Best Things to Do in Hanoi
As the capital of Vietnam, Hanoi is an important political, historic, and cultural location in the country. Among my list of the best things to do in Hanoi, you’ll find everything from Buddhist temples to historical landmarks. Each one of these attractions offers engaging tales of the past and phenomenal photo opportunities.
But Hanoi is also a rapidly developing urban area with a vibrant city life. There are countless cafes, bars, restaurants, shops, and hidden holes in the wall. Even crossing the road is an adventure thanks to the whirlwind of bikes and cars.
Here are the best things to do in Hanoi:
1. Old Quarter
A visit to the Old Quarter is an absolute must. The historic neighborhood is a bustling section of Hanoi, and also one of the prettiest and most traditional places to walk around. Leafy trees hang over the roads, where bikes zip by in dizzying streams. Organized up rather than out, buildings are crammed together with shops and eateries stacked on top of each other.
Hanoi’s Old Quarter is comprised of nearly 40 streets. Generally, these streets are named after the products sold there. Hang Gai (Silk Street), for example, is a stretch of road known for its silk goods. Wherever you go, you’re sure to find some great spots for souvenirs.
But before you buy anything at the shops, be aware that haggling is expected. Unless you go to a store like Gingko, where goods have a set price, or to a super fancy establishment, you need to negotiate. Shopkeepers are determined to rip you off. They will charge twice or even three times what an item is actually worth. Be prepared to walk away to get a more reasonable price.
2. Hoan Kiem Lake
Hoan Kiem Lake, or Lake of the Restored Sword, is more than just a scenic lake. It is the sight of a great Vietnamese myth. According to legend, King Le Loi carried a divine sword that he used to defeat the occupying Ming army. It was here at Hoan Kiem Lake that a massive golden turtle asked Le Loi to return the sword to the Dragon King. Le Loi did so without hesitation.
Although the story is a famous one known by everyone in Vietnam, you should also come to the lake for some iconic Hanoi attractions. At the center of the lake is the Turtle Tower. The large, gray landmark is a symbol of patriotism and pride.
Since you can only look at the Turtle Tower and not visit it, I recommend going to the Ngoc Son Temple (Temple of the Jade Mountain) on the lake. The traditional Buddhist temple is dedicated to Tran Hung Dao, a war hero that defeated 300,000 Mongolian soldiers invading Vietnam in the 13th century. The temple is connected to the lake bank by the elegant, red Huc Bridge.
Inside Ngoc Son Temple, you will see traditional altars and shrines, where you can honor a variety of figures like Tran Hung Dao. The altars are beautiful, but please do not take photos. It is considered disrespectful to photograph them.
3. Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum
One of the best things to do in Hanoi is visit the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum. Revolutionary leader Ho Chi Minh established the Democratic Republic of Vietnam in 1945, and has remained a Vietnamese icon ever since. Inspired by Lenin’s Tomb in Moscow, Uncle Ho’s mausoleum was created as a final resting place for the leader. And just like Lenin, his body is preserved and set out for viewing.
The Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum features a wonderful museum and beautiful grounds for you to explore. The One Pillar Pagoda is also nearby. Just be aware of the mausoleum’s hours. It is closed for lunch from 11 am – 2pm, and it is closed all day on Monday and Friday.
4. Hoa Lo Prison
I will admit that visiting a prison doesn’t sound like the most uplifting travel experience. However, Hoa Lo Prison provides a truly unique experience. Initially, the prison was used by the French colonists to house Vietnamese political prisoners. Later, during the Vietnam War, Hoa Lo was used to imprison American POWs. The most famous prisoner of this bunch was Senator John McCain.
Of course, I should mention that many of the exhibits include language that is clear propaganda. Vietnamese prisoners are depicted as clever and determined heroes while the French colonists are described as cunning and devious enemies. In addition, American POWs were apparently treated with kindness and given better living conditions than the average Vietnamese citizens at the time. In reality, American POWs that spent time there sarcastically called the prison “Hanoi Hilton” because they suffered terrible conditions and were forced to pretend and pose for propagandic images.
Regardless, there are two sides to every story, and it’s always worth hearing both. Perhaps you will find an aught of truth in each. Perhaps you will form your own opinion. In any case, Hoa Lo Prison is an intriguing attraction that is worth an hour of your time.
5. Temple of Literature
Dedicated to Confucius, sages, and scholars alike, the Temple of Literature in Hanoi is a stunning complex of courtyards built in 1070. During the monarchy of the Đại Việt, the Temple of Literature was a place for offering ceremonies, studying, and rigorous exams. The country’s first university was also established here, catering mostly to Vietnam’s bureaucrats, nobles, and royalty.
Although the temple no longer serves the same purpose, it remains a popular destination. The traditional architecture is complemented by five courtyards with koi ponds and manicured gardens. It is also said that writers should come pray at the temple to publish a masterpiece.
6. Vietnam Museum of Ethnology
Vietnam is a land of many people. In fact, there are 54 different ethnic groups in the country with the Viet people representing the majority. To better educate yourself on each of these distinct cultures, head to the Vietnam Museum of Ethnology. Inside, you will find a dazzling array of tribal art and handicrafts.
But what makes the museum one of the most amazing things to do in Hanoi is the village of traditional houses outside. Each building showcases the typical living space of a different ethnic group. Instead of reading about these structures or looking at photos, you can actually enter them yourself. How’s that for an interactive exhibit!
7. St. Joseph’s Cathedral
Named after the patron saint of Vietnam, St. Joseph’s Cathedral is the oldest church in Hanoi. Constructed by the French colonial government in 1884, the church serves as the cathedral of the Roman Catholic archdiocese of Vietnam. It was built in a stunning, neo-gothic style that attracts both local and foreign photographers.
Given its location in the Old Quarter, St. Joseph’s Cathedral is a convenient attraction to see while wandering around town. If you want a good view of the cathedral and a delicious cocktail, I recommend visiting Hanoi House. They have creative drinks and a balcony that looks out at the church.
8. Fine Arts Museum of Vietnam
To better acquaint yourself with Vietnam’s history and culture, why not visit the Fine Arts Museum of Vietnam? The gallery offers a collection of Vietnamese art organized chronologically. Among the museum’s works, you’ll find temple sculptures, religious iconography, lacquer works, portraits, and engravings.
Like most other tourist attractions in Hanoi, signs are posted in Vietnamese, French, and English. So you should get a clear understanding of each artistic work.
9. Thang Long Water Puppet Theater
Art, history, and architectural delights can be found in any country. But one thing you can’t find anywhere else is the Thang Long Water Puppet Theater. Water puppets are a traditional Vietnamese art form used to depict local legends and myths. The puppets are fixed to long, bamboo canes operated from behind a curtain. Then, the puppets are made to dance atop a waist high pool of water while traditional Vietnamese music plays in the background.
Even if you don’t understand the Vietnamese narration, the water puppet show provides a fascinating look at the history and culture of Vietnam. And while this is one of the most unique things to do in Hanoi, please don’t take photos during the show. It’s hard to actually watch the show when everyone has their phones up. Just enjoy the moment. You probably won’t get any good photos in the dark lighting anyway.
10. Pottery Village
Pottery Village (Bat Trang) is located 13 kilometers southeast of central Hanoi. Known for its production of high quality pottery products, the village is the oldest and most famous producer of ceramics in Vietnam. From pots and plates to decorative urns and teacups, Pottery Village offers tourists a wide assortment of authentic goods at low prices.
Sadly, in recent times, the business has given way to methods of mass production. That’s why I recommend Bat Trang Conservation. They are the only remaining producer in Hanoi that creates pottery in the traditional, handmade fashion. Their goods are expertly crafted and sold at fair prices. It’s a bit of a drive to get there from downtown, but this is one of the best places in Hanoi to buy unique and authentic gifts.
11. Try Hanoi’s Local Cuisine
Hanoi is famous for its street food culture. Sure, you can visit some upscale, touristy restaurants. But the most delicious Hanoi food comes from street food stalls. So ask the locals for the best places to visit. As for the food itself, here are some dishes to try:
- Bun cha – Noodles and pork strips and balls. The meat is soaked in a bowl of sauce made of fish sauce, vinegar, lime, sugar, garlic, and chili. The noodles are dipped into the sauce and eaten with fresh herbs.
- Ca phe trung – Created in Hanoi, this is a Vietnamese egg coffee. The bitter coffee is served with a silky, sweet topping made of whipped egg yolks and condensed milk. It’s basically a dessert.
- Pho – Although known as the national dish of Vietnam, pho originated here in the north. The soup is most commonly served with slices of beef, fresh herbs, and flat rice noodles. Traditionally, the dish is a breakfast food, but you can eat it at anytime of the day.
Day Trip From Hanoi
Although there are tons of incredible things to do in Hanoi, you should also consider a day trip outside of the city. My recommendation is to head to Ha Long Bay. There you can take a cruise and enjoy the breathtaking scenery.