Hanoi, Vietnam's energetic capital, offers a mesmerizing blend of ancient culture and modern charm. From the buzzing streets and tranquil temples to exquisite cuisine, I'm here to help you discover the best things to do in Hanoi.
The last few days of my first trip to Vietnam were spent in Hanoi, following a week of sightseeing in Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), my friend's wedding, adventures in Central Vietnam, and a Ha Long Bay cruise.
Despite our short stay, Kel and I fit a lot in. Here are the highlights and a few places we didn't have time to get to (but you might).
1. Hanoi Old Quarter
Hanoi's Old Quarter, the historic heart of Vietnam's capital, brims with timeless allure. With its narrow streets and centuries-old architecture, this bustling area radiates an old-world charm.
Each street, named after the specific goods once sold there, offers a unique glimpse into local craftsmanship and daily life.
The quarter buzzes with scooters, vendors, and cafes while fragrant aromas from street food stalls entice visitors. Amid this lively atmosphere, ancient temples and heritage houses stand quietly.
2. Hoan Kiem Lake
Hoan Kiem Lake is a small oasis amid Hanoi's Old Quarter to the north and west and the affluent French Quarter to the east. Encircled by leafy paths, the lake is a favorite spot for locals and tourists, ideal for strolls and morning tai chi sessions.
The iconic red bridge, The Huc, leads to Ngoc Son Temple, a peaceful sanctuary on a small island.
Rich in legend and beauty, the lake's calm waters reflect the sky and surrounding cityscape, creating a picturesque setting that blends nature and urban life in Hanoi.
3. Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum
Ho Chi Minh's Mausoleum in Hanoi is a monumental tribute to Vietnam's revered revolutionary leader. Inspired by Lenin's Mausoleum in Moscow, the imposing granite structure exudes solemnity and grandeur.
Inside, under dim, respectful lighting, lies the preserved body of Ho Chi Minh, a site of profound national significance. Visitors, often in silent reverence, file past the glass coffin, reflecting on the life and legacy of “Uncle Ho.”
The memorial is surrounded by meticulously maintained gardens and guarded by military personnel.
4. Ho Chi Minh's Stilt House
On the grounds of the Presidential Palace in Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh's Stilt House is a modest yet significant structure.
This simple, two-story wooden house, poised gracefully on stilts, reflects the humility and minimalist lifestyle of Vietnam's beloved leader, Ho Chi Minh.
Overlooking a tranquil carp-filled pond, the house is surrounded by lush gardens, creating a peaceful retreat.
Inside, the living quarters, preserved precisely as Ho Chi Minh left them, offer a glimpse into his daily life and work, resonating with his dedication to simplicity and the Vietnamese people.
5. Presidential Palace
The Presidential Palace in Hanoi, a striking building painted in bright yellow, symbolizes French colonial architecture.
Constructed in the early 20th century, it was initially intended for the French Governor-General of Indochina. Today, it serves as the official residence of the Vietnamese President.
While the majestic building is not open to the public to maintain its official functions and preserve its historical integrity, visitors are welcome to stroll through the beautifully landscaped gardens surrounding the palace.
6. Imperial Citadel of Thang Long
The Imperial Citadel of Thang Long in Hanoi is a fascinating relic of Vietnam's history, recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage site.
Once the heart of ancient Hanoi, this sprawling complex showcases over a millennium of cultural and historical significance. The citadel's impressive gates, palaces, and ancient relics speak volumes of the dynastic power that once ruled the land.
Its remaining structures and archaeological treasures, unearthed through meticulous excavations, offer a unique window into the past. Visitors are invited to explore the citadel's grounds, delving into the heritage that's helped shape the nation's identity.
7. Hoa Lo Prison Museum (Hanoi Hilton)
The Hoa Lo Prison Museum in Hanoi, often called the “Hanoi Hilton,” is a stark reminder of Vietnam's turbulent past. Initially built by the French colonists to detain Vietnamese revolutionaries, the prison was notorious for its harsh conditions and brutal treatment of prisoners.
Later, during the Vietnam War, it housed American POWs, including future U.S. Senator John McCain. Today, transformed into a museum, it serves as a poignant memorial and educational site.
Exhibits display chilling artifacts and recount harrowing stories of survival and resistance by political prisoners, offering visitors profound insights into the resilience and suffering experienced within its walls.
8. Ho Chi Minh Museum
The Ho Chi Minh Museum in Hanoi is dedicated to the life and legacy of Vietnam's revolutionary leader, Ho Chi Minh. Situated near the Mausoleum, the museum is architecturally striking, symbolizing a lotus flower.
Inside, an extensive collection of artifacts, photographs, and documents meticulously chronicles Ho Chi Minh's journey from early life to pivotal roles in Vietnam's fight for independence.
The exhibits are arranged thematically, shedding light on his personal life and the global and historical contexts that shaped his ideology and leadership.
9. Vietnamese Women's Museum
The Vietnamese Women's Museum in Hanoi is a tribute to the roles and contributions of Vietnamese women throughout history.
This enlightening institution, situated in the heart of the city, unfolds over several floors, each dedicated to showcasing different aspects of women's lives in Vietnam, including family, history, and fashion.
Exhibits feature poignant stories, photographs, and artifacts that highlight Vietnamese women's resilience, resourcefulness, and strength in cultural, social, and wartime contexts.
Interactive displays and personal narratives offer deep insights into women's crucial role in shaping the nation, making the museum a vital repository of cultural heritage and gender empowerment.
10. Temple of Literature
The Temple of Literature in Hanoi, a Confucian temple, is a testament to Vietnam's scholarly heritage. Established in 1070, it was the country's first university, primarily educating royalty, nobility, and elites.
The temple's five courtyards are tranquil sanctuaries of manicured gardens, ancient pavilions, and reflecting pools. Stelae of doctoral candidates are mounted on turtle backs, symbolizing longevity and wisdom.
The temple celebrates learning and literature and offers a peaceful retreat from the city's pace. Its well-preserved architecture and scholarly legacy make it a revered site, embodying Vietnam's respect for education and cultural traditions.
11. Ngoc Son Temple
Ngoc Son Temple, perched on a small island in Hanoi's Hoan Kiem Lake, is an iconic symbol of spiritual and historical significance.
Accessible via the picturesque red wooden Huc Bridge, the temple is dedicated to General Tran Hung Dao, who repelled Mongol invasions and other venerable figures.
Its calm setting and traditional Vietnamese architecture create a relaxed ambiance amid the city noise. The temple complex, with its ornate altars and ancient artifacts, offers a quiet space for reflection and reverence.
Ngoc Son Temple provides spiritual solace and offers 360-degree views of the surrounding lake, making it a beloved landmark in Hanoi.
12. Bach Ma Temple
Bach Ma Temple in Hanoi's Old Quarter is revered as one of the city's oldest and most significant temples. Established in the 9th century to honor a white horse, a divine symbol in local folklore, the temple is a spiritual cornerstone for the local community.
Its architecture, a harmonious blend of Vietnamese and Chinese styles, features intricate woodwork, elaborate altars, and vibrant sculptures, encapsulating centuries of religious traditions.
13. Quan Thanh Temple
Quan Thanh Temple, near the shores of Hanoi's West Lake, is a venerable Taoist temple dating back to the 11th century.
Dedicated to Tran Vu, a revered deity in Vietnamese folklore known for his mythical strength and protection against evil spirits, the temple is a site of cultural and spiritual significance.
Its impressive gates and ancient banyan trees lead visitors into a courtyard that houses a colossal bronze statue of Tran Vu, a masterpiece of Vietnamese craftsmanship.
14. Tran Quoc Pagoda
Tran Quoc Pagoda, gracefully poised on a small peninsula in Hanoi's West Lake, is regarded as the oldest Buddhist temple in the city, dating back over 1,500 years. With its towering pagoda and manicured bonsai gardens, this striking structure exudes tranquility.
The pagoda's richly decorated interiors, filled with ancient Buddhist statues and relics, reflect the spiritual heritage of Vietnam. Its iconic red stupa, visible from afar, is a beacon of peace and contemplation.
15. Voi Phuc Temple
In the serene Thuy Khue district near Hanoi's West Lake, Voi Phuc Temple is steeped in legend and history. Constructed in the 11th century, it honors Prince Linh Lang, a revered figure celebrated for his courage against invaders.
The temple is famously guarded by two kneeling elephant statues, symbolizing loyalty and strength. Its architecture, characterized by traditional Vietnamese motifs and tranquil courtyards, invites reflection and reverence.
Visitors who explore the temple's ornate altars and historical artifacts are immersed in a narrative of sacrifice and devotion.
Food and Drink
16. Egg Coffee at Cafe Giang
Savoring a hot egg coffee at Cafe Giang is a quintessential Hanoi experience steeped in tradition.
Nestled in a narrow alley, this unassuming Hanoi cafe is credited with inventing egg coffee. The drink, a velvety blend of robust Vietnamese coffee topped with a creamy layer of whipped egg yolk and condensed milk, offers a luxurious taste contrast.
The multi-level cafe's modest, cozy ambiance, often humming with a mix of intrigued tourists and locals, adds to the charm. Enjoying this rich, indulgent concoction at Cafe Giang, where it was first crafted, offers a caffeine fix and a sip of Hanoi's innovative cafe culture.
17. Bun cha at Huong Lien
Huong Lien restaurant is the best place to get bun cha, a popular Vietnamese dish.
Bun cha, a Hanoi culinary staple, consists of grilled pork patties and slices, served alongside a plate of white rice noodles (bun) and a bowl of nuoc cham, a mouthwatering dipping sauce with pickled vegetables.
Huong Lien, a modest yet popular eatery, gained international fame in 2016 when President Barack Obama and celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain enjoyed the local cuisine here, casually dining on bun cha and bonding over cold beers.
Their meeting, captured in a Vietnam episode of Bourdain's show “No Reservations,” turned Huong Lien into a must-visit spot, forever linking its authentic flavors with the conversation of both men.
18. Drinks at Beer Corner
Beer Corner in Hanoi's vibrant Old Quarter pulsates as the epicenter of the city's nightlife.
This busy intersection, formally known as Ta Hien and Luong Ngoc Quyen streets, comes alive at dusk as locals and travelers converge to revel in its lively atmosphere.
The narrow, pedestrian-only streets are lined with small bars and street vendors, making it a great place to enjoy local beers, notably the famous Bia Hoi, a light and refreshing draft beer.
The area hums with the clinking of glasses, spirited conversations, and street performances, creating an infectious energy that encapsulates the dynamic spirit of Hanoi after dark.
Other Notable Places
19. Hanoi Train Street
Hanoi's Train Street is a narrow residential alley with railway tracks running directly through it, offering a vivid slice of local life.
Twice a day, residents tuck away their belongings and retreat to a safe distance as a train passes mere inches from their doorsteps. This close-knit community has adapted ingeniously, with cafes and shops seamlessly blending into the daily rhythm.
The street has become an iconic spot for visitors, drawn by the thrill of witnessing the train's close passage and the chance to capture the compelling contrast between the rumbling locomotive and the tranquil daily life of Hanoi's inhabitants.
Note: cafes tend to have a drink minimum if you want to find a spot to sit and wait for the train to pass.
20. West Lake
Hanoi's largest freshwater lake offers opportunities for relative quiet amid the busy capital. West Lake has upscale neighborhoods, ancient pagodas, and lush gardens. The InterContinental Hanoi Westlake, one of the city's luxury hotels, offers rooms over the water on the eastern side.
Locals and tourists enjoy leisurely bike rides, tranquil walks along the tree-lined shore, or paddle boating. Known for its beautiful sunsets and relaxed atmosphere, West Lake also hosts a variety of upscale restaurants and cafes.
Exploring Hanoi, the capital of Vietnam, offered a memorable conclusion to my two-week trip. From the historic streets of the Old Quarter to hanging out on Beer Corner with friends, this spirited city in Northern Vietnam offers a compelling mix of heritage, culture, and culinary delights.