No trip to Vietnam would be complete without a visit to the hectic, high-energy capital, Hanoi. The city is a fine blend of history and modernity, where colonial architecture and ornate pagodas contrast with glassy malls and shiny motorbikes. From getting lost in the enchanting, tree-lined streets of the Old Quarter to discovering ancient citadels and sampling some of Vietnam’s tastiest street food, here are the top 10 things to do on a Hanoi holiday.
Where: Ba Dinh Square.
What: A visit to the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum will help you understand just how much the former revolutionary leader is loved and revered in Vietnam. Ho Chi Minh’s body lies embalmed and surrounded by military guard, but you can visit between 8am and 11am Tuesday to Thursday. Next door you’ll find the beautifully landscaped presidential complex, which features a yellow European-style palace built for a French governor in 1900 to 1906 and Ho Chi Minh’s wooden stilt house. Don’t forget to stop at the One Pillar Pagoda on the way out, one of the city’s most iconic Buddhist temples, and then head into the Ho Chi Minh Museum next door to learn more about Vietnam’s former communist leader.
Highlights: Stroll around the leafy grounds of the palace complex, where you’ll find a picturesque lake, a collection of vintage cars and a mango-tree lined path where Ho Chi Minh did his morning exercises. The leader famously refused to stay in the palace and instead lived in a humble wooden stilt house on the grounds, which you can visit.
Where: Across Hanoi.
What: Hanoi boasts a fine collection of religious buildings belonging to various faiths, from Buddhism to Taoism and Catholicism. One of the most famous is Ngoc Son Temple, which sits on the Jade Island in Hoan Kiem Lake and was built to commemorate the 13th century military leader Tran Hung Dao. Quan Thanh temple, which translates to ‘Place of the Gods’, is one of four Taoist temples in Hanoi which were built during the Ly Dynasty. Inside you’ll find a statue of Tran Vu, the god of the north, as well as shrines, bells and banyan trees. In the Old Quarter, look out for St Joseph’s Cathedral, the oldest Roman Catholic church in the city which was built in 1886 by French settlers. The cathedral’s neo-Gothic design was influenced by Notre Dame and features bell towers and stained-glass windows.
Highlights: Be sure to visit Tran Quoc Pagoda, the oldest Buddhist temple in Hanoi built nearly 1,500 years ago during the Ly Nam De Dynasty. Standing 15 metres tall, the red pagoda has 11 levels and is surrounded by a museum, statues and a beautiful incense burning house.
Where: Across Hanoi.
What: Hanoi is a paradise for foodies and you can sample some of Vietnam’s top dishes in the capital. A food tour will take you through the bustling streets of the Old Quarter where you’ll stop for a bowl of steaming Pho, a heavily-seasoned noodle soup and the country’s most well-known dish. Grab a pork sandwich served in a French-style baguette from a Banh Mi street cart and try Hanoi’s signature meal of barbequed pork patties served on cold noodles with vegetables and sauce, called Bun Cha. Vietnam is the second-largest coffee producer in the world and Hanoi has its own signature version of the beverage known as Ca Phe Trung, or egg coffee. Head to Café Giang in the Old Quarter where they’ve been serving the brew since 1946, combining condensed milk, boiling water and ground coffee with frothy egg.
Highlights: Top picks include street food delights served around Truc Bach lake, including sweet coconut wraps called Bo Bia as well as Pho Cuon, fresh spring rolls. End your Hanoi food tour with a stop at Bia Hoi corner, where you can enjoy the country’s lager-like draught while watching street life pass you by.
Where: 58 Quoc Tug Giam street, Dong Da district.
What: The Temple of Literature is one of Hanoi’s most notable landmarks and a stunning example of classical Vietnamese architecture. Built in 1070 during Emperor Ly Thanh Tong’s reign, the temple is a monument to the legendary Chinese philosopher and teacher Confucius, as well as a memorial to literature. The temple is also home to Vietnam’s first university, the Imperial Academy, and is such a cultural icon that it appears on the 100,000 Vietnamese Dong note. Stroll down a central path through five scenic courtyards to see topiaries shaped like the 12 zodiac animals, pavilions, decorative entranceways and buildings from the Ly and Tran dynasties. In the Sage Courtyard, look out for statues of Confucius and his disciples as well as a house of ceremonies.
Highlights: Don’t miss the ‘Well of Heavenly Clarity’ and the carved stone turtle steles, considered one of the country’s four holy animals and a symbol of wisdom and longevity. Stop to photograph the Suc Van and Bi Van Gates, which represent the beauty of literature and check out the bell tower and brass drum in the fifth courtyard.
Where: Across Hanoi.
What: Shoppers will love Hanoi’s markets, which offer a captivating glimpse into Vietnamese life. The largest indoor market is Dong Xuan, a four-storey building on the edge of the Old Quarter. Here you can find produce and meat on the ground floor, as well as everything from clothing and souvenirs to electronics and household goods on the upper floors. Cho Hom is the place to go if you want to snap up some high-quality fabrics, while the Quang Ba Flower Market in Tay Ho is open from 2am and sells a range of fresh flowers from across Vietnam, such as cherry blossoms and orchids. In the central business district, Hang Da market has three floors filled with imported wines, clothing and food.
Highlights: If you’re looking for gifts to take home, the weekend market is the place to go. Stalls sprawl across the streets of the Old Quarter and offer a mixture of handicrafts and souvenirs, clothes, bags of Vietnamese coffee and some delicious street food.
Where: Hoang Dieu street, Ba Dinh district.
What: Don’t miss this UNESCO World Heritage Site, also known as the Hanoi Citadel, which dates back to the 11th century Ly Viet Dynasty and is packed with history. The Imperial Citadel of Thang Long was the political hub of Vietnam for 13 centuries, the capital for eight and a military centre for over a thousand years. The citadel was originally built on the site of a 7th-century Chinese fortress and ongoing archaeological digs continue to unearth relics such as the foundations of ancient roads, pavilions and palaces, as well as artefacts like coins and pottery from across Asia. The complex has a 40-metre-high stone Flag Tower which provides sweeping views over Hanoi.
Highlights: Take a look at the D67 Tunnel and House, which was the headquarters of the Vietnam People’s Army from 1954 to 1975. The underground tunnel is 68 metres long and contains rooms with command bunkers used during the American War, which are filled with communication equipment from the 1960's.
Where: Across Hanoi.
What: Hanoi’s lakes offer a tranquil break from the frantic swirl of life in the capital. The most famous is Hoan Kiem, or Lake of the Returned Sword, so-called because legend tells of a huge golden turtle that surfaced to ask Emperor Le Loi to return a magic sword he’d used in battle. By night, the striking Turtle Pagoda in the centre of the water lights up and if you’re lucky you might spot one of the endangered, soft-shelled turtles that live in the lake. Tay Ho, or West Lake, is the largest in Hanoi and its banks are lined with restaurants and bars, as well as historic sites like Tran Quoc Pagoda and Quan Thanh Temple. Part of Tay Ho is divided by a road which forms a smaller lake called Truc Bach. You can peddle out across its silvery surface on a swan pedalo or stroll around the banks tasting snacks from street food vendors.
Highlights: Visit Hoan Kiem in the early morning to watch locals exercise. Power-walkers circle the water, couples practise their waltz and groups of lycra-clad women bust out aerobics moves. In the evenings, Vietnamese couples dressed in wedding outfits appear for photo shoots by the water. Don’t forget to walk across the red bridge to Jade Island, where you’ll find Ngoc Son temple.
Where: Across Hanoi.
What: To get an insight into Vietnam’s fascinating, turbulent history, take time to visit some of Hanoi’s museums. The Ethnology Museum tells the story of the 54 recognised ethic groups in the country and has a collection of traditional village houses. Visit the Women’s Museum to learn about all aspects of life for Vietnamese women, from marriage and birth to work and street hawking, beliefs and famous female communist fighters. The Military Museum is popular for its display of weapons, tanks and planes, while the Ho Chi Minh Museum celebrates the country’s cherished leader and showcases abstract art representations of his life. One of the city’s newest additions is the Hanoi Police museum, which explores the history of policing in the capital.
Highlights: At the Hoa Lo Prison Museum, termed the Hanoi Hilton by American soldiers who were held there, you can walk through eerie prison cells. These held Vietnamese communist fighters during the French reign and later Americans, including fighter pilots such as John McCain. The harrowing stories of torture and incredible escapes offer a glimpse into both prison life and Vietnamese war history.
Where: Thang Long Water Puppet Theatre, 57b Dinh Tien Hoang, Hoan Kiem district.
What: For some evening entertainment, catch a water puppet show at the theatre by Hoan Kiem Lake. This traditional art form originated in the Red River Delta region over a thousand years ago during monsoon season. When the paddies flooded, people would perform shows with wooden puppets in the waterlogged fields. Today, the Thang Long Theatre Group puts on a modern interpretation of the water puppet tradition during an hour-long show set to live Vietnamese music. Performers wade into waist-deep water to control wooden puppets representing animals and people from behind a screen. There are 14 acts, each one dramatises a Vietnamese legend or aspect of daily life such as fishing, farming and dragon dancing.
Highlights: One of the show’s highlights is the dramatisation of the Lake of the Returned Sword legend, which tells the story of Emperor Le Loi, the giant turtle and Hoan Kiem Lake. Shows take place five times a day in the atmospheric theatre, which has been running since 1969.
Where: Old Quarter, Hoan Kiem.
What: Hanoi’s maze-like Old Quarter is the historical heart of the city and holds over a thousand years of history. The area is made up of 36 tree-lined streets, each one specialising in a particular type of goods, from jewellery on Hang Bac to shoes on Hang Dau and silks on Hang Gai. You’ll see original 15th century tubular merchant houses as well as pagodas, temples and the Gothic form of St Joseph’s Cathedral. Aside from shopping, you can marvel at the pastel-coloured French architecture typical of the Old Quarter, including grand buildings like the Hanoi Opera House. Have a rest at one of the many street-side coffee shops and watch life go on around you: beeping motorbikes, vendors in conical hats selling fruit and locals going about their daily business.
Highlights: One of the best ways to explore the Old Quarter is to simply wander the lanes, discovering shops, cafes and sights along the way. If you’re after a more relaxed experience, take a cyclo tour of the Old Quarter and let your driver point out landmarks and the best food and coffee shops.
Once you’ve finished exploring Hanoi’s cultural treasures, why not see the rest of the country? Our Best of Vietnam tour will take you to UNESCO bays, lush rice terraces, historical towns and white-sand beaches.