Welcome to the exciting capital city of Vietnam. Where east meets west and old meets new. Hanoi, Vietnam is chaotic and fascinating, overwhelming and intriguing. One thing is for sure, Hanoi will make an impression. From the incredible French colonial architecture to the tantalizing Vietnamese cuisine, it is a city that will put all of your senses to good use. Being the capital city of Vietnam and one of the ancient capitals of the world, there are a lot of things to do in Hanoi that you are not going to want to miss.
Located in northern Vietnam, Hanoi is the perfect place to make a base when visiting places in Vietnam like Halong Bay and Sapa. But Hanoi needs to be explored for at least a few days to experience its culture, food, history, and nightlife. So to help you make the most of your time, we’ve put together the best things to do in Hanoi Vietnam in this easy-to-follow travel guide.
Top Things to do in Hanoi, Vietnam
When you first arrive in Hanoi, especially if it is your first time, it can be a little overwhelming. We suggest jumping on a Walking Tour so that you can get the lay of the land and decide which parts of the city you want to focus on.
Check out the Old Quarter
The Old Quarter aka Hoan Kiem District is the business hub of Hanoi and the main tourist area of the city. This is where we spent most of our time in Hanoi. It is busy, to say the least. One of the most memorable things to do in Hanoi’s Old Quarter is simply crossing the street.
I’ll never forget Dave mentioning that crossing the street in Hanoi is like playing a human game of Frogger. The old quarter is filled with colonial architecture and remnants of its French past. There are plenty of things to do in the old quarter, so instead of listing them off in a quick paragraph, we are going to break them down here in section 1.
Hoan Kiem Lake
Hoan Kiem Lake is probably the most popular thing to do in Hanoi. I know it is the first place we walked to when we arrived in the city. Located between the Old Quarter and French Quarter of Hanoi, Hoan Kiem Lake is a quiet oasis in the heart of the city.
Hoan Kiem means Lake of the Returned Sword and got its name from the legend in which an emperor used a magical sword to defeat the Ming Dynasty from China. Upon victory, the Golden Turtle God returned the sword to the bottom of the lake. Today, Turtle Tower stands guard commemorating the legend. Keep an eye out for the endangered turtles that are swimming in the lake.
Ngoc Son Temple
The main attraction of this lake is Ngoc Son Temple (Temple of the Jade Mountain) located on an island in the center of the lake. The Ngoc Son Pagoda is the most visited temple in Hanoi and sits on Jade Island. It is dedicated to General Tran Hung Dao who defeated the Mongols in the 13th century and is one of the best things to do in Hanoi. To get to it you cross the lovely red Huc Bridge or Rising Sun Bridge.
Shop at Dong Xuan Market
Let me warn you now, shopping in Vietnam is a sport. It is high-pressure contact with a lot of haggling, but it is a must! When you visit Hanoi make your way to the Dong Xuan Market to pick up all your souvenirs and any little nicknacks or clothing. Located in the Old Quarter, the Dong Xuan Market dates back to 1889, this four-story shopping center is huge selling everything you can imagine. There is a food market on the ground floor that is bustling with activity selling fruit, vegetables, meat, and fish.
St. Joseph’s Cathedral
Located in the Old Quarter, St. Joseph’s Cathedral aka The Big Church was one of the first structures built by the French and is still standing. Built to resemble Notre Dame in Paris, St. Joseph’s Cathedral is worth stopping to see the beautiful gothic architecture. Make sure to go inside
Hanoi Weekend Night Market
When Visiting anywhere in Southeast Asia and Indo-China, a visit to a night market is a must. If you are looking for things to do in Hanoi at night, the weekend market is abuzz with excitement. From Friday to Sunday the market runs from 7 pm through Hang Dao Street to Dong Xuan Market. This is your chance to put your bartering skills to the test and to try some Vietnamese street food.
Have a Drink at the Hanoi Social Club
For some things to do in Hanoi at night, head out to the Hanoi Social Club. Located in a 1920s colonial villa the Hanoi Social Club is a multi-level cafe that is one of the most popular places for drinks and food for tourists. There are great vegetarian options on the menu here. It’s also a popular spot for breakfast.
Take a Free Walking Tour
I think we mention in nearly every city guide to take a free walking tour as soon as you arrive. This is the best way to get acquainted with a city in Hanoi. Hanoi Free Walking Tours takes you through the Hanoi Old Quarter to Hoan Kiem Lake and Ngoc Son Temple. You’ll sample ice cream and hit up the walking street and night market. It is a great introduction to Hanoi. Details here.
Take a Stroll Through the French Quarter
Located south and east of Hoan Kiem Lake, the French Quarter is a lovely stroll through early 20th-century architecture, Art Deco designs, and some 1930s modernism thanks to all the influences. There are several Hanoi points of interest to keep an eye out for as you walk through the French Quarter. Let’s take a look to see what there is.
The Hoa lo Prison Museum
Maison Central, aka the Hao Lo Prison, was known as the Hanoi Hilton during the Vietnam War where it housed American POWs including Senator John McCain. History Buffs will find this an interesting stop on their Hanoi visit. Before the Vietnam War, it was used to incarcerate Vietnamese Revolutionaries by the French government.
There are galleries telling the gruesome tales of the inmates including the French guillotine and memorabilia from American pilots shot down during the war. As far as the American POWs, the prison promotes that contrary to popular belief, the inmates were treated well.
Hanoi Opera House
There is a lot of French influence in Hanoi thanks to the French occupation, and the Hanoi Opera House is Aptly located in the French Quarter. It was modeled after the Paris Opera House, Palais Garnier, and is one of the most beautiful pieces of colonial architecture in Hanoi. If you are looking for a little bit of culture while visiting Hanoi, book a night at the opera to see Vietnamese Opera or the ballet.
The National Museum of Vietnamese History
Housed in a former school from the French Colonial period, the National Museum of Vietnamese History is also worth a stop in the French Quarter. This building showcases five different sections throughout its architectural design reminiscent of a French villa or Vietnamese palace. Pieces can be found from the stone age to the Vietnamese Revolution. There are more than 200,000 pieces detailing Vietnamese history.
Vietnamese Women’s Museum
The Vietnamese Women’s Museum has become one of Hanoi’s most popular attractions dedicated to the history and lives of Vietnamese women. From showcasing the role that women played in its wars to local life and family life and working on the streets as vendors. There are 30,000 pieces on display depicting women in family, women fashion and women in history.
Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum
No trip to Hanoi would be complete without a visit to the tomb of Ho Chi Minh. The Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum houses president Ho Chi Minh in a glass tomb. Paying a visit to Uncle Ho is one of the top attractions in Hanoi. Opened in 1975, it was modeled after Lenin’s mausoleum in Russia. When visiting the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum you must dress accordingly in long sleeves, and long skirts or pants. There are no photos allowed inside the mausoleum and bags must be checked at the door.
Located within the same complex is the Ho Chi Minh Museum which features his personal effects and memorabilia. The Ho Chi Minh museum gives a glimpse into the life of this key figure in Vietnamese history with films, documents, and objects depicting his revolutionary work and life.
Military History Museum
Spending more time in museums, we now take you to the Military History Museum where you’ll see military equipment and transportation from the Vietnam War. This museum celebrates the Vietnamese victories over both the Americans and the French. Here you’ll see a tank, some old airplanes including a Soviet MiG fighter plane, and wreckage of a B52 Bomber.
There is a model of the Cu Chi Tunnels which were an integral part in beating the Americans during the Vietnam War and you’ll see a display of the weaponry that was used during both wars.
Lotte Tower Observation Deck
Who doesn’t love going high in a city for views? And a visit to Hanoi Vietnam is no exception. The Lotte Tower Observation Deck is a slice of modern Vietnam taking you up 65 floors for dazzling city views from the observatory. The Skywalk takes you out over a glass floor feeling as if you are suspended in the air. There are interactive exhibits, a light festival at night, and a display featuring Vietnamese culture and nature.
The Imperial Citadel of Thang Long
The Imperial Citadel is a UNESCO World Heritage Site that is has been the center of Vietnam’s political power for more than 1300 years until the capital was moved to Hue in 1810. After falling into disarray during the French colonial era, it was then used as a prison by the Japanese army in 1945, and then in 1954, it became the headquarters for the Ministry of Imperial Defense.
The Citadel has been a part of Vietnam’s history for centuries and has been restored and excavated and you can tour its remaining buildings and gates the most notable being the Kinh Thien Palace, the North Gate and the Princess Pagoda.
Visit The Temple Of Literature
The Temple of Literature was Vietnam’s first university, where students were educated in the principles of Confucianism, literature, and poetry. Today, the temple and its monuments honor Vietnam’s greatest scholars, from poets to mathematicians and historians. Its traditional Vietnamese architecture is stunning, the complex is spacious, and has lots of interesting things to see: monuments, artifacts on display, and the biggest gong ever (very tempting, I admit).
On a normal day, walking around the peaceful quiet courtyards and gardens, you’d forget you are in the middle of a bustling city. We, however, visited the Temple of Literature on Graduation day, adding quite a bit of color to the experience.
After your visit, be sure to pop into Koto across the street, it’s one of my favorite cafes/restaurants in Hanoi. Koto is a not-for-profit program giving hospitality training to disadvantaged kids, all staff are graduates of the program. I love the interior, the kids can hang out on the purple sofas, the food is amazing, and the service is professional and friendly. And all while overlooking the temple of literature.
See a water puppet show
When visiting Hanoi, we saw so many advertisements for a water puppet show. It turns out that seeing a Water Puppet Show is one of the top things to do in Hanoi, especially for families. This ancient art form dates back 1000 years and was traditionally performed in ponds or lakes. The graceful puppets gliding on water, the live music dramatizing their actions, the sounds of splashing water, and the dark auditorium, all adds up to a magical experience you can’t miss.
Today, the stage consists of a large water basin of murky water, hiding the secrets of the skillful puppeteers. Where marionettes are being brought to life through strings from above, these wooden puppets are operated from below by puppeteers submerged waist-deep in the water.
The Municipal Water Puppet Theatre offers five shows daily or you can Book this Water Puppets Tour and enjoy some Vietnam Street food with views of Hoan Kiem lake at night.
Lake Tay Ho (West Lake)
Lake Tay Ho or West Lake is Hanoi’s Largest Lake that spans 15 km. It’s a quiet reprieve from the city where locals practice tai chi, go cycling, or for a stroll. There are two pagodas to visit at West Lake as well, Tay Ho Pagoda and Tran Quoc Pagoda. Tran Quoc Pagoda is a Buddhist temple that is one of the oldest of its kind. The main pagoda stands 15 meters high (45 feet). The pagodas are free to enter, but make sure to dress conservatively as it is an acting place of worship so make sure to cover your shoulders and knees.
Indulge in the street Food
Southeast Asia is known for its street food and Hanoi is no exception. Many people are wary of eating street food and they have a good reason. If it’s not cooked properly, you could get into trouble. Our rule of thumb is to search for vendors that are busy and filled with locals. The food is bound to be fresh. But if you are concerned, a great introduction is this Street Food Tour by Motorbike.
This evening tour will pick you up at your hotel, and take you to sample staples such as Bun Cha. Bun Cha is Noodle Soup with Porkpie and is probably one of the more common dishes you’ll find in Hanoi. You’ll also sample the Hanoi Shrimp Pancake, and coconut ice cream. During the tour, you’ll also walk around the Hanoi Old Quarter, Hoan Kiem Lake, and visit the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum where you’ll see the flag-lowering ceremony.
Vietnamese Food Tour
The best way to indulge in local cuisine is to take a food tour of Hanoi. We love hopping on a food tour to learn about all the different foods we should order. We didn’t use to take tours or cooking classes, but once we did, it changed the way we traveled. Learning of the local food makes the rest of your trip so much more interesting and helps you branch out from the usual Vietnamese Pho or spring roll dishes.
Take this Hanoi walking tour with a real foodie. This 3-hour walking tour takes you into the world of street vendors and lets you sample 10 different local dishes including Bun Cha (grilled pork with noodles), Pho, Banh Mi (Vietnamese bread), Ban Cuon (steamed rice pancake), and Vietnamese desserts. This is a great way to sample Vietnamese food.
Take a Cooking Class
If you want to take a little bit of Vietnam home with you, book a cooking class to learn how to make Vietnamese food. It’s our favorite way to re-visit a destination when we are stuck at home. We start cooking the local dishes and it takes us back to the destination.
This Cooking Class with a visit to a local market is an immersive experience in traditional culture and Vietnamese food. The tour begins with a local market tour where you’ll shop for fresh ingredients and then you’ll make your own meal which you will enjoy with a local glass of wine.
Vietnamese Egg Coffee
I’m not going to lie, Vietnamese Coffee took some getting used to, but after a few cups, it became a delicious morning treat. Lucky for me, I didn’t know I was drinking egg yolks in my coffee at the time. Hey, whenever I visit a place, I immerse in the local culture without question. If that’s the coffee they give me, that’s the coffee I’ll drink.
Ca Phe Trung aka Egg Coffee isn’t as bad as it sounds. Egg coffee involves beating an egg yolk in condensed milk until it is frothy and creamy. The sweetness is then poured over espresso and makes for a delicious brew. Egg coffee can also be made with iced coffee for a sweet afternoon treat. When you go, give it a try, you may end up liking it. I know we did!
Drink Bia Hi
While we are on the topic of food and drink I have to mention Bia Hi. Hanoi’s famous fresh beer is super cheap, light and refreshing. When visiting Hanoi, pull up a chair at one of the street vendors and order a pitcher of beer. There are Bia Hi vendors all over the Old Quarter of Hanoi and its a great way to rub shoulders with the locals.
Overnight tour to Halong Bay
A visit to Hanoi wouldn’t be complete without doing a day trip to Halong Bay. In fact, you should make it more than a day trip! You can book overnight tours on a junk boat to Halong Bay from Hanoi and it truly is a highlight of any Vietnamese trip. Halong Bay is a beautiful bay filled with Karst formations.
There are more than 15000 limestone islands jutting out of the bay creating an extraordinary scene. It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and you should definitely book at least one overnight cruise on the Bay. Read more: Halong Bay or Bai Tu Long Bay – How to Choose Your Cruise?
Go Trekking in Sapa
If you’re looking for more than a day trip from Hanoi, make sure to go to Sapa. Sapa is a mountain town near the Chinese border and can be reached from Hanoi by train. Take a trek into the mountains to see the extraordinary rice terraces plunging down the cliffs. You’ll meet the hill tribes of the area as you stay in a homestay to immerse in the local culture. This is truly a trip you will never forget.
Before going to Sapa, a good museum to visit in Hanoi is the Vietnam Museum of Ethnology which offers insight into the 54 ethnicities of Vietnam.
A good day trip from Hanoi is a visit to Perfume Pagoda or Chua Huong. It is a maze of Buddhist temples built into limestone cliffs. The stalagmites and stalactites inside the caves have been attracting pilgrims and tourists seeking good luck. Inside the cave are several Buddha statues. The journey to the pagoda is a bit of a haul. It’s located 60 km from Hanoi and after arriving by car, you need to transfer to a boat to reach the temple complex. It is then a one-hour walk uphill to Perfume Pagoda.
Try Your Hand At Pottery
Hanoi is surrounded by numerous handicraft villages, each specializing in its own craft. You’ll find villages dedicated to traditional furniture, ceramics, copper, silk, and even snakes. While the snake village definitely sounded like a cool kids attraction, I did travel to Vietnam to find a crockery supplier, not a snake catcher.
Bat Trang, known as ‘the ceramic village’, is located 13km southeast of Hanoi and is a true joy for any ceramic enthusiast. Here you’ll find the potters working the clay, trimming and glazing pots, and filling the kiln. We received the warmest welcome from the non-English speaking toothless craftsman. Pro Tip: Ceramic shops dot the main streets, but the key is to venture down the smaller back-alleys.
Where to Stay in Hanoi, Vietnam
Old Quarter – Most tourists stay in the Old Quarter (Hoan Kiem) district of Hanoi. This is a great place for first-time visitors to explore the most popular things to do in Hanoi. This is the area where you’ll find backpacker hostels but there are also luxury hotels. With many restaurants, bars and attractions this is a great area to be in the heart of the action.
Ba Dinh district – This is another good area to stay in Hanoi filled with rich history and attractions. Here you’ll find Ho Chi Minh’s mausoleum, the Military Museum, and the Old Citadel
Tay Ho – is the ex-pat neighborhood of Hanoi that will give you a western feel. This is a good spot for Hanoi nightlife and there are high-end hotels and restaurants.
How to Get Around Hanoi
Hanoi is a very walkable city and if you are staying in the Hoan Kiem district which is the Old Quarter and French Quarter or Ba Dinh District, you’ll be able to walk to many of its top attractions.
If you want to get around, motorcycle taxis are popular and very cheap.
Taxis are metered and another good and safe way to get around Hanoi.
As you can see, there are so many things to do in Hanoi, you need at least three days in the city. From museums to pagodas, and monuments to military history, a trip to Hanoi has something for everyone. When traveling to Vietnam, make sure to put Hanoi on our list.