Greetings from Hanoi: Wish You were Here!

- 28
Required Disclaimer: This post may contain products with affiliate links. If you make purchases using these links, we receive a small commission at no extra cost to you. Thank you for your support.

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

Hanoi has a lot of culture and a lot 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 easy walking distance and the city is rather easy to navigate. Also 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 top things to do in Hanoi.

Hoan Kiem District- The Old Quarter of HanoiGreetings from Hanoi Wish You were Here! Streets of Hanoi -Top things to do in

You can easily spend a day wandering around here. The Old Quarter was the thriving trading area for the city. The streets are all named after the trade, i.e. paper street, silk street, coffee street etc and 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 to pedestrians on weekend nights for the Dong Xuan market. A great place to people watch, eat and find cheap souvenirs.

You can find a map and try to follow a route but it is also 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.

Hoan Kiem Lake

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

Download form Asian Essentials


Get the Asian Cuisine ULTIMATE BUNDLE

  • Picture Guide to common Asian Ingredients (take it shopping)
  • Handy Printable Shopping Lists by Cuisine
  • Asian cooking tips, recipes and more!

The lake is heavily used, beginning in the very early morning where many locals come for their morning exercise, including Tai Chi every morning. You can watch or join-in if you would like.

You can 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

In the south east 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. 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 of 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.


Ancestor Worship

Greetings from Hanoi Wish You were Here! Ancestor Worship- Top things to do in Hanoi www.compassandfork.comNotice 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. It is honoring your dead relatives. 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.)


Ba Dinh District (The French Quarter)

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


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


Cultural Things to Do in Hanoi

Water Puppets Show

See a Water puppet show at the Vietnam Contemporary Art Theatre (on the east side of Hoan Kiem Lake). The water puppets are the 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.

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


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.

Greetings from Hanoi Wish you were here!Top things to do in Hanoi Catru-

Traditional Theater

See an 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 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

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 having 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.

The Women’s Museum

Greetings from Hanoi Wish You were Here! Street Eats- Top things todo in Hanoi www.compassandfork.comJust south of Hoan Kiem Lake you will find the Women’s Museum. If you spend any time in Vietnam you will notice how hard the women work. This museum is dedicated to their place in Vietnam’s culture and history. It include exhibits about the costumes and customs of the minority groups, marriage, women’s role during the war and in broader society and 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 Coffeeserved 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 egg 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.

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!


28 Responses

  1. Ria
    | Reply

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

    • Editor

      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

      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

      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

      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

      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

      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

      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

      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

      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

      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

      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

      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.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *