Bearing long historical legacy, Vietnam’s capital city, Hanoi, is one of the most vibrant and thriving cosmopolitan cities in Asia. With old monuments, churches, and administrative buildings dating from Vietnam’s colonial period, ancient temples and historical structures, natural attractions like picturesque nature parks and gorgeous lakes as well as an amazing variety of museums highlighting Vietnam’s history and culture, Hanoi is a very unique and desirable travelling destination.
Moreover, it presents an awesome food scene with its famous cafes and restaurants that allow visitors to take part in cooking classes and prepare traditional dishes. So, what are you waiting for? Just head to Hanoi if you are planning your next vacation and make sure you visit the following places.
Watch Vietnam’s unique puppet shows at Water Puppet Theatre
Puppetry has been a popular traditional performing art of Vietnam since ancient times like that of many other countries but Vietnam owns the reputation of running puppet shows differently. Its uniqueness lies in hosting water puppet shows. You can watch these shows at Hanoi’s famous Thang Long Water Puppet Theatre where puppeteers standing in high waist water of a pool operate puppets fastened to bamboo canes so that it seems like the wooden puppets are dancing to music.
Such acts translate Vietnam’s myths, legends and folk stories. It is one of Vietnam’s integral cultural markers as puppet shows originated hundreds of years ago in rural Vietnam where the villagers used to dance with puppets on the flooded rice fields. Besides the puppet shows, this theatre also features other performances. You wouldn’t definitely want to miss this unique and rare scene that you won’t find anywhere else in the world.
Discover women’s status in local Vietnamese society at Vietnamese Women’s Museum
Vietnamese Women’s museum is one of Hanoi’s best museums which tells stories about the rural women’s role thus reflecting the culture of local Vietnamese society. It has on its display approximately 1000 exhibits ranging from tribal handicrafts to local costumes created by tribal people. There are galleries dedicated to exhibiting Vietnam’s wartime portrayals.
One speciality about this museum is it also presents exhibitions based on specific themes to portray changes and developments of contemporary Vietnamese society that have taken course over the years. The museum basically functions with the objective of enriching people’s knowledge of Vietnamese women from a cultural perspective and promoting gender parity.
Hike the Ba Vi National Park
If you want to breathe fresh air while appreciating the beauty of nature, head to Ba Vi National Park which is undoubtedly Hanoi’s most beautiful natural attraction. Facilitated with hiking trails, it is an amazing place to climb the three mountain summits that jut out of the green landscape replete with wild birds and animals. The 1,296m high Din Vua is the highest peak, the 1,226m high Tan Vien is the second highest and Ngoc Hoa is the smallest one with a height of about 1,131m. Pilgrims hike up to Tan Vien to pay their homage to the Mountain God at a famous 11th century shrine.
When these summits are covered with floating white clouds it’s a splendid sight to watch. It’s a tropical rainforest area having a beautiful butterfly garden and a colourful orchid. The views of the woodland area from the mountain tops are incredibly scenic. The Da River and multiple streams flowing amidst the greeneries further add to the natural beauty of this park. Another interesting fact about this park is it dates from the French Colonial period of Vietnam and ever since then its plants have been medically beneficial especially for the Dao tribal people. Make sure to come here between December to April when the climate is favourable and you’ll be able to spot clear panoramic views.
Enjoy lake side sitting at Hoan Kiem Lake
One of Hanoi’s oldest landmarks, Hoan Kiem Lake, is a top tourist destination because of its historical significance and natural beauty. The soft-shell turtles swimming on the lake water presents a wonderful sight to watch. Its name meaning "Lake of the Returning Sword" as originated from a legend that asserts Emperor Ly Thai found out a magical sword which he used to banish Chinese people from Vietnam and towards the end of that year a huge golden turtle escaped with the sword inside the Lake to return it to its divine owners.
The lake’s former name was Luc Thuy meaning green water in English as the lake water appears greenish. It always remains crowded with tourists all the time and especially during night when it is decorated with lights and its illuminated scenario serves as great backgrounds for photographs. This is a perfect place to go for an evening or afternoon stroll and tae in some really stunning vistas. Since tortoises are considered to be sacred in Vietnam, Hoan Kiem Lake is considered holy to be a holy place.
Take a tour of the Imperial Citadel of Thang Long
The Imperial Citadel in Vietnam’s capital was formerly the most important site during the Vietnam War. It was the city’s seat of military power. Housing historical treasures unearthed during the discovery of ancient places including bunkers, military weapons and maps dating from the time of the Vietnam War, and carrying the legacy of 1000 years it has been designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Many of the original parts of Tang Long were restored after recent excavations were carried out at the site of the citadel. Though it remains open every day, if you come here on Monday you’ll have to pay VND 30,000.
Make the most of Hanoi’s Nightlife
Your Hanoi tour can’t be complete unless you experience the city’s local nightlife. Although the bars and clubs in Hanoi closes by midnight owing to local law but during closing hours are quite appealing and lively. While there are many areas where you can hang out, the Hoan Kiem Lake area and the Old Quarter present the best nightlife scenes.
The Old Quarter is full of tiny bars where you can enjoy some great drinks. Also, you’re going to love the flavours of Hanoi's street food and delicious dishes at the restaurants and street food stalls lining the Old Quarter area. One of the most vibrant places to have a drink in Hanoi is the Hanoi Social Club. This three storeyed cafe is one of the best cafes in Hanoi and serves several kinds of alcoholic drinks and coffee.
Embark on a beautiful journey to Perfume Pagoda
Perfume Pagoda, also known as Huong pagoda, is the main temple among the many Buddhist temples built on the slopes of Huong Tich Mountains’ limestone cliffs. The name of the temple means Inner Temple. The most interesting fact about Perfume Pagoda is its historical significance. It is widely believed that this site was unearthed about 2000 years ago. As it's located inside Huong Tichu Cave, the temple remains very cool. So, you might feel cold inside it. The cave’s entrance, looking like a dragon’s mouth, is decorated with old Chinese letters dating from the 18th century meaning ‘first grade cave of the South World’.
It renders an intriguingly mystic appeal. The cave is filled with Buddhist statues and stalactites and stalagmites that the pilgrims touch while passing by as they are believed to bring good luck, especially during the Chua Huong festival which is held from January to April. Perfume Pagoda is incredibly beautiful but the journey is even more beautiful. On reaching the mountain you’ll have to board a wooden boat flowing through a narrow stream bordered by rice fields, green grounds and many temples. You may visit a few other Pagodas as well that you’ll come across on your way to Perfume Pagoda.
Attend live shows at Hanoi Opera House
Hanoi Opera House is a quintessential cultural destination of Hanoi. The building of the Hanoi Opera House manifests impressive classic architecture. It was built by the French Colonial Government during the first decade of the 20th century. Make sure you visit this place at least once while you are in the city if you want to watch wonderful live shows of opera singing. These classic opera shows garner huge crowds.
You may also watch a ballet performance or other performances of western classics here and you’re surely going to be mesmerised by the kind of shows that they put up. However, you’ll have to book tickets in advance in order to watch any show. You come here easily as it’s quite popular and hence is easily accessible from any part of the city.
Take in the splendour of Temple of Literature
Another famous temple in Hanoi is the Temple of Literature dedicated to the ancient Chinese philosopher Confucius. Though there are many temples in Vietnam that are dedicated to Confucius, this is remarkably well-known because the Imperial Academy is hosted here. You’ll be surprised to know that this temple was created a millennium ago in 1070. You can easily reach here as it is well-connected with different modes of transportation and you can visit it anytime as it remains open 24 hours.
That the temple is printed on the back side of Vietnam’s official bank note shows how significant it is for Vietnam. The layout of the temple is quite similar to the birthplace of Confucius. Inside the temple complex lies a beautiful lake known as the Lake of Literature. The temple manifests splendid traditional Vietnamese architecture. Some remarkable features are the Stele of Doctors, the Well of Heavenly Clarity and 82 carved blue stone turtles which are considered to be Vietnam’s holy being.
Besides these, there are pavilions, pathways and courtyards where you can sit and admire the temple’s magnificent historical buildings dating from the Ly and Tran dynasties. It’s called the temple of literature because it’s a sort of memorial to literature and academics as it has a steel engraved with the names of successful graduates.
Observe the Thap Rua Tower
Popularly known as the Tortoise tower, Thap Rua Tower is a beautifully designed small tower situated on a small island right in the centre of Hanoi’s sword lake. Sadly the tower isn’t open to the public but watching it from a distance is not a bad idea. This tower was actually built during the French colonial period when many people fled away from the city owing to the fear of dying. The place where the tower is situated was formerly the fishing area of the well-known king Le Thanh Tong. Though mainly significant due to its historical context, it is also a popular tourist spot due to its photogenic scenario.
Walk on the Long Bien Bridge
The historic Log Bien Bridge is an iconic landmark of Vietnam’s capital. Built across the Red River over a span of three years from 1899 to 1902, the Long Bien Bridge connecting two districts namely Hoan Kiem and Long Bien is an impressive structure to behold. Eminent architects came from Paris to lay out the design of this bridge. Having assumed strategic importance during the Vietnam War it remains one of the city’s prominent historical sites.
This 1700 metre long bridge has survived damages caused by bombarding during the Vietnam War and has undergone recent renovations. Therefore only half of the bridge retains its original structure. Visit it in the evening, at least once, so that you get to see how splendid the bridge looks with all the lights on it. There's a path that enables walking through the bridge on foot. So, take a walk across the bridge while snacking on tasty street food from the street-side stalls.
Learn about the past at Hoa Lo Prison
Hanoi’s Hoa Lo Prison is another unique place that carries traces of Vietnamese culture. Dubbed as Hanoi Hilton, it was formerly the place where American prisoners were held captives in Hanoi during the Vietnam War. Till 1950 it used to be an important site of the Vietnamese independence struggle. Now it contains galleries representing historical facts. Its remarkable displays the French guillotine used by the colonialists and memorabilia of American pilots lost to the Vietnam War.
Go on a boating ride to West Lake
Hanoi’s largest freshwater lake namely West Lake, having a 17 kilometre long shore line, is one of the most popular tourist spots in Hanoi. You’ll get to see a few historic spots here including Tran Quoc pagoda situated on a small island at the centre of the lake. The Quan Thanh Temple dating from the 11th century is another interesting attraction of the West Lake. Because of its recreational facilities and due to its long shoreline it is one of Hanoi's top vacationing destinations.
Having historical associations, this lake is said to have been shaped after a century old battle fought between warrior clans. It was formed by deriving a curve-like portion of the famous Red River. West Lake presents a natural scenario which serves as a sharp contrast to the Old Quarter; Hanoi’s most popular landmark. You can sit by the side of the lake’s edges and enjoy a drink or a cup of coffee or indulge a delicious meal at a street-side restaurant. But just don’t miss the boat ride here.
Visit the Vietnam Military History Museum, Hanoi
Since the Vietnam War was a major significant event of Vietnam’s history, you’ll find multiple memorabilia of it in many places including Vietnam Military History Museum. Its notable Vietnam War displays include an M107 self-propelled gun, the wrecked American B-52 bomber and the historic military tank that had hastily passed through Saigon’s Presidential Palace’s gates marking the end of the Vietnam War in 1975 and other war weaponries used during the Vietnam War.
Apart from Vietnam War displays, it also houses ancient artefacts like those belonging to the Hong Bang Dynasty in 2879 BC. You’ll also get to see the Battle of Dien Bien Phu’s diorama, a Soviet MiG fighter plane on show and some records of propaganda videos. There are also several tans, planes and smaller military exhibits. You won’t find your trip to this museum boring as its exhibits are quite interesting and it gives a good opportunity to let the visitors know about Vietnam’s military history.
Spend a day exploring the Old Quarters
Hanoi’s reputation as one of the prettiest traditional cities in Vietnam stems from the existence of the Old Quarter. Composed of a dense network of an array of streets whose names indicate the kind of shops present there, it is undoubtedly one of the best shopping destinations in Hanoi. You’ll find here an amazing collection of souvenirs and it comes with tasty local eateries. To make the most out of this place don’t forget to visit Old Quarter’s night market that is held from Friday to Sunday. A visit to the Memorial House is also mandatory. It is a restored building that formerly belonged to a merchant.
The house contains some impressive furniture and two beautiful courtyards. What is really unique about this house is the presence of the symbolic ‘high steps’ between the rooms which are believed to prevent the negative energy flowing from one room to another. A must visit place in the Old Quarter is the gorgeous pretty Bach Ma Temple which is the city’s oldest temple. It was built in the 11th century during the reign of Emperor Ly Thai To to honour a white horse which the emperor followed all the way to the site of this temple. Although the temple isn’t in its original state, you’ll get to witness its old charm.
Know about Vietnamese ethnicity Vietnam Museum of Ethnology
The Museum of Ethnology is one of the best museums not only in Hanoi but also in Vietnam. It showcases a wide variety of objects associated with the Vietnamese ethnic minorities. You’ll find here galleries displaying artefacts and handicrafts as well other objects associated with Vietnamese tribal culture like beautiful replicas of traditional rural houses. You’ll also notice some signage in different languages that further add to the museum’s cultural and historical importance.
Go to Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum
Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum is a famous Vietnamese pilgrimage spot dedicated to the famous political leader, Ho Chi Minh, who is regarded as the founder of modern Vietnam. Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum is composed of well-maintained gardens surrounding an enormous complex venerating the tomb of Ho Chi Minh. The main mausoleum comprising a marble building is home to the Ho Chi Minh’s embalmed remains. The Ho Chi Minh Museum, lying within the complex, narrates the life story of this eminent leader and throws light on his position in Vietnamese history.
You’ll get to know more about Ho Chi Minh if you explore the museum galleries displaying his personal memorabilia. Nearby you’ll find two famous tourist attractions namely the One Pillar Pagoda and Ho Chi Minh’s Stilt House. This part of the city is quite peaceful as there’s no traffic. So you’ll enjoy taking strolls along the quiet roads.
Taste unique Vietnamese dishes
Hanoi offers a great variety of both mouth-watering dishes and amazing eateries that serve them. From small street-side stalls to first-class restaurants and cafes, you’ll find numerous options to please your taste bud while you’re in Hanoi but when it comes to Hanoi’s signature dishes, some famous eateries serve them the best. Try Bun Cha, a traditional Vietnamese dish comprising rice and barbecued pork, at Bun Cha Nem Chua Be Dac Kim which serves it with spring rolls made up of sea crab. Another famous Vietnamese dish is Pho noodles and a really nice place to have it would be Pho Bat Dan located in the Old Quarter.
You’ll spot a long queue in front of this eatery as it’s quite popular among the locals. You may participate in this restaurant’s soup making process by adding herbs, spices and chili flakes according to your wish before having your food. You can’t leave Hanoi without tasting Vietnam’s world famous sandwich known as Banh Mi or Banh My. It is made with a mixture of French as well as local ingredients. You must try this at Banh Mi 25 to relish an authentic taste.
One of the most unique beverages of Hanoi is its delicious egg coffee. It’s actually traditional Vietnamese coffee laden with a burst of caffeine over which a thick layer made up of egg yolks beaten with condensed milk is added. You may try it at the Giang Café. For tasting Vietnamese local cuisine, just head to Cha Ca Thang Long where you can attend a cooking class and prepare and eat Cha Ca which is a Vietnamese dish consisting of fish and fish paste made up of various herbs, turmeric and dill.
See St. Joseph's Cathedral, Hanoi
Hanoi has many beautiful churches but St. Joseph's Cathedral deserves a special mention because of its magnificent structure. Dating from the late 19th century, it stands as a symbol of Hanoi’s colonial past as the French colonial government built it during the early years of its rule. Situated at the right side of Hanoi’s Na tho street, it is the Roman Catholic Archdiocese to a considerable section of the country’s population. There is also a lake nearby which you can choose to visit.
Go shopping at Dong Xuan market
The Dong Xuan market is a three storeyed mall that has in its store all types of goods. If you want to buy souvenirs at a good price, this is the place you should be heading to. It also boasts of a huge stock of various kinds of goods so it won’t be an exaggeration to consider it as the city’s best one stop shopping destination. And the icing on the cake is you can strike the best bargaining deals and buy things at very cheap rates without compromising the quality.
Outside the mall vendors sell street and small shops sell clothes of different varieties. Since it’s one of the most famous markets in Hanoi it remains very crowded during weekends. Although you’ll get to know a lot about the city’s local life when it’s crowded and gain an incredible experience, you should avoid going there during weekends if you want to have a more pleasant shopping experience.
Go on a trip to Ninh Binh and Trang An
Rent a motorbike go to Ninh Binh. It’s a lovely area harbouring all that you can expect to see starting from temples to hills, valleys and enigmatic caves. Having explored Ninh Binh, set out on a boat ride to Trang An complex which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It is also full of scenic spots. A day trip won’t do justice to the list of things that these two places have to offer. So for a better exploration an overnight stay is more suitable.
Tough it’s not possible to see every tourist spot of a big city within the span of a few days, when you are in Hanoi it is recommended to allot some extra time for touring the city’s remaining museums especially Hanoi Museum, Vietnam National Fie Arts Museum, Hanoi Museum, National Historical Museum and Vietnam Museum of Revolution.