From visiting the Temple of Literature to sitting under the very same tree where Buddha got enlightened, these are just some of the best things to do in Hanoi, Vietnam.
The capital of Vietnam is also one of the most ancient capitals in the world. The history of Hanoi is rich, devastating and full of legends.
This French-colonial city is a cultural mix of Eastern and Western influences which are mirrored in the style of many architectural gems in Hanoi.
Some of these gems that travelers can discover are remarkably preserved colonial buildings, unique museums, world’s largest mosaic and ancient pagodas.
While its traffic is hectic and fast paced, you’ll be happy to know that it’s a great place to explore on foot.
This mystical city is also known for its cuisine, silk, buzzing nightlife as well as cultural diversity. Its home to a large community made up of Chinese, French and Russian influences.
To get away from the chaos of the always-buzzing city life you’re a short drive away to its tranquil countryside where you’ll be surrounded by lush parks, mountains and traditional villages.
Our Guide on the Best Things to Do in Hanoi, Vietnam
If you’re in luck and you’re getting to discover Hanoi for the first time, here are some of our choices on what to see in Hanoi.
Go On A Free Walking Tour Of The City
One of the best ways to get acquainted with any city in the world is to go on a walking tour.
Originally developed in Europe, the concept of the free walking tour is to give visitors a general and entertaining introduction to the city, led by enthusiastic locals.
We’re very pleased to say that these tours have no made it to Vietnam, and there’s no better way to start your trip in Hanoi than by taking part in one.
Started in 2011, the Hanoi Walking Tours last half a day or a full day, and take in some of the best sights around the city.
Being guided by a local student, these tours allow you to find the best attractions, restaurants, bars and hidden spots around the city, and really is one of the best things to do in Hanoi.
There’s a bunch of different variations of these Hanoi tours, so whether you’re interested in the French Quarter, the Ho Chi Minh Complex, or just finding the best street food in the city, these guys have you covered.
Note that while the tours are free, donations are expected for guides that do a great job. Definitely one of the best things to do in Hanoi.
Book a more personal walking tour here with Get Your Guide.
Wander Around The Old Quarters
The Old Quarters are one of the two most well-known districts in Hanoi (the other being the Ba Dinh District). The Old Quarters is a business center and also a very prominent spot among tourists.
Typical scene in Hanoi streets are sidewalks teeming with bicycles and scooters while crowds of people scavenge markets and barter loudly with street vendors.
While exploring Old Quarters you have no choice but to confront the traffic as a local would do and experience the history on the go. It’s an interesting blend of ancient history (Hanoi celebrated a millennial birthday in 2010) and commercialism.
Packed with French colonial architecture, pagodas and Buddhist temples you’ll want to get lost in its streets. The streets carry names of the business that were set up over 1,000 years ago.
Most of these businesses were craft shops, but today a lot of them turned into something more commercial and modern. Even now you can still find shops owned by the same families for centuries, selling original Vietnamese handcrafted products.
Expect to see lots of cafes, restaurants, boutiques, art galleries and bars even in this historical area.
See The Ancient House and St Joseph’s Cathedral in the Old Quarters.
The best way to understand the difference between Vietnamese architecture and later on French colonialism is through these two buildings (luckily both situated in the same neighborhood).
The ancient House is an example of typical architecture of ancient houses.
The house is made of two main blocks bound together by a square yard in the middle on the ground floor, and a small balcony on the 1st floor. The yard is included at the center of the building to moderate the air, providing the house with sunlight and cool air.
Today, you can come and see the Ancient House and see first-hand how Hanoian lived.
On the other hand Saint Joseph Cathedral is a hybrid of Vietnamese and Western architectural style
Saint Joseph Cathedral is a Roman Catholic cathedral done in a Neo-Gothic style. It was built around 120 years ago.
The cathedral was constructed and completed in 1886, after the French army conquered Hanoi.
The architecture of the cathedral clearly follows the rules of the Gothic style and design of Paris Cathedral.
The appearance of the cathedral, the doors, the stained glass windows and the religious paintings all follow a clear Western style. But the interior is decorated in a Vietnamese way, with dominating colors of yellow and red.
Visit The Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum
The mausoleum is the resting place of, the revolution leader Ho Chi Minh, who was the President of the Communist Party of Vietnam, at the very same place where he in 1945, read the Declaration of Independence and established the Democratic Republic of Vietnam.
The Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum was inspired by Lenin’s Mausoleum (in Moscow) but with a Vietnamese twist. It incorporates elements that are tied to Vietnamese architecture like the sloping roof.
The exterior of the mausoleum is made of grey granite while the interior is black, grey and red polished stone. All of the material used for construction was acquired from all over Vietnam.
Fauna from different regions of Vietnam surrounds the mausoleum.
The embalmed body of Ho Chi Minh is located in the central hall of the mausoleum, protected at all times by a military guard.
If you’re wondering what to do in Hanoi, make sure this is near the top of your list.
- Price: Admission is free
People Watch At Hoan Kiem Lake
This lake got its name (Lake of the Restored Sword) from a legend.
In the ancient times circulated a story that claimed the Heaven sent Emperor Ly Thai To a sword with magical properties. He used that sword to banish the Chinese from Vietnam.
Following the end of war a giant golden turtle took the sword and escaped to the depths of the lake to return the sword to its divine owners thus earning its name, the Lake of the Restored Sword.
If you’re not amused by legends don’t fret because the lake is special for other things as well.
This is the only lake in Vietnam that is home to an iconic tortoise.
The tortoise is considered a sacred animal so the lake itself is a holy place. If you’re in luck you’ll be able to catch a glimpse of these majestic animals.
It was long thought they had become instinct, until one crawled out of the lake a few years ago.
The Hoan Kiem Lake is very popular among Hanoians as a gathering place for families, nature lovers and hang outs.
If you want to spend time like the local residents do, show up at 6 am and practice Tai Chi with them.
Best time to visit is from Fridays to Sundays because the nearby traffic is banned 7pm to midnight turning it into a peaceful oasis.
Visit The Ngoc Son Pagoda
If the lake itself isn’t enough to peak your interest, then make sure to visit the Ngoc Son Temple, a pagoda surrounded by the Hoan Kiem lake.
It was built in memorial of the 13th century figure Tran Hung Dao, a brave military leader who fought against the Yuan Dynasty.
The island on which the pagoda is built is known as Jade Island and is accessible by the famous Rising Sun Bridge. Bridge is built out of wood, colored red in a classical Vietnamese fashion.
The pagoda and lake are probably the most famous places in Hanoi. It’s one of those places where you just come to lay down, relax and enjoy the blissful quiet.
- Price: 30,000 VND
Go Shopping At Dong Xuan Market
Established in the late 19th century, the Dong Xuan Market can be found in a four story communist styled building on the edge of the Old Quarters.
Dong Xuan Market is the largest indoor market in Hanoi. What one can find there is truly astounding. Whatever you’re looking for whether it’d be some fresh local produce, souvenirs or in need of a laptop – chances are some vendor tucked away has it.
Like other markets in Southeast Asia, Dong Xuan Market has a market section specifically for meat, seafood, vegetables and flowers from all across Vietnam.
If you’re not into testing the different flavors of Vietnam head up to the upper floors.
You will be able to find handbags, fabrics, handicrafts all of which being sold at wholesale prices!
So many things to choose from at Đồng Xuân Market
Catch A Show At The Opera House
Like the St Joseph’s Cathedral, this opera house was modeled after one of Paris’s counterparts, the Palais Garnier.
The Hanoi Opera House follows the European style quite clearly. It has Italian marble floors, ceilings decorated with French murals and copper chandeliers.
It is regarded as one of the most famous architectural and cultural landmarks in Hanoi.
Today, it has a strong cultural influence and is a center for art shows, dance performances and concerts.
- Price Range: 100,000 VND – 500,000 VND
Don’t Miss The Vietnamese Woman’s Museum
This cool modern museum offers a beautiful tribute to the women of Vietnam throughout history.
The museum is run by the Women’s Union of Vietnam.
The museum focuses on the position of Vietnamese women through history. From street merchants, mothers to entrepreneurs and scholars.
The narratives focus on their role in the society, the obstacles they overcame as society changed, and an abundance of information on everyday life, such as marriage, motherhood, fashion and life changing rituals.
One of the most interesting exhibits focuses on the position women played in Vietnam’s wars.
The museum has displayed a lot of information about all of its exhibits in French and in English. Historic relics which includes Taoist books (among other impressive collected artifacts) give an in-depth insight into better understanding of the women of Vietnam.
- Price: 30,000 VND
Visit The Temple of Literature
The Temple of Literature is often regarded as one of the most visited tourist attractions.
In 1070 it was made with the intention of serving as an university and was dedicated to Confucius and scholars.
Fortunately, the building is remarkably preserved and is an excellent example of traditional Vietnamese architecture.
The temple offers an abundance of literature, turtle steles as well as the Well of Heavenly Clarity.
This temple is a tribute to education and literature. This place has seen thousands and thousands of Vietnam’s finest scholars.
The most acclaimed prize for the most successful scholars was to have their names engraved onto a stone stele on top of the stone turtles.
Today students come and pray for good grades.
- Price: 30,000 VND
Learn About The Hoa Lo Prison Museum (The Hanoi Hilton)
The Hoa Lo Prison Museum or known by its ironically nickname, the “Hanoi Hilton” will make you experience range of emotions from disgust, sorrow to outrage at how something like this was allowed to happen.
The museum displays and educates on the sufferings of the Vietnamese revolutionaries who were confined under the occupying French government during the early 20th century.
What you see is only a glimpse into the prison, as most of the prison complex was demolished in the 1990’s to make way for the Hanoi Towers.
It is peculiar to have a prison built in the center of the city. The idea of the French colonial administrators was to make an example of the Vietnamese fighters for independence.
Almost all exhibits show the prison’s use up to the Vietnamese upraise against the France for independence. The museum also houses the most gruesome relic, the French guillotine on the Vietnamese rebels.
- Price: 30,000 VND
Appreciate The Works In The Vietnam Fine Arts Museum
This fantastic Fine Arts Museum houses some of the most remarkable art.
The museum consists of two buildings that interestingly enough were once the French Ministry of Information.
Inside the museum you can find Matisse, Degas, Monet to lot of local artists covering their often harrowing past.
This is the place to visit to truly appreciate and understand the entire history of Vietnamese fine arts.
Fortunately most of the exhibits have English explanations.
- Price: 40,000 VND
Eat All Of The Food…Seriously
You can’t be researching things to do in Hanoi without thinking about what kind of food you’re going to eat. Well it’s easy – all of it!
The cuisine is known for being quite simple in terms of ingredients, and that is one of its charms. The simplicity of the meal and the quality of its ingredients is what makes the dishes exceptional.
Vietnamese food relies on a delicate balance of salty, sweet, sour and hot flavors.
It’s almost impossible to walk a block in Hanoi without detecting the smell of food from the street vendor’s DIY stand.
Try the Goi Cuon, a spring roll packed with greens, some type of minced meat (shrimp, crab or pork) and coriander. Usually it’s served with a bowl of lettuce, peanut sauce and mint.
If you have a sweet tooth like we do, definitely try the fried bananas, desert soup or caramel pudding.
Lady selling local food from on the streets of Hanoi
Brush Up On Ethnic History At The Vietnam Museum of Ethnology
Vietnam is very culturally diverse.
The Vietnam Museum of Ethnology acts as a keeper of the said cultural diversity of different ethnic groups in Vietnam.
Many of those communities are working together with the museum. They’ve collected work, are involved in the preparation process of the exhibitions for the purpose of preserving cultural heritage and displaying it in a rightful and authentic way.
The collaboration between communities and the museum staff has made the museum closer to people’s lives and raised the awareness of protecting cultural heritage.
The popularity and vibrancy of the Museum is largely due to the contribution and involvement of communities.
The Museum’s vast collection of Vietnam’s ethnic minorities showcases tribal art, artifacts and objects used in everyday life.
- Price: 40,000 VND
Find A Rooftop Bar
The rush of traffic packed Hanoi can be overwhelming even to locals who are accustomed to the fast pace of the city.
The city becomes even more vibrant at night, full of neon colors and Hanoi’s traffic leaving trail lights.
Whether you’re searching for a romantic vibe or to hang out with friends, the best way to enjoy Hanoi’s mesmerizing night landscape is from above.
Hanoi has a lot of rooftop bars, and most of them offer the same type of atmosphere. Imagine a lounge, with modern music in the background, amazing cocktails and a 360 degree view of all Hanoi.
Have a drink at a roof top cafe and watch Hanoi from above.
Try An Egg Nog Latte
Egg Nog Latter is a staple drink served in cafes throughout Hanoi starting from the 1950’s.
The drink is made with egg yolk, condensed milk, coffee powder and a crazy amount of whisking!
The most famous cafe for serving this drink is the Giang Café.
The drink was supposedly invented by the cafe’s founder. The son of the founder says that his father inspired to make up the recipe as milk was scarce in Vietnam and they were replacing milk with egg yolk.
The coffee is creamy, not too sweet and overall delicious.
Even though it originated in Vietnam, today is popular across the world.
Get Social And Drink Bia Hoi On The Street
Ahh yes, bia hoi. One of our favourites when talking about what to do in Hanoi. If you’re a beer enthusiast, you’ll be thrilled with Vietnam’s beer culture.
Let us start off with the fact that Vietnam is the perfect place for a pub crawl. Bia Hoi is an insight into the beer scene of Vietnam.
Bia Hoi is known as a street beer. Vietnam boasts as having a unique drinking culture that can only be found in northern cities of Vietnam.
It’s a daily ritual starting from 4pm where locals (and tourists) sit on plastic furniture on street corners and drink home-brewed beer.
So if you were wondering how world’s cheapest and freshest beer tastes like then don’t miss your opportunity to get a pint!
Remember: it’s considered the freshest beer because it is made without preservatives. In order not to get spoiled it must be consumed on the day of production. Because of this Hanoi and its surrounding areas are the only places you can find Bia Hoi!
- Price: 1 beer costs 5,000 – 7,000 VND
Visit One Pillar Pagoda
Vietnamese sure enjoy their legends. One of the more popular one is about the One Pillar Pagoda.
According to the tale an heirless Emperor had a dream in which he met a goddess of sorts name Avalokiteshvara which gifted him with a baby boy that was resting on a lotus flower.
The Emperor Ly Thai wanted the pagoda to be built as the lotus blossom and that’s why it was built on a single pillar. The lotus blossom also symbolizes enlightenment in Buddhism.
Present day, the wooden pagoda is supported by a concrete pillar as replacement for the original one. The original wooden pillar was destroyed by the French.
Another folk’s tale claims that the bo tree behind the pagoda is the same tree underneath Buddha became enlightened.
- Price: 25,000 VND
Enjoy Some Peace And Quiet At West Lake
West Lake, Lake of Mist or Ho Tay, is Hanoi’s largest lake. It is 15 km in circumference and is surrounded by upper-class suburbs as well as the Tay Ho expat district.
It is a very popular destination as it makes for a nice change from the hectic pace of Old Quarter.
The lake offers an opportunity to visit temples off the beaten path or to enjoy a cup of coffee or a refreshing beer whilst admiring the lake.
You can navigate around the lake by bicycle and rest at one of the street side restaurants.
Visit Tran Quoc Pagoda
It is the oldest pagoda in Hanoi tracing all the way back to the 6th century.
The Buddhist shrine has undergone changes throughout the years.
Today it’s located on an islet within West Lake but originally it was placed on banks of Red River but due to river’s encroachment it was relocated in the 17th century.
Because of the lush fauna surrounding the pagoda, it makes for one most photographed sights in Hanoi.
- Price: Free
See A Water Puppet Show
One of the things that are not to be missed when in Hanoi is a Water Puppet Show.
It’s an ancient art form that dates all the way back to the 11th century.
Back when the rice paddy fields got flooded the villagers would draw entertainment from the dire situation. They would stand in the water and attach puppets on fishing rods and had them perform over the water’s surface.
Today’s shows are performed at a contemporary theater within a pool of water as the stage for the puppets. The puppets are controlled by eight puppeteers hiding behind a bamboo screen.
The shows are usually short sketches or they play out some of the Vietnam legends such as, the legend of the Restored Sword of King Le and the giant tortoise.
The live music plays a vital part of the show with singers yelling out words of encouragement to the puppets.
This is something specific to the Vietnamese culture, a highlight not to be missed!
- Price Range: VND 100,000
Take A Cooking Class
If you followed our previous advice which is ‘Eat All of the Food’ then you’re already mesmerized by the authentic Vietnamese food!
If you wish to take a slice of Vietnam back home with you so you could reawaken your fantastic trip’s memories with the help of food then take a cooking class !
Good news is that Vietnamese cuisine is simple. You don’t need to be a chef extraordinaire to prepare your favorite Vietnamese dishes, but you do need the tips to make them as authentic and flavorful as the real deal.
There are many different classes on offer, you can learn village, pagoda vegetarian, seafood, monsoon, pho and bun cha. A lot of those cooking classes even have a market tour!
- Price: from $30-100
Book your cooking class in Hanoi on Viator.
Make Your Own Pottery At Bat Trang Ceramic Village
A traditional village of Hanoi, Bat Trang is an attraction for the locals and tourists!
At stores at Bat Trang you will see ceramic products displayed in different shapes, styles and colors. Usually they’re produced by family businesses and the prices are reasonable.
This place is famous in Vietnam and it’s not unusual to have people coming from surrounding regions just so they’d buy their favorite ceramic products.
There is a wide array of choices, from daily items as pots, plates and cups they also sell interior decorations, religious items, jewelry etc.
You can apply for one of ceramic workshops and create a handmade ceramic product of your own! Don’t worry you’ll be guided through the process by the shopkeeper.
After you create your own ceramic product (cup, pot and bowls are easiest to make) it takes an hour to dry and then you can decorate it with available colors.
- Price: For making ceramic product is 10,000 VND, take-away product is 30,000 VND
Wander The Themed Streets Of Hanoi
The themed streets of Hanoi are often referred to as “the 36 streets of Hanoi.”
Nowadays, most of these 36 streets are in Old Quarter and have kept the names that reflect the specialized businesses they once housed.
The Old Quarter is the heart of Hanoi’s history and is recognized by its labyrinth of ancient streets buzzing with commerce.
The street names carry the name of the trade they’re known for such as, Silk Street, Blacksmith Street, Herbal Medicine Street, Sugar Street, Dried Fish Street,Bamboo Street etc. These streets have a 1,000 year old history.
In the past, the craftsmen who came to Hanoi from villages formed guilds among other artisans specializing in the same trade.
Each of the guild had its own street in the Old Quarter where its members lived, built workshops and sold their trades. So if you were in dire need of some material for a dress you’d head on to Silk Street etc.
As we mentioned before, the original layout of the streets still exists. Many of them still specialized in the original crafts they were named after while some transgressed in more modern merchandise.
Check Out The 4-Kilometre Mosaic Wall
Another thing Hanoi can be proud of is having the world’s largest ceramic mosaic built from ceramic tesserae.
The wall was built with the 1000th anniversary of Hanoi in October 2010. The whole idea was born because of Nqyen Thu Thuy.
This journalist’s imagination managed to transform a boring wall into a loud and colorful mosaic which deservedly won her the Hanoi Architecture Contest.
The theme is ‘History through pictures’. With rich history and folk art that can be traced back to the Stone Age, it was a logical blend of the two.
The preparations started in 2007 and artists from not only Vietnam but all over the world contributed in making this idea a reality.
The decorative patterns used represent a visual history of the country throughout different eras.