If you’re visiting Vietnam’s vibrant capital city and are wondering what there is to do and see there, this is the post for you! My boyfriend and I spent more than three weeks in Hanoi, using it as a base to explore the northern region. It’s a fantastic city, with gorgeous colonial architecture, delicious food, picturesque streets and very affordable prices. In this post, I’d like to share some of our personal recommendations for what to see and do in Hanoi.
Museums & historic buildings
Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum. The final resting place of Ho Chi Minh, the founder of modern Vietnam who was known affectionately as ‘Uncle Ho’. He remains a tremendously important person in Vietnam, and in this large complex you can find galleries of his personal memorabilia and information about his upbringing, work, beliefs and travels. His embalmed remains are displayed in a glass case inside the mausoleum. The complex has a strict dress code: shoulders and knees must be covered.
Hoa Lo Prison Memorial. Previously a prison and now a museum, it’s a fascinating insight into the lives of those imprisoned there; firstly Vietnamese soldiers under French rule, then American soldiers during the Vietnam/American war. It was sarcastically nicknamed the ‘Hanoi Hilton’ by American POWs. There are some grisly aspects, like the guillotine used by French officers, but nothing too graphic. It cost 30,000 Vietnamese VND per person. You can pay an extra 50,000 for an audio guide or 20,000 for an informative brochure.
Vietnam Women Museum. A really interesting place to learn about the history and culture of women in Vietnamese society. Topics covered include marriage, family life, work, agriculture, religious practices, fashion and women’s role in the war (lots of stories of bad-ass female guerrilla soldiers!). Tickets cost 60,000 VND per person, which includes a very good audio guide.
Vietnam Museum Of Ethnology. An impressive museum, full of information about the 54 ethnic minorities in Vietnam. You can view over 15,000 artifacts including tribal art, clothes, handicrafts, jewellery and tools from the different cultures. The best part is the reconstruction of different tribal houses, which you can enter and walk around. It’s interesting seeing the different architectural styles and how the various ethnic minorities live. Tickets cost 40,000 VND per person.
The Temple Of Literature. There’s lots to see in this temple complex, built in 1070 by Emperor Ly Thanh Tong’s dynasty and dedicated to Confucius, the Chinese scholar of learning. Education is an overriding theme here: it’s the site of Vietnam’s oldest university – the Imperial Academy – and study sessions and exams are held in the grounds. There are eighty-two blue stone turtles; a tribute to the graduates of the triennial royal exams, which took place between 1442 and 1779. Turtles are chosen because they represent wisdom and longevity.
St. Joseph’s Cathedral. The city’s oldest church, which was constructed between 1882 and 1886. Built in a neo-Gothic style, the church was modelled on Notre Dame and still hosts Mass several times a day.
Go temple-hopping. While in Hanoi, you may want to visit Ngoc Son Temple, an 18th century Buddhist temple, which sits on a tiny island in Hoan Kiem lake. There’s also the Temple of the Jade Mountain and the One-Pillar Pagoda, which was built in 1054.
Hoan Kiem lake. A beautiful lake in the city centre, where locals come to sit, socialize, play musical instruments and people-watch. The roads around the lake are pedestrianized at weekends, but it’s the perfect place for an afternoon stroll any day of the week.
West Lake. The largest fresh water lake in Hanoi, which is surrounded by restaurants, bars and shops. There are also some temples along the waterfront, including the Tran Quoc pagoda. the oldest Buddhist temple in Hanoi.
Huu Tiep Lake. Right in the middle of this tiny lake are the preserved remains of a US B-52 bomber from the Vietnamese/American war. There are also lots of cafes around the lake, where you can grab an iced coffee and rest your feet!
Quirky and fun
Thang Long Water Puppet Theatre. Highly skilled puppet masters control wooden puppets on bamboo canes, which splash and dance in a metre-high pool of water. The puppets perform local legends and farming stories or Vietnamese myths. Tickets cost 150,000 VND per person and for a few dong extra, you can get an audio guide. Being
cheap thrifty, we decided not to get one and laughed a lot trying to work out what on Earth was happening in some of the scenes.
Long Biên Bridge. Built between 1899 and 1902 and designed by Parisian architects Daydé & Pillé, the bridge crosses the Red River and connects the two districts, Hoan Kiem and Long Bien. Mopeds, bicycles and pedestrians can cross it, but watch out for trains! It’s still a functioning railway line and walking on the tracks is forbidden (although we still saw lots of people taking photos on there).
Hanoi Train Street. This unusual tourist attraction takes place on a narrow street in the Old Quarter, with train tracks run right down the middle. Tourists flock to the cafes on either side to watch trains rattling past at full-speed. The government are considering closing it due to health & safety concerns, but it’s currently open at the time of writing.
Other things to do in Hanoi
Dong Xuan Market. The largest market in Hanoi sells absolutely everything, including clothes, jewellery, bags and souvenirs. Make sure you haggle as the vendors will try to charge you inflated tourist prices.
Get a massage. Vietnamese massages focus on deep tissue and targeting pressure points. They’re not as rough as Thai massages and usually cost around 250,000 VND for an hour but you can haggle. The massage parlors offer other treatments including Swedish massages, Thai massages, body scrubs, manicures, pedicures, hot oil massages and much more.
Go to the night market. There’s a local night market every Friday, Saturday and Sunday night. Food-wise, I wasn’t that impressed by the selection but there are lots of stalls selling clothes and accessories.
Explore the Old Town. A chaotic kaleidoscope of colours, scents and sounds, Hanoi’s Old Town is an exciting place. You often have to clamber over tree roots or around motorbikes parked in the most impractical places. Restaurants spill out onto the pavements, where tantalizing food smells are mixed with the inescapable stench of exhaust fumes. The best way to explore is to wander, soaking up the atmosphere and letting your nose lead the way. If you are actually looking for somewhere specific, the Old Town can be disorientating so make sure you have Google Maps downloaded offline.
I hope these suggestions have been useful. If you’ve got any more, please share them in the comments section below.
Ciao for now
The Curious Sparrow