Although a relative newcomer to the tourist trail, Vietnam offers a unique travel experience to those who are thirsty for culture. And where better than the capital city of Hanoi, which is steeped in history with plenty of sights, sounds, and experiences waiting for you and your camera!
It wasn’t easy, but we’ve collected a list of the BEST 10 things to see and do in Hanoi – those that are certain to give you a real sense of the spirit of the city!
Walk around Hoan Kiem Lake…
If you are fascinated by history, myths, and pure natural beauty, one of the first on your Hanoi wish-list has to be a walk around the historic Hoan Kiem Lake.
The legend of the lake is what will probably first pique your interest: the words Hoan Kiem translate into “Lake of the returned sword”. The story behind the name sounds something along the lines of Vietnam’s very own King Arthur legend, because the sword in question was said to have been gifted to a would-be Emperor by a magic turtle at the edge of the lake. The legend claims that the Emperor used the sword to rid Vietnam of the occupying Chinese.
But moving quickly on into present day Hanoi, the lake area is today the city’s social and cultural center for locals and it is also a “must be seen” place for fitness fanatics and photo shoots for pre-wedding lovers.
One of the lake’s undoubted highlights is the short walk over the red wooden bridge which connects the lakeside with the Ngoc Son Temple – a temple that still continues its religious traditions as it has for over 1000 years.
Perhaps more amazingly, the whole area around the lake is closed to traffic over the weekend, and is quite a sight to see (especially when those lights shimmer on the lake at night). This only started from 2016 (we think) but has since become the only place to be on Friday / Saturday / Sunday; expect to see lots of families walking around, kids in electric cars, photo shoots galore with beautiful Vietnamese ladies dressed to kill in their Ao Dai…it’s a great concept!
How to get there
Visit Hoa Lo Prison (the Hanoi Hilton)
Originally built by the French occupation around 1880 and used right up until the end of the Vietnam War, Hoa Lo Prison was nicknamed the “Hanoi Hilton” by American POWs who were held there. “Hoa Lo” literally translates into “stove”, an apt description of the conditions inside the prison.
What remains of the building now houses a museum with grizzly exhibits that tell the gruesome story of how the Vietnamese and American prisoners were treated there. Just don’t expect to leave this building without a torn heart – and a severe case of propaganda wipeout.
Take in the Lotte Center’s sky-high views
By day or night, the views from the city’s second tallest structure are nothing short of stunning. The Lotte Center was finished in 2004 and the buildings topmost level provides a 360-degree view of the city 65 some floors below. If you want more of the view and your budget stretches to it, the Lotte Hanoi Hotel is housed within the building.
If you’ve got nerves of steel, try the glass-floored skywalk for a view to remember. And if you visit between 8.30 am and 11.00 pm, you can steady those jangling nerves with a stiff drink at the famous rooftop bar.
Enjoy Hanoi’s Old Quarter
A short walk from Hoan Kiem Lake (see above), Hanoi’s Old Quarter provides bargain hunters with the ultimate in shopping experiences. From delicious food and drink to traditional wares, including lacquered goods and silks, each one of the compact and very busy 36 streets in this shopping triangle is named after the goods on sale there.
With many great hotels and travel hostels within the Old Quarter, it is perhaps the ultimate place to stay if you want excellent shopping and eateries right on your doorstep.
How to get there
Pay your respects at Ho Chi Minh’s Mausoleum
Despite his express wish to be cremated, the Vietnamese people decided to erect a Soviet-style mausoleum in the presidential square of Hanoi to house the remains of Ho Chi Minh. Opened to the public on the 29 August 1975, the mausoleum also houses a museum to honor his memory.
If you want to go inside, be aware that visitors are subject to a modest dress code (no shorts or miniskirts), photography is banned, and silence has to be observed.
As the mausoleum is located within the grounds of the presidential palace, you can also take in the original stilt house where Ho Chi Minh lived.
How to get there
Get cultural at the Temple of Literature
Located in the city’s French Quarter, the Temple of Literature is over 1000 years old. On the site of the country’s oldest university, it is a temple to education, with many renovations going on since 1920. Laid out in a five courtyard plan, these sections run south to north and the former university is sited at the northernmost of these courtyards.
Built in 1076 and named the Quoc Tu Giam by the mandarins who the university served, this name translates into “the Temple of the King who distinguished literature”.
Bargain hunt at Dong Xuan Market
Founded in 1889, and situated in the north of Hanoi’s Old Quarter, Dong Xuan Market still thrives as Hanoi’s largest indoor market, despite a huge fire in 1994. The real goodies for tourists, such as handicrafts and souvenirs, are located on the upper floors, while essential foods and meats for the local shoppers are sold at street level.
Tasty meals as cheap as just a few pennies can be brought in the market’s food hall and the weekend night market on Fridays through Sunday nights features Chinese copy-cat goods, handicrafts, and wares from some of the more remote villages in northern Vietnam.
How to get there
Drink some genuine Vietnamese coffee
One great thing that the Vietnamese soaked up from the French occupation was their love of coffee.
By adding their unique twist to coffee using a special filter called a “phin” and swapping cream for condensed milk, the Vietnamese have created a hot (and there’s always the incredible iced version, ca phe sua da), strong, and sweet blend that is drunk all over the city (and country!). From open-air coffee shops right out on the street to top-notch establishments where weary shoppers and workers can enjoy a cup in air-conditioned comfort, you’re going to fall in love with Hanoi’s coffee!
Our hot tip for enjoying a great coffee: try one of the numerous street-side cafes in the Old Quarter!
Eat the Hanoi food!
It probably goes without saying, but try the food in Hanoi, you won’t be disappointed! There are some great variations on the foods you’ll find elsewhere throughout Vietnam, plus, of course, Hanoi’s own fabled foodie gems, including Bún Chả – barbecued pork with rice vermicelli, absolutely delish! If you’re not completely sure of what to try, we can highly recommend a Hanoi Street Food Tour!
Feel the adrenalin rush at the incredible “Train Street”
Without a doubt, Train Street fast become one of Hanoi’s must-sees over the last year or so. However, due to police orders, the easy access to this backstreet gem was blocked off in September 2019. We’re hearing that you can still get access to the street from other entry points and if you even catch the attention of one of the few coffee shops still operating here, you might be able to get them to invite you over (we’re also hearing that some of the student tours that you can find in Hanoi are also good at getting you access). But the heady days of streams of tourists packing out the main stretch of train street are definitely over, for now at least.
Train Street can be reached from the Old Quarter, but it will take you a good 30 minutes by foot. For those of you who missed it, here are some unforgettable pics of this crazy street!
How to get there
OK, so that was our Top 10 things to see and do in Hanoi – but these are some other great little ideas that just failed to crack our Top 10:
|Visit the Imperial Citadel, which is basically the remains of the 3 original forts that were built in 1011. The occupying French demolished the rest in the 1800s to make way for buildings of their own design.
|Drink some hot, delicious egg coffee at Ca Phe Giang or Ca Phe Pho Co.
|Check out the bars and clubs in the Tay Ho neighborhood, if you’re after some late night action.
|Not strictly a Hanoi must-see, but if you’re in the capital and have a day or two to spare, you’ve got to take a day tour or a 2 day/1 night tour out to Halong Bay.