Hanoi is the capital of Vietnam and home to thousands of years of diverse and fascinating history. From Vietnam’s time as a Chinese vassal state to its colonization by the French, the rich and colorful history is condensed into the vibrant city of Hanoi.
Visited by over 26 million tourists each year, Hanoi is packed full of culture and stunning sights; tourists can expect to see breath-taking colonial architecture, learn more about the city in immersive museums, and feast on the country’s famous cuisine. Here is a comprehensive list of the best things to do in Hanoi, so you can make the most of your stay!
1. Hanoi’s Old Quarter
Hanoi offers travelers an endless array of rich history and culture to explore, especially in the Old Quarter. A gem in Vietnam’s capital, the Old Quarter is a fantastic location to experience the overall buzz of Hanoi all within a small, concentrated area, from historic architecture to evening entertainment.
Located near Hoan Kiem Lake, the Old Quarter is one of the most popular tourist locations in the city, offering plenty of opportunities to experience the city’s signature street food, thrilling nightlife, and winding streets filled with market stalls and sidewalk vendors. For a glance at the city’s famous architecture, head to Bach Ma Temple, the oldest temple in the Old Quarter dating back to the 11th century. Then to experience the Old Quarter at its bustling best, visit the Hanoi Weekend Night Market for a fun atmosphere and exotic local delicacies.
2. Hi Chi Minh Mausoleum
The Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum is located in Ba Dinh Square and is the final resting place of Ho Chi Minh, the famous leader of Vietnam often nicknamed Uncle Ho. The mausoleum was built in 1973 and modeled on Lenin’s Mausoleum; it opened to the public in 1975. Visitors can pay respects to Ho Chi Minh preserved in a glass case.
The monument is meaningful to Vietnamese nationals as it represents the spirit and ideals of the popular leader living on forever. If you are planning on visiting the mausoleum, make sure not to wear shorts, short sleeves, or skirts to ensure you will be allowed inside.
3. Temple of Literature
The Temple of Literature is a must-see for visitors to Hanoi, especially for keen photographers. The temple boasts stunning traditional Vietnamese architecture, as well as picturesque pavilions and courtyards.
The temple was built in 1070 as a university for elite scholars and sages, and it now stands preserved as a memorial to literature and education. Walk the path of Vietnam’s royals through luscious and contemplative gardens or find a moment of quiet reflection at the Well of Heavenly Clarity.
4. West Lake
West Lake is the biggest freshwater lake in Hanoi. The lake is an impressive site, ideal for taking pictures or going for a stroll and taking in city sights. It also features a range of charming cafes, exciting nightlife spots, historic sites, and popular restaurants dotted along the shoreline. All of these make West Lake a fantastic place to spend a lazy afternoon in the city.
If you decide to pay a visit, why not hire a boat to explore the lake? Or dine out on a floating restaurant! This is a fun and unusual way to explore the city that locals enjoy just as much as the tourists.
Top tip: Pay a visit to West Lake in the evening as the sun is setting and get stunning views of the Tran Quoc Pagoda as it lights up for the evening.
5. Hoa Lo Prison Relic
The Hoa Lo Prison Relic is a remnant of the French colonialist regime; the prison was built in 1896 to suppress the movements of the Vietnamese people against their rulers. The Hoa Lo Prison was one of the largest prisons that the French built in Indochina and has since been closely intertwined with Vietnam’s colorful recent history.
It was originally used to capture patriotic and revolutionary fighters and held many famous revolutionary leaders of Vietnam. Since then the prison was used in the 1950s to house regular prisoners and in the 1960s for captured U.S. pilots.
Now it has been converted into a museum that educates visitors of its rich history and honors those that sacrificed their lives for the nation’s freedom.
6. Vietnam Museum of Ethnology
Continue your deep dive into Vietnam’s culture and history at the Vietnam Museum of Ethnology. This museum provides tourists and residents with a fascinating insight into the 54 ethnic groups that exist in Vietnam, preserving the country’s cultural heritage and sociocultural diversity.
Visitors will find information about Vietnamese traditions, religion, and rituals and gain a real sense of what a cultural melting pot the country is. One of the most impressive parts of the museum is the outdoor area where you can find full-size replicas of traditional Vietnamese homes in their varied architectural styles, all set within tranquil gardens and a traditional water puppet theater.
7. The Imperial Citadel
Hanoi Imperial Citadel is a large and impressive site, covering 45 acres. It consists of the remains of three forts that were built in 1011 by Emperor Ly Thai To. The majority of the original site was torn down by French colonialists in the 1800s, but a smaller yet exceptionally impressive landmark still remains.
The remaining part of the Citadel is now the home of the Ministry of Defense, but much of the area is open to the public. This UNESCO World Heritage Site is an incredible area to explore on your trip to Hanoi, not only for its impressive architecture but for the excavated artifacts that you can see inside.
First, go to the Citadel’s perimeter to see the Forbidden City Wall and the eight gates of the Nguyen Dynasty, then pay 30,000 VND (about $1.30) to explore the Flag Tower and Kinh Thien Palace.
8. Hanoi’s Four Sacred Temples
Hanoi’s Four Sacred Temples were built by Vietnam’s ancient Emperors to prevent negative energy from flowing into the city. These four temples are referred to locally as Thang Long Tu Tran, which translates to the Four Guardians.
The four temples include Quan Thanh, Kim Lien, Voi Phuc, and Bach Ma, each guarding different points of the city. You can find Quan Thanh on the shore of the West Lake; this temple was built to guard the north of the city. Kim Lien is located in the north of Hanoi but was intended to guard the south. Voi Phuc guards the west and Bach Ma, the oldest of the four, guards the east.
9. The Thang Long Water Puppet Theater
The Thang Long Water Puppet Theater offers tourists the experience of traditional Vietnamese entertainment. The puppet shows originated in Vietnam’s waterlogged rice paddies, where local entertainers would stage puppet shows to entertain children. During the performance, the puppeteers and any operating mechanisms would remain hidden so that the puppets looked to be operating themselves.
The shows tell compelling stories about traditional life in Vietnam and are set to music; the Thang Long Water Puppet Theater is both educational and entertaining. Not only is the puppet theater a favorite spot for tourists, but it’s also popular among the locals. You can find it in the Old Quarter where it is open year-round, with four shows each day.
10. Hoan Kiem Lake
Another well-known lake in Hanoi is Hoan Kiem Lake, located just a short stroll away from the city’s Old Quarter. Hoan Kiem Lake is a historic freshwater lake that is the home of an ancient Vietnamese legend: an emperor was gifted a sword by a magic turtle that emerged from the lake’s waters. The sword helped the emperor push the Chinese out of Vietnam.
Head to the lake and experience its mystical waters for yourself, take pictures of the picturesque view, and explore the number of pagodas around its shores. Keep an eye out for the local residents who take to the shores to practice Tai chi at 6 a.m. each morning!
Wherever you go in Hanoi, the city’s vibrancy and diversity shine through. History, culture, food, and entertainment come together to give every visitor an enriching and thrilling stay.
Although the city is full of hustle and bustle and a magnet for millions of tourists, it still offers plenty of more peaceful locations for an afternoon spent relaxing and reminiscing on your travels. Hanoi is a city that will delight all of your senses with bright colors, rich flavors, and charming music. It certainly won’t disappoint!