The bustling city of Hanoi will assault your senses on arrival; with ferocious traffic, fanatical street sellers and imposing colonial architecture. As the capital city of Vietnam, Hanoi also has the ability to steal your heart on first visit thanks to a low key tourism infrastructure (there’s no glitzy malls here), authentic Vietnamese cuisine and a whole heap of things to see, do, try and taste throughout the city.
To make the best of your visit, arm yourself with a detailed recent map and a reputable local tour guide who will know where to go, what to see and who’ll steer you away from any touts.
Wander around the beautiful Old Quarter
The Old Quarter of Hanoi is filled with traditional houses that is the very essence of this great colonial city. Here visitors can witness the old-style street layouts, traditional shopfronts and original architecture. It is the heart of the culture in the region which is filled with the hustle and bustle of everyday life. It is a shopping mecca that encompasses 40 streets filled with numerous goods. Each street has its own specialist trade and is named the craft material used there in both the past and present. Here you will find whole streets dedicated to silk, jewellery, gold, food and so much more. To get a good idea of what the Old Quarter offers, just immerse yourself in the winding streets simply taking in the busy atmosphere and enjoy bartering with the local traders, who consider it something of a national pastime.
Within the Old Quarter district also lie the notable attractions of The Temple of Literature and the One Pillar Pagoda which are both listed below in more detail. Also in the district is the site of the oldest University of Vietnam, the Hanoi Flag Tower and the recently discovered Hanoi Citadel which is an astonishing 900 years old and is located at Ba Dinh Square.
Take in the local history at the Museums
There are numerous museums in Hanoi. One of the best representations of Vietnam’s culture is the Ethnology Museum. It explores the 54 different ethnic groups in the region. It includes a collection that is displayed in an interesting manner including life sized reconstructions, dioramas, and videos that include good language interpretation. One of the best features of the museum is the true Vietnamese family home on display. It is a wonderful representation of the way people live.
Know before you go and read our Vietnam Travel Guide which has ideas and inspiration for more things to see and do across Vietnam. Read our in-depth posts on Things to do in Da Nang, Things to do in Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City) and Things to do in Hue. Most travellers make the journey from north (Hanoi) to south (Saigon) or vice versa and include the top tourism spots in Central Vietnam, such as Hoi An, Hue, Danang, Nha Trang and Halong Bay.
The History Museum examines the history of Vietnam from prehistoric times up to WWII and includes numerous artifacts. Unlike the way the Ethnology Museum breaks the language barrier, this museum and others in the region only uses labels in the Vietnamese language. It is up to the person going through the museum to interpret the items according to the way that they are displayed.
The recently removed Vietnamese Women’s Museum is worth a look too for an insight into the Vietnamese heroines of the day. The Air Force Museum is one for the boys with various military aircraft on display such as an H-1 helicopter and a MiG fighter built by the Soviets. The Army Museum also covers 2 millennia of Vietnamese military history. Whether you stay for a week or just a weekend, you’ll be pleased you learnt a little of the local history.
If you have an hour to spare, visit the Hanoi Hilton, aka the Hỏa Lò Prison, which housed American prisons of war during the Vietnam War, including John McCain, James Stockdale and Bud Day. The prison was largely demolished in the 1990s but the gatehouse remains and serves as a small museum with interesting and thought provoking displays including various propaganda materials. There are also graphic reliefs on display such as the one in the photo above.
Experience a shuffle through Ho Chi Minh’s Mausoleum
In the center of the city lies a devotion to North Vietnam’s commander in chief during the war, affectionately known by the locals as Uncle Ho. The mausoleum houses Ho Chi Minh’s body which has been embalmed and stored inside a glass case, despite his personal wishes to be cremated. From a personal perspective, viewing the body is a bit morose, but watching the reverence Minh still commands is quite interesting as locals and travellers alike shuffle around the clearly designated walkway. The building itself was built with help from the USSR and is guarded by Vietnamese soldiers dressed in stark white uniforms.
Also on the same site is the Ho Chi Minh Museum, which in stark contrast to the Lenin-esque Mausoleum. The Museum is constructed in brilliant white and is said to resemble a white lotus. Built in 1990 this museum contains Ho Chi Minh’s letters, photos and some interesting exhibits, including a car crashing through a wall.
Gawp into Ho Chi Minh’s House
After viewing the large and impressive mausoleum and museum site, make your way to the Presidential Palace and view the surprisingly modest dwelling that Ho Chi Minh worked and resided in from 1954 right through to his death in 1969. It is a plain stilt heritage house resembling most minority dwellings in the area and remains untouched since his death. It stands over manicured gardens including his well-stocked carp pond, all in a calm and tranquil atmosphere. It is interesting to peer into windows and view how plain the house was including the ordinary furniture and few personal possessions. His car garage still houses his two cars.
Climb the One Pillar Pagoda
The Buddhist temple that is the One Pillar Pagoda, is a good reflection of the great architecture of Vietnam. The legend of the pagoda includes the story of the old Emperor Ly Thai To. It is believed that he prayed in the pagoda, especially for a son. One day, he had a dream over the water. A few months later, the Queen gave birth to a male baby. As a result, the Emperor commanded that the pagoda be built to replicate his dream. It was erected in the style of a lotus coming up from the water.
Vietnam is one of the fastest growing tourist destinations in the world. Read up on the local etiquette before you arrive and read our post about 10 Things you didn’t know about Vietnam. Hanoi is the most modernised city in Vietnam with excellent entertainment and leisure facilities.
Be inspired by the Temple Of Literature
One of the real “must see” attractions of Hanoi is the Temple Of Literature, Van Mieu-Quoc Tu Giam which was founded in 1070. It captivates the beauty of Vietnam and has a deep historic meaning as it became the first ever university in Vietnam in 1076. The inspirational temple is based on the teachings of Confucius and was the first Vietnamese university that has educated many great minds over a 700 year period. It consists of five courtyards filled with the beauty of nature which evokes inner peace to those who visit. Browse the stone tablets which are inscribed with the names of graduates and mounted onto the backs of tortoises.
Take a walk around Hoan Kiem Lake
Translated “Lake of the Returned Sword”; this central lagoon is named after a legend which involves Le Loi, a leader of resistance. Le Loi supposedly landed a great sword while fishing the area. The sword’s power gave Le Loi a victory. Afterward, in gratitude, Le Loi tried to return the sword. The story claims that thunder was heard and a golden tortoise arose from the water and retrieved the sword, taking it back into the water where it belonged. The legend continues that turtles will be watching and ready to step in during times of concern. Despite the legend, these tortoises are rare, so when a visitor is lucky enough to get a glimpse of one, it is a sign of good luck.
A more common sight at the lake is the large number of older Vietnamese groups who enjoy practising tai chi in the area. Discover the 18th century Ngoc Son Temple (Temple of the Jade Mountain) sits within the lake area on the Jade Island and is worth a visit; walk over the small bridge to access the temple. It’s a great green chill-out space right in the heart of the city.
Experience a Water Puppet Show performance (Mua Roi Nuoc)
Children and adults alike will enjoy a Water Puppet Show performance (Mua Roi Nuoc) and entertainment around the Red River. Wooden puppets are used to act out Vietnamese folktales and other scenes. There is traditional music and special effects which add to the magic. There are daily performances which captivate the audience young and old.
Indulge in the excellent Vietnamese cuisine
Hanoi is famous for its diverse cuisine, thanks to the French colonial cultural influences. This is evident with local cafes serving filled baguettes. There are many mainstream restaurants that overlook the busy streets and buffets are quite popular, but for a quieter meal, it is best to choose a traditional restaurant. Explore the sidestreets which contain street stalls serving up fresh cheap dishes. Local favourites include Pho Ga, which is a chicken noodle soup and Pho Bo, which is a traditional beef noodle soup. Popular in Hanoi are dishes that include chicken, beef and seafood. Virtually every type of cuisine can be found from haute cuisine through to international fayre.
Try a local Sports adventure when in Hanoi
There are several popular local sports and activities in Hanoi including Tai Chi. You’ll have to get up early to join the locals in a class at either Lenin Park or Hoan Kiem Lake Park. Join the Hash House Harriers for a run or jog through the city at one of their regular meets.
The national game of Hanoi is Da Cau; definately one of the more interesting things to do in Hanoi! Players try to keep a weighted shuttlecock in the air by using all body parts except the hands. It is a cross between the popular American version of volleyball and badminton.
There are also facilities for swimming, cycling and golf during your stay in Hanoi. Ask at your hotel for the best (traffic free) places to go for sports and adventure.