Vietnam’s traditional capital of Hanoi has a lot to offer for travellers who really want to get under the skin of this fascinating country.
This city provides an excellent introduction to Vietnam, with something new to see around every corner. It’s impossible to be bored in Hanoi as there is so much history, culture and fantastic food to enjoy here. There are also great transport links to wonderful places like Tam Coc national park and the magnificent Ha Long Bay when you’re ready to explore beyond the capital.
Hanoi may just suck you in with its fabulous museums, buzzing nightlife, coffee-like rocket fuel, wonderful architecture and markets aplenty. Backpackers will be pleased to know that Hanoi is easy on the budget as many of the attractions can be seen for free! Food, coffee and beer are cheap and easily available and most sights are easy to get to or located close together. There are even hostels in the centre that offer free beer every night which is the travellers dream! Whatever you do here, Hanoi is not a city that you will forget in a hurry as there is so much to see and do here.
20 incredible things to do and see in Hanoi
Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum
The Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum is the final resting place of ex-president Ho Chi Minh and it hosts an elaborate changing of the guard ceremony every day. From the Ba Dinh Square you can see the soldiers approach in their crisp white uniforms, naturally with red and yellow adornments. They bring their legs up to hip height to arrive at the front entrance to the mausoleum with measured strides.
Ho Chi Minh wished to be cremated and scattered around the country but the Vietnamese government decided to embalm him instead. People now queue up to see his body that is entombed within the stark grey walls of the mausoleum. He can only be viewed briefly as guards keep the crowds moving and photographs are not permitted. Nearby you can see his stilt house, the temple of the one pillar pagoda, the botanical gardens and the presidential palace building too.
Hoàn Kiếm Lake
Hoàn Kiếm Lake is located in Hanoi’s historical heart, at its centre is the Ngoc Son temple on a small island. At the weekend, the road around it is turned into a walking street which fills with performers, stalls selling trinkets and families wandering around. It’s a great place for people-watching in the evenings. Legend has it that Emperor Ly Thai was gifted a magical sword to fight China and a golden turtle took the blade into the lake to send it back. This is why the lake is so famous and also why its name means ‘Lake of the Restored Sword’.
Hoa Lo Prison aka the ‘Hanoi Hilton’
Even though the notorious Hoa Lo Prison has been converted into a museum, there’s still something very uncomfortable about being within its walls. The prison was originally built by French colonists and you can see the guillotine they used to execute inmates. In later years it was used to house American POWs during the Vietnamese War. The entrance fee includes an audio guide that gives explanations as you walk around what’s left of this harrowing place.
Hanoi’s Train Street is a narrow gap where a twice-daily service chugs through its old quarter. It became really popular with Instagrammers who posed on the tracks and cafes cropped up to serve them. Sadly, this became a safety issue and officials have closed it off… for now. You can still see the streets but there are fences up to prevent tourists from walking down them. There are also some cool murals that have been painted on the buildings.
Ho Chi Minh Museum
Next to Ho Chi Minh’s mausoleum is the museum dedicated to telling the story of his life. It’s split up into chronological periods that documents as much of his existence as possible. The collection is housed in a building that shares the same grey Soviet architecture as his tomb.
Vietnamese Women’s Museum
Close to the Hoàn Kiếm Lake is the Vietnamese Women’s Museum, with five floors dedicated to their lives. It documents Vietnamese women in the military, indigenous traditions, pregnancy, marriage, childbirth and breastfeeding amongst other things. These events are divided into family, history and fashion. The outfits on display are truly beautiful and not many countries in the world have museums fully dedicated to a women’s experience like this one.
Bun Cha Huong Lien restaurant
In 2016, President Obama sat down with Anthony Bourdain on blue plastic stools to eat a local dish in Bun Cha Huong Lien restaurant for the CNN show, Parts Unknown. This typically Hanoian speciality, known as bún chả is made with pork and noodles. It isn’t possible to sit in their seats as they’re now enshrined in plastic casing for prosperity, but you can still eat that very same meal here.
Long Biên Market
To get the true measure of any Southeast Asian city, you need to go to the market. Long Biên Market mainly sells fruit, vegetables, flowers and other foodstuffs so it’s not a touristy experience at all. It’s right next to the famous Long Biên Bridge over the Red River which was designed by Gustave Eiffel and bombed several times by the Americans. It’s a symbol of resilience as it was rebuilt very quickly by the Vietnamese each and every time it was destroyed. The bridge is lit up at night so it’s a great spot for photographs. If you go to the market in the early morning when it is at the peak of being busy, you may see the sunrise behind it with its reflection in the Red River.
Hanoi Night Market
The Hanoi Night Market is near the lake and comes to life on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays from 8pm until late. It’s a brilliant place to try street food or buy a souvenir to take home. Delicious snacks to try include BBQ food on a stick, bánh mì, pho noodles, sticky rice and ice cream rolls.
Watch a water puppet show
Experiencing a water puppet show was one of the most joyous things I did in Vietnam. Just as it sounds, the puppets are operated on top of a water tank in a theatre, with the splashing used as part of the humour. This tradition began in the wet rice fields and it depicts elements of Vietnamese life with cameos of creatures from mythical tales like dragons. It is accompanied by traditional musicians too. A popular venue to catch a show is the Thang Long theatre next to Hoàn Kiếm Lake.
Take a Vietnamese cooking course
It’s difficult not to become obsessed with Vietnamese food, especially in Hanoi where there are so many great dishes to try. This makes it the ideal place to take a cooking course and I learnt to make fried spring rolls, green papaya salad, tofu balls, pho and egg coffee. Depending on your dietary requirements, vegetarian, vegan and meat options are also available as there are plenty of classes to choose from here! Classes cost around $20-25 but they include your lunch and you can take your leftovers with you to save on the price of an evening meal as well.
Temple of Literature and National University
The Temple of Literature or Văn Miếu is not surprisingly dedicated to the Chinese philosopher Confucius. It was built in 1070 during the time of Emperor Lý Thánh Tông, on the same complex as the Imperial University, the first ever national university in Vietnam. The temple is so famous that it is even featured on the back of the 100,000 dong banknote. It is close to the Imperial Citadel of Thăng Long so they can be combined in the same trip.
Imperial Citadel of Thăng Long
The history of the Imperial Citadel of Thăng Long is so important that it was designated as a world heritage site in 2010. Many artefacts have been found in the citadel because it was used for 1300 years as the political centre of the country. It was also used as the capital for 800 years and visitors can see the relics that have been dug up now displayed inside.
Vietnam Military History Museum
History buffs love the Vietnam Military History Museum which houses weaponry and relics from wars fought with France and the USA. The most famous exhibit is the tank that drove into the gates of the Presidential Palace in Saigon, an act that ended the Vietnam War in 1975. There is also a B-52 bomber and a M107 self-propelled gun on display. The museum is also close to the imperial citadel, the Hanoi flag tower and the statue of Lenin so there is a lot of history here!
St. Joseph’s Cathedral
St. Joseph’s Cathedral or Nhà Thờ Lớn Hà Nội is located on one of Hanoi’s most lovely streets of Nha Chung Street in the central Hoàn Kiếm District. It was named after Joseph, the patron saint of Vietnam and Indochina. The cathedral draws a lot of visitors as it is a fine example of neo-Gothic style in the late 19th century. Several masses take place every day in different languages. Check the notice board inside for times but it can get very busy so arrive early!
Hanoi Opera House
The yellow-hued Hanoi Opera House was built in 1901 by two French architects who wanted it to be an homage to the Opéra Palais Garnier in Paris. It was created in a neo-classical style and with seats for 600 people, making it the biggest theatre in Vietnam. Now it hosts various art performances including Vietnamese opera, traditional-style folk music, ballet and international artists too.
Phung Hung Mural Street
The wonderful thing about Vietnam’s artwork is that it captures so much of everyday life and not just the lives of rich people or kings and queens. Each mural is in the arch of the train track and depicts a part of Hanoi history, depicting both traditional and modern life. Phung Hung Mural Street is located next to the railway line, further along, the tracks from the train street. It’s also a place where people can join in with painting and participate in folk games too to preserve the artistic culture here.
Ho Chi Minh’s Stilt House
Even though the city is not named after him, there are plenty of ways to find out more about the country’s ex-leader if the mausoleum and museum aren’t enough. Perhaps the stilt house is the most revealing relic of them all as he chose to spend his time here instead of in a luxurious palace. It is a modest two-storey wooden stilt house surrounded by trees with a view of a carp pond. Just like his mausoleum, it is guarded by soldiers in their bright white uniforms and it is located on the edge of the presidential estate. Nearby is the Hanoi botanical garden for a relaxing stroll.
Quảng Bá Flower Market
To see the Quảng Bá Flower Market at its peak, you need to not go to bed or get up very early as it starts at 2am. The busiest time is between 2am-4am and the great thing is that you will rarely see another tourist here. It is located in Hanoi’s Tay Ho (West Lake) district and you can get here easily in a taxi.
Bat Trang pottery village market
The Bat Trang pottery village is located in Hanoi’s Gia Lam district next to the Red River. Artisans both sell and create their incredible pottery here and you can watch all the processes that they go through to make it. The traditions here date back to the 14th century so it’s a great opportunity to go back in time.
Tips for a perfect Hanoi trip: where to stay and what to eat
The best area to stay in Hanoi is in the old quarter as it’s close to the majority of Hanoi’s top sights and there is plenty of cheap accommodation available. Just don’t expect big rooms wherever you are staying as space is at a premium in the centre of Hanoi!
Hanoi is full of great and cheap places to eat and drink, especially in the old quarter. It is famous for its beef noodle soup known as pho bo but vegetarian versions made with tofu are also available. Bún chả (pork with noodles) are another cheap eat that can also be found everywhere and not just at the restaurant where Obama and Bourdain ate them!
The ubiquitous bánh mì (filled baguette) is available on every corner in the centre and there are mouthwatering combinations to choose from. It’s also a great cheap meal for when you don’t have time to stop.
Other tasty things to try are cha ca (turmeric fish with dill), mien xao luon (glass noodles with eel), bun thang (rice vermicelli with chicken, egg and pork) or banh goi (fried dumplings).
Just like the rest of the country, Hanoi is caffeine obsessed and here you can enjoy Vietnam’s famous egg or coconut coffees as well as other delicious combinations! Baristas will even show you the processes of how they make different types of coffee if you’re interested.
In the evening there are plenty of bars offering Bia hoi (fresh beer) which is brewed daily as the name suggests. It is free from preservatives so it has to be drunk within 24 hours of being made! Bia hoi is also the cheapest beer in the whole of Southeast Asia which makes it a bit hit with backpackers and budget travellers.
Public transport isn’t great in Hanoi’s centre as it is so busy and everyone has mopeds or bikes so the best ways to get around are on foot, by hiring a bike or on a motorbike taxi. If you download the Grab taxi app you can hail a motorbike that will get you to your destination without getting stuck in traffic. Drivers will supply you with a helmet for safety. If you want to get away to Cat Ba Island, Ha Long Bay or Ninh Bình then your hotel can get you a shared minibus to take you there.
Not only did I love the chaos of Hanoi but I was pleasantly surprised by how much there was to do here. Every street seemed to have a different story to tell and something new to discover. Hanoi is not a city that any traveller can forget in a hurry as it really does have something for everyone.
Compared to Ho Chi Minh City in the South of the country, Hanoi is much more traditional in the centre and offers more insight into Vietnamese life. HCMC is a busy hub with plenty to offer but much of it is being modernised so it doesn’t show the same side of life as the capital. Hanoi is full of hustle and bustle, with everything built on top of each other, which is very much part of the charm of this incredible city.
Author bio: Jen Sizeland is a British writer and producer based in Manchester in the UK. Her travel blog is called Land of Size and it focuses on ethical living and eco-friendly travel.