Hanoi. A classically Asian city, but with a French twist. With all of the architecture, history and tasty cuisine to choose from, we’ve picked all the best bits to make it an unforgettable trip. Here are our picks of the best things to do in Hanoi.
By Sophie Ritchie
Hanoi might possibly be the most charming city in Vietnam – the irresistible combination of old-world architecture and contemporary culture that should be at the top of your South-East Asia itinerary.
- 1. Visit the Mystical Hoàn Kiếm Lake
- 2. Check out the Historic One Pillar Pagoda
- 3. Catch a show at the Beautiful Hanoi Opera House
- 4. Eat Street Food in the Hanoi Old Quarter
- 5. Try Your Hand at a Vietnamese Cooking Class
- 6. Explore the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum and Museum
- 7. Visit the Tay Ho District (West Lake)
- 8. See Into the Life of a Prisoner at the Hoa Lo Prison Museum
- 9. Shop at the Hanoi Weekend Night Market
- 10. See Hanoi from a birds-eye view at the Lotte Tower Observation Deck
- 11. Visit Ho Chi Minh’s Humble Stilt House
- 12. Have a cocktail at Sunset Bar at the InterContinental Hanoi West Lake
- 13. Walk down Hanoi’s famous train street
- Where to stay in Hanoi
1. Visit the Mystical Hoàn Kiếm Lake
The Hoàn Kiếm Lake is a lake in the middle of Hanoi, and one of the major scenic spots in the city. The name of the lake translated is ‘Lake of the Restored Sword, as legend has it that Emperor Ly Thai was sent a magical sword when he was boating on the Lake, which he used to drive the Chinese forces out of Vietnam. After the war, he returned the sword to a giant turtle in the lake who restored it to its divine owners; the lake has since been known as the Lake of the Restored Sword, and the ‘Turtle Tower’ was built on an island in the middle of the lake.
This green, mythical lake is not only full of history, but also beauty, especially when you look at it from the stunning surrounding gardens. They close the roads around the lake each evening from Friday to Sunday when it becomes one of the livelier spots in town.
2. Check out the Historic One Pillar Pagoda
The One Pillar Pagoda is a historic Buddhist Temple in Hanoi, built between 1028 and 1054 under the ruling of Emperor Ly Thai Tong, to express his gratitude for having a son and male heir. It gets its name from its structure, rising from a single pillar in the middle of a square-shaped lotus pond, said to represent a lotus flower growing out of the water.
Beautifully restored with an opulent interior with a fascinating representation of Buddha inside, the One Pillar Pagoda is one of the best things to see in Hanoi.
3. Catch a show at the Beautiful Hanoi Opera House
The Hanoi Opera House was built by the French colonial administration between 1901 and 1911, and is located in central Hanoi. This beautiful building was built by the French Colonial Administration and so is full of neo-classical French architecture and gothic themes throughout, with its pillars, shuttered windows and balconies.
Today, the house hosts opera, traditional folk music and ballet, as well as international concerts, so make sure you check the events happening during your stay – this magnificent building is not something you want to miss!
4. Eat Street Food in the Hanoi Old Quarter
If there was ever a place that could put Borough Market to shame, this is it. While half of the stalls are piled high with fresh produce, which are a marvel to simply look at, the other half are freshly preparing Vietnamese delicacies.
We’d say that you have to try Pho (obviously), but we also recommend trying Cao Lau – a fabulous dish which also happens to be one of Hoi An’s speciality – thick rice noodles, pork (or tofu), bean sprouts and pork rind croutons. And don’t forget dessert, look out for Bo Bia Ngot – two thin pancakes, layered with honeycomb and sprinkled with coconut and sesame seeds. Delicious!
5. Try Your Hand at a Vietnamese Cooking Class
Now that you’ve had a chance to sample the Vietnamese food at the market, why not try your hand at making it? We tried out a Vietnamese cooking class in Hanoi, and it was fabulous. In the class, we cooked Nem (deep fried spring rolls) and Nom Hoa Chuoi (Vietnamese Banana Flower Salad), with the freshest ingredients, which Nguyen told us a bit about before giving us the step-by-step class.
Of course, the best part of it all was eating what we’d made afterwards! This is the perfect way to truly get the taste of the city.
6. Explore the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum and Museum
The Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum is the resting place of Ho Chi Minh, holding his embalmed remains, located in Ba Dinh Square in Hanoi. The huge marble structure takes its model on Lenin’s mausoleum in Russia, but with distinct elements of Vietnamese architecture.
Just a short walk away on the same complex is the Ho Chi Minh Museum, constructed in 1997 and dedicated to Ho Chi Minh’s life and his struggle for Vietnamese independence. Not only are these buildings beautiful and historical, but they are also a very important part of the culture of Hanoi, as they are dedicated to the country’s greatest leader.
7. Visit the Tay Ho District (West Lake)
The Tay Ho District is Hanoi’s newest fashionable area of the city. The Tay Ho Lake (meaning ‘West Lake’) is the largest lake in Hanoi, with a 17km shoreline; we recommend hiring a bike to go round it, as it’s the fastest and easiest way to see the lake and all that Tay Ho has to offer.
Along the shores of the fashionable district are a plentitude of five-star hotels, stylish restaurants and cafes, and even historic sites, such as the Tran Quoc Pagoda and the Quán Thánh Temple, both particularly stunning at sunset. And if you’re there on a Saturday morning, make sure you check out the Tay Ho Market for eclectic products, such as hand-pressed honey and perfume.
8. See Into the Life of a Prisoner at the Hoa Lo Prison Museum
The Hoa Lo Prison, also colloquially known as the ‘Hanoi Hilton’, was a prison used by the French Colonists in Vietnam and later by North Vietnam during the Vietnam War. After it was demolished in 1997 to make way for the Hanoi Central Tower Building, architects preserved it as much as they could and turned it into the Hoa Lo Prison Museum.
The Museum gives visitors an inside look into the horrifying conditions for a prisoner, including an array of instruments used for torture, such as shackles and whips. While it is disturbing to some, it is an interesting look into the real history of Hanoi, and definitely something that everyone should see when visiting the city.
9. Shop at the Hanoi Weekend Night Market
The Hanoi Weekend Night Market is a market located on Hang Dao Street that runs north to the edge of Dong Xuan Market and is one of the best places to visit in Hanoi. From 7pm on Friday, Saturday and Sunday, the roads are filled with stalls selling everything from souvenirs to local food, with the streets and neighbouring sites illuminated with lights, making this a great photo opportunity.
The market also showcases cultural performances, where the locals dress up in traditional costumes and play classic Vietnamese music. All in all, this is a fantastic and memorable evening out.
Exploring more in South-East Asia? Check out our pick of the best things to do in Thailand.
10. See Hanoi from a birds-eye view at the Lotte Tower Observation Deck
The Lotte Tower Observation Deck is the best place to see unparalleled views of the city, from the 65th floor, located in the Western corner of the Ba Dinh district in Hanoi. See views of Hanoi uninterrupted, 267m up, through the floor-to-ceiling glass windows.
The Observation Deck also boasts a sky walk, where the entire floor, ceiling and walls are glass, and so you can see directly beneath the ground you’re walking. There’s also a rooftop bar on the 67th floor, for that much needed drink after that terrifying sky walk!
11. Visit Ho Chi Minh’s Humble Stilt House
Ho Chi Minh’s Stilt House is located in the Presidential Mausoleum Park, and is the house where Minh lived intermittently from 1958-69. Visiting Ho Chi Minh’s stilt house will give visitors an insight into why the humble man was so loved by his people.
Set in a well-tended garden next to a pond, it has been preserved exactly as Ho left it when he passed. From the house, visitors can also look out onto the opulent Presidential Palace, built in 1906 for the Governor General of Indochina.
12. Have a cocktail at Sunset Bar at the InterContinental Hanoi West Lake
For people looking for something a bit special, away from the crowds, we suggest the Sunset Bar at the Intercontinental Hotel. This stylish bar is situated lakeside between three pavilions, on its own island in the middle of West Lake, that can only be reached via a torch-lit bridge. For beautiful views of the city and the best cocktails in town, head to the Sunset Bar. And a tip – they hold happy hour from 5-7pm!
13. Walk down Hanoi’s famous train street
Hanoi’s ‘train street’ is located between Lê Duẩn and Khâm Thin street, on Ngo 224 Le Duan, in the Old Quarter. True to its name, this narrow residential street has a high-speed train that passes through it twice a day, every day, linking Hanoi with Ho Chi Minh City.
For the best photos, we recommend getting there at around 3pm, as the train is due at 3:30pm. Totally unique to Hanoi, this train street is absolutely one of the best things that you can to do in Hanoi.
Where to stay in Hanoi
Sofitel Legend Metropole Hotel
This luxury hotel provides guests with unparalleled service and timeless elegance in the heart of Hanoi, just 200 yards from the famous Hanoi Opera House. Check prices for the Sofitel Legend Metropole Hotel.
The Apricot Hotel
Situated on the edge of the Hoan Kiem Lake, this neo-classical and luxuriously modern hotel boasts 5 stars and a rooftop pool. Check prices for the Apricot Hotel.
Want more South East Asia travel ideas? Check out our collection of South East Asia travel guides, articles and commentary to help you plan your trip.
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