Hanoi does not have the high-energy nightlife of Ho Chi Minh City. However, the unique blend of modern and traditional, eastern and European, and the colorful local culture can make for a number of exciting evenings.
Water Puppetry is a unique performance art. Thang Long Theater on Hoan Kiem Lake in Hanoi’s Old Quarter is the best venue for such performances. The puppets are made from wood, and the traditional folk tales are portrayed while a live band performs traditional songs. Though the theater’s seats will force tall people to bend their legs in uncomfortable ways, this is on of the most unique and rewarding experiences in Hanoi.
Bar Barracuda offers some insight into the local expat scene. While some of the cafes and smaller bars around Hoan Kiem offer a more manageable scale (and markedly cheaper) experience, the international flare and sheer size of Barracuda make it an easy sell.
A more authentic experience is available on many street corners. Bia Hoi, fresh beer, is a cheap alternative to swilling pricy lowballs. Served up in liter or two liter bottles, the Vietnamese brew is enjoyed by locals any (sometimes every) night of the week. Vendors will wander by most places, hawking peanuts and other snack foods.
For the non-squeamish traveler, dog meat is a Hanoi delicacy. Though the meat is often quite sinewy, locals seem to enjoy it. However, concerns about the health effects of eating the meat though many dogs are farm raised, it is quite possible for a diseased alley mutt to make its way onto the menu. Of course, there is also the sadness that comes from the idea of eating “man’s best friend.” If you want to try dog meat, ask a trusted local with some dog-dinning experience to recommend a respected restaurant.
Because of the large student population in Hanoi, there is quite a large live music scene. Ho Guom Xanh is a good place to introduce yourself to the local music scene. Popular local and national acts play this venue. There is a blossoming rock music scene in Vietnam. Though this has yet to really explode, some bands are gaining popularity at some of Hanoi’s Universities.
Hanoi is a great place to experience both traditional and modern Vietnamese culture. The unique blend of local and international flavors makes Hanoi an exciting, even magical, place to visit. And, if all else fails, simply find the nearest bia hoi joint and contemplate the rest of your evening over a cold one.