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
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!
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.
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
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)
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!