Hanoi, the cultural, political and gastronomic hub of Vietnam, is the land where past and future coexist. Temples dating back centuries nestle beside glistening skyscrapers in a stunning harmony that can’t be found anywhere else. While historical sites are must-sees in this 1000-year-old city, there is also a great deal of food to try and things to buy. In this Vietnam travel guide, we’ll walk you through the top 10 things to do in Hanoi, the magnificent capital city of Vietnam:
1. Enjoy a Unique Vietnamese Water Puppet Show
“Water puppet” is exactly what you imagine it is. The stage is set over a body of water and decorated with roofs, flags and other props. The puppets, stars of the show, are made of fig wood and controlled by a set of underwater strings and rods. By using these strings and rods, skilled puppeteers create an illusion of “puppets dancing on water” along with the catchy tunes of Vietnamese traditional instruments.
Acclaimed as “the most unique recreational activity in Hanoi”, water puppet shows are much more than just a 1-hour puppet show. They delicately depict the rustic life in the Red River Delta by showcasing the daily activities such as fishing, tending buffaloes, catching frogs, etc. Historical legends are also among the most popular stories, including the Legend of the Returned Sword (also known as the legend of Hoan Kiem lake) and the story of the fire breathing dragons. Though the show is narrated entirely in Vietnamese, you won’t need to understand everything to get the humor. The show is a solid recommendation, especially for those traveling with kids.
2. Check Out the Iconic Temple of Literature
The Temple of Literature is among the most outstanding historical sites, boasting the finest mix between Vietnamese architecture, culture and history. First built in 1070 during the reign of King Ly Thanh Tong, the Temple “Van Mieu” was dedicated to the worship of Confucius, his disciples and other renowned Confucian scholars. In 1076, King Ly Nhan Tong ordered the erection of the very first university of Vietnam, named “Quoc Tu Giam” on the campus of the Temple.
Van Mieu – Quoc Tu Giam complex boasted a magnificent fusion of architectural styles from different dynasties. The original layout resembles the layout of the Qufu temple, where Confucius was born. The complex features five courtyards, a royal path reserved for the King in the center, and two side paths for administrative Mandarins and military Mandarins. While serene halls, ponds and gardens make up the beauty of the place, the main draw is the stone stelae, which recorded the names, places of birth and achievements of exceptional scholars. Here you will also find the Khue Van Pavilion, the symbol of Hanoi which made it a feature on the 100,000 VND note.
3. Explore 54 Ethnic Groups in the Museum of Ethnology
The Vietnam Museum of Ethnology is another fascinating cultural site that cannot be missed when visiting Hanoi. Aiming to promote socio-cultural diversity in Vietnam, the museum boasts more than 15,000 artifacts, photographs and videos of the 54 recognized minority groups in the country.
Customs and traditions vary among Vietnamese ethnic groups from different geographic locations. While ethnic groups in the north were strongly influenced by the Chinese culture, those in the south inherited the Champa Kingdom’s cultural heritage. Everyday objects, including combs, pots, knives, baskets, etc. are on display indoors with extreme attention to details. The outdoor exhibition is even more captivating; there are full-scale replicas of Vietnamese homes belonging to different ethnic minorities. The museum is very kid-friendly and equipped with wheelchair access with ramps to support the disabled.
4. Stroll Around the Nostalgic Hoan Kiem Lake and the Old Quarter
Hoan Kiem Lake is known to locals as “the heart of Hanoi” and serves as a focal point in Hanoi’s public life. Located in the center of Hanoi, Hoan Kiem Lake’s history is as magical as its calming beauty. Legend has it that when Emperor Le Loi was boating on the lake after defeating China’s invasion, he encountered a Golden Turtle God which asked for his sword back. He deduced that the Dragon King had lent him the sword to defeat the enemy earlier, and he was bound to return the holy sword then. After the event, he renamed the lake as “Hoan Kiem Lake” (the lake of the Returned Sword. Thap Rua (the Turtle Tower) rising on an island in the center of the lake is linked to the legend too.
Surrounding the lake is the Old Quarter, the historical urban center of Hanoi. This area was once the most bustling commercial center in the city, featuring 36 streets, each selling different types of commodities. Although the trade customs changed significantly through the course of time, the French colonial architecture remains untouched. Look for temples, pagodas and old buildings to witness the greatest blend between the Eastern and Western architecture.
5. Grab a Taste of Flavorful Vietnamese Food and Drinks
Vietnamese food has become so popular that some of the dishes can be found on every sidewalk in the world. “Pho” is just one of them. A salty broth, some thin slices of beef or chicken and a sprinkling of herb can make a wonderful bowl of “pho” that you can never forget. Although “pho” didn’t originate in Hanoi, “pho Ha Noi” is unarguably the best in the country. The list goes on with bun cha, banh cuon, banh xeo, pho cuon, and so many more. And don’t you dare miss a “banh mi”, the world-renowned dish that made it to the Oxford dictionary as a recognized word.
After a hearty breakfast of scrumptious “pho” or smoky “bun cha”, let’s sit back and chill over a delightful “egg coffee”. The name says it all: egg yolk is carefully whisked to make the creamiest coffee with a perfectly balanced bittersweet taste.
While most of Hanoi’s Vietnamese food is well served in many mom-and-pop stalls in the Old Quarter, the best “egg coffee” can only be found on Hang Gai Street.
6. Catch a Panoramic View of Hanoi From a Rooftop Bar
Unlike Saigon’s rooftop bars, the bars in Hanoi are more geared towards a chill-out, relaxing experience. Most bars offer a stunning view of the city with lush parks, shimmering lakes and a spectacular skyline at sunset.
Summit Lounge is one of the best bars in town, featuring an assortment of well-curated drinks and a wonderful view of Thanh Nien Street and its two surrounding lakes. You will pay accordingly, but it’s well worth it. The Rooftop Bar and Restaurant is another sound option to escape from the hustle and bustle of the city, at relatively cheaper prices.
7. Shop Till You Drop at Dong Xuan Market
As the largest wholesale market in Hanoi, Dong Xuan Market appeals to tourists for its long history and busy trading activities. The market features French heritage architecture with a touch of modernity after several renovations.
All types of commodities are traded here: clothes, household goods and even groceries. Arranged as a tourist destination, the market truly comes to life at night. Souvenirs, handicrafts and traditional food and drinks are all on offer to give tourists the most authentic, vibrant Hanoi experience. Traditional singing and dancing performances are also available on special occasions.
8. Socialize With a “Bia Hoi” on Ta Hien Street
This is the ultimate haven for any beer lovers and night owls. Popularly known as the “International Intersection”, Ta Hien Street serves the best craft beers and street food at reasonable prices. It can get extremely loud and crowded during weekends, when the street is open only to pedestrians.
There are various options to choose from: luxury restaurants, chic bars, crowded karaokes and busy street vendors. Make sure you try the exotic Vietnamese side dishes that go well with beer, including “nem chua ran”, “nem Phung” and beef jerky.
9. Craft Your Own Pottery in Bat Trang Village
Far away from the hustle and bustle you will find Bat Trang Village, a tranquil village resting on the side of the Red River. This 14th-century village is home to traditional techniques that make the best porcelain and pottery artworks in Vietnam.
The best thing about this village is that, not only can you witness how ceramics are made, you can also try to make them yourself. Local stores offer affordable prices for pottery-making workshops and some extra fees to finalize the product.
10. Immerse Yourself in the Natural Beauty of Ba Vi National Park
Ba Vi National Park is just a two-hour drive from downtown Hanoi. Vietnam is a tropical paradise after all. Towering mountains topped by clouds, a wild diversity of flora and fauna and a picturesque hot spring are among the best offerings here. A temple nestled at the summit of the tallest mountain will grant you a breathtaking view of the surrounding countryside. This is the way to end your journey to Hanoi on a high note.
Surviving Chinese and French occupation, Hanoi’s heart remains intact, while boasting the finest mix of the East and the West. Combined with a rich historical heritage, buzzing nightlife and a stunning wilderness just outside the city, all of this adds up to this city’s mysterious charms.
This Vietnam travel guide is suitable for couples, solo travelers and families with kids. You are guaranteed to never feel bored in this vibrant 1000-year-old Asian city.