Hanoi, the capital of Vietnam, is the second biggest city in the country. It is an interesting mix of the East and the West with noticeable traces of the communist influence as well as the French invasion. It is a favored destination for tourists. In fact, TripAdvisor named Hanoi to be the 8th most popular destination in the World in 2016. Vietnam was invaded by the Chinese for a long time, later by the French and also by the Americans in the 20th century. You can see the influence of each invading country on Hanoi today as well as the impact of the Communist influence. If you’re looking for ideas on what to see and do while in this bustling city, here are a few of my top suggestions.
- 1 Things to do in Hanoi
- 1.1 Visit the Imperial Citadel of Thang Long
- 1.2 Attend a Cooking Class
- 1.3 Sightsee Around the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum
- 1.4 Bike or Walk Around the Hoan Kiem Lake and Ngoc Son
- 1.5 Soak Up Some Culture in the Hanoi Opera House
- 1.6 Visit the Temple of Literature
- 1.7 Watch a Water Puppet Theatre Performance
- 1.8 Wander Around Hanoi Old Quarter
- 1.9 Shop at the Dong Xuan Market
- 1.10 Eat Some Bun Cha Hanoi
- 2 Popular Day Trips from Hanoi
- 3 Adventure in You Recommendations: Where to Stay in Hanoi
Things to do in Hanoi
Visit the Imperial Citadel of Thang Long
It is a UNESCO World Heritage site and known as the citadel of Hanoi. The building was the center of ancient Hanoi. The ancient site was the political center for 13 centuries and served as the capital of Vietnam for 8 centuries. The central flag tower of the citadel stands 40 meters tall. It is a symbol of Hanoi. It is located in Ba Dinh and is open seven days a week from 8 am to 7:30 pm.
Attend a Cooking Class
Vietnamese food is amazing but trust me, learning how to cook it is even better. Joining a cooking class in Hanoi is something I definitely recommend doing. Most classes also incorporate market tours, allowing you a glimpse into the local life and culture. If you’re interested to do this, you can check Cookly, a website that has cooking classes which you can easily book online. Personally, whenever I miss Vietnam, I find myself trying to recreate those mouthwatering spring rolls and a bowl of Pho!
Sightsee Around the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum
Near the Imperial Citadel in the Ba Dinh area, you can also visit the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum. Ho Chi Minh was the first Communist leader of Vietnam. He defeated the French in 1954. He is a well-respected leader and the locals often refer to him as “Uncle Ho”. Modeled after Lenin’s Mausoleum in Moscow, visitors can see Ho Chi Minh’s preserved body in a glass case. Take note that the mausoleum is closed on Mondays and on Fridays.
Bike or Walk Around the Hoan Kiem Lake and Ngoc Son
The Hoan Kiem Lake is also known as the Turtle Lake is located in the center of the city and it is a popular hangout place for locals and tourists. A bridge leads to an island in the middle of the lake where the Ngoc Son temple can be visited. They charge VND 20,000 to visit the temple, but it is worth it. It is a wonderful spot to watch the sunrise or the sunset from. You can opt to bike around or take a romantic stroll with your significant other and enjoy the views of the lake.
Editor’s Note: Take a look at our Vietnam Packing List Guide to make sure you don’t miss out on bringing anything!
Soak Up Some Culture in the Hanoi Opera House
The opera house was modeled after the Paris Opera House and it is the most beautiful building in Hanoi. The opera is located in the French Quarter. It was built in 1911 during the French invasion of Hanoi and it was created to entertain the French elite at the time. The building went into decline after the French left Hanoi. It was renovated again in 1997. A ticket costs anything between VND 100,000 – VND 2,000,000 and it showcases Vietnamese Opera Performances as well as Asian dance and ballet performances and musical concerts.
Visit the Temple of Literature
It is a beautiful temple complex in the center of Hanoi that was built to be the center of learning dedicated to Chinese sage and Confucius. In the last 1000 years, many buildings were added and today it is a beautiful park filled with pavilions, shrines and a rich garden. Graduating doctors always visit the temple of literature after their graduation. The temple is open every day except Monday until 4:30 pm.
Watch a Water Puppet Theatre Performance
There are several theaters in Hanoi, where tourists can watch this uniquely Vietnamese performance. The most famous theater that showcases a water puppet performance is the Thang Long Puppet Theatre that has five shows a day. Here, puppets dance and slide over the liquid stage. The puppets are controlled by a group of puppet masters hiding behind the scenes. Most shows tell the tale of Hoan Kiem Lake and the giant tortoise.
Wander Around Hanoi Old Quarter
Here you will have the chance to observe French colonial architecture. The Old Quarter is located in the Ba Dinh district. It is near the business area and it is the busiest tourist attraction. Here you can find small streets with many street vendors, selling food and souvenirs on the street. The streets are packed with scooters, bicycles, and cars. It is a truly a local experience that will give you an idea what it is like to live in Hanoi. Here you can try some tasty street food as well.
Related: Reasons Why Not to Visit Vietnam
Shop at the Dong Xuan Market
Visit the Dong Xuan Market to buy anything and everything you can imagine. It is housed in a four-story Soviet-style building. On the ground floor, you can see a fish market, where you can see all sorts of species. It is only recommended to those who do not have sensitive noses as the aroma can get quite intimidating. On the other floors, you can buy souvenirs, fashion apparel, printed T-shirts at the best prices. It is open every day until 7 pm.
Eat Some Bun Cha Hanoi
While Hanoi is home to a wide range of fantastic Vietnamese food, a personal favorite that is considered a must to while in Hanoi is to eat a plate of Bun Cha Hanoi. This place is so popular that even former US President Obama has eaten a meal at this humble eatery. In case you don’t know, Bun Cha Hanoi is a delicious plate of grilled meat served with this sweet and tangy broth and heaps of fresh herbs.
Editor’s Note: Bun Cha Hanoi is one of my favorite Vietnamese meals and this place, Bun Cha Huong Lien, Hanoi is THE best place to get it.
Read: What to Eat in Vietnam
Popular Day Trips from Hanoi
If you’re not a city person, Hanoi can be a tad bit overwhelming which is why we’re recommending a few day trips which you can easily reach if you need to escape. Ninh Binh is a particular favorite and is well recommended.
Visit the Ba Vi National Park
This national park is a beautiful nature reserve 58 km’s away from Downtown Hanoi. It is an ideal place to go hiking on the hills and escape from the bustling city. The three-peak mountain in the National Park are often covered by the clouds. A diverse range of jungle plants and animals can be discovered in the national park. In the forest floors, you can find natural hot springs which you can visit. At the peak of the tallest mountain, there is a temple from the 11th century. From this place, you can see stunning views of its surrounding landscape.
Explore Ninh Binh
Last but not least, hop on a motorbike and explore the Ninh Binh area independently. It is best to come here for at least two days, so you can have enough time to see as much as you can. You will see some of the most beautiful nature of Northern-Vietnam. You can take a boat ride to explore the Trang An complex, which is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Trang An is 7 kms away from Ninh Binh. There are many temples, valleys, and caves to be discovered in the area. You can also take a boat ride in the Tam Coc rice fields. Adventurous tourists can bike through the rice fields if they prefer. Find a hotel in Tam Coc to stay overnight for an authentic Vietnamese countryside experience.
Related: Riding a Motorcycle Across Vietnam
Hanoi is an interesting city that has many diverse sites to visit. It has a long, fascinating history, many tasteful dishes to try, and great cultural performances to see. It’s an ideal destination for solo travelers as well as couples or families. Hanoi is also a great base to do trips to the nearby Perfume Pagoda, Halong Bay or Sapa.
Adventure in You Recommendations: Where to Stay in Hanoi
Home to a varied amount of affordable hostels and hotels, Hanoi has heaps of accommodation choices. From budget hostels (that are usually heaps of fun) to mid-range hotels, there is no shortage of places to stay. Here are a few of our top picks and recommendations.
To check reviews and see more options, check out our full list of where to stay in Hanoi article to help you find the perfect base while exploring this city.