12 Best Things to Do in Hanoi in Vietnam

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Hanoi reminds me of Bangkok, was the first stop on my itinerary in Vietnam and it is one of those cities that belong to the “you either love them or you hate them” category . As soon as you arrive in Hanoi you confront its impossible traffic, take a deep breath and say “okay, I have arrived in Southeast Asia.”

Not everyone likes chaotic cities like these. Smog, traffic, sometimes nonexistent rules and questionable hygiene are features that are not easy to accept.

Personally, I love them. I love immersing myself in the local life of cities like Hanoi, I love blending into the chaos and getting lost in the daily hustle and bustle. I don’t know why. A feeling of freedom pervades me that I cannot find in other places. I am not talking about freedom in the sense of doing what one wants or exploring the infinite and beyond, no, I am talking about an inner freedom. I shed all those usual conceptions and constraints of Western society.

If Southeast Asia gives you these feelings too, you cannot help but fall in love with the capital of Vietnam and all that you can see and do in Hanoi.

Where to stay in Hanoi

I don’t even think I need to suggest this, I recommend sleeping in the old quarter so you can get a taste of the real Hanoi. CLICK HERE to find out about all the hotels in the Old Quarter.

I had a really good time at the Splendid Boutique Hotel in the northern part of the Quarter, within walking distance of the market and the night market street. A perfect hotel, very clean and with staff who spoke decent English. They can arrange pickup from the airport to downtown Hanoi and vice versa. Another very important thing is that on the day of check out they allow you to keep your bags in the hotel until the evening and they also let you take a shower before you leave because they have a small room designated as a shower room. This is an ideal solution if you have to leave by train to Sapa in the evening.

How to get to Hanoi from the airport

There are a myriad of ways to get to downtown Hanoi from Noi Ba International airport. In the case of this post, rather than give you an overview, I want to recommend what I think is the best way.

Given that you will probably have taken accommodations in the old quarter, it would be helpful if you arrived at the hotel without making many rounds between cabs, walking, and glancing at google maps to find the location on the map. Hanoi is a bustle of mopeds, crossing the streets with luggage, trust me, is challenging.

The BEST SOLUTION is use a private pickup service between Airport and your Hanoi hotel (from 6 euros per person)

The alternative is airport cab shuttles that take you downtown in about 40 minutes starting from the arrivals exit. You won’t be able to miss them; they have a fuchsia-colored sign that says airport cab. Beware that they leave at the driver’s discretion, when the van is full or when he thinks you should leave anyway. The collective cab will drop you off in the vicinity of the French Quarter, right in front of the Vietnam Airlines headquarters. The cost is 40,000 dong per person.

For transfers from the city center to the airport, you can use the same solutions. Beware that when the airport cab van leaves the Hanoi office not totally full, it is possible that it will stop along the way trying to pick up other people. I mention this because it has happened to me and if you have tight timelines, it may be better to choose other solutions or take the cab well in advance.

12 things to do and see in Hanoi

Before I explain what are the things to see in Hanoi, I will answer another question you have surely been asking yourself…how many days to stay in Hanoi?

In my opinion, two is enough if you go in a low-humid season, three if you go at a time like August where the hot-humid weather is stifling and you need to take more breaks.

Hanoi more than to be visited far and wide is a city to be experienced and appreciated just by walking through the alleys of the Old Quarter. Moreover, through Grab, as I had explained to you in the tips for traveling in Vietnam DIY, you will be able to move all over the city on your own at ridiculously low prices, thus saving a great deal of time.

Tip: When planning your itinerary, pay close attention to the opening hours. Many activities are only open in the morning or otherwise close early in the afternoon.

Tip No. 2: If you want to visit the city without stress with the help of a guide I recommend that you CLICK HERE and request a guided tour of Hanoi (in English).

1 – Old Quarter: the heart of Hanoi

How better not to start talking about things to see in Hanoi than from its beating heart, the Old Quarter. Narrow, busy streets. Mopeds everywhere, pure cars, bicycles too…open kitchens, stores selling anything, smells of a mixture of smog and food: this is Hanoi’s Old Quarter.

36 streets each linked to a productive activity. It is a very peculiar thing and it may be useful for you to know that in the old quarter is the area related to jewelry stores. Only in that street can you manage to change your euros into dong should you need it.

Tour it far and wide both day and night. No problems related to security, you will never have the need to watch your back, just as I never had to during my entire trip to Vietnam. Indeed, at night it comes alive with street food and sometimes there are mini-concerts right in the middle of the streets with people flocking to see performances by local singers. I happened to attend a couple of them and they are very entertaining.

The old quarter is located north and west of Hoàn Kiếm Lake.

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No words needed…Hanoi traffic

2 – Hoàn Kiếm Lake: the lake of the returned sword

As I told you a few lines ago, Hanoi should be seen and experienced slowly. Sometimes you don’t have to move, sometimes you just have to sit and admire the daily life that flows by and how the Vietnamese in Hanoi live their city. In this case, the lake Hoàn Kiếm is the perfect place. You cannot see Hanoi without taking a tour around its lake.

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Scenes of daily life around Hanoi Lake

The people of Hanoi experience the lake doing anything and everything, especially sports activities.

You will happen to see:

  • People doing Tai Chi early in the morning.
  • People running around the shores of the lake.
  • Dance schools improvising group dances when they close the main road.
  • People playing Shuttlecock with their feet. I didn’t even know this sport existed, but it is very popular in Vietnam. You will see groups of experienced soccer players, sometimes shirtless, playing quietly on the large walkway around the lake.
  • Little boys who, in the company of their English teacher, will stop you and ask if they can talk to you for a while always in English to practice, nice no?
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Tai Chi around the lake

In short, Hoàn Kiếm Lake is an important gathering place for the people of Hanoi.

It should be added that in the northern part of the lake you will find the Ngoc Son Temple and its fantastic red bridge. Drop by in the evening as well, which is a sight to photograph.

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The bridge over Hoàn Kiếm Lake

3 – Visit Ho Chi Minh’s Mausoleum and the Single Column Pagoda

Far from the things to see in Hanoi that I have told you about so far, I put Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum in third place because of its importance to Vietnamese people. Ho Chi Minh is a national hero, and the mausoleum is the memorial in which the body of the former Vietnamese president is enshrined. The square in front of the mausoleum is giant but decidedly sparse.

Beware of the hours, the Mausoleum is only open in the morning, if you arrive in the afternoon you can only see it from the outside.

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Changing of the Guard near Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum

Open: daily from 8 a.m. to 11 a.m., free admission.

Near the complex, you can also see the single-column pagoda built in the shape of the lotus, the national flower.

4 – Hoa Lo Prison: a piece of Hanoi history

And to think that Hoa Lo Prison had not even included it in my itinerary of things to see in Hanoi. I had not considered it, and instead, by a fluke, I decided to visit it. I did very well.

In this prison, although only a small part of it remains compared to the “original version,” you can still breathe the air of what it was at the time. The prison was much larger than what you can visit. The rest was torn down to create a commercial complex. Although it has been adapted for tourist visits, the interior colors have remained as they were at the time, and the occluded feeling given by the black and gray of all the walls will be felt. Think what it must have been like for the prisoners.

Built under French rule, it was where political prisoners were incarcerated and the conditions were not at all pleasant. Inside the prison you can see reconstructions that show how bloody the punishments were.

Very different situation in later years when Hoa Lo prison was used by North Vietnam to incarcerate American pilots who fell into Vietnamese hands. American prisoners called the prison the“Hanoi Hilton.” The conditions, in fact, were quite different, and the photographs that can be seen during the visit confirm this.

Open: daily from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., admission 30,000 Dong

More information can be found on this site in English complete with maps and timeline.

5 – Hanoi Cathedral reminiscent of Notre Dame

To find a Gothic-style Cathedral in the midst of the hustle and bustle of an Asian city is peculiar to say the least, if we also add a Catholic Mass to it the whole thing becomes even stranger. Yet, it does. A short distance from Hoàn Kiếm Lake is the beautiful Cathedral of St. Joseph.

It is strange to think how Vietnam is one of the least religious countries in the world and among the most professed religions is Catholicism, behind only Buddhism.

6 – Visit the Temple of Literature

The Temple of Literature is located a short distance from the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum and is a very important place to see in Hanoi. It represents the symbol of Vietnam’s knowledge and for all intents and purposes is a small oasis of tranquility in the chaos of Hanoi. Dedicated to Confucius, it is one of the oldest universities in Vietnam.
Open: 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., admission 20,000 Dong
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The Temple of Literature

7 – The train that passes within inches of houses

A track. Houses to the right, houses to the left. A train passing and running inches from the houses whistling before and during its passage. It looks like a scene from a movie and instead that is what happens in the vicinity of Khâm Thiên a few hundred meters from Hanoi’s Ga Hà Nội station. This is one of the must-sees in Hanoi.

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The Train passing within inches of houses

The question that remains unanswered is along the lines of “was the egg born first or the chicken”…well in this case the question is “but did they build the houses or the railroad first.” I think the answer is “the railroad” and then they built houses around it. Then the question becomes: but who makes you go and build houses on a railroad ?! Whatever, questions that don’t necessarily need an answer. It’s just the way it is, period.

I recommend that you go for a ride and watch the train go by. Be careful because it passes really close to the houses.

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Detail of train street

When to go? Some sites said 3 p.m. and 7 p.m. I actually arrived at 2:20 p.m. to wait along the railroad tracks and saw it pass twice, once around 2:45 p.m. and again around 3:30 p.m.

8 – The Long Bien Bridge

It is a symbol of Hanoi. The Long Bien Bridge represents the resilience of the Vietnamese. It is a 1680-meter-long bridge that was continuously bombed during the war with the Americans as it was strategic. The Vietnamese promptly rebuilt it.

I was only able to see it by passing over a bridge not far away. Upon inquiring, I read that pedestrians can also pass over the Long Bien Bridge and thus it can be “visited.” To appreciate its length, however, one must see it from a distance.

9 – Street food: a must among things to do in Hanoi

Although I personally consider Thai cuisine better, Vietnamese cuisine is considered to be at the top among Southeast Asian culinary cultures. To taste foods related to folk tradition, the best way is to rely on street food. It is cheap and good at the same time although it is necessary to turn a blind eye to hygiene.

In Hanoi’s Old Quarter there are a myriad of places to try street food dishes while sitting on outdoor tables. My advice is to try street food at least once.

Street food is so in vogue in Hanoi that there are actual street food tours that you can choose from. A guide, through stops at different places, will let you try the most popular dishes of Vietnamese gastronomy.

10 – Hanoi Night Market

Every Friday, Saturday and Sunday, you can see the night market in Hanoi. An entire street becomes a paradise for those who love street stalls. Along Hàng Đào you can find all kinds of items as well as, of course, lots and lots of street food.

The street in question is the one that starts near the traffic circle on the north side of the lake, at the intersection with Hàng Gai.

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Hanoi at night

11 – Attending a “Puppet Show” performance

It may not be one of the best things to see in Hanoi, but if you haven’t seen it anywhere else you can attend the show at the Thang Long Water Puppet Theatre also on the north side of Hoàn Kiếm Lake. This is a water puppet show in which tales of daily life are re-enacted and depicted. Stories that depict work in the fields or talk about fishing are basically representations of folk stories.

12 – The Hanoi Egg Cafe

Not to be missed! The egg coffee you can find in Hanoi and other places in Vietnam is something libidinous. Moreover, I assure you that in your wanderings around Hanoi, asphyxiated by the perennial humidity, a kick of life and energy will do you a lot of good. It is a coffee to which egg beaten with condensed milk is added. Trivially you can find it under the name “Egg Coffe.”

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Hanoi’s amazing Egg Coffee

The best I’ve had can be found at Café Giàng in Hanoi’s Old Quarter.

I open a parenthesis on Vietnamese coffee. In Vietnam, in my opinion, you can drink very good coffee. Forget espresso coffee; the Vietnamese drink filtered coffee. They fill a filter with the coffee blend and then pour boiling water over it. The water seeps inside the mixture and drips into the glass below. Try this version as well and you will see that you will be satisfied.

Other things you can see in Hanoi

  • Vietnamese Women’s Museum
  • National Museum of Vietnamese History
  • Museum of Ethnography
  • Tran Quoc Pagoda

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Excursions from Hanoi: Sapa and Halong Bay

If Hanoi is going to be the base for further travel and excursions, I imagine these are either Sapa or Halong Bay. So you might be interested in these articles:


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