Hanoi is not only Vietnam’s capital but one of the oldest cities on earth. Its ancient history is all around you, yet often overshadowed by the events of the late 20th century.
Temples and ancient citadels take you back as far as the 6th century. But as you explore, you notice Chinese and French colonial architecture. It’s easy on the eye and takes you on a separate journey.
See also: Where to Stay in Hanoi
Like Vietnam, traveling through Hanoi is high paced. Ever present are the sounds of horns from thousands of scooters. Each one communicates and designates right of way more than a set of traffic lights. Exploring the things to do in Hanoi on foot is an adventure, with each turn bringing hints of markets flooded with traditional craftsmanship and aromas of a rich local cuisine.
A visit to Hanoi provides travelers with a fascinating blend of East and West. It offers an elegant blend of Asian Pagodas, communist block buildings and French Colonial relics; and there are a host of fun and unique tourist attractions for the adventurous traveler.
In this post, we'll cover:
23. Tran Quoc Pagoda
The oldest Buddhist temple in Hanoi, Tran Quoc Pagoda, was first developed in the 6th century. Set on an island in West Lake, you must first wander across an elegant bridge with the shimmering water below.
From a distance, you can admire the 11 story Stupa Tower that stands at 15 meters (45 feet) in height. But only from up close can you appreciate the pagoda’s finer details and see the Amitabha Buddha statues found inside. Glistening gemstones are a common sight, strewn across various statues that add significance to an ancient and beautiful temple.
Guests should dress conservatively when visiting Tran Quoc Pagoda.
22. Hanoi Opera House
Built during the French invasion, for the French, the Hanoi Opera House has undergone a modern revitalization. Since its renovation in 1997, the Hanoi Opera House has become a centerpiece of the city’s arts and culture scene.
The building was inspired by the Paris Opera House and resides, aptly, within Hanoi’s French Quarter. From the street, you can stand back and admire one of Hanoi’s finest pieces of colonial architecture, its elegant facade complete with white columns that blend effortlessly with the cream walls.
With consistent events, travelers can peel back the cultural curtain and enjoy a night of Vietnamese opera, regional dance, ballet and live music.
21. Ho Chi Minh Museum
Alongside the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum, the Ho Chi Minh Museum explores the life and times of Vietnam’s most historic figure. There’s no single person that has shaped modern day Vietnam more than Uncle Ho, so understanding him goes a long way to understanding the country around you.
Within the museum, you can enjoy exhibits that feature his personal effects, his life growing up and the events that lead to him rising to power. Alongside artifacts, you can watch various films that explore the era in more detail, lending voice and visuals to the experience.
Afterwards, check out the surrounding grounds and the mausoleum set in the place Ho Chi Minh first established the Democratic Republic of Vietnam.
20. Train Street
You’ve seen the pictures and watched the videos. Hanoi’s Train Street has become one of those rites of passages for travelers to the Vietnamese capital.
Train Street, otherwise known as Tran Phu Road, exists in the Old Quarter and features a railway track set between rows of buildings. Locals caught on to the fascination and began serving drinks and treats on tiny tables so locals and travelers alike could get a one-of-a-kind shot.
Due to safety, this ended in 2019. But as with other parts of Hanoi (hello, Ta Hien Beer Street), you’ll find locals flaunting the laws. Come when no trains are scheduled to enjoy this unique setup.
19. Dong Xuan Market
Shop local with the locals at Dong Xuan Market. Large and often overwhelming, it can take a minute to get your bearings surrounded by such an immense amount of fashion, good and goods.
Set on the edge of Hanoi’s Old Quarter, Dong Xuan Market is a conglomerate of alleys packed with stalls. If you’re seeking much-needed electronics, you’ll find what you’re looking for here. Likewise souvenirs, but among the items catering to travelers, you’ll find traditional Vietnamese clothing and craftwork.
This is all spread across multiple floors. But to get there, you’ll need to wander through the chaotic brilliance of the building’s fish market.
18. Hanoi Ceramic Mosaic Mural
Starting in 2007, the Hanoi Ceramic Mosaic Mural is the country’s first public collective work of art. The mural, which took three years to complete, is a celebration of Hanoi’s 1000th birthday.
Creating the Ceramic Mosaic Mural was extensive work. Over 30 artists, 100 craftsmen and 500 children took part, re-purposing the city’s gray and bland dyke system into a vibrant, colorful story.
The mosaics were first created in the Bat Trang village before being transported to Hanoi. On arrival, the tiles were split into 21 sections, each with their own style in reference to the Vietnam’s many eras, providing you with a visual narrative of the country’s past.
17. Fine Arts Museum (Bao Tang My Thuat)
Spread across two buildings in the old French Ministry of Information, the Fine Arts Museum is home to a wonderful, worldwide collection of art. Featuring both local and international artists, it’s a place to get your art fix while learning about Vietnamese works.
Also known as Bao Tang My Thuat, visitors will find a rich European hall that boasts the works of Monet, Matisse, and Degas. But further exploration will have you discovering the emotive and eye-opening world of Vietnamese art. From veritable National Treasures to artifacts from pre-historic times, it’s another angle from which you can understand your destination.
The Fine Arts Museum is open all days of the week, except Monday.
16. Bat Trang Ceramic Village
Southeast of Hanoi, Bat Trang Ceramic Village is a valuable insight into traditional Vietnamese culture. Ceramic exports in Vietnam can be traced back as far as the 13th century, and within the Ceramic Village you’ll discover just how incredible such expertise can be.
Surrounded by pots, cups, plates, artwork and jewelry, the Bat Trang Ceramic Village can quickly become a dose of retail therapy. You’ll stand alongside locals perusing the goods, deciding which items you could potentially sneak into your own luggage.
Aside from shopping and watching the locals go to work, joining a pottery class is the thing to do here. After all, why not learn from the best?
15. West Lake
In Hanoi’s northwest, West Lake is the largest body of water in the city. In the early morning, the light bounces across the calm lake before bouncing off nearby buildings and dancing in the trees. It’s a stunning place to be, before the sun hits its zenith and you seek the relief of shade.
Surrounding the vast lake are natural trails that lead to beautiful views and Tran Quoc Pagoda, the oldest Buddhist temple in Hanoi. At 15 meters high (45 feet), it lies on the water’s edge and is free to enter. Just be sure to cover up your shoulders.
Vietnam has amazing coffee. It’s easy to find at any point around West Lake. One of the most relaxing things to do in Hanoi is to start early, drink in hand, and explore a peaceful green escape.
14. Thang Long Imperial Citadel
Over a thousand years old, Hanoi has a rich and lengthy story to tell. At the heart of this is the Thang Long Imperial Citadel, a historic site that has been remarkably well preserved.
A UNESCO World Cultural Heritage Site, the Imperial Citadel has all the hallmarks of historic architecture alongside cultural influence that remains easy to spot.
Older than the city itself, the foundation of Thang Long Imperial Citadel dates back to the 7th century. Once a Chinese fortress, it soon became the nation’s capital, where it has remained a vital piece to Vietnam’s political and cultural landscapes.
Today, you can explore the historic citadel to see the many iconic gates, towers and palaces where royalty once lived and reigned.
13. St. Joseph’s Cathedral
Set between the beautiful Hoan Kiem Lake and Hanoi’s Old Quarter, St. Joseph’s Cathedral is an architectural marvel. The neo-Gothic building was inspired by the Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris and build in 1886.
In the decades since, it has become an iconic part of the city’s skyline, despite serving only a small number of Vietnamese Catholics. Now the oldest church in Hanoi, St. Joseph Cathedral, is as popular outside of mass as it is within.
Travelers arriving at the cathedral will spot their international peers snapping selfies with the gorgeous facade, whose twin towers rise to either side of a giant cross. It’s surrounded by manicured landscapes and trees that promise respite from the searing Hanoi sun.
12. Vietnamese Women’s Museum
A quick trip from the Hanoi Opera House will bring you to the front steps of the Vietnamese Women’s Museum. Although focusing on the story of women through Vietnamese history, the museum is utterly modern.
Thanks to the work of the Women’s Union of Vietnam, this museum is able to showcase the range of roles, movements, and obstacles that have defined female life in Vietnam. All in a bright and beautiful fashion.
Travelers can discover how life has changed over the many centuries. From life as merchants, to modern day entrepreneurs and the vital role Vietnamese women played during international conflicts. Alongside work, explore everyday culture such as fashion and motherhood in Vietnam.
11. Trip to the Perfume Pagoda
A great way to get out of the amazing (but often exhausting) downtown Hanoi is to take a day trip. Perfume Pagoda AKA Chua Huong is a great option. About 60km (37 miles) from Hanoi, a trip to this magical place will take you away from the high rises and into a countryside that stretches from one horizon to the other.
Surrounded by beauty, Perfume Pagoda still demands your attention and effort. After the drive, embark on a boat across a lake, followed by an uphill. Perfume Pagoda has long attracted pilgrims.
However, its range of Buddhist temples that are built into the facade of limestone cliffs has made it a must-see. They’re arranged in maze-like fashion, with glistening stalactites dangling from the ceiling above. While sightly Buddhist statues dot the pathway.
10. Vietnam Military History Museum
As tragic as the events of the Vietnam War are, the era played a vital role in shaping the country in both the 20th and 21st centuries. For travelers, it’s a key part to the nation’s story and one worth exploring in further detail and the Vietnam Military History Museum.
Those traveling from overseas, particularly western countries, will appreciate the different perspective the museum provides. The Military History Museum looks at the war, alongside battles with the French through local eyes. When mixed with your own understanding of these conflicts, you’ll receive a well-rounded insight.
The exhibits pull no punches, providing an emotional experience. Alongside first-hand stories, you can see a model of the famous Cu Chi Tunnels, several fighter planes and the remains of a B52 Bomber.
9. One Pillar Pagoda
If Buddhists were to build a treehouse, it would likely look a lot like this. This eleventh century temple was built by the emperor in gratitude for finally being blessed by a son.
The temple was meant to look like a lotus flower blossoming from a single pillar in the pond, similar to the one seen in the prophetic dream of a child that this emperor had received.
Inside, there is a small shrine to the Bodhisattva of Mercy. The current structure is a rebuild, as the French had the first destroyed after their retreat from the country.
8. Thang Long Water Puppet Theater
This theater celebrates a peasant art form that began in the rice paddies over a thousand years ago. Puppets were simply carved and puppeteers would stand in the water of the paddies, using it as a prop, and act out traditional activities like farming, or legends like the golden turtle and the emperor.
The more modern version continues the use of water and audience participation. Traditional Vietnamese instruments perform an opera that narrates the puppets’ actions, and musicians will interact with puppets, encouraging the heroes and warning them of impending danger.
Guests of the theater needn’t brave the monsoon weather that once would pour on outdoor audiences, but can sit and enjoy a meal while discovering this ancient dramatic art.
7. Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum
The final resting place of Vietnamese communist leader Ho Chi Minh sits in Ba Dinh square, the location where he read the nation’s declaration of independence in 1945.
This tall, blocky pillared building is modeled after Lenin’s crypt in Moscow and meant to evoke a traditional communal house, though to many tourists it looks like a concrete cubicle with columns.
Contrary to his desire for a simple cremation, the embalmed body is on display in plexiglass casing, and a dress code of long sleeves and pants is required to visit. The mausoleum is closed for a couple months around the end of the year, when the body goes to Russia for maintenance.
6. Presidential Palace
Behind Ho Chi Minh’s Mausoleum is a humble stilt house, where Ho Chi Minh supposedly lived in the 60s, though some claim that it would have been too risky during the war for him to live here.
The house is an interpretation of a traditional rural dwelling, and has been preserved just as Ho left it. It’s set in a well-tended garden next to a carp-filled pond.
It shares grounds with the much more luxurious and impressive Presidential Palace built for the French Governor of the Indochina colony in the early 1900’s. The palace is now used for official receptions and isn’t open to the public.
5. Hanoi Hilton (Hoa Lo Prison)
The Hoa Lo Prison, sarcastically coined the Hanoi Hilton by American POWs, was originally built by the French to house Vietnamese political prisoners. The North Vietnamese Army later used the prison to house prisoners of war during the Vietnam War.
Well known figures such as Senator John McCain, James Stockdale and Bud Day were just a few of the many prisoners of war that spent time in this prison.
Two thirds of the prison was torn down to make way for the Hanoi Towers; the rest was turned into a museum and is now a popular tourist attraction in Hanoi. In 1999 a Hilton Hotel opened in Hanoi and was carefully named the Hilton Hanoi Opera Hotel.
4. Vietnam Museum of Ethnology
Through its connection to neighboring countries and Vietnam’s colonial past, the Southeast Asian country is very diverse. The story of Vietnam’s many subcultures and their heritage is one display at the Vietnam Museum of Ethnology.
There are over 50 indigenous communities in Vietnam. Many of whom are working side by side with this insightful museum to preserve and celebrate centuries of stories and unique cultures.
With this help, the Vietnam Museum of Ethnology is as authentic as you could hope it to be. The strong collaboration has created a rich range of exhibits, from historic artifacts to tribal clothing. If you’re looking to explore beyond modern Vietnam culture, this is the place to go.
3. Temple of Literature
This is one of the temples of Confucius, and home of the nation’s first university. Originally built in 1070, the temple is meant to honor all scholars.
Today, calligraphists will come and write good will wishes in Han characters during the Asian New Year at the steps of the temple, to give as gifts. The temple was built to replicate Confucius’ birthplace, with five courtyards and various temples and other buildings throughout the expansive grounds.
Of special note are the Stelae of Doctors, a series of over 100 carved blue stone turtles, which honor the names of all who pass the royal exams.
2. Hanoi’s Old Quarter
Within the Ba Dinh district, Hanoi’s Old Quarter is brimming with activity. The buzz washes over you in earnest, rather than being an overwhelming overload to the senses. As you walk, the citi’s rapid and busy traffic will swarm around you, providing ample background noise to the musical conversations.
The Old Quarter is a delightful mix of colonial French architecture, spread along the many roads lined with locals in straw hats, pushing all sorts of foods and goods. Color and cuisine mix like the pedestrians and traffic. One coats the quarter in the kaleidoscopic hue of a rainbow, the other presents your nose with endless wonders.
Hanoi’s Old Quarter is a haven for foodies. But also, anyone keen to dive into the organized chaos that is the city’s oldest commercial district.
1. Hoan Kiem Lake
Known as the lake of the returned (or restored) sword, this lake marks the historical center of ancient Hanoi.
The name comes from a legend in which Emperor Le Loi was given a magical sword by the gods, which he used to drive out the invading Chinese. Later, while boating on the lake, he encountered a giant turtle, which grabbed the sword and carried it down to its depths.
Every morning at around 6am local residents practice traditional t’ai chi on the shore. The lake also houses Jade Island, home of the eighteenth century Temple of the Jade Mountain. The island is reachable via the red-painted and picturesque Morning Sunlight Bridge.