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10 Things to Do in Hanoi, Vietnam

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Sylvia Paige

Ahhh, Vietnam! Whether you’re a backpacker on a budget or someone looking for their next big vacation spot, the city of Hanoi is the place to be. It’s located in the northern part of the country and is teeming with adventure and over 1,000 years of culture. In fact, not only is Hanoi the capital city of Vietnam but it’s also considered the art capital of the country! Sounds interesting, right?

We’re here to help fill up your travel itinerary with 10 of the best things to do in Hanoi, Vietnam! Don’t worry about staying busy during your trip because there are enough activities to keep you occupied for days on end. So, get ready for tasty street food and stunning temples because we’re going to Hanoi!

1. Stroll Through the Old Quarter

Even though Hanoi is on the up and up, the Old Quarter is a wonderful section to see the city’s roots. The neighborhood dates back to the 11th century and is made up of 36 streets, and it is commonly referred to as 36 Old Streets. When more villagers began settling in the area, they built tube houses– tall, narrow buildings–that you can still see today.

The Old Quarter is also where Hanoi gets its reputation for being Vietnam’s capital of art, as it drew in skilled craftsmen that specialized in a variety of goods. Today, its old streets will put you in the center of the city’s culture and expose you to street food vendors, artisanal shops, and plenty of sights, smells, and sounds to shock your senses!

2. Watch a Water Puppet Show

Looking for a traditional Vietnamese experience? Well, then, a water puppet show cannot be missed! As the name suggests, it is a puppet show that takes place on a stage full of water. These types of shows began in the 11th century when villagers would have a celebration once the rice fields flooded, which ended the harvesting season. 

Farmers would stand waist-deep in water and use their meticulously designed puppets and stages to act out various legends. The water puppet shows are now a special part of Hanoi’s culture, and you can attend a show at several puppet theaters.

Here are a few theaters to choose from.

3. Visit The Imperial Citadel of Thang Long

History buffs will want to make sure visiting the Imperial Citadel of Thang Long is a part of their itinerary! It was built during the Ly Viet Dynasty in the 11th century on top of a Chinese fort that was built in the 7th century–history on top of history! The citadel marks the independence of the Dai Viet, and many artifacts inside are still being discovered today.

It’s now one of Vietnam’s eight UNESCO World Heritage Sites and is open for the public to explore. Just know it’s not open on Mondays, and you’ll need to pay for an entrance ticket. If you need help planning it into your travel schedule, freshen up on how to make the ultimate travel itinerary so that your trip goes as smoothly as possible!

4. Check out the Hoa Lo Prison

The Hoa Lo Prison was first constructed by the French at the end of the 19th century, during the time France had set up colonies throughout Southeast Asia (known as French Indochina). The prison was then notoriously used during the Vietnam War as a place where US prisoners of war were held captive. So, as you can imagine, it wasn’t the most uplifting place to be.

Well, in the 1990s, the original prison was destroyed; however, the gatehouse was preserved and renovated into a fascinating museum. It will give you a look into important moments that shaped Vietnam into the country it is today and what life would have been like as a prisoner of Hoa Lo.

It’s quickly become one of the most popular things to do in Hanoi, Vietnam, so consider adding it to your plans if it strikes your interest!

5. Marvel at Bach Ma Temple

When most people think about Vietnam, they think of temples–duh! And anyone who thinks that isn’t wrong for doing so. The city of Hanoi is packed with various temples, but Bach Ma Temple should be at the top of your list! It dates back to the 9th century and was a place to worship Long Do–a powerful ancient god.

Bach Ma is located in the Hanoi Old Quarter, so it’s a great thing to do if you’re already walking through the historical section, or you could turn it into its own trip altogether. Once you arrive at the temple, you can marvel at the beautifully engraved art pieces and remarkable ancient artifacts. 

The experience will throw you headfirst into a vibrant past culture that still seeps into the present day.

6. Get the Best Views at Lotte Tower Observation Deck

Want to get the best views and see why Hanoi is one of the most beautiful cities in Asia? Good, because taking a trip to Lotte Tower Observation Deck will give you a stunning look at the city from above. The Lotte Tower is the tallest building in Hanoi, so you can enjoy uninterrupted panoramic views. 

If you’re afraid of heights, let us warn you of a section of flooring made of glass panels–it’s a long way down. How far down? Oh, just 65 floors (830 feet/230 meters). But if you can stomach your fear of heights, paying the small ticket fee is well worth the experience!

7. Spend the afternoon at the Hoan Kiem Lake and Ngoc Son Temple

One of the most popular things to do in Hanoi, Vietnam, for locals and tourists is to spend time at Hoan Kiem Lake. After wandering the busy streets, it’s the perfect place to soak up a serene ambiance as you stroll around the blissful lake and watch the people pass by.

Hoan Kiem translates to Lake of the Returned Sword, which pays tribute to an ancient legend that says the Dragon King was given a powerful sword to fight against Ming China. After he was victorious, a golden turtle stole the sword and disappeared into the lake. So, don’t bring your sword unless you want it to get snatched by a turtle.

7.2. Ngoc Son Temple

The Ngoc Son Temple (also referred to as the Temple of Jade Mountain) sits on a small island within Hoan Kiem. You can only access it by crossing a bridge in the northern section of the lake. The temple was built in the 19th century to commemorate Trn Hung Dao, the general who successfully fought against the Mongols. It’s worth paying the entrance fee to tour the property, which is also why we included it on our three-week itinerary through Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam!

8. See the World’s Largest Mosaic Wall

Have you been desperately waiting for the opportunity to visit the world’s largest mosaic wall? Well, now’s your chance. Hanoi is home to a mosaic wall that stretches for more than 12,000 feet–the longest in the world. The idea came from a journalist in 2007 who won an architecture contest, and the wall was completed in 2010, commemorating Hanoi’s 1,000th anniversary.

All along the mosaic wall, images created by around 100 artists depict the history of Vietnam in a beautiful array of colors. Don’t feel pressured to see every inch of the structure, but it’s definitely worth checking out a few sections–it makes an Instagram-worthy backdrop.

You can see the structure along the Red River dike system.

9. Day Trip to Halong Bay

Hanoi is the perfect jump-off point to get to Halong Bay! The bay is made up of around 1,600 breathtaking islands and has been twice declared a UNESCO World Natural Heritage Site in 1994 and 2001–impressive, right? Its stunning beauty can be enjoyed by relaxing out on the beaches, kayaking, visiting fishing villages, and taking scenic flyovers. 

Or, for the ultimate experience, you can follow our 7-day itinerary, which will put you on a multi-day cruise through Halong Bay and an overnight experience in one of the local towns!

10. The Train Café (Permanently Closed…sort of)

Back in the day, one of the top things to do in Hanoi, Vietnam, was to experience having a drink at one of the famous railway cafes. These cafes were located within feet of active railroad tracks, where trains would narrowly miss locals and tourists.

The bad news is that the government has tried to shut down these coffee shops with the intention of keeping everyone safe. The good news is that some coffee shops have continued to operate (it’s how they make a living), so you can technically still experience the thrilling activity.

Just know that it is dangerous, and you need to be extremely vigilant if you decide to go!

Final Thoughts

Vietnam is a country unlike anywhere else, and if you have to pick one city to visit, you can’t go wrong with Hanoi. The city streets will take you back to an ancient past, and there will be new experiences at every turn. So, with so many things to do in Hanoi, Vietnam, give yourself at least three days to fully appreciate what it has to offer. You won’t regret it!

Sylvia Paige

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