Street food, restaurants, coffee, and even a few non-eating activities for family vacations in Hanoi, Vietnam
An adventure in food: The more we looked at our notes and thought about our family of four’s adventures in Vietnam, the more things to do in Hanoi with kids kept coming back to the city’s amazing cooking. From the street stalls to top-floor restaurants, incredible dishes may be the only thing that outnumbers Hanoi’s endless stream of motorbikes.
Vietnam is a wonderful place to visit with kids
As we planned the places we wanted to travel with our kids, Vietnam became one of the family destinations Jodie was most excited about. This long, skinny country is nearly as big an area as California. And like the Golden State, Vietnam’s cultural and geographical variety means that from north to south, the country can be completely different.
Our children always felt welcome in Vietnam, and it wasn’t exactly uncommon to find a shopkeeper or hotel owner fawning over the kids. Hanoi is a huge, busy city, but it also has the feel of a place where people want to do their own thing, and give you the space to do yours. Overall, there are so many things to do in Hanoi with kids.
Our family trip to Hanoi and why our experience is useful
Our family’s first trip to Vietnam focused on Northern and Central Vietnam, including Hanoi, Halong Bay, Tam Cốc (in Ninh Bình Province), Phong Nha, Hue, Da Nang, and Hoi An. We spent about 30 days in the country, since at the time we could get a 30-day visa.
We are a digital nomading, worldschooling family of four, with an 8yo daughter and 10yo son. All four of us are US citizens. Mama Jodie is also an above-the-knee amputee who uses a prosthetic leg and a trekking pole to augment her mobility. Vietnam marked country number 8 for Jodie, 5 for Aster, 6 for Connor, and 12 for Anthony.
When we travel, we focus on balancing a mix of activities that help us get to know (and taste) a place, with time for chilling, working, and schooling. We try to have experiences we’ll cherish for a lifetime, while sticking to a family budget. Most of our adventures focus on a lower cost, all the while keeping our family safe, having fun, and staying engaged in the moment and in place. Our family travels in Vietnam are part of our broader global travels. We’ll be traveling the world for at least a year. Our Hanoi family travel guide is based on our experiences being on the ground there and finding affordable, family friendly things to do in Hanoi with kids.
Things to know (and do) before you travel to Hanoi, Vietnam with your kids
Apply in advance for an e-visa
Naturally, this bit varies depending on your citizenship, so we’d suggest first checking with your country’s relevant department for visa info (for us, that’s the US State Department). In our experience, we applied online for e-visas for the entire family, through the Vietnamese government’s National Web Portal on Immigration. Unlike Thailand or Singapore, where you can get a visa on arrival, for Vietnam you typically will need to apply for your visa in advance.
They typically process visa applications within 3 business days, and the cost is US$25 per application per person. We received notifications and the visas themselves via email, and were all set.
Hanoi is a big city
Vietnam is a beautiful and bustling country, with a long history, deep cultures, incredible food, and a variety of rural, natural, urban, and coastal destinations. Hanoi is officially home to about 8 million people, but the actual number is likely closer to 12 million. It’s like saying Hanoi officially is about the same size as New York City, but in actuality is closer in scope to the Los Angeles metro area.
There are motorbikes everywhere… including parked all over the sidewalks
Hanoi is a motorbike parking lot.
The motorcycle, scooter, and motorbike population of Hanoi is around 5.5–6 million. Imagine a Houston, Texas, or Toronto, Ontario with nothing but wee motorbikes, where the local conversation tends to just say “vroom-vroom-vroomity-vroom,” and that’s about right.
Hanoi’s streets absolutely teem with motorbikes. So does pretty much every horizontal street side surface. Sidewalks are de facto motorbike parking lots. Expect lots of weaving in and out of stands of motorbikes, including sometimes have to walk on the street.
Crossing the street can feel scary at first
Traffic is everywhere. Most of it does not follow any sort of system or traffic patterns you might be accustomed to in, say, the US, Canada, Australia, or the UK.
Crossing the street is slightly terrifying, but only at first. It’s not so much that traffic stops for each other. It doesn’t. Everyone simply finds their path where they want to go. They also understand that no one wants to run into anybody.
As a guide told us, “To learn how to deal with traffic and crossing the road, follow the old people. They have been crossing the road their entire lives. And they’ve survived.”
When we cross the street, we stick together so we’re a larger group. The key, says our guide, is to look for an opening so you can get started, hold out your arm with your hand up, almost like a “stop” motion, make eye contact with the approaching driver, and kept going.
Yes, crossing the street in Hanoi can feel scary at first. But if 12 million people can manage it, you can figure it out too.
There’s lots of smoking
Honestly, this one was hard for us. We’re not fans of smoking. Unfortunately, about a quarter of the Vietnamese population smokes. Smoking inside is lessening, but if you’re outside, odds are someone is lighting up nearby.
Many folks speak English, but translation apps are lifesavers
We always try to learn at least a little of the local language, so it’s easier to find things to do in Hanoi with kids. It both helps us get around more easily, and we consider it a way to show people we respect them, their culture, and their country. Language learning apps like Duolingo have a Vietnamese course. Here are a few basics:
- Xin chào (Seen chow), Hello
- Dạ, Yes
- Không (Kong), No
- Cảm ơn (cam on), Thank you
We also used Google Translate’s Vietnamese a lot, from typing in phrases to using the camera translation tool. Results can be mixed, but overall, Google Translate was crucial to helping us communicate and get around. Since Google Translate also gives you the option to download languages for offline communication, we made sure we had downloaded Vietnamese.
That said, many folks we encountered in Hanoi spoke at least a little English. Between a few phrases, plenty of smiles, and a handy translation app, we got around just fine.
Google Maps is not always up-to-date
Mapping apps like Google Maps can be so useful, but their use isn’t as widespread in Vietnam. This can make it tricky to get around or find things to do in Hanoi with kids, but typically it just means to be a little more cautious about over-relying on the app. Sometimes places are not listed, or listings are out of date. Google Maps can still be useful, but you may have to do a little more legwork than normal when figuring out a place.
Family food in Hanoi: Street stalls, coffee shops, and restaurants in the Old Quarter
We arrived in Hanoi at night. Our shuttle from the airport to the Old Quarter took us through many parts of the city, and every area gave us a clear understanding: Hanoi loves to be out and about, especially at night, definitely with lots of good food and drink around. Things to do in Hanoi with kids? Oh yeah. We could tell we’d have plenty of options—and ways to get around.
The streets were alive with people going back and forth, or gathered around tables and steaming pots and platters. If there had been anymore street life, the parked motorbikes on the sidewalk would have been in circles, sharing cans of motor oil and talking about the day’s traffic patterns.
Try the pancakes… especially since they’re not what you might think
Just about everywhere you go in Hanoi, you’ll see “pancake” on the menu. These are not your American Saturday morning flapjacks. Vietnamese pancakes, or “bánh xèo” (bon zheow) quickly became a family favorite.
These crispy discs of fried rice batter have a delightful crunch, yet a very delicate, slightly chewy texture. Often they’ll come to the table with a range of ingredients such as shrimp, bean sprouts, pickled veggies, you name it—so you can build out your own, your way.
Bánh xèo became one of our go-to dishes, especially for Jodie. Every place served them a little differently, but always deliciously. These pancakes were a big kid pleaser, too.
Drink coffee. Pretty much anywhere.
You think Seattle or Portland have lots of coffee shops? Ha. Hanoi seems to pride itself on stacking every block with freshly brewed coffee.
Most of Hanoi’s coffee shops are locally owned, independent small businesses. Some have food, some don’t, and this varies from place to place. We found it helpful to scout out a few nearby coffee shops, so we knew what we could get from any place. In the Old Quarter, Hope Coffee, Tranquil Books & Coffee, and Kawa Coffee were all delightful choices, with a range of richly flavored brews.
The Highlands Coffee chain is sort of the Starbucks of Vietnam as well. They have locations throughout the country (often in city centers and near places like train stations). We found them a reliable source for food, drinks, a clean place to hang out and get stuff done—and a source for ground coffee so we could make pourovers in our room.
Dine with a view at Oriana
We don’t always note every specific restaurant we visit, but in Hanoi, the Oriana Restaurant, at the top of the Oriana Hotel, is exceptional.
Oriana’s expansive menu showcases local and regional cuisine, in clearly defined sections that make it easy to hone in. The helpful staff takes great pride in their country and its cuisines, and they were happy to offer suggestions or show us how we could best enjoy a dish.
Besides meat options, Oriana also offered many vegetarian dishes. Plus, the view of the city added to the ambiance of the delicious lunch and dinner we had there.
Okay, we take that back. There’s another restaurant we want to give some special shout-out to. The bright blue and white of The Banhmi stood out, and the menu showed us why. Delicious banh mi sandwiches had crunch (though we prefer stronger pickle flavor in our veg than seems to be the prevailing taste). The fries were also Aster-approved.
Note: Remember how we mentioned Google Maps isn’t always up to date? We couldn’t find The Banhmi on there. If you search instead for “Colette French Bistro & Wine Bar,” The Banhmi is nearby, on the same street, P. Lò Sũ.
Chimney Cake By Jinhouse
Things to do in Hanoi with kids? It’s hard to beat a good sweet treat. A gear slowly turns wooden cones over a red-hot grate. If that sight isn’t enough to snag your curiosity, the smell of sweet cakes cooking at Chimney Cake by Jinhouse will pull you in. We stopped by here after dinner one evening. The ice creams (raspberry for the kids) and mix-ins—such as Oreo cookies and Nutella—combined with the hot, freshly cooked cones were sublime.
Hanoi Food Tour
We skipped doing a food tour, since we typically prefer to do our own thing. However, there are lots of intriguing food tours in Hanoi, and odds are many of them would be approachable for kids. Here are a few to check out via Trip Advisor:
- Street Food Tours in Hanoi
- Small Group Hanoi Street Food Tour with a Real Foodie
- Private Street Food Hanoi Like a Local(vegan/vegetarian/customized tour)
- Private Hanoi Street Food Walking Tour With Real Foodie
- Hanoi Old Quarter Walking Street Food – Small Group Tour
- Private Street Food Tour – Walking Hanoi Old Quarter
- Hanoi Street Food + Night Life Tour
Other activities with kids in Hanoi
Of course, not every fun thing in Hanoi is edible (only many of them). Here are a few suggestions for what to do when you’re not enjoying something tasty:
Wander the Old Quarter
Wherever you stay in Hanoi’s Old Quarter, odds are you can go out your front door and have plenty to explore. From our hotel, we could go by eateries, or down side streets full of bookstores, coffee shops and even a craft beer bar. Down the alley behind our hotel, there was even a large brick oven that people would fire up at night.
National Vietnam Historic Museum
Vietnam has centuries of history. Whether the war in the latter 20th century or what the area was like before French colonial, the National Vietnam Historic Museum offers fascinating insights into Vietnam’s people, industry, agriculture, and more. We spent a morning wandering the war exhibits, discussing the forces around the conflict, and the aims of people on different sides. There was even a large green lathe, made in Hanoi in 1958, that reminded Anthony of a similar US-made lathe his grandfather had. Here are more details about the museum.
Ngoc Son Temple, Hoan Kiem Lake, and 2 massive preserved freshwater turtles
Anytime we can find green space in a bustling city, we check it out. Crossing a red arched bridge to reach the island home of Ngoc San Temple, we found much more. In Vietnamese legend, this lake was home to a large freshwater turtle that took back a sword a god had loaned to an emperor. Real-life, preserved versions of two of these massive turtles are on display in a building next to the main temple.
The lake itself is a calm space surrounded by Hanoi. Besides visiting the Ngoc San Temple, you can also wander the paved paths around the lake.
Before crossing the bridge, look for the four panels that showcase the four key animals of Vietnamese mythology: tiger, dragon, turtle, unicorn.
Water Puppet Show
Hanoi is renowned for its unique water puppet theater show. We actually did not make it to a show, on account of the kids saying they weren’t interested. On a followup visit to Hanoi, we’d push this one more, at the least, so we can check it out and make an informed opinion after. Shows at the water puppet theatre run throughout the day, and the puppetry itself looks fascinating.
The Vietnam Museum of Ethnology
For a more in-depth understanding of the many cultures in Vietnam, the Museum of Ethnology can give you perspective and background. The exhibits are immersive as well, helping you and the kids really get the feel of life and history for these different ethnic groups.
Overnight on a Halong Bay cruise
Hanoi also makes a wonderful jump off point for day trips, overnights, and weekends away. Our main purpose in Hanoi was to base for an overnight cruise on Halong Bay. Taking in the huge rock formations looming up from the water, riding in rowboats through caves, and enjoying incredible food on-board made our overnight Halong Bay cruise with Sena Cruises a major highlight of our time in Vietnam.
Things we’d do differently on another trip to Hanoi
Our first trip to Hanoi was also our first destination anywhere in Vietnam. We very much want to come back, especially to spend more time in Hue and Da Nang, but coming back to Hanoi, here are some things we would do differently the second time around:
Stay in a different part of the city
We stayed in the Old Quarter because it was convenient for transportation to and from our Halong Bay cruise. While we enjoyed the Old Quarter, the cool architecture, and the winding streets, next time we would seek a quieter area.
Monitor air quality more closely
There’s no getting around it: Hanoi’s air quality is so bad. Jodie could feel it in her throat almost immediately. Whenever we were walking somewhere, if we got to a wide street where the city opened up, the thickness of the city’s haze became coughingly apparent.
This is a tricky one. Whether from the millions of motorbikes in town or a rice field burning farther away, Hanoi’s air pollution can rival (and even overtake) Beijing’s. By the end of our stay in Hanoi, we could all feel the air pollution getting to us. Within a few hours of leaving Hanoi for points farther south, we felt much better.
Naturally, air quality can’t be forecast much in advance. Some times of year typically are better or worse than others, so we’d look into options around times when air is better. We might also mask more often when we’re out and about.
If Hanoi could sort out its air, it would be all the better of a city. The city, and the Vietnamese government overall, is trying to work on improvements, but it’s going to take time.
We saw and did cool things in Hanoi, but still feel like we barely scratched the surface of the city. Next time, there are many other sights we’d want to check out, and probably fit in more day trips.
Where to stay in Hanoi with kids
We stayed in two Old Quarter hotels, but the city is full of family friendly accommodation. We booked both of our hotels through Agoda, but Booking can also be a useful place to look for good deals on Hanoi hotels with kids.
For starters, the comfy rooms and kind staff are reason enough to stay at the Singita. However, it included breakfast on the roof seals it. From a made-to-order omelet station to lovely, fragrant phở, we loved starting our day with a view of Hanoi.
The hotel is also slightly tucked back off the street, making it a little quieter. The comfy, sumptuous lobby makes a good space to relax, or a bistro table just outside the front door is a wonderful working space. Don’t be surprised if one of the staff brings you a hot lime tea with sugar.
From our comfy room, it was easy to explore the Old Quarter. Even though our second-floor room was over a busy street, excellent windows and doors blocked out noise. We especially loved how walkable Elpis Grand was to Oriana, the Ngoc San Temple, the Water Puppets Theatre, and many other restaurants, coffee shops, and eateries.
One note: There’s another area hotel with “Elpis” in the name. Make sure you’re pulling up the Hanoi Elpis Grand Hotel.
Hanoi’s Old Quarter is a bustling experience that’s great to explore with kids
During breakfast one morning before Christmas, we realized we were listening to “Feliz Navidad”… in Vietnam. Hanoi is such a fascinating city. Yes, the air quality needs improvement. But the coffee, attractions, and incredible, family friendly food more than make up for it. Hanoi is intriguing, with a fast pace from all those motorbikes, yet a calm that suffuses the Old Quarter’s winding alleys and side streets. Everyone is doing their thing, typically on a scooter, but everyone gives each other space to do their own thing too.
All that said, Hanoi is fascinating, bustling, full of good food, and is a kid friendly place to visit. Plus, it’s one of the likely cities where you’ll arrive by plane. Hanoi gave our family a good introduction to Vietnam. Being in Hanoi also made it easy to set out on other adventures, such as our Halong Bag overnight cruise, and it was easy to catch the train south.
The city’s Old Quarter also brings to life the many confluences in Vietnamese culture, is full of fun things to do, and showed us how Vietnam is always very much its own country. Hanoi is a wonderful place to visit with kids.