Hanoi, the capital of Vietnam, is a must-visit if you are planning on visiting Northern Vietnam. It’s a breathtaking region known for its stunning landscapes and paddy fields. Its mountains are home to many ethnic minorities. And the magical Halong Bay – definitely one of the prettiest places in Vietnam.
Hanoi is a bustling (and often chaotic) city filled with historical, cultural, and architectural treasures – the perfect blend of old and new, of traditions and modernity, where colonialism heritage meets cultural Vietnam.
Also known for its food scene, the city features some of the best food in Southeast Asia and is a paradise for foodies looking to sample some local dishes.
With plenty of things to do, Hanoi is sure to keep you busy for a few days. There are also several day trips you can take if you have more time.
Best Places to Visit in Hanoi
Hoan Kiem Lake
Start your tour of the city with a visit to Hoan Kiem Lake and Ly Thai To Square, in the city center. Stroll around, take in the scenery, and watch as people go by.
In the middle of the lake, you’ll find the islet of the Turtle (Dao Rua) surrounded by legends and stories. It is from here that King Ly Thai To left to repel the Chinese invader of the Ming dynasty, thanks to a magical sword entrusted by the Turtle, the genius goddess.
The Temple of the Jade Mountain (Ngoc Son) has been built in honor of the turtle and represents harmony between Confucianism, Buddhism, and Taoism.
To access this temple, you have to go through the inkwell (Dai Nghien) and the pen tower (Thap But) before stepping over the red bridge or Rising Sun bridge (The Huc).
The lake is a beautiful place to visit around sunset.
Also known as the 36 Corporations District, the Old Quarter (or Pho Co in Vietnamese) is a must-see. You can do everything on foot or you can hire a pedicab for an hour or two.
Start in Hang Dao street (silk) then Hang Duong street (sugar), after passing through Hang Ngang, Hang Bac, and Hang Buom streets.
This very dense urban center is made up of streets that used to specialize in one type of profession. Each street was devoted to the sale of a type of merchandise that came from the craft villages around Hanoi. Today, some streets still practice the same trade, others have evolved!
Within the historical center, make sure to check out Ô Quan Chưởng Gate, the only thing left from the fortified wall that once protected the city and the Thang Long Citadel. Keep an eye open for ancient pagodas built by Chinese merchants, and get a glimpse of their life by visiting the Mã Mây House.
Don’t miss the Bà Đá Pagoda and its Phật Phật statue, considered one of Hanoi’s four treasures.
The old quarter is also the best place in Hanoi to do some shopping and sample some local food at one of the many traditional eateries.
Definitely something unique you won’t see in many other places, Train Street is a busy (and very narrow) commercial street where shops have to pack up every time a train passes (some parts are more residential than others). It’s fun to watch, as the train passes you’ll see how the space is optimized to the last inch.
Long Bien Market
You will find plenty of street food, small eateries, fancy restaurants, and everything else in between in Hanoi. Make sure to try Pho, Banh Mi, and Bun Cha, and don’t be afraid to try new things!
You can also take a walking food tour to sample a bit of everything or even participate in a cooking class so you can recreate your favorite Vietnamese dish at home!
If you like markets and want to check out some of the region’s produce, head to the Long Bien Market to sample some exotic fruits and unique vegetables.
Water Puppet Theater
A tradition in Vietnam, you shouldn’t miss a water puppet show while in Hanoi. Head to the famous and historic Thang Long Theater where you can watch a puppet show about a traditional Vietnamese tale accompanied by a small orchestra.
Dong Xuan Market
If you want to buy some souvenirs, Vietnamese handicrafts, or simply window shop, head to the Dong Xuan Market, one of the biggest indoor markets in Hanoi built on 4 levels.
Long Bien Bridge
Not far from the Dong Xuan market is the old Paul Doumer bridge renamed Long Bien bridge, an emblematic landmark of the Vietnamese capital. This bridge crosses the Red River which gave the city its name: the city beyond the river.
The city of Hanoi is home to one of the most beautiful colonial architectural heritage in Southeast Asia. Don t miss the Hanoi Opera House, the dazzling Hotel Métropole, the austere Saint Joseph Cathedral, the imposing Presidential Palace, or the former museum of the French school of Extreme- Orient, which has become a museum on the history of Vietnam.
The Temple of Literature
Built during the 10th century, the Temple of Literature is one of the oldest edifices in Hanoi. The temple, dedicated to Confucius and other savants of the time, was built under the reign of King Ly Thanh Tong and is known as Van Mieu.
The second part, Quoc Tu Giam or Imperial University, is Vietnam’s oldest university and was built a few years after the temple, first only educating nobles and royalty, it slowly opened to more and more students.
Later kings restored the buildings and added new ones as time went by to create what you see today.
You can visit the Temple and University from Monday to Friday, from 8 AM to 5 PM – The entrance fee is VND 30,000.
Ba Dinh District
The entire Ba Dinh district is dedicated to Ho Chi Minh, the founder of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam and a national hero. There, you will find his Mausoleum made of gray granite and where his body is sheltered in a glass sarcophagus made public for pilgrimages and tourist visits nine months of the year (usually only opens on mornings).
Not far from there, you can admire the dazzling Presidential Palace which was the residence of the Governor-General of Indochina under the colonial regime.
Nearby, you will find President Ho Chi Minh’s House on Stilts (Nhà sàn Bác Hồ) where he preferred to perform his duties as Head of State rather than at the Presidential Palace, which was too luxurious for his taste. You can visit it, just make sure to check opening times first as they vary from season to season (it usually is open during weekdays and it closes for lunch).
A Museum (Bảo tàng Hồ Chí Minh) retraces the life of this man who changed the course of history.
If you are in the area, you can also check out the One Pillar Pagoda from the Ly dynasty.
The Museum of Ethnology
One of the best museums in Vietnam, the Hanoi Museum of Ethnology was designed in collaboration with the Musée de l’Homme in Paris and focuses on the 54 ethnic groups present in Vietnam.
The museum features everyday objects, religious artifacts, and traditional artwork while showcasing the traditions, ways of life, and history of ethnic groups in Vietnam. It’s a great place to learn more about Vietnam’s past and its people.
There’s also a second building with an exhibit focusing on Southeast Asian cultures.
The museum is open Tuesday through Sunday from 8:30 AM to 5 PM – the entrance fee is VND 25,000
Day Trips from Hanoi
Nicknamed the Terrestrial Halong Bay, Ninh Binh feels like another universe. Picture meandering canals surrounded by paddy fields and huge karst formations with peaceful homestays here and there.
You can easily visit Ninh Binh from Hanoi, either via a tour or on your own. If you decide to visit independently, you’ll need to rent a motorbike for the day (if Hanoi traffic scares you, you can get to Ninh Binh by bus and rent one from there).
One of the best things to do in Ninh Binh is to take a boat ride in Tam Coc or Trang An. Try to get there early to beat the crowds. All boats are rowing boats to keep the area peaceful, you’ll pass through breathtaking landscapes, caves, and pagodas – you might even stop by a King Kong movie set!
To get stunning views over the area, hike to the Bai Dinh Pagoda (one of the biggest in Vietnam) and/or Mua Cave.
If you have more time, head to Tuyet Tinh Coc (also known as Am Tien Cave) where a tunnel will take you to a hidden valley. There, you can walk around the lake, visit the temple, and climb up to get a panoramic view.
A trip to Vietnam wouldn’t be complete without a trip to Halong Bay. You can easily organize a day trip from Hanoi via a tour agency – you can even book a 2-day trip from Hanoi. For the best experience, choose a cruise on a traditional boat that will take you to some of the most stunning scenery you’ve ever seen.
Most tours will take you around the bay, stopping at a few islands where you can enjoy the beach, or climb up for impressive views of the bay. Some tours will include some kayaking or activities, especially if you book an overnight cruise.