Mary Ann Issac
22 Best things to do in Hanoi
Updated: Aug 27, 2020
Hanoi is one of my favourite cities in the world. It is colourful, fun, has an amazing vibe, and has the best food!
If you are visiting Hanoi, this is the only guide you need to have the best time there!
1. Walk through the Old Quarter
The old Quarter is the best part of Hanoi- streets lined with heritage buildings (of French colonial architecture) built close together. The bottom floors of most of the buildings have now been converted into shops and cafes. The top floors are hostels, homesteads or residential complexes. All the best food and shopping of Hanoi is here in the Old Quarter.
The walk is through crowded streets of people and scooters jostling to get ahead. It is the best initiation into life in Hanoi with its traffic, and a great way to see how locals live. People are haggling for fruit & vegetables, eating mouthwatering street food, and selling everything from bags & shoes to jewellery & clothing!
If you want to know more about the Old Quarter, read my detailed guide!
2. Train Street
Tourists gather in this narrow street in Hanoi every day around 3pm and 7pm awaiting a rumble in the tracks and a faint honking in the distance. What was till then a street not very different from those of the Old Quarter, save the train tracks running through it, suddenly is abuzz, with residents running into their homes, and tourists gathering at the tracks to see the train rush past them.
Train Street is a must visit when in Hanoi, and over recent years, courtesy of social media, it is now a popular tourist spot. The train traverses this street twice a day, and at both times, the street is crowded with tourists.
I would suggest visiting at 3pm, if you are looking to get good photographs.
It also helps to be early, as the train may come a few minutes early, or in my case, it was at least 10-15 minutes late. The residents have capitalised on this situation, and a slew of cafes have opened up beside the train tracks. It truly is an experience like no other!
To know more about Train Street, read my detailed blog!
3. Temple of Literature & National Museum
It is a Temple of Confucious built in 1070.(Confucious (551-479BC) was a Chinese philosopher & politician) The Imperial Academy, Vietnam’s first national university is housed within these walls. The gardens outside the Temple are one of the best places to people watch in Hanoi. Locals come here regularly for their workouts, to meditate, or to catch up with family and friends. Evenings are a great time to visit to see the place abuzz with kids playing ball, and elders practicing Tai Chi!
4. Thang Long Water Puppet Theatre
Water puppeteering came to being when in the 11th century, the paddy fields were flooded, and the villagers would gather in the water with puppets and put on a show. It is a tradition that is unique to North Vietnam, and is a fun activity to do whilst in Hanoi. The puppet show is performed in pool of water, & all the puppets are controlled by around 8 puppeteers behind a bamboo screen.The puppet show is performed in a series of folk tales & legends depicting village life in Vietnam. It is accompanied by a live orchestra of drums, wooden bells, horns, bamboo flutes & cymbals and singers. It is a pity that one cannot understand much of the story as there is no translation. The show is spectacular, and the puppeteers do a fabulous job of creating funny scenarios with the many puppets. The colourful puppets depict cattle, dragons, kings, queens, and peasants. It is a rather long show. I feel it would have been better if the show was reduced in time by a little- but it certainly is an experience not to be missed in Hanoi.
5. Hoan Kiem Lake
The beautiful lake works as a good point of orientation as all the streets that a tourist needs to visit in Hanoi, stems from around it. The French Quarter, Old Quarter, and the fashion district, begin from the lake. Take a leisurely stroll around the lake, and walk into any part of town you are in the mood to visit, walk back to the lake, and branch out into another part of town.
The lake is the beating heart of Hanoi, and is bustling with activity at all times during the day and night! It is not uncommon to find street performers, dancers, & singers performing for the crowds here. On one of my walks around the lake, I even saw a music video being shot here! The next day, there was a car launch, & all the paraphernalia surrounding it- dance performances, a live band- the atmosphere was electric!
To know more about the legend of Hoan Kiem, and everything else, check out my blog!
6. Ngoc Son Temple
Located in the northern part of Hoan Kiem Lake, it is accessed by crossing the red bridge (Huc, or Morning Sunlight bridge). The temple was built in the 1400’s and is still an active place of worship. The elegant red bridge that connects the temple to the shore is constructed in classic Vietnamese style. The temple is dedicated to General Tran Hung Dao, (who defeated the Mongols in the 13th century), La To (Patron Saint of Physicians), & the scholar Van Xuong.
6. St. Joseph’s Cathedral
It is a Neo-gothic cathedral located in the French Quarters of Hanoi, and is the epitome of French colonial architecture. Its architecture is similar to that of the Notre Dame in Paris, and is called the ‘Big Church’ by locals. The construction of the church began in 1886, and it was built on the site of the Bao Thien Pagoda. The Buddhist temple ,which was built during the reign of the Ly Tran Dynasty, was demolished to make way for the cathedral.
It is now a popular site for wedding photoshoots-there was a photoshoot happening when I visited!
7. Hanoi opera House
The Opera House, completed in 1911 is a beautifully maintained vestige of French architecture in Hanoi. It was inspired by the Opera Garnier Theatre in Paris. Do catch one of the highly acclaimed shows here, some of which have toured the world with their spectacular acts.
8. Full moon festival or Mid Autumn Festival
When I was in Hanoi in the last week of September 2019, I was lucky to have witnessed the Mid Autumn festival celebrations. The lake opposite the Temple of literature, was the site for the celebrations, & it was a festival indeed, with the whole area transformed with lanterns, lights, & experiential stalls of traditional food making, traditional art making, and shops selling food, & handicrafts from around Vietnam. If you are flexible on your travel dates to Vietnam, definitely travel around the Mid Autumn festival!
9. Hanoi night market
The weekend night market held every Friday, Saturday, & Sunday, brings together local street food vendors, and stalls that sell clothing, jewellery, bags, shoes, watches, and much more! The market stretches a long way from Hang Dao Street till the edges of Dong Xuan Market in the Old Quarter. The stalls are set on the roads, and to facilitate the functioning of the market, all roads in the area are closed off with barricades. The market really comes alive with hordes of tourists and locals who visit every weekend. Whilst shopping here, remember to bargain to get to the lowest price possible! The vibe at the market is fun, with live music, dance performances, and cultural performances with locals dressed in traditional clothing.
10. Ancient House
The Ancient house at 87 Ma May Street was built in the late 20th century, and is typical of the architecture of a traditional Vietnamese home. The yellow coloured walls are also typical of Hanoi homes. It is located in the Old Quarter, and will be part of any guided tour you take in the area.
11. Free Walking Tour
If you are in Hanoi, unsure of what to do with your day, and would like someone to guide you through, then book a Free Walking tour! It is a student-run organisation that wants to encourage inter-cultural dialogue in the best way possible- through a shared love for travel, history, & culture! Students passionately share their knowledge of Hanoi’s history and culture, and take you to hidden cafes and alleys which a tourist would otherwise be unaware of. They love the opportunity to meet people from around the world to learn about cultured different from theirs.
This tour is a great initiation into life in Hanoi, and an opportunity to learn more about the culture of Vietnam from locals.
The tours can be booked easily, and lasts half a day.
12. Walk through the French Quarter
The French Quarter is so different from the rest of Hanoi. There is less traffic & the streets are wider, ( especially in comparison to the Old Quarter). The French architecture in this part of town is maintained beautifully, and there are some beautiful hotels that were built during colonial rule as well. When in the French Quarter, it is no surprise, that there will be a few bakeries that dish out some delicious croissants.
I have a detailed guide to the French Quarter- check it out!
13. Visit the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum
It holds the embalmed remains of Ho chi Minh, the leader of Vietnam’s revolution, and the President of the Communist party.
Its architecture was inspired by that of Lenin’s in Moscow, but with a Vietnamese influence, like the slight slope in the roof. The exterior is of grey granite, whilst the interior is red & black polished stone. It is guarded by military personnel at all times. The changing of the guard ceremony is worth catching if you get there in the morning.
14. Visit the One Pillar pagoda
It is one of Vietnam’s most iconic temples, and has a very interesting legend behind its construction.It was built by Emperor Ly Tai Thong whose reign was from 1028-1054. He did not have children, but one day in a dream he saw that Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara handing him a son whilst he was sat in the middle of a lotus flower. After the dream, the emperor married a peasant girl who bore him a son. He built this temple in 1949 amidst a lotus pond in commemoration.
15. Take in the sights of Hanoi from a rooftop bar
After a day of exploring Hanoi by foot, there is nothing better than a relaxing evening taking in the sights & sounds of this vibrant city from up above! I would recommend a bar that has the view of the lake!
16. Drink some locally brewed beer!
The beer culture of Vietnam is like no other, people brew their own beers, and enjoy it on the streets seated on low tables & chairs, that remind you of the furniture in a kindergarten!
Locally known as Bia Hoi, it is brewed fresh, without preservatives, & has to be consumed on the day of its production. The ritual starts around 4pm, & both locals & tourists partake in it. So if you want to know what the freshest beer tastes like- ask at one of the shops in town, & they will guide you!
17. Check out the 6.5km long mosaic wall
Unfortunately, I noticed this wall only on the way back to the airport, but hope some of you can make it there!
The ‘Ceramic Road’ was built for the Millennial anniversary of Hanoi, along the Red river dyke, & was completed in 2010. It is a colourful wall depicting Vietnamese life & legend.
18. Try the Egg Coffee
The egg coffee was my favourite find in Vietnam! It was something I had never had before, & it sounded ever so peculiar! But I tried it & fell in love! I went back for it twice a day, every day that I was in Hanoi! Having said that, it is an acquired taste, so I hope you like it! :p
It originated in Hanoi in 1946, when a Vietnamese barista at a French restaurant, tried the combination of whipped egg yolk & sugar to top off an espresso. The people of Hanoi were poor & could not afford condensed milk to flavour their coffee, which was the reason for the creation of the egg coffee.
But today, there are different variations of the egg coffee. The original is still popular, but the version that uses condensed milk instead of sugar with the egg yoke, tastes more like a dessert! There is also a cold egg coffee, which I’m yet to try!
19. Eat the street food!
It is completely safe to eat from the streets of Vietnam, the best way to judge, is by walking up to a stall that is really busy, which means that their food is fresh. It is very common to see men & women selling home made treats on the streets, I’ve eaten from them, & it truly was some of the best food I’d had during the trip!
Check out my food guide to Vietnam, to understand the names of the food and what they are!
20. Visit the Vietnam National Fine Arts Museum
The collection here ranges from folk art, early history fine art, to modern art.
Timing: 8.30-17.00 -7 days a week except for Tet holidays (Vietnamese New Year holiday)
Cost-40,000 VND for adults; 10,000 VND for children; the disabled & children below 6 go in for free.
Guide fee- 150,000 VND
21. Shop at Don Xuan Market
Located deep within the Old Quarter, the dong Xuan market is the place to come for fresh fruit, vegetables, seafood (if you are staying here for long, and cooking your own food.). They also sell flowers from all around Vietnam ( in case you want to surprise someone special! ). There are also souvenirs, homeware, clothing, shoes, bags, & almost everything you could think of under this roof! It is a huge market, & exploring all of it will take some time.
Check out the Ultimate Shopping Guide for Hanoi
Check out my detailed guides to Vietnam!
22. Get a massage!
There are massage parlours at every corner, and fits every budget. It is not uncommon for women on the street to come up to you offering massages at extremely reasonable rates. Go ahead & get a massage, & relax! After all you are on holiday!
Leave me a comment below to let me know your thoughts, or if you have any questions!