultural importance, you’ll see locals going about their everyday lives. The Old Quarter is rich in history, colour and culture; and definitely shouldn’t be missed. It is easy enough to explore on your own, but you might prefer a more cultural and enlightening experience with a free tour with Hanoi kids or Hanoi Free Local Tours. However, you will be expected to cover the costs of your guide such as food and entrance fees (if applicable). I will definitely be doing one once I am paid!
Quang Ba Flower market
Much like the Pak Khlong Talat flower market in Bangkok, the Quang Ba Flower Market is where most of Hanoi purchase their flowers in the early hours of the morning. I have yet to venture there for the main trading hours between 2:00 am and 5:00am but the evidence of a busy trading session could be seen when I arrived at 7:30am. The concrete floor was laden with stems, leaves and petals from an array of flowers. Luckily, there were still plenty of flowers on display and traders were still hard at work preparing their bunches.
Sunset over the West Lake
Watching the sunset over the calm waters of Hanoi’s biggest lake after a day of exploring is the best way to end off a day. As the sun sets, the local life will slow down around you too.
To my surprise, Hanoi actually has many free travel options!