There are many fantastic things to do in Hanoi. Some are simply unmissable, others are pure fun.
Hanoi, the capital of Vietnam, is one of the most interesting places to visit in the country. It’s a typical Asian metropolis, with traffic, chaos and noise that can at times be overwhelming. Yet, it can be a lot of fun, not to mention a great place to get a better understanding of Vietnamese culture, way of life and spirit.
I recommend spending at least 3 days in Hanoi, and if you have a fourth day to spare, you can also get to visit some of the beautiful surroundings. Curious to find out more? Continue reading this post for a selection of unmissable Hanoi attractions and for the best things to do in Hanoi.
Make sure to read my post The Best Things To Do In Vietnam.
16 Unmissable Things To Do In Hanoi
Explore Hanoi Old Quarter
As soon as you get to Hanoi, make sure to head to the Old Quarter – in fact, this is where most travelers stay. This is the historic heart and commercial center of the city, where there are lot of interesting attractions – think temples and pagodas.
Located in Hanoi Old Quarter you will also find Hanoi Train Street – as it became known. This is a truly narrow alleyway where locals live and go about their daily business, seemingly oblivious to the train that passes through several times a day.
Walking around the Old Quarter, you will also notice that it is packed with a multitude of tiny bars, restaurants and the biggest array of street food places you can imagine.
This is also where you’ll find all the travel agencies selling tours to the rest of the country. But you are thinking of buying a guided tour of Ha Long Bay or Sapa Valley in one of the many agencies located in Hanoi Old Quarter, make sure to take online reviews with a pinch of salt. Some reviews are blatantly fake!
You can book your Hanoi Old Quarter tour here.
Admire St. Joseph’s Cathedral
The oldest church in Hanoi (construction started in 1886) is a beautiful building. You can stop by quickly to admire its exterior and pop inside – it’s open daily but closes during lunch time. The double bell tower makes it look a bit like Notre Dame in Paris – after all it was built by the French!
Walk along Hoan Kiem Lake and visit Ngoc Son Pagoda
Hoan Kiem Lake (also known as Turtle Lake) is a lovely place to visit, especially as there are no cars and no scooters there, so it’s a nice break from the terrible traffic of Hanoi. Make sure to cross the bridge that leads to the island at the center of the lake, as this is where the lovely Ngoc Son Pagoda is located. It costs 20,000 Vietnamese Dong (VDN), which is less than $1 USD, to visit the temple.
Make sure to go to Hoan Kiem Lake at night. That’s when the bridge to Ngoc Son gets illuminated and the sight is truly beautiful.
Visit the Temple of Literature
The Temple of Literature is dedicated to Confucius, the temple was built in 1070. It then became a university for Mandarin students. Around the temple there are stelae which are dedicated to the students.
For a tour of Hanoi that also goes to the Temple of Literature, click here.
Explore Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum Complex and its surroundings
Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum is (obviously) dedicated to Ho Chi Minh, the political leader of Vietnam. Close to that you will find Ho Chi Minh’s Stilt House and the One Pillar Pagoda, which are two of the most famous Hanoi attractions. I recommend exploring the area, which is pretty and quiet – as opposed to most of the city, it is closed to traffic and the roads are spacious.
This tour of Hanoi also goes to Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum.
Visit the Imperial Citadel of Thang Long
Known as the citadel of Hanoi, the Imperial Citadel of Thang Long is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. This used to be the political center of Hanoi.
The citadel is located in Ba Dinh and it opens every day from 8:00 am and to 7:30 pm.
Enjoy a show at Hanoi Opera House
The Opera House was built in 1911, when Hanoi was under French rule, in what is now known as the French Quarter. It was pretty much left to the elements when the French left Vietnam, but it was renovated in 1997. Consider attending a show – there are Vietnamese opera performances, concerts and even ballet. Prices start from around $4 USD so it’s completely affordable.
Visit Hỏa Lò Prison
Hỏa Lò means fiery furnace, and that’s how Vietnamese people nicknamed this prison (now a museum) that was built in the late 19th century, opened in 1896, and originally used by the French colonizers to imprison political prisoners, and later on US Prisoners of War during the American War (that’s how the Vietnam War is called locally) – among them Senator John McCain.
The nickname has several origins. First of all, the area where the prison is located is known for the many wood stove shops. But – most importantly – it’s due to the fact that prisoners were subjected to torture inside.
A visit will take you around the tiny prison cells; and you will also get to see instruments of torture and capital punishment, including the guillotine used to behead prisoners. There are even images of the heads in baskets – as it the plain idea of such a thing happening was not enough.
One of the most interesting bits of the museum is the exhibit that documents the treatment of US POWs during the American War. It’s interesting to see how – if we were to go by the exhibit – these were actually treated humanely, something we knew was definitely not the case.
The museum is open daily from 8:00 am to 5:00 pm. Admission is 30,000 Vietnamese Dong (VND) (less than $1.50 USD). It’s not a suitable place for children.
Go to the Water Puppet Show
One of the most touristy yet interesting things to do in Hanoi is attending the Water Puppet Show. In a small theater in the heart of the city, puppets are moved from under the water in a show that showcases the pillars of Vietnamese way of life, culture and even religion. The show lasts about one hour and it costs around $10 USD.
Make sure to get your ticket in advance, either online or at the theater. There are several shows daily. You can get Water Puppet Show tickets here.
Do a street food tour
If there is one thing that I love about Asia that’s all the street food. A street food will give you the chance to learn more about the local dishes and will explain how to pick a good place from one that isn’t as good. It’s a fantastic way to get introduced to what’s a huge part of Vietnamese culture, and to eat a lot of delicious food for a real steal!
For an even more in depth experience, you may want to join a cooking class. Most start with a market tour.
You can book your cooking class in Hanoi here.
Do some shopping
Hanoi is an excellent shopping destination and one of the best things to do in Hanoi is indeed shopping. There are various markets around town (well, in fact there are shops everywhere!). One of the most famous ones is Dong Xuan Market. The building is anything but charming, and depending on where you go the smell is overpowering. But if you past the fish section, it can be a cool place to spot local life and do some shopping. The market closes at 7:00 pm.
Another market you will want to visit is the night market, which is held every Friday, Saturday and Sunday from 6:00 to 11:00 pm. The market goes along Hang Dao Street all the way to Dong Xuan Market, so it is massive. You can find just about anything you may want.
Enjoy Hanoi nightlife
One of the most fun things to do in Hanoi is enjoying its nightlife. To be fair, it doesn’t compare to that of Saigon, but it’s still worth going out and see what’s going on! According to local law, bars and clubs in Hanoi have to close by midnight. However, before closing time the city is incredibly lively.
The best areas to go for a night drink are the Hoan Kiem Lake area and the Old Quarter, which are packed with small bars. Sit in one of the tiny plastic stools and enjoy a cold beer for a real steal.
Learn to cross the street
Hanoi is a huge city – almost 10 million people live there, and traffic in Hanoi is daunting. Each and every person that lives in Hanoi owns a scooter, a car or both.
Walking around is difficult because, on top of all the traffic caused by scooters, bikes, cars and small trucks, there are all the scooters parked on the sidewalk, and shops use the sidewalk to hang out their merchandise. To this you must add all the small tables and stools of the street food places. Basically, you are forced to walk in the middle of the street and must avoid being hit.
The secret to walk or cross the road in Hanoi is to just go. Really. Drivers never stop to allow pedestrians to cross the street (not even on zebra lines), yet they will somehow avoid them, driving around them while they hit their horn multiple times as a warning. It takes some getting used to, but you’ll get the hang of it.
Go to the Perfume Pagoda
When Hanoi becomes too much, simply head out of town! If you are in search for a truly local experience, go to the Perfume Pagoda.
The Perfume Pagoda is a complex of Buddhist temples built along the Houng Tich mountain chain. Here, the most relevant temple is Chua Trong, which is located inside a cave.
Though the place is beautiful in its own way, what makes the trip worth it is the overall experience. In order to get there, you have to ride a wooden rowing boat. Traditionally, these are moved by women. The boat ride lasts around one hour and the views along the way are lovely.
Once on the site, you will notice that it is packed with street food stalls and shops, much like a huge shopping mall, and that it is crowded – yet there are hardly any foreign tourists. Keep on walking following the stairs, or take the cable car, to get all the way to the top. The views are stunning.
Make sure to factor enough time for a trip to the Perfume Pagoda. For as close as it is to Hanoi, the traffic to get there and back is terrible! Also keep in mind that this part of the country is very humid, so make sure to wear good shoes with grip soles as the area is very slippery.
You can book your Perfume Pagoda tour from Hanoi here.
Explore Ba Vi National Park
Ba Vi National Park is in a nice reserve at about 60 km (37 miles) from Hanoi. It’s a fantastic place to go hiking, and get a good break from the chaos of the city. One of the perks of the park is the natural hot springs. On top of the tallest mountain there is a temple that dates back to the 11th century and from where there are breathtaking views.
You can book your trip to Ba Vi National Park here.
Visit Ninh Binh and Trang An
One of the nicest things to do in Hanoi is getting on a motorbike and head to Ninh Binh. The area is lovely, with many temples, valleys and even caves, so I don’t recommend to visit it on a day trip. It’s better to stay overnight. Trang An complex, a lovely UNESCO World Heritage Site, is an easy boat ride from Ninh Binh. You will find temples, caves and plenty of nice sights.
Make sure to read my post 13 Great Day Trips From Hanoi.
Further Tips To Plan Your Trip To Hanoi
How to move around Hanoi
Most tourists in Hanoi stay in the Old Quarter, from where moving around is really easy – you can literally walk everywhere from there. If you need to travel farther away, you can count on Grab – it’s the Southeast Asia version of Uber and super easy to use!
Is Hanoi safe?
Much like the rest of Vietnam, Hanoi is actually quite safe – even for solo female travelers – and the only thing you have to look out for are traffic, which is insane, and scams. Just keep your eyes open, don’t loose sight of your personal belongings, and to avoid common taxi scams just use Grab to book a cab.
Though Hanoi is a safe city, you really should get a good travel insurance for your trip. You can find a good travel insurance deal here.
Where to stay in Hanoi
The good news about Hanoi is that whatever accommodation option you will pick, it’s going to be extremely good value for money. The city caters for any kind of traveler, with a variety of hostels, guest houses, boutique and luxury hotels.
Here are some good places to stay:
- Central Backpackers Hostel in Hanoi Old Quarter is a very good option for backpackers.
- O’Gallery Majestic Hotel and Spa is a fabulous boutique hotel near Hoan Kiem Lake.
- My Moon Hotel Hanoi is a very good mid range option.
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