25 Best Things to Do in Hanoi: The Capital City of Vietnam

Hanoi (Vietnamese spelling: Hà Nội) is one of the few capital cities in Asia to have maintained a unique traditional character amid the uniformity of modernism. Combined with unique characteristics of its four seasons, there are various fascinating things to do in Hanoi

Hanoi grew out of ancient citadels and kingdoms dating back to 258 BC, and with a population of around 10 million, it still serves as the political and cultural center of Vietnam. From Hanoi you can easily get to Halong Bay or venture up to the hill tribe areas of Sapa.

Top Things To Do in Hanoi

Hanoi, with its many charms and delights, will connect you to the heart and soul of Vietnamese culture. There are interesting things to do in Hanoi for everyone. 

Visitors can walk around Hoan Kiem Lake where traditional and modern recreations intertwine. The quaint Old Quarter is an excellent spot of window shopping, cafe lounging, and street food. 

If history and culture interest you, visit themed museums, religious sites, and ancient citadels. There’s also an abundance of natural getaways outside of the city.

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1. 1300 Years at Imperial Citadel of Thang Long 

Thang Long Imperial Citadel
[ by Jean-Paul Navarro from CC BY-ND 2.0 ]

Imperial Citadel of Thang Long (Hoàng thành Thăng Long) lies within present day Hanoi and was its predecessor. It’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site and the 18 Hoang Dieu Archeological Site contains artefacts and layers of the past from the 7th century to the 20th century.

Other attractions include the Doan Mon Gate (Đoan Môn), the main entrance to the citadel, and two palaces that date to the Le Dynasties of the 1500s, namely the Kinh Thien Palace (Điện Kính Thiên) and the Princess Palace (Hậu Lâu).

More recent additions are the iconic Hanoi Flag Tower (Cột cờ Hà Nội) built in 1812, and House D67 (Nhà khách D67) erected in 1967 as the headquarters for the Defense Ministry during the Vietnam War.

More about the Imperial Citadel of Thang Long

2. Hoan Kiem Lake: The Best Thing To Do in Hanoi

Hoan Kiem Lake
[ by Cuong Le from Pixabay ]

Hoan Kiem Lake (hồ Hoàn Kiếm), or Sword Lake (hồ Gươm), is the symbol of Hanoi. Located in the center of the city, it represents over a thousand years of history and culture. The many shops and activities around the lake make it the main attraction to locals and visitors. 

On weekend evenings, starting Friday from 6 pm to 12 am, the east side of the lake becomes the Hoan Kiem Lake Walking Street (Phố đi bộ hồ Hoàn Kiếm). People come here to watch and join in traditional Vietnamese games, street performances, and displays of traditional art. 

Ngoc Son Temple (đền Ngọc Sơn) on Ngoc Island (đảo Ngọc)  is the spiritual highlight of Hoan Kiem Lake. Visitors can walk across The Huc Bridge (cầu Thê Húc) to get here. This temple is typical of northern Vietnamese religious beliefs and architecture.

More about Hoan Kiem Lake

2. Thang Long Theatre Water Puppet Show

Unique Vietnamese Water Puppetry
[ by LoggaWiggler from Pixabay ]

The Water Puppet Show is one of the top attractions for visitors to Hanoi. Thang Long Theatre(Nhà hát Múa rối Thăng Long) is the biggest and most popular one in Vietnam.

Water puppetry (múa rối nước) is quite unique and emerged from Vietnam’s agricultural past.  It tells stories from Vietnamese mythology, fairy tales, ancient empires, life during times of war, or literary works. Vietnamese water puppetry largely excludes dialogue, placing stress on sound and visual presentation.

More about the Water Puppet Show at Thang Long Theatre

3. Greek and French Fusion at Hanoi Opera House

Hanoi Opera House
[ by Quang Anh Ta from Pixabay ]

Hanoi Opera House (Nhà hát lớn Hà Nội) is one of the prominent French Colonial Period structures in Hanoi. It has witnessed many historical events of the country and will continue to witness its growth.

This opera house used to hold classical performances for the upper class of French Officials and wealthy Vietnamese. Nowadays, it’s a location for artistic and cultural activities serving political and social purposes of the Vietnamese Government. 

The building was constructed by the French Government from 1901 to 1911. The French designers took inspiration from the Paris Opera House and combined that with Greek neoclassical architecture. 

Protip: Guided tours around the structure may include the addition of one performance.

4. Gothic Revival at St. Joseph’s Cathedral 

St. Joseph’s Cathedral
[ by peter_borter from Unsplash ]

Another structure of the French Colonial Period is St. Joseph’s Cathedral (Nhà thờ Thánh Joseph). Commonly known as Big Church (Nhà thờ Lớn) by locals, it’s the oldest church in Hanoi built in 1884. 

The dominant style of the building is Gothic Revival with a lot of resemblance to Notre Dame De Paris. The quiet surroundings makes it a go-to for many people. And even for non-Catholics, this area is still a top choice for wedding pictures.

St. Joseph’s Cathedral resides on the site of the previous Bao Thien Pagoda (chùa Báo Thiên) (built in 1057, during the Ly Dynasty). It started out as a temporary wooden structure in 1873 but was reconstructed in 1886 into what it is today.

5. A Labor of Love at Vietnamese Women’s Museum

Vietnamese Women’s Museum
[ by Bảo tàng Phụ nữ Việt Nam – Vietnamese Women’s Museum from Facebook ]

Vietnamese Women’s Museum (Bảo tàng Phụ nữ Việt Nam) is a visitors’ favorite in Hanoi thanks to its well-curated collection of exhibits. The museum explores the life of Vietnamese women in both historic and modern periods, as well as regional and ethnic differences.

Permanent exhibits include Women in Family, Women in History, and Women in Fashion. The highlighted temporary exhibitions in 2020 – 2021 are the Vietnamese Heroic Mothers, an Ao Dai collection, and contemporary gender-based issues.

There’s a gift shop selling some nice handicrafts. Audio guides are available in Vietnamese, English, French, Japanese, Korean. Guided group tours, however, are only in Vietnamese and English.

More about the Hanoi Vietnamese Women’s Museum

6. Horrors of Hoa Lo Prison Relic

Hoa Lo Prison Relic
[ by mikecogh from CC BY-SA 2.0 ]

Hoa Lo Prison (Nhà tù Hoả Lò) used to be known as one of the most gruesome prisons in Southeast Asia. Hoa Lo made its way in Vietnamese history through the brutality of its wardens combined with torturing devices, and isolation chambers. 

The most famous exhibit here is the guillotine used for the execution of many Vietnamese soldiers. This is also the place where John McCain – former US senator for Arizona – was held captive from 1967 to 1973.

The prison was built in 1896 during the French colonial period and named Maison Centrale. Hoa Lo used to be a village and the prison’s construction was a symbolic act of suppressing popular revolution. 

For this reason, the whole 12 000 m2 area was built from the best materials imported from France, resulting in one of the sturdiest prisons in all of Indochina at the time. Nowadays, only 2 434 m2 was preserved as a relic. There are audio guides available for a small fee. 

More about the Hoa Lo Prison

7. The Charming Hanoi Old Quarter 

The Charming Old Quarter
[ by Leon_Ting from Pixabay ]

The Old Quarter of Hanoi (Khu phố cổ Hà Nội), situated near Hoan Kiem Lake, is the most distinctive part of the city. Still maintaining much of its old architectural style, the bustling streets and narrow lanes draw one into a more nostalgic past. 

Echos and traditions of 1000 years of history can be glimpsed throughout the old quarter. The guild streets were originally named after the wares sold, and a few of them still remain although most now sell other things.

Some popular streets include Ta Hien Beer Street (phố bia Tạ Hiền), with many busy pubs and street restaurants, and Nguyễn Hữu Huân Street with trendy cafes. The Hanoi weekend night market also passes through the old quarter.

More about the Hanoi Old Quarter

8. Dong Xuan Wholesale Market

Dong Xuan Market
[ by Jason Rost from Unsplash ]

Dong Xuan Market (chợ Đồng Xuân) by day is where local businesses come to get everything wholesale, but there are quite a number of retail stores. During weekend opening hours Friday to Sunday from 6 PM to midnight, Hanoi Night Market reaches all the way to Dong Xuan Night Market with exciting street foods and bargain goods.

Protip: Stroll around to compare prices before making a decision as store owners tend to not be up for bargaining. Also, be careful of pickpockets.

More about the Dong Xuan Market

9. The Mausoleum of Former President Ho Chi Minh

Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum
[ by Hugo Heimendinger from Pexels ]

At the Ho Chi Minh Historical Complex (Khu di tích lịch sử Hồ Chí Minh), you’ll find some of the key things to do in Hanoi. Visitors should pay attention to the opening times and regulations here.

Just across the parade grounds from Ba Dinh Square (Quảng trường Ba Đình) is the distinctive cube-shaped Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum (Lăng Chủ tịch Hồ Chí Minh). Directly behind it is the Ho Chi Minh’s Stilt House (nhà sàn Hồ Chí Minh) where he lived and worked from 1958 until he passed away in 1969.

Just up from there is a short walk to the small Presidential Palace (Văn phòng Chủ tịch nước) built from 1901 to 1906 by the French. When you head back down to the city side entrance towards the One Pillar Pagoda, you’ll find the popular Ho Chi Minh Museum (Bảo tàng Hồ Chí Minh).

More about the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum

10. A Pagoda Built on One Pillar

One Pillar Pagoda
[ image from Facebook ]

One Pillar Pagoda (Chùa Một Cột) in Hanoi has been a key Buddhist site since 1049. It’s also known as Dien Huu Pagoda (Chùa Diên Hựu) or Lotus Pedestal (Liên Hoa Đài). The pagoda is a simple and sublime structure encapsulating Buddhist teachings.

The main structure consists of a pillar supporting a wooden roofed chamber in the center of Linh Chieu Pond (ao Linh Chiểu). From afar, it looks like a lotus flower emerging from the water.

The original pagoda was started by the second king of the Ly Dynasty in 1049 and completed by his successor in 1105. The pagoda was spitefully destroyed by the French in 1954, but soon restored in 1955 by the North Vietnamese Government and became a National Heritage Site in 1962.

More about the One Pillar Pagoda

12. Vietnam Military History Museum

Vietnam Military History Museum
[ by Matt Tam from Facebook ]

Vietnam Military History Museum (Bảo tàng Lịch Sử Quân sự Việt Nam) has been a researcher and preserver of Vietnam’s military history since 1954. It’s near the Hanoi Flag Tower in the Imperial Citadel of Thang Long.

There are over 16 000 objects on display depicting every aspect of war from 214 BC to independence and unification in 1975, to the present day. The exhibits are divided into three buildings plus outside exhibits for objects of a grander scale.

More about the Vietnam Military History Museum

13. Vietnam National Fine Arts Museum

Vietnam National Fine Arts Museum
[ by Daderot from CC0 1.0 ]

Vietnam National Fine Arts Museum (Bảo tàng Mỹ thuật Việt Nam) is the Mecca of Vietnam’s artistic legacies. The museum is responsible for researching, preserving, and passing down the knowledge on Vietnamese fine arts. 

Exhibits include lacquer and oil paintings; paintings on silk and paper; sculptures made from wood, stone, and ceramic. Many of these exhibits belong in permanent themed displays ranging from prehistoric to modern times. 

There are currently about 20 000 objects collected and preserved by the museum with around 2 000 on display. Visitors can purchase guided tours in Vietnamese, English, French, and Chinese. The museum also offers educational programs at their Creative Space for Children.

The building was first a boarding school for French children during the Colonial Period, and in 1966 Vietnam National Fine Arts Museum officially opened to the public. 

14. Temple of Literature and Vietnam’s First University

Temple of Literature and Vietnam's First University
[ by Dekcuf from Flickr ]

Temple of Literature (Văn Miếu) is a prominent temple from 1070 dedicated to Confucianism along with its sages, scholars, and teachings. The structure also includes the Imperial Academy (Quốc Tử Giám) which was Vietnam’s first university built in 1076. 

The temple has gone through many restorations but has retained the 5 distinct courtyards. The second one features the Khue Van Pavilion (Khuê Văn Các). In the fifth is the Imperial Academy. There’s also Stelae of Doctors from 1442 to 1779. 

Prior to Lunar New Year, calligraphists of ancient Chinese characters gather outside the temple selling their artworks as gifts and home decoration. The temple is also the main feature of the 100.000 VND bill.

More about the Temple of Literature

15. Vietnam Museum of Ethnology

Vietnam Museum of Ethnology
[ image by Roger Shitaki from Tripadago ]

Vietnam Museum of Ethnology (Bảo tàng Dân tộc học Việt Nam) is a place dedicated to all 54 Vietnamese ethnicities opened in 1977. This museum showcases over 15 000 objects, thousands of hours of video footage, and photographs. 

Visitors can investigate every aspect including daily life, culture, religious beliefs, mythology, festivals, celebrations of all ethnic groups. You can receive a brochure in English. There are explanations in Vietnamese, English, and French for each exhibit.

One of the highlights of the Museum are outside replicas of the ten traditional houses. These houses were built by the ethnic groups themself to precisely depict the exterior and interior.

Protip: The museum also sells tickets to a water puppet performance every day, but if you come in around 10 – 11 AM, you may be lucky enough to watch it for free. The Museum also has a shop selling high quality, original souvenirs.

16. 3rd Century Co Loa Citadel

Co Loa Citadel
[ by Anh Nguyen from Unsplash ]

Co Loa Citadel (Thành Cổ Loa) is the most ancient citadel in Vietnam dating all the way back to the 3rd century BC. There’s no entrance fee, but it’s best if visitors come with a local guide to learn the history along with the tales related to each location.

Located 15 km away from the city, it’s initially the largest citadel with a total of 9 walls forming a spiral shape. Only 3 walls now remain covering a perimeter of 16 km. 

The area is enveloped with stories and legends which later manifested into temples and other sites. The highlights include An Duong Vuong Temple (đền An Dương Vương), My Chau Shrine (am Mỵ Châu), and Trong Thuy Well (giếng Trọng Thuỷ). 

Archeologists have discovered many sites and buried relics dating as far back as 700 BC. Objects can be found on display in Co Loa Citadel Museum (Bảo tàng Trưng bày Cổ vật Thành Cổ Loa). 

17. The Mythical Tales at West Lake 

West Lake
[ by ePi.Longo from Flickr ]

West Lake (hồ Tây/ Tây Hồ) is the biggest freshwater lake 5km northwest of the city’s center. It used to be a branch of the Red River and has gone by many names throughout history. Its scenery and legends have inspired many literary works.

West Lake is quieter and less crowded than Hoan Kiem Lake and has nice lake-view cafes. On nearby Truc Bach Lake (hồ Trúc Bạch), artificially separated from West Lake, there are swan boats and even stand-up paddleboards (SUPs).

West Lake also has many religious sites like the Tay Ho Temple (Phủ Tây Hồ) for a daughter of the Jade Emperor, Quan Thanh Temple (đền Quán Thánh) for the God of the North Star Polaris, Kim Lien Pagoda (chùa Kim Liên) for a princess of the Ly Dynasty, and the popular Tran Quoc Pagoda.

More about the West Lake

18. The Oldest Tran Quoc Pagoda

Things to See at the Tran Quoc Pagoda
[ by 9636137 from Pixabay ]

Tran Quoc Pagoda (chùa Trấn Quốc) is on the sole islet to the east of West Lake about 4.5 km away from the center of Hanoi. It dates back to 541 CE and is one of the world’s most beautiful pagodas according to the Daily Mail UK. In 1989, it became a National Heritage Site.

Throughout its history, Tran Quoc Pagoda has retained a mix of feudal patterns while adhering to principles of Buddhist architecture. In 1959, the Former President of India gifted a Bhodi tree taken from the original in Bodh Gaya (bồ đề Đạo Tràng) where the Buddha achieved enlightenment.

More about the Tran Quoc Pagoda

19. River and Cave Adventure to Perfume Pagoda

River and Cave Adventure to Perfume Pagoda
[ image by Roger Shitaki from Tripadago ]

Perfume Pagoda (Chùa Hương) is a Buddhist complex built during the end of the 17th century. It’s located about 63 km plus a boat ride from the city center. 

Your spiritual journey begins as soon as you step on the boat and head along the Yen Stream (suối Yến) to Trinh Shrine (đền Trình) and other terminals, before finally making your way to Outer Pagoda (Chùa Thiên Trù) and Giai Oan Pagoda (Chùa Giải Oan). 

From there, you can choose to walk or pay for a cable car ride to the entrance of Huong Tich Cave (Động Hương Tích) which is also the Inner Pagoda. 

Protip: Booking a tour around here is an ideal choice for new visitors. There are different routes including different destinations from which you can choose.

More about the Perfume Pagoda

20. Four Protectors of the Thang Long Capital City

Four Protectors of the Thang Long Capital City
[ image from hanoi.gov.vn ]

Four Protectors of the Thang Long Capital City (Thăng Long Tứ Trấn) are temples marking the four sacred directions. Kings would visit the temples during Lunar New Year, and nowadays it’s a custom Hanoi people still follow. Each temple is a National Heritage Site and a unique structure dedicated to a specific figure of worship. 

Bach Ma Temple (đền Bạch Mã) in the East is the place of worship for Long Đỗ— the Land God of Thang Long. Built in 1010, the temple was partly destroyed in the Vietnam War but the main building remained intact. Visitors are welcomed by a legendary white horse.

Elephant Temple (đền Voi Phục) in the South worships Linh Lang— the 4th son of King Lý Thánh Tông. Built in 1065, the Temple has gone through many renovations, especially from damage during French colonial period. Visitors can see a pair of bowing elephants at the front door.

Kim Lien Temple (đền Kim Liên) in the North honors Cao Son Dai Vuong— a son of Lac Long Quan and Au Co— the first ancestors in Vietnamese mythology. Built around the 16 to 17th century, the Temple has the architectural style of the Nguyen Dynasty.

Quan Thanh Temple (đền Quán Thánh) or Tran Vu Temple is in the East and worships Huyền Thiên Trấn Vũ— the God of the North Star Polaris. Built in 1010, the temple features a 4-meter bronze statue cast by smiths from Ngũ Xã Village about 3 centuries ago.

21. Traditional Handicraft Villages

Traditional Handicraft Villages
[ by Giang Chu Bình from Pixabay ]

Traditional handicraft villages are an invaluable national legacy. Whether you’re visiting one on tour or on a spontaneous adventure, these villages are sure to bring you a unique and interesting experience. 

Not only can you observe traditional manufacturing, but you can join in and learn how to make your own pottery, hat, or basket.these are also places for picking up unique souvenirs.

Bat Trang Ceramic Village (làng gốm Bát Tràng) is the birthplace of world-famous Bat Trang Ceramic dating back 1 000 years. There are factories around that offer a quick pottery class if you’re on a tour, and the local markets are not as touristy.

Van Phuc Silk Village (làng lụa Vạn Phúc) was adored by royalties 1000 years ago, and their merchandise was exported far afield.  

Chuong Conical Hat Village (làng nón Chuông) is famous for its signature Vietnamese non la or conical hat. Visitors can come to observe the craftsman and learn how to make a non la for themselves.

22. Flower Gardens Along Red River Banks

Flower Gardens Along Red River Banks
[ image from danviet.vn ]

The Red River in Hanoi has been an agriculture center for thousands of years, with many fields and gardens along the banks. Due to trends among the younger generations, some fields and gardens offer photoshoot and day camping services.

Red River Bedrocks Botanical Garden (Vườn hoa bãi đá sông Hồng) is 6km away from the city center and filled with seasonal flowers. There’s a windmill and giant trees with swings and it’s ideal for photoshoots and picnics. There’s a small entrance fee for some gardens. 

Long Bien Longan Garden (Vườn nhãn Long Biên) started out as a private garden 7km away from the city center and gained popularity as a place for wedding photos. The garden is open to visitors coming in for photoshoots and picnics, especially on beautiful sunny days. 

Entrance fee for a photoshoot team of 7 people is cheaper than individual tickets. There are only fast food establishments around so remember to pack some food and drinks if you’re also aiming for a picnic.

23. Easy Hiking in Tram Mountain

Easy Hiking in Tram Mountain
[ by John Hoang from Unsplash ]

Tram Mountain (núi Trầm) is an excellent spot for day hiking or overnight camping. It’s about 22km away from the city center. 

The most convenient way to get here is to book a Grab to the shop at the bottom of the mountain where parking is also available. There’s also a service for renting tents, other camping equipment, or a gas stove and grill for barbecues.

The Mountain looks amazing year-round but the ideal time is around March to May when the weather is nice and flowers bloom. It’s not very steep and there are trails leading to the top on every side, but a good pair of hiking shoes is always necessary. 

Protip: To save the trouble, you can probably store your luggage for a day or so at your hotel. Make sure to bring warm clothes, especially for the night. 

24. Ba Vi National Park

Ba Vi National Park
[ image from vntrip.vn ]

Ba Vi National Park (Vườn quốc gia Ba Vì) is a place to spend a day in nature amongst other attractions such as a cactus garden, ruins of an old French church, and temples. The entrance is about 60km from the city center.

The park is a great getaway from the heat of Hanoi from April to October, while from October to December is the flower season. You can either book a day tour from Hanoi or book a Grab driver for a day. 

After paying the entrance fee, you can purchase guided tours for different routes inside. And if you decide to venture on your own, there are parking lots at the entrance and along the way so you can decide when to drive and when to walk. 

There are inns, hostels, and resorts along the way. There’s also a camping equipment rental service if you want to camp outside.

If you choose to venture by bike, make sure to check your personal effects, vehicles, and protective gear (good hiking gears and safety pads) before going as the roads are quite untouched. 

More about the Ba Vi National Park

25. Halong Bay Tours

Halong Bay Tours
[ by cat7397 from Pixabay ]

Halong Bay (vịnh Hạ Long) is one of the most popular attractions in Vietnam and the name means ‘descending dragon’. This UNESCO World Heritage Site consists of thousands of limestone karsts and isles jotting the bay creating a gem of geo and biodiversity. 

An experience of Halong Bay can include many things from relaxing on the beach or kayaking to exploring famous caves and experiencing the life of the sea communities.

There are many day tours from Hanoi to Halong Bay. These are the most convenient and will include pickups from your hotel. Longer tours last one to four days, and if you’re planning to sleep on a boat, just make sure the tour company is reputable and their boats are in good condition.

More about Halong Bay

Getting Around Hanoi

On Foot: Places around Hoan Kiem District are generally within walking distance. You may find hidden gems in the alleys. The weather can often be uncomfortable for walking long distances in summer or winter. Sidewalks sometimes are narrow or taken over by motorbikes. 

Grab: This is the equivalent of Uber in Vietnam. Grab Car is cheaper than taxis, and a single person bike ride is even cheaper. An Internet connection and a phone number to receive SMS is all you need. For more information, you can browse their English language homepage

Taxi: Taxis are easy to stop along the street or you can call one from your hotel front desk. Alternatively, major taxi companies also have English language smart apps, so you just need an Internet connection. Vinasun or Mai Linh are reputable taxi companies.

Bus: Using Google Maps, it’s much easier to go to places by bus. Just choose the Public Transportation tab, then enter your location and destination. Each bus has a number representing its course, and Google Maps will show you which bus to take, where to get off, and the extra distance to walk. One-stop tickets usually cost around 7 000 VND.

Motorbike Rental Services: You can find many of these services online. The requirements include your passport along with your international and national driving license. Insurance is also optional.

Private Motorbike Tour: For a reasonable price, you’ll have a personal tour guide who can also take you to friendly local places, hence its popularity among visitors.

Free Tours: These are organized by university students eager to practice English and share their love of Hanoi to international friends. One the most popular is by Hanoikids.

Traveling Tips for Hanoi

How to get to Hanoi: The international airport in Hanoi is called Noi Bai.

Best time to visit: Hanoi has all 4 seasons, so it’s ideal to visit from March to April and from September to November. Spring and Autumn are when the temperature is milder and the weather is more pleasant. Meteo is a good tool to keep track of the weather in Hanoi.

Accommodation: Inns and homestays around Old Quarter may be a cheaper option for visitors staying more than a day.

Food: Go to local diners and street food vendors to get more authentic and cheaper Vietnamese food.

Commute: It’s easy to walk short distances in Hanoi. And if you want to travel a distance, Grab or buses are convenient choices. Tours are really helpful for visiting places outside the city.Culture: Museums and religious structures along other important buildings may require visitors to not take photographs and also wear clothes covering knees and shoulders.

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