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Hanoi, Vietnam: 15 best things to do

Ultimate guide to the capital of Vietnam, Hanoi!

By Anna Purpurpurpur

Hanoi is the capital of Vietnam, and it’s well known for its unique aesthetics, crazy street food, communism and mind-blowing motorbike traffic. And I’m happy to confirm that all those stereotypes are true, but there are more to see in Hanoi than those!

Actually Hanoi is a very ancient city and has a long history. Ly Thai To (974 – 1028) is a founder of the Lu dynasty who played a crucial role in the life of the city: he transferred the capital city to here – Hanoi was known then as Đại La – from the former capital, Hoa Lu. So, it’s no surprise you’ll see a statue dedicated to him! 

Now, Hanoi is a vibrant city where East and West clash. See the 15 sights you won’t want to miss!

1. Take a photo of Hanoi train street

Hanoi Train Street is one of the most touristy places in the city (we didn’t make it to a train market in Thailand in a 1.5-2h drive from Bangkok because we knew we’d visit it here). As I understood, the train passes just a few times a day in the evening, but it might be delayed for about 30 minutes, and the schedule might depend on the season.

However, this place is really photogenic, even without a train! The train line was built by the French in 1902, and it was recently rerouted to avoid accidents because some tourists were too reckless. Now, you can watch the train from the cafes along the train line. 

2. Visit Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum (or just see it from the outside)

Ho Chi Minh’s Mausoleum is one of the most visited landmarks of Hanoi. The mausoleum was constructed in 1973-1975 and is surrounded by a small park. The vividly yellow Presidential palace is close to it, just outside the mausoleum premises. The building with the body of Vietnam’s most loved communist leader is open Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Saturday, and Sunday and only from 8-11 in winter and spring and 7.30-10.30 in summer and autumn. 

We woke up early to see one of the most important sites in today’s Vietnam. However, we didn’t expect it to be so crowded! We came at 9 (the entrance opened at 8), and just look at this queue! That’s the beginning of it, and it continues until Ba Dinh Square, where the mausoleum is located. The Museum and famous Pagoda are also on the same territory (but please come outside the mausoleum opening hours to see it without a queue!). 

We spent some time in the queue and soon realised that this was going to be a few hours at least. We just left (not the best activity with the kid, indeed), and we returned to see the area after the mausoleum closed.

3. Explore One Pillar Pagoda

One Pillar Pagoda is a Buddhist temple most famous for its lotus pedestal or a small temple that stays in a small pond on one pillar. It’s located right on the premises of the Mausoleum. The original pagoda was erected in the mid-11th century as a gratitude for granting the king an heir and was rebuilt numerous times.

In 1955, it was blown up by a Vietnamese serving in the French Army who was about to leave Vietnam, and the Pagoda was restored shortly after that. There is a temple around the One Pillar Pagoda is also worth exploring.

Although it’s one of Vietnam’s most famous symbols, I can’t say I was very impressed by it. The adjacent area, if you ask me, is more interesting because you can find the Ho Chi Min mausoleum, Ho Chi Min museum, a street market, food stalls, and a Buddhist temple almost squished into each other within one premise.

4. Try to cross a road of the Old Quarter

The Old Quarter is a historic district of Hanoi dating back to the 15th century when every street specialised in a specific craft and trade.

Today, there are 36 streets in total, and you can spot areas where people sell lights and electric appliances, flowers, or silk. Hang Bac, for instance, is known as Silver Street, and Hang Gai is a silk street. If you want to try street food, come here in the evening as well. The most famous food area is Ta Hien Street.

You can also visit Dong Xuan Market and Hang Da Market for more indoor shopping. And yes, the Old Quarter is as crazy as you might imagine, with people cooking on the streets and motorcycles buzzing around, but that’s where its authenticity lies, right? 

5. Watch the Water Puppet show

Puppet shows are traditional folk performances in Vietnam that date back about 10 centuries! You sit in front of the pool, and puppets are manipulated by poles by people behind a screen at the back — this mimics a rice field filled with water.

Short scenes from village daily life take about 3-5 minutes each, and the performance lasts 50 minutes in total. The musicians sit on the sides of the stage and play traditional instruments as well. We attended the performance at the Thang Long Theatre and simply adored it! I’d recommend you to book the tickets online in advance.

6. Learn the history of Hoan Kiem Lake

Hoan Kiem Lake is the background for the central legend of Hanoi, which you’ll encounter everywhere, in puppet theatres and on souvenirs! 

King Le Loi (1385-1433) revolted the Ming dynasty. To succeed, he was given a magical sword by a giant golden turtle who lived in the lake. When he won, he returned the sword to the turtle, who brought it back to the lake. The name of the lake — Hoan Kiem — actually means The Lake of the Returned Sword, and the stone Turtle tower built in the late 19th century stands right in the lake itself. 

The park around the lake is very nice, with many vendors coming here to hunt for tourists (some of them are annoying, unfortunately). Actually, a special species of turtle called The Hoàn Kiếm turtle really lived in the lake—they were believed to be reincarnations of the first holy turtle! Unfortunately, the last turtle died in 2016 and is now believed to be extinct.

For the best place with a view over Hoan Kiem Lake, I’d suggest you go to Cau Go restaurant, which serves Vietnamese food.

7. Attend the performance at Ngoc Son Temple

There’s another landmark to see on the lake itself: Ngoc Son Temple, or The Temple of the Jade Mountain. It’s a temple built on a small island and connected to the shore by an elegant red bridge called the Huc Bridge.

It’s dedicated to Xuong De Quan, the deity of culture and literature, and General Tran Hung Dao, the military commander and prince who was proclaimed a saint after his death. Two mummified turtles from the lake are kept in the temple as well.

You can visit the temple during the day, but I suggest you attend the mystical night that launched The Ngoc Son! It’s a short performance in the evening with scenes accompanied by dances and music and performed in different areas of the temple.

You can even see the scene where the sizeable mechanical turtle and the King in the real boat are re-enacted! The photography is limited there, but it’s worth your time indeed. You also got a small calligraphy inscription and a sweet gift! Highly recommended.

You can check the translation of the scenes here:

8. Admire Saint Joseph’s Cathedral 

Saint Joseph’s Cathedral is the main cathedral of Hanoi, following the Notre Dame de Paris. It’s also located in the Old District. Built by the French in 1886, it is on the site of the abandoned Bao Thien Pagoda.

Its neo-gothic building obviously stands out from the surroundings thanks to the two towers, the unusual windows and the dark grey colour. Visit it inside to admire the stained glass and the high altar. 

9. Examine the Temple of Literature

The Temple of Literature was erected in 1070 during the rule of Emperor Ly Thanh Tong and is dedicated to Confucius and his disciples. And even more, in 1076, it became the first university of Hanoi, Quoc Tu Giam!

There are five beautiful courtyards—pay special attention to the turtles holding stelae of doctors, the stone inscriptions with the names of the most prominent scholars, and the two-story temple to Confucius and three kings who helped to establish and preserve this temple.

The majority of architectural sites on the temple premises were built pretty recently on the grounds of older buildings, but the temple itself is an important sight for the whole of Vietnam. Khue Van pavilion is the national symbol and dates to 1805. It seems that we visited on graduation day because there were tons of people of all ages wearing graduation robes.

10. Dive into the past at the Imperial Citadel of Thang Long

The Thang Long Imperial Citadel was built during the rule of the Ly dynasty in the 11th century on the site where, in the 7th century, a Chinese fortress once stood. It marked the independence of this land – Dai Viet.

The central part of the palace was the main part of political life of Hanoi for centuries, since 1010 till 1789, under the rule of dynasties of Ly, Tran, Le So, Mac and Le Trung Hung. After that, it’s been destroyed, and not many authentic buildings remain. Only the excavations and archaeological findings help us to understand its scale today.

The main gate, Doan Mon – entrance to the Forbidden City – and Hau Lau, the Lady’s palace, are worth visiting. You can also explore the beautiful park around, a few small museums, an archaeological site and the House D67, which served as the meeting room of the Politburo and Central Military Commission.

The Imperial Citadel of Thang Long is also a UNESCO world heritage site.

11. Go to the Tran Quoc Temple

Tran Quoc Pagoda, the oldest Buddhist temple in Hanoi, is located on the West Lake. Initially, the pagoda on this site dates to the 6th century (although now, a large part of it is much more recent). It contains the remains of monks and is decorated with statues. 

Although the surroundings are very peaceful, numerous vendors sell fish, birds, and tourist souvenirs here. 

12. Stroll around the French district 

The French Quarter has an entirely different vibe from the Old Quarter. It’s more relaxed and luxurious, and you can see many yellow buildings remaining from the colonial period.

Dior, Louis Vuitton, and many other high-end shops are located here. Make sure you spot the Opera House, which opened in 1911. Trang Tien Plaza and Sofitel Legend Metropole Hanoi (see below).

13. Have an afternoon tea at Sofitel Legend Metropole Hanoi

Sofitel Legend Metropole Hanoi is a historic, luxurious hotel that opened in 1901. It was known as the Grand Métropole Hotel in the past, and today it’s only a five-star hotel and a site for president meetings but also an important historical landmark.

We went there for an afternoon tea, and it was pretty good (although not as creative as many British ones, just a very classic afternoon tea). The territory of the hotel is vast, it has many shops and Angelina cafe.

14. Pay a visit to Hoa Lo Prison

Our next stop is a significant but hard-to-visit spot – Hoa Lo Prison. This prison was built by the French in 1896 on the site of Phu Khanh village for Vietnamese, and later, the American prisoners were held here during the Vietnam War. 

You might also hear that it was nicknamed Hanoi Hilton – that was a sarcastic title created by Americans.

Eventually, the prison was almost completely destroyed, with only the front wall and the gates remaining. Now, the museum is erected in the same place, and you can learn here how Vietnamese see the French occupation and the Vietnam war today.

15. Try Vietnamese cuisine

Vietnamese cuisine is an amazing mixture of colours, textures and tastes. Here in Hanoi you have to try at least some of the most famous dishes of it! First of all, the outside food markets are pretty popular among tourists. But if you’d better not eat on the street, you can always have car dishes in local restaurants.

Secondly, in Hanoi there are so many drinks you can try! My favourite is ca phe trung, egg coffee that is served everywhere, and it’s absolutely delicious. There are also many super sweet drinks with herbs like lemongrass and fruits.

Noodle soups, especially Pho, is another speciality: you probably can find those everywhere! My favourite was the duck pho we had in one of the small restaurants out there. Variations of rice dishes and different buns and dumplings would be a good choice as well.

And my absolute favourite would be the rolls such as Goi cuon! The filling of herbs, veggies and a protein is wrapped in a transparent rice paper and is served with a sauce; sometimes the rolls are deep fried.

Where to stay in Hanoi 

We stayed in a luxury boutique hotel, Le Chanvre, in the heart of the Old Quarter.

The hotel was a quiet oasis among the hustle and bustle of the surroundings, a short walk from the lake and many landmarks The interior of our room was pretty stylish, and the bathtub was overlooking the the busy streets of Hanoi.

Breakfast was served on the 10th floor, a spa was located on the lower ground, and a bar with a tiny pool was placed on the top floor of the building.

You might also like my other blogs about Asia.

Hope you liked my blog!
Anna xxx

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