Hanoi, Vietnam is the capital and second-largest city in the Southeast Asian country. The unique French and Chinese architectural influences make Hanoi a fascinating and vibrant city to wander. Though usually quite chaotic and lively, this popular travel destination is a must for any adventurer seeking to explore another way of life and get to know a fascinating culture far from their own.
Planning a trip to Vietnam, or simply interested in learning about Hanoi’s attractions? This guide will show you 20 of the most interesting things to do in Hanoi so that you can be excited and prepared for your visit. With so much going on, you will never be bored in Hanoi!
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Hoan Kiem Lake
One of the top things to see in Hanoi is Hoan Kiem Lake, meaning Sword Lake in English. This large freshwater lake takes up 12 hectares by the historical district. If the hustle and bustle of the city ever gets too overwhelming, go for a walk around the lake and instantly feel more relaxed.
Perhaps the most notable landmark of the lake is the Turtle Tower. The tower itself cannot be reached, but it’s easy to spot from the southern pathway. Built in 1886, the small stone temple commemorates Le Loi, a Vietnamese hero and emperor during the 15th century.
Both the tower and the lake receive their names from a famous legend in which a golden turtle god approached the emperor on the lake and asked for its magic sword to be returned.
The Temple of the Jade Mountain
Also found at Hoan Kiem Lake is the Ngoc Son Temple, also known as the Temple of the Jade Mountain. The temple is built on a small island in the northern part of the lake and is dedicated to Taoist and Confucian philosophers.
Constructed in the 18th century, it could not be in a more peaceful and serene location surrounded by water and lusciously tall ficus trees.You can visit by crossing the infamous red bridge called Cầu Thê Húc, which beautifully translates to the Welcoming Morning Sunlight Bridge.
Saint Joseph’s Cathedral
An architectural gem in Hanoi is the Saint Joseph’s Cathedral in the Hoan Kiem District. Its late 19th-century Neo-Gothic architectural style shows off the French colonial influence, as the church is also reportedly modelled after the Notre Dame in Paris.
With its twin bell towers standing 31 metres high, you certainly won’t walk past this sight on Nha Tho Street. The interiors will amaze you just as much as the exterior, with rib-vaulted ceilings and multiple gorgeous stained glass panels. Be aware before visiting that mass is conducted several times per day.
The Temple of Literature
One of Hanoi’s most breathtaking attractions is the Temple of Literature, close to Ba Dinh Square. As a temple of Confucius, it held Vietnam’s first ever university, the prestigious Imperial Academy.
The 11th-century temple is surrounded by five courtyards, the first two of which are picturesque, landscaped gardens. The various pavilions, halls and statues are well-preserved and reflect the historic significance of the temple. In the fourth courtyard, you can visit the altars of Confucius and his disciples. The fifth courtyard is the site of the academy, where the scholars once studied Chinese history, literature and poetry.
A Hanoi Food Tour
There’s no better way to experience Hanoi’s Old Quarter than with a street food tour. Vietnamese cuisine is delicious but extensive, and can easily become overwhelming. If you want to taste the authentic local cuisine but have no idea where to start, you need a foodie guide.
Over three-and-a-half hours, be shown the top food stalls and small eateries in Hanoi, all while learning about the history of Vietnamese cuisine. Taste some of the most popular foods, from pho to banh mi and more. If you’re a vegetarian or have other dietary requirements, you can always choose a private tour and let your guide personalise the experience for you.
If you can’t fit in a lunchtime tour, there’s a special food tour you can go on at night instead. These small-group tours are generally limited to 12 people to ensure you get the most out of the tour. Learn even more about the cultural significance of certain foods and dishes, and taste some seasonal fresh fruit and banh cuon (crispy pork crepes).
The Imperial Citadel
Another attraction you might like to visit in Hanoi is the Thang Long Imperial Citadel. The structure has stood since the Ly dynasty in 1010, though many of the royal palaces and structures were destroyed in the 19th century. Up until this point, the citadel was the centre of political power.
Today, it is recognised as a UNESCO World Heritage Site and the spacious grounds are open for tourists to explore. One of the most fascinating areas is the underground military bunker, where strategy maps and equipment from the Vietnam War still remain.
Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum
The resting place of Ho Chi Minh is, in fact, not in Ho Chi Minh City. The mausoleum for Vietnam’s Communist revolutionary leader is found in Hanoi’s Ba Dinh Square. This much-visited site is made of grey granite and is 22 metres high and 44 metres wide. One of the best things to see while there is the changing of the guard ceremony in the early morning.
Dong Xuan Market
The most popular local market in Hanoi is the Dong Xuan Market. Heading here for some shopping is one of the top things to do in Hanoi’s Old Quarter. It’s open daily from seven in the morning, running until six o’clock from Monday to Thursday or until midnight on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays.
Wholesale traders offer up everything from fresh produce and Vietnamese dishes to household goods and clothes. For tourists, it’s the perfect place to purchase some souvenirs or gifts for loved ones back home.
Tran Quoc Pagoda
Yet another elegant and scenic attraction is the Tran Quoc Pagoda. Dating all the way back to the sixth century, this Buddhist temple sits on a tiny island on West Lake, right by the southeastern shore. However, this wasn’t always its location. The pagoda, originally named An Quoc, was relocated from the banks of the Red River in 1615.
The 15-metre-tall structure has 11 levels and is surrounded by trees of all types. Three female Buddhas, also known as the Mothers, are worshipped in the front of the courtyard. The Green Mother represents the forests and mountains, the Red Mother rules over the sky, and the White Mother is in charge of water.
Water Puppet Theatre
One of the most interesting things to do in Hanoi at night is to see a water puppet show. The unique tradition of water puppetry originates from the Red River Delta villages of Northern Vietnam and dates back to at least the 11th century.
Each show is performed in a pool with hidden puppeteers controlling wooden lacquered puppets. The skits tell stories from rural Vietnamese folklore and national history, often with a humorous element. The Thang Long Water Puppet Theatre and the Lotus Water Puppet Theatre are the two main places you can see a show.
Each performance goes for about 50 minutes, and English schedules can be found on either venue’s website. For the lowest price, you can also book in advance on Viator.
A Full-Day Bike Tour
The ultimate way to see the iconic Red River is with a bike tour. On your way to the pottery village of Bat Trang, you’ll pass through the scenic rice fields and villages by the riverside. While this tour is perfect if you want to get out in nature and cycle around, you’ll also gain a rich understanding of Northern Vietnam’s creative and artistic side at the same time.
On your bike tour, you’ll meet a local craftsman at his pottery workshop and try your hand at creating something for yourself. You’ll also get a chance to explore Dong Ho, an area known for its block-printed artwork. Lastly, you’ll cycle to the 13th-century But Thap Pagoda, one of the largest and most famous pagodas in Vietnam.
Speaking of pagodas, a trip to Chua Huong is an adventure you won’t soon forget. Better known as the Perfume Pagoda, this expansive area of temples and shrines are built into the limestone cliffs of the Huong Tich mountains. Seeing these Buddhist monuments up close requires a peaceful boat ride along the Yen River.
To avoid the stress of organising everything yourself, you can easily book a day trip on Viator and follow a convenient itinerary. This will ensure you get to see the Huong Tich Caves, the Tuyet Son Pagoda, and the Giai Oan Spring.
Hanoi Opera House
One of the grandest buildings in the city is the Hanoi Opera House. It was constructed by the French in the early 1900s and inspired by the Palais Garnier in Paris. With a height of 34 metres and a length of 87 metres, this eclectic, neoclassical building in Trang Tien certainly stands out. Inside is an 870-seat concert hall, a rehearsal hall and a library, as well as dressing and meeting rooms.
To this day, you can see cultural and orchestral performances here, including a bamboo circus act. Head to the front gate or check the online schedule for show information and prices.
The Presidential Palace
Another building that will certainly catch your eye is the Presidential Palace of Vietnam. Located in the Ba Dinh District of Hanoi, this bright yellow palace was also built in the early 1900s and designed by the French architect Auguste Henri Vildieu. The French Colonial and Italian Renaissance architectural styles incorporate classical elements, including columns and pediments.
Although the general public is not permitted inside, you can wander around the grounds and the carp pond. The palace is right by the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum, so stop by while you’re already in the area.
A Vietnamese Cooking Class
If you’ve been enjoying the Vietnamese cuisine and are eager to learn more about it, book a four-hour cooking class at the Hanoi Cooking Centre. Firstly, you’ll get to stop by a local wet market to purchase fresh ingredients. Your chef will guide you around, explaining the significance of different herbs, spices and produce.
Next, you’ll learn how to make a range of dishes using traditional techniques, from street food favourites to vegetarian dishes. Best of all, there’s unlimited beer and wine to enjoy while you taste what you’ve prepared.
A Day Trip to Tam Coc
Discover the gorgeous Vietnamese countryside on a day trip to the village of Tam Coc, only a two-hour drive from Hanoi. Located in Ninh Binh province, this stunning place is a part of the Trang An Scenic Landscape Complex, which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
After hopping on a bike and cycling through the region’s winding landscapes, you’ll explore the breathtaking waters of Tam Coc on a traditional wooden rowboat. Get close to the incredible limestone caves and pass by farmers working on their paddy fields. Nearby, step back in time with a visit to Hoa Lu, Vietnam’s ancient capital.
Quan Thanh Temple
Can’t get enough of the temples? Stop by Quan Thanh Temple, an 11th-century Taoist temple from the Ly dynasty. The architecture and grandeur are undeniably impressive and features a lot of animal symbolism. Images of serpents and turtles appear, representing wealth and protection respectively. The site is made even more special with its backdrop of the West Lake, a large freshwater lake in Hanoi.
Go early in the morning for the most peaceful experience, and take time out in the surrounding garden to notice the butterflies and birds flying past.
A Cup of Egg Coffee
One of Vietnam’s most fascinating creations is the egg coffee. This drink came about because of a milk shortage during the 1940s, yet has remained popular. Allegedly, it all began at the famous Giang Cafe in the district of Hoan Kiem, which still has the most popular (and secret) recipe. Stop by for a taste and order either hot or cold. Although it may seem strange at first, your coffee won’t taste like egg at all!
Hanoi Night Market
Just about every Southeast Asian city has its own night market that’s guaranteed to be bustling. Each Friday, Saturday and Sunday from seven o’clock, Hang Dao Street fills with roadside stalls and food vendors. Buildings are adorned with decorative lights, adding to the fantastic atmosphere of it all. You’ll find the usual variety of goods available, though it can be fun to test out your bargaining skills. There are always local music and cultural performances to keep you entertained as well.
Last but not least, a popular experience is Hanoi is to watch the train pass by a narrow residential street in the Old Quarter. While there is a 7:30 p.m. train, the 3:30 p.m. train is the one you’ll want to see. Arrive a half-hour early so you can scope out the area and walk along the tracks without worry.
There are some quaint cafes along the tracks where you can pull up a stool and have a chat while you wait for the train to pass by. This street is also a superb location for photographs, so don’t forget to bring along your camera.
Recommended budget tours in Hanoi
- Hanoi at Night: Street Food Small Group Walking Tour
- Half-Day Hanoi Motorbike Tour
- Hanoi Old Quarter: Cyclo and Walking Street Food Tour – Small Group
- Bai Dinh and Trang An Day Trip with Lunch and Electric Car
- Hanoi City Street Food Night Tour by Motorscooter
- Hoa Lu Tam Coc Full Day Guided Tour Including Boat Entrance Fees and Lunch
- Full-day Ha Noi City Tour
- LUXURY 2 Days 1 Night Halong Bay Cruise on the Viola cruise 4**** from Hanoi
- Full-Day Perfume Pagoda Tour from Hanoi
- 3-Day Ba Be Lake and Ban Gioc Waterfall Tour from Hanoi
- 4-Hour Vietnamese Cooking Class at Hanoi Cooking Centre
- Join-in Cooking Class in Local Villa with Market Tour (Unlimited Drinks)
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