Hanoi is a great city to get lost in. It’s also an easy city to be overwhelmed by on a first visit. Almost eight million people live here and it seems like every single one of them owns a scooter and drives it through the clogged streets honking their horn. When you visit, you might suffer from a bit of a sensory overload, letting the noise and the sheer number of people block out the quieter elements of the city, which is a shame as there are quieter elements to be found here. From picturesque lakes to medieval temples and colonial buildings, Hanoi has many landmarks that create an intoxicating atmosphere on a Vietnam vacation. Look past the bustle of the scooters to the rich history and culture in every building and along every side street. You’ll be richly rewarded.
To help you decide which of its many sites are worth seeing, we’ve compiled the following list of 10 essential things to do in Hanoi. It encompasses the most popular sights in the city and lists a few food experiences that you need to have to experience all that this city has to offer.
Explore the Old Quarter
This is such a no-brainer that it’s almost unnecessary to put on the list. This tangled web of narrow streets and old colonial buildings is the heart of Hanoi. If you have no definite plans during your stay in the city, while on your Vietnam vacation, this is where you should spend your time. You’ll find scooters and motorbikes here, but also vendors selling souvenirs and local fruits. You’ll find bars hidden around corners and small restaurants beyond shuttered doors. If you want to discover hidden gems, spend your time strolling through the Old Quarter in both the morning and evening. The area will take on a whole different atmosphere depending on the time of day.
Visit the Imperial Citadel of Thang Long
The Imperial Citadel of Thang Long, which is also known simply as Hanoi Citadel, is near the top of most lists of things to do in Hanoi. Reopened in 2012, the UNESCO Heritage Site-listed citadel served as the political and military hub of the Vietnamese empire for over 800 years. Today, its golden-yellow main palace and many gates and pavilions serve as a symbol of the city. You can explore the citadel grounds and enjoy the wide-open spaces and greenery that offer a pleasant break from the bustle of the Old Quarter.
See Uncle Ho at the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum
This large marble mausoleum in a military square near the Imperial Citadel is a monument to Ho Chi Minh, the deceased communist leader of North Vietnam. Despite his wishes to be cremated, his embalmed body is on display inside the mausoleum, in keeping with the tradition of other deceased communist leaders like Vladimir Lenin, Josef Stalin, and Mao Zedong. If you want to see Uncle Ho’s body, you can visit during the morning on Tuesdays to Thursdays or the weekends. Dress modestly and don’t take any pictures or speak inside. If seeing the preserved body of a deceased communist leader doesn’t sound appealing to you, at least visit the square outside the mausoleum. The structure itself is hugely impressive and you might be lucky enough to witness the changing of the guard, which is a spectacle in its own right. Also, this is the only place in the city where you can take a photo of a soldier and not have your camera confiscated, so take advantage.
See a Performance at the Thang Long Water Puppet Theatre
A water puppet performance is the most popular show for tourists in Hanoi. Located just off the banks of Hoan Kiem Lake, the Thang Long Water Puppet Theatre showcases the medieval art form of water puppetry, which has hidden puppeteers operate wooden puppets, making them dance across a shallow pool of water that’s set as a stage. While traditional water puppet performances tell simple stories of Vietnamese daily life, the shows at Thang Long often incorporate music, effects, and lighting to tell more exciting legends and dramas. The theatre puts on four shows each day in summer and six shows in winter. It’s a popular attraction so be sure to get tickets ahead of time. Tickets cost 100,000VND, which comes out to around $4.5 USD.
Stroll along Hoan Kiem Lake
If you’ve just seen the water puppet show at the Thang Long Water Puppet Theatre, you ought to explore Hoan Kiem Lake, which is mere steps away from the theatre. Also known as Turtle Lake by the locals, Hoan Kiem Lake is one of the centrepieces of Hanoi’s Old Quarter. It’s a great place to hang out at day’s end or to relax around for an afternoon. In the early morning, it’s the most popular spot for joggers, while in the evening, the lake’s attractions like the red Huc Bridge light up and serve as a lovely backdrop for evening activities. Ngoc Son Temple resides on an island in the middle of the lake and is worth visiting as well, but even if you don’t cross the bridge to the island, you ought to snap some photos of the temple lit up after sundown.
Admire the Hanoi Opera House
Hanoi is chockfull of gorgeous colonial buildings, but there are likely none as gorgeous as the Hanoi Opera House, located a few blocks southeast of Hoan Kiem Lake. Built in 1911, this elegant building is in the heart of the old colonial neighbourhoods and could easily be mistaken for a Parisian building were it not crowned by the red Vietnamese flag on its roof. You can tour the opera house to see the gorgeous theatre inside or simply admire its colonial architecture from the street. You can even attend a performance here if you get tickets ahead of time.
Wander around the Temple of Literature
This 1,000-year-old temple is a tranquil haven amidst the bustle of scooters and motorbikes. It houses the Imperial Academy, which is the oldest university in Hanoi, and the first national university in the country. Although it was largely destroyed over the years due to war, it has been restored in recent decades. You can explore its five different courtyards and follow three different pathways around the temple. As you wander through the temple grounds, you’ll stroll alongside ponds, spot altars to Confucius and other important philosophers, and pass through elaborate gates.
Shop at Dong Xuan Market
You’ll want to do some shopping during your Vietnam vacation in Hanoi, and there’s no better place to get the authentic Vietnamese shopping experience than Dong Xuan Market. As the largest market in the Old Quarter, Dong Xuan Market has been a place to find food, wholesale goods, and handicrafts since it was established in 1889. The market burnt down in 1994, but has been rebuilt and remains the most popular spot for locals to do their shopping. You’ll find fresh meats and vegetables on the ground floor while the upper floors are your best bets to find handicrafts and souvenirs to take back home. On Friday, Saturday, and Sunday night, the market hosts the Hanoi Weekend Night Market. The building itself is a sight to see as its Soviet-style architecture is more uniquely communist than many other buildings in Hanoi.
Dine on Street Food
Hanoi is one of the best street food cities in Southeast Asia. Although you’ll find plenty of innovative restaurants throughout the city, you need to try the street food at least once during your stay here. In the streets of the Old Quarter, you’ll find many street food stalls where you can buy grilled meats, banh mi sandwiches, and even bowls of soup. You can feast on refreshing pho, with its clear broth, rice noodles, and fresh herbs, or chow down on grilled prawns or banh xeo, which are meat and sprout-filled crepes. Buy whichever food interests you, grab a seat on one of the plastic stools that line the streets alongside the stalls, and enjoy the local company as you feast on incredible flavours. Also be sure to get some beer from the street vendors. A pint of beer will run you less than 1 USD and there are few things as refreshing as a cold beer on a muggy day in Hanoi.
Try Vietnamese Coffee
Vietnamese coffee isn’t unique to Hanoi, but it’s a great city to try the unique Vietnamese variation of this universal drink. On your first morning in Hanoi, you’ll quickly realize that the Vietnamese are obsessed with coffee. You’ll find coffee shops and stalls all over the city, where locals drink small cups of extremely dark and incredible strong brews. Unlike in North America where people typically buy a mug of machine-filtered or French-press coffee, the Vietnamese drink coffee sieved through a French drip filter known as a phin, which rests on the top of your cup or mug. The metal lid inside the phin presses down on the coarse beans as the hot water trickles through the filter and fills your cup. The resulting coffee is strong and dark; people often sweeten it with a bit of condensed milk. It may be different than what you’re used to, but the quality of Vietnamese coffee is great and the unique way of filtering it through the phin transforms the whole morning coffee experience into a type of ritual. Don’t leave Hanoi without trying some for yourself.
There is a lot to occupy your days on a Vietnam vacation to Hanoi. From visits to colonial opera houses and imperial temples to water puppet shows and food markets, you’ll discover that Hanoi is a city of many landmarks worth seeing and experiences worth having. If you follow our guide to the essential things to do in Hanoi, you’ll see the best this city has to offer.
Hanoi: Exploring a Thousand-Year-Old Vietnam Vacation Highlight