Culture and History – The Best Things To Do In Hanoi

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Greetings from Hanoi Wish You were Here! Top things to do in Hanoi www.compassandfork.com

Hanoi has a lot of culture, and so much to explore. An ancient city, Hanoi celebrated its millennial (1000) in 2010. Exploring Hanoi is easy, as much of what there is to see and do is within comfortable walking distance and the city is rather easy to navigate.

As it is in the North of Vietnam the weather tends to be cooler and it makes it easier to explore on foot. So here’s our list of the best things to do in Hanoi! These stops are incredible for anyone interested in the ancient history and culture of a truly unique city.

Hoan Kiem District- The Hanoi Old Quarter

Greetings from Hanoi Wish You were Here! Streets of Hanoi -Top things to do in Hanoiwww.compassandfork.com

You can easily spend a day wandering among the winding streets of Hanoi. The Old Quarter is the thriving trading area for the city! The streets are all named after their original trade, i.e. paper street, silk street, coffee street, etc.

Many of these streets still house the original trade. “Hang” which is found in the street names refers to the act of “selling.” So Hang “Silk” is the street selling silk.

Hang Dao Street closes for pedestrians on weekend nights for the Dong Xuan market. A great place to people watch, eat and find cheap souvenirs, it’s one of the great Hanoi attractions!

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You can find a map and try to follow a route but it is just as interesting to wander around. Most of the streets are one way, so while the area is busy it is manageable.

There are a lot of cyclo drivers (bikes with carts for passengers) around if you would like to take a ride and get a different perspective. Always negotiate the price and distance or time before you get in. Otherwise, they may take advantage – it’s a very popular scam in the city.

Stroll along Hoan Kiem Lake

A walk around Hoan Kiem Lake, the “lake of the returned sword”, is a Hanoi must see for any visitor to the city. The name derives from the legend that the emperor received a magical sword from the lake which helped him defeat the Ming Dynasty.

According to legend, after that defeat, the Golden Turtle God returned to the lake. Today there are still very large, and old, tortoises in the lake and seeing one is considered good luck!

The lake is heavily used, beginning in the very early morning when many locals come for their morning exercise, including Tai Chi every morning. You can watch or join in if you would like! It’s great fun.

You can also find many local university students practicing their English around the park. They will approach you very politely (often in very slow English) and strike up a conversation. They are trying to better their conversational English. Often the teacher is with them to translate if the conversation goes beyond their knowledge. Help them out and you might just learn something yourself.

French Influence in Hanoi, Vietnam

In the southeast section of the Hoan Kiem quarter you will find wide, tree-lined streets and a couple of buildings deserving of special mention:

The Hanoi Opera House

Built in 1911 during French rule, the Opera House is spectacular. There is usually something on at the Opera House and it possible to see inside by going to a show. We saw a ballet and an opera. The first half of the show was excerpts from an opera and the second half was a ballet. The building is lovely inside.

The Sofitel Hotel Metropole

This grand old building was built by two Frenchmen in 1901. It was always a luxury hotel. Visiting dignitaries and press stayed here during and after the war. The building is full of old photos, including some of the legendary guests who have stayed at the hotel. It is worth a look around and perhaps a drink in the bar. It is still today considered one of the best hotels in Hanoi.

Experience Hanoi Culture and Religion in Ancestor Worship

Greetings from Hanoi Wish You were Here! Ancestor Worship- Top things to do in Hanoi www.compassandfork.com

Notice any paper clothes, cars, fake US dollars, or houses in the shops? Wondering what that is all about? Throughout Vietnam, there is a spiritual practice known as Ancestor Worship. Basically, it’s a practice of honoring dead relatives, and is very important to many Hanoi residents!

In many homes, you will see an “altar” for the dead. In poorer homes, it is just an area set aside in the home. In the homes of the more well-off, you might see photos included. Deceased family members are often buried on the family land. After this occurs, the land is likely to stay in the family for many generations as they are reluctant to abandon their relatives.

The paper goods are bought to be “sent” to their relatives for the afterlife. They buy the paper replicas to “send” as gifts, for example, a new car or home. The act of burning the paper replica sends it on to the family member.

In Hanoi, we saw quite a few people burning their gifts out in the street to send them onward. (We also saw a similar practice in parts of South America, but there the gifts are buried to be delivered.)

Explore Ba Dinh District (The Hanoi French Quarter)

Greetings from Hanoi Wish You were Here! Sofitel Hanoi Plaza- Top things to do in Hanoiwww.compassandfork.com

You can walk through this area and see many fine examples of French influence in the architecture. You can find a map of this area marking the route at the visitor center or perhaps at your hotel.

The Botanic Gardens, created by a Frenchman in 1890, is 22-hectares in the middle of the city. If you’re spending around 3 days in Hanoi, don’t miss it! It’s a great place to relax and escape the hustle and bustle of Hanoi.

Visit Hanoi West Lake

An area where many expats live, it has a lot of upmarket shops and restaurants. You can walk along the lovely lakeshore. A great place for an evening drink, which affords spectacular views over Westlake and Hanoi, is from the Pan Pacific Hotel’s (formerly the Sofitel Plaza Hanoi) rooftop bar.

What to do in Hanoi? Take in these Cultural Gems

Hanoi is full of beautiful, enriching things to see and do. These are some of our absolute favorites – you’re sure to love them.

Water Puppets Show

If you’re looking for Hanoi attractions with tradition and history, this is a great option! See a Water puppet show at the Vietnam Contemporary Art Theatre (on the east side of Hoan Kiem Lake).

The water puppets are an important traditional art form, dating back to the 11th century in rural Vietnam. As the rice paddies were often flooded, the “performers” stood in the field (in the water) and used wooden puppets to tell folk tales and legends about village life and the rice harvest.

Today the performers hide behind a bamboo screen and the puppets, accompanied by operatic songs and traditional music, tell the stories of rural life.

Buy your ticket in advance (assigned seats) and then come back later for the show. You can also buy them online!

Greetings from Hanoi Wish You were Here! Water Puppets- Top things to do in Hanoi www.compassandfork.com

Watch a Catru Show

Catru is a form of traditional music performed inside a traditional shop house in the old quarter. Catru has a long history. This form of music was banned and considered immoral during the communist reign from 1954-1991 and is only beginning to re-emerge in Hanoi.

It has a number of rules governing its performance (which are explained at the show.) It is unlike anything I have ever seen and is worth a look if you have the opportunity. The building, in the Old Quarter, where the performance is held has a long history and there are a number of pictures explaining its history. If you are after something unique, it’s definitely one of the top things to do in Hanoi.

Greetings from Hanoi Wish you were here!Top things to do in Hanoi Catru- www.compassandfork.com

Experience Traditional Theater

See an amazing example of traditional theater at Vietnam National Tuong Opera. This is opera as it was originally performed. The venue is tiny and it is an excellent place to hear and see traditional music performed on ancient instruments.

The costumes are fantastic with large ornate masks and the performers all wearing large wooden shoes. The movement of the performance is an art form in itself.

Go early and you even have the opportunity to try on the costumes yourself. Stay after the show and you can get pictures with the performers in their costumes.

Greetings from Hanoi Wish You were Here! Tradtional Theatre - Top things to do in Hanoiwww.compassandfork.com

See a Performance at the Hanoi Opera House

As per above, the Hanoi Opera House is a great place to see more modern shows. To find out what is on you can check the ticket agent. We did not buy our tickets online. Instead, we had a travel agent organize them for us at the same cost.

Your hotel can also organize them on your behalf. We organized it this way, as you need to have the tickets delivered somewhere. Many of the four- and five-star international hotels are located near the Opera House, as well as some lovely restaurants if you want to have dinner before the show and make a night of it.

Explore The Women’s Museum

Just south of Hoan Kiem Lake you will find the Women’s Museum, a Hanoi attraction like no other. If you spend any time in Vietnam you will notice how hard the women work. This museum is dedicated to its place in Vietnam’s culture and history. A visit here is considered one of the very best things to do in Hanoi!

It includes exhibits about the costumes and customs of the minority groups, marriage, women’s roles during the war and in broader society, as well as an exhibit of the street vendors you find through Vietnam.

Many of the women you see working in Hanoi come in from the neighboring villages, spending all week away from their family in order to make money to support their families.

It is a very interesting museum, well worth a visit. If you are not going to visit rural Vietnam, it definitely should be on your list of things to do. All exhibits are labeled in both French and English.

Greetings from Hanoi Wish You were Here! Street Eats- Top things todo in Hanoi www.compassandfork.com

Eating in Hanoi

One of our favorite activities! Don’t miss the opportunity to try out a few Vietnamese classics while you are there. On our highly recommended to try list in Hanoi:

  • Pho– Vietnamese eat it traditionally for breakfast, but it is served all day long.
  • Banh Mi– a classic Vietnamese sandwich with a lot of French influence.
  • Vietnamese Coffee– served hot or cold, with or without “milk” (sweetened condensed milk that is). And in Hanoi, you can also find egg coffee, which looks a bit like scrambled eggs in coffee.
  • Bun Bo Nam Bo– a classic noodle dish from Hanoi, served in lots of places. Look for it in the Old Quarter, and pull up a small, plastic stool.

Great Overnight Trips from Hanoi to further Explore Vietnam

Other parts of northern Vietnam are easily accessible from Hanoi.  We recommend you make these overnight trips as the travel times and distances are too far for a day trip.

Mai Chau

If you would like to experience rural Vietnam, including the scenic rice fields and a simpler way of life, Mai Chau is a lovely escape from Hanoi.

We spent two nights in Mai Chau at the lovely Sol Bungalows.  It is not as touristy as Ninh Binh or Sapa (below) and offers a chance to see how people live in rural villages in Vietnam.

Sol Bungalows was very comfortable, offered great hospitality and food.  We hired a guide and did several tours here including a bike ride around the villages and a trip into the nearby mountains to visit the local villages.  One of our most memorable afternoons in Vietnam was spent with a local couple at their home in the mountains outside of Mai Chau. (follow the link above for the whole story)

Ha Long Bay

A UNESCO World Heritage site, I am not sure Halong Bay needs much introduction.  I hear and am often asked if it is worth it to visit Halong Bay.  Based on our experience, I’d say “yes” don’t miss it if you are in Vietnam.

Having a reputation for being over-touristed, the Vietnamese government has recently enacted stricter regulations around tourism and cruises in Halong Bay. 

Like most things, you get what you pay for with a cruise in Ha Long Bay.  Our two-night luxury cruise in Halong Bay was magnificent.  Staying two nights allowed us to go further into Halong Bay and explore some of those areas not quite as busy with day trips and one-night cruises. 

Ninh Binh

Known as “Ha Long Bay on land” for it’s karst mountain formations which resemble those found in Ha Long Bay, Ninh Binh is best known for Hoa Lu and Tam Coc.  Hoa Lu is an ancient capital, and Tam Coc, which means “3 caves,” features karst formations and caves you explore by boat.

During a visit to Ninh Binh, you have the opportunity to see and learn about the Northern Vietnamese countryside, history, and culture.

As this is closer to Hanoi than Mai Chau, it is possible to visit Ninh Binh as a very long full-day tour departing from the Old Quarter in Hanoi.  Unfortunately, it’s close proximity to Hanoi means it is quite touristy.

If you want to get away from the crowds and see the countryside of Northern Vietnam, Mai Chau is a better option than Ninh Binh.  If you are pressed for time, Ninh Binh is more accessible.             

Sapa

If you want to visit the mountains of Northern Vietnam and learn about the hill tribes, Sapa is an overnight train ride from Hanoi.

With a bit of altitude, Sapa provides a welcome respite from the heat and humidity of Hanoi.

If you are a keen photographer, you don’t want to miss Sapa.  Attending one of the local weekly markets in the nearby villages offers an opportunity to see the native dress from the hill tribes.  It is very colorful and unique!

The food in Sapa is also a bit different from other places in Vietnam, showing more influence from Laos and Thailand.  You can find more about visiting Sapa from Hanoi (including how to take the train) via the link above.

Final Thoughts on Hanoi, Vietnam

Hanoi is a fantastic place to visit, and we thoroughly enjoyed wandering around and exploring it. Don’t forget to look-up and check out the work of Vietnam Telecom. The number of wires and the intertwining of it is truly picture-worthy!

Greetings from Hanoi: Wish you were here! www.compassandfork.com

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28 Responses

  1. Ria
    | Reply

    Have been in all places – good list 🙂 I really felt in love with Vietnam 🙂

    • Editor
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      Hanoi was a real surprise packet. We have great memories of it.

  2. Mary {The World Is A Book}
    | Reply

    This was a great read and I learned so much about Vietnam and Hanoi. I like that there are so many diverse attractions. I would love to watch a Catru performance and see the water puppets. They look so interesting. I have always wanted to visit this part of Vietnam so thanks for the virtual tour for now.

    • Editor
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      My pleasure Mary. As you can probably tell we loved Vietnam and Hanoi so we like to encourage others to go to such an interesting and vibrant city.

  3. Hi there, here from the Travel Blogged thread. This post is so informative, I was hooked at the first photo, it’s so atmospheric. I’ve subscribed as well :-).

    • Editor
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      Thanks so much Conor. We do like a bit of detail as we think it helps fellow travelers looking for information. And Hanoi, what a vibrant place. Full of energy.

  4. Sanket D.
    | Reply

    Heard lots about Vietnam and the Vietnamese while I was in Pondicherry earlier this year. Both were part of a trade route used by the French and I find some similarities between both cultures based on your post here. Sounds like an interesting city, does Hanoi.

    • Editor
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      Hanoi is definitely an interesting city, maybe more so than Ho Chi Minh City. We were amazed at the French influence on Vietnamese cooking. And the cuisine is a highlight there, no doubt.

      Thanks for your comment.

  5. Himanshu
    | Reply

    I so much want to visit this place. Have heard of Catru…its enchanting.

    • Editor
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      Thanks for your comment. Enchanting is a good way to describe Catru. We were so pleased to see and hear it.

  6. kimberly erin @ walkaboot
    | Reply

    eating eating eating eating…that is the best…also the water puppet show looks really cool…unique? I would love to experience some asian theater

    • Editor
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      Thanks for your comment. Yes the eating was great and cheap as well. We loved the water puppets – great to see some old technology arts still survive. Get there yourself, you will love it.

  7. Karrie
    | Reply

    Vietnam is on my bucket list!! Thank you for the “things to do” in Hanoi. bookmarked!

    • Editor
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      Our pleasure Karrie, thanks for your comment. If you are going there you might want to read this post on how to save some money.

  8. The Water Puppets and the Women Museum sounds interesting. Would have been nicer to see more pics of the Women’s Museum.

    • Editor
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      Karla, The link to the Women’s Museum is worthwhile. Their website if very good if you would like to learn more. It even has some videos on it.

  9. Erin
    | Reply

    What an awesome and informative post!! Makes me want to hop on a plane to explore Hanoi! I love traveling to ancient cities, and the theater and puppetry looks awesome! They have similar marionette shows here in Salzburg Austria (where I live now!) – they’re my favorite. Also, can’t believe they eat pho for breakfast! Pho is one of my favorite meals of all time, so I guess I wouldn’t mind eating it for breakfast either. It’s so nourishing – might be the perfect way to start the day! Thanks for sharing!

    • Editor
      |

      The puppets are cool and I would hate to see “old technology” arts like that disappear in this over-connected world. Pho can be eaten any time of the day in Hanoi. Here is our version of it if you are interested. Thanks for your comment.

  10. Mar
    | Reply

    Been to Hanoi several times and every time I am unsure as to whether I like it or not. Sometimes I find it noisy, dirty and people unpleasant always trying to harass you. But other times it is refreshing, colorful and fascinating. One of those very extreme cities

    • Editor
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      Mar, I would agree. I think HCMC is even more extreme.

  11. Dannielle Lily
    | Reply

    This took me right back to my time in Hanoi! Such a chaotic, intriguing place. I had no idea about the French influence until I arrived there. Did you find it weird how nightclubs weren’t allowed? I almost got busted by the police at a lock in!

    • Editor
      |

      Dannielle,
      There were a few unusual things. We found it interesting that international newspapers are still read by the censors before it it made available for sale. Occasionally things are redacted before it can be sold. This used to be more common but the internet means more access to news now.

  12. Jennifer McMillen
    | Reply

    Loved your post! The water puppets are really interesting. I also LOVE Vietnamese food.

    • Editor
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      Thanks for your comment Jennifer. The water puppets were a favorite. Good to see an old technology art surviving in our connected world.

  13. James | The Globe Wanderers
    | Reply

    Really loved reading this. Brought back all the feelings I had when visiting the city myself a few years back.
    Its such a cool place. Madness and chaos similar to so many places in Vietnam. I found the street food here amazing and really loved exploring it on bike and by foot round the parks.
    The water puppet show was …. different. I loved it but can’t explain how haha. Awesome post 🙂

    • Editor
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      Thank you so much James. It is a frantic place. The level of energy in Hanoi never ceases to amaze me. Every time I see plastic chairs I think of Vietnamese street food.

  14. Chris
    | Reply

    Ah Vietnam, one of my favourite countries in the world!

    Unfortunately we found the water puppetry to be ridiculously boring, however one experience we loved (but I don’t recall reading in your post) was Bia Hoi!

    There was something that felt liberating about quaffing light beer brewed fresh that day! 🙂

    • Editor
      |

      Chris, We loved the water puppets! But we had spent a lot of time in rural Vietnam so it brought back lots of memories! The fresh beer was great! We couldn’t believe how cheap it was, especially in Hoi An.

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