Including Places to See, Things to Do, Food to Taste, Fun Coffee Shops to Visit, and Out-of-Town Day Trips to Take
Our trip to the capital of Vietnam was spontaneous (Hanoi truly deserves a better preparation). Most likely, yours will be a better-planned one. And hopefully, this Hanoi travel guide will help you figure out the proper itinerary for what to do in the city.
We visited the capital of Vietnam in January, despite warnings that it might be cold and rainy in this part of the country. Maybe, we were lucky, but in terms of weather, Hanoi was where we felt the most comfortable on our winter trip across Southeast Asia.
This is also a city where we felt like a couple of days simply was not enough. It has so much to offer! here’s a list of ideas that covers some of the most popular activities and locations in the area.
Table of Contents
1. Hoan Kiem Lake – The Starting Point
They say that in Europe, all roads lead to Rome. Well, in Hanoi, all roads lead to the Hoan Kiem Lake, the Lake of the Returned Sword. It is relatively small if compared to some other lakes in the city, but it is packed with things to do and to see. Plus, it has a lovely legend attached to it.
It is in the heart of the old town and is equally fun to be at during the daytime, as well as in the evening. The lake is also a good starting point for a walk around the city. From here, you can either head east, to the French Quarter, north to the Train Street, or south to further explore the Old Quarter.
2. Explore Ngoc Son
The Temple of the Jade Mountain is the small island in the middle of the Hoan Kiem Lake. To reach it, you will cross the charming red Huc Bridge (the Bridge of the Rising Sun). Inside the temple, there are displays of artifacts. Most of these are in honor of the war hero General Tran Hung Dao.
Inside, you will also see what the creatures from the legend about the returned sword might’ve looked like. The temple’s exhibition includes bodies of the two big turtles that lived in the lake.
Visiting the bridge is free of charge. The entrance fee to the temple is 30,000 VND. The opening hours are from 7 am to 4 pm daily.
3. Stop by the Note Coffee
This is a small but popular coffee house located near the Hoan Kiem lake. For years, tourists from all over the world, as well as the locals have been leaving small post-it notes with wishes on the walls, stairs, and even the ceiling of this cafe.
It may not be the first place to start tasting the legendary Vietnamese coffee at (although, many find its egg coffee delicious). But this is definitely a fun place to visit, with its own, a very unique atmosphere. The staff is lovely. Get ready to pay around 3 USD for a cup of egg coffee.
4. What to See in Hanoi? Attend Thai Long Water Puppet Theater
This is an attraction that we skipped, but it seems to be extremely popular among visitors. Water puppetry in Vietnam dates back to the 11th century. Sources say that the idea to make theater on the water came from the villagers having to cope with the flooded rice paddies.
In a small pool inside the theater, the actors will operate the wooden dolls to tell folk tales. This action is accompanied by the live orchestra. There are several shows per day. The tickets cost 100,000 VND.
5. Hanoi Travel Guide Recommends: Have Coffee with a View
For this purpose, we’ve picked the Terrace of the Diamond Sky Bar. To be fair, this is not the only worthy rooftop with a view in Hanoi. There are quite a few other options. Hanoi gives a choice among rooftop bars of modern skyscrapers, as well as cozy escapes on the roofs of smaller and older buildings. Usually, these are all hidden, but can easily be tracked down via Tripadvisor.
Coming back to the Diamond Sky Bar, its rooftop opens a 360º panorama of the city, with the Hoan Kiem Lake being very close, and such other scenic views as those of the bridges over the Red River, as well as the Ba Vi Mountain. The rooftop is equally good for coffee during the daytime, and for a drink in the evening.
6. Try the Legendary Egg Coffee
Alternatively to the lush terrace of the Diamond Sky Bar, you can opt-in for a location closer to the ground. Cafe Nang is a cozy cafe hidden on one of many tangled streets of the Old Quarter. It is tailored more for tourists, but this is not necessarily a bad thing. The staff speaks English. The design is floral and very welcoming. And the place serves delicious egg coffee, one of Hanoi’s specialties.
This is your usual sip of caffeine complemented with a pillowy layer of yolk whipped with sugar. In a way, it is more a dessert than a drink, but it is definitely worth a try.
7. Dive into the Old Quarter
This is the heart of the city, and a fascinating mix of the remains of the colonial architecture intertwined with the local culture. To truly get a sense of the city, spend at least a couple of hours wandering the hectic streets of the Old Quarter. The area is also known as the 36 Guild Streets in honor of this exact number of types of crafts sold here.
Back in the days, craftsmen from the nearby villages came to the city to sell their goods. Each street hosted a particular guild or a craft. We found something very similar in concept when we wandered the streets of Fez in Marocco.
8. Enjoy Hanoi Food: It is Time for Bánh Mì
In Vietnam, it is always time for Bánh Mì. When sharing stories about the country, we may talk too much about food. That’s because it is very good here! Extremely good. Delicious. And cheap, if you choose to eat at the local street cafes and stalls. In fact, discovering the food culture contributes so much to the overall experience of learning about Vietnam, that taking a cooking class or a Hanoi street food tour might also be on the list of recommended activities.
Bánh Mì is one of many things to try when you are eating your way through Hanoi. This is a mini-baguette split lengthwise and filled with combinations of meat, sauces, and vegetables. Many call it the best type of sandwich in the world. It is also very affordable. We chose Bánh Mì Hoi An as a sandwich shop, but, of course, you will see plenty of other good vendors on your walk.
9. Hanoi Travel Guide Recommends: Haggle at the Night Market
This is an activity that you will not be able to do every evening. The Night Market of Hanoi is opened only on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday evenings, from 8 pm till late. The place is a melting pot of tourists and locals. The vendors sell all sorts of goods, from ceramics and clothing to sweets, and more.
If you are not into shopping, come for the vibe. Hang Buom Street of the night market is the go-to destination for all sorts of street food. There are also live performances and displays from the local artists and craftsmen.
Speaking of the markets, if you are not in town for the weekend, there is still a chance to catch the taste of the local life with a private guided tour. Let the local host show you the traditional and very local life in Hanoi.
10. Find the Best Cha Ca in Town
So, you can’t leave Hanoi without trying three things. Two of those we’ve already established in this Hanoi travel guide: it is coffee and Bánh Mì. The third thing is Cha Ca. We learned about it accidentally while scrolling through Tripadvisor looking for decent places to eat in the area. This is how we found a small place right around the corner where, one of the reviews said, they served the best Cha Ca in Hanoi. Cha Ca?
We got to the place, made an order, and a waiter brought in two plates of cold rice noodles, many bowls with sauces, a plate of dill, mint, and onions, and some fish. Then he also brought scissors, turned on the little stove on our table, and left. He came back a few minutes later when he realized we had no idea what to do with everything he left us. So he cut noodles with scissors, placed the pan over the fire, threw in lots of greens from the bowl, and added fish. Oh, the smell…!
Cha Ca is the traditional Hanoi meal, and one of its food specialties. It is pieces of catfish marinated in turmeric and fried with lots of dills, mint leaves, and onions. Then, the fish is served with noodles, spices, and sauces. It is to die for and cooking it on a small stove in a cafe is what makes it even tastier. Many cafes in town have it on the menu or specialize in just Cha Ca. We recommend trying this fish Hanoi-style – in a small, family-run cafe Cha Ca Phan ha hoi.
11. More Cha Ca Ideas
While Cha Ca Phan ha hoi is a very traditional and simple location, you may also opt-in for some catfish in dill in a slightly more popular place, Cha Ca Thang Long. This location might be more convenient as it is closer to the Old Quarters.
12. Stop by St. Joseph’s Cathedral
Also called The Big Church, this is the heritage left from the period of French colonization. An impressive neo-Gothic cathedral is one of the oldest in town and is equally beautiful from outside, as well as inside.
No admission fees apply, but there is a strict schedule for visitation. The church accepts visitors twice a day, early in the morning and at around 6 pm, and once on Saturdays. Also, visits are allowed on Sundays, also at a particular time. Better check the current schedule upon arrival.
13. Explore the Hoa Lo Prison
It is almost impossible to believe how a place as notorious as the prison can be in the center of Hanoi. On most of the tours, we had to travel outside the city to explore prisons-turned-museums.
The government of Vietnam did chop off a lot of Hoa Lo territory and gave it to the local businesses. What used to be the prison, turned into some valuable downtown estate. What was left, became a museum with some immersive experience.
Walk through the cells to see (and hear, as there is sound design, too) how the prisoners were held and treated at the Hoa Lo. Among the American pilots captured here in the times of the Vietnam War, this less than a luxurious place of confinement was sarcastically called “Hanoi Hilton”.
The admission fee is 30,000 VND.
14. Hanoi Travel Guide Recommends: Wander Around the Train Street
Located in the center of the city, this is a narrow street with the train track running in the middle of it. This only leaves a very small gap between the houses and the train, when it passes by.
Most of the day, the people of this street live their lives on the rails. They cook, chop meat, do washing and cleaning, while the children play.
The train runs down this track twice a day. When the time comes, the locals pack up everything they have on the rails and wait for the train to pass by. They know the schedule by heart.
Before the floods of tourists came to town, this was a very poor street. It still is, just take a look inside the tiny apartments through the opened windows and doors while passing by. But with tourism evolving, so did the local businesses. Now you can easily have a cup of coffee at a table in a small cafe near the track. If you know the timetable, you might even be able to see the train.
Much to our surprise, we discovered that not a lot of Hanoi travel guides include this street into the lists of recommendations. We believe that this is the experience not to be missed.
15. Head to the Temple of Literature
We did not expect much from this location, but we ended up spending several hours here. This is a picturesque temple with red pillars and doors. It is very meditative and inviting, and has lovely gardens with stone benches hiding in the shadows of the old trees. In this Hanoi travel guide, we would like to list it as one of the top-recommended spots to visit.
It also has an amazing history. The temple dates back to 1070. It was initially a university dedicated to Confucius. History tells us that at first, it opened its doors only to the aristocracy. Many years went by before it also started accepting the commoners.
The admission fee is 10,000 VND.
16. Spend Some Time in the Thang Long Imperial Citadel
The citadel is part of the UNESCO world heritage, and it accepts visitors every day but Mondays. The entrance fee is 30,000 VND.
Inside the walls, there is a display of ancient artifacts. Many of them date back to as long ago as the 6th century. The citadel survived wars and destruction. It is a lovely escape from the hustle and bustle of the city. Plan at least a couple hours for a slow walk within its walls.
17. Stop by the Cua Bac Church
On your way to the Ho Tay Lake, you will pass by the Cua Bac Church – the Northern Gate. This is one of the three main churches of the city, with two others being the St. Joseph Cathedral and the Ham Long Church.
The church dates back to 1932 and combines elements of French and Vietnamese architecture.
18. Wander Around the Quan Thanh Temple
This is the temple that you will see on many Hanoi travel guides and postcards. The building is almost ten centuries old and still looks stunning. It honors Huyen Thien Tran Vu, the protector of the town, and is a Taoist temple. Inside, you will find the local worshippers. The temple is surrounded by a garden with bonsai trees.
19. Make It In Time to the Tran Quoc Pagoda
This is another iconic location depicted on many of Hanoi’s’ postcards and posters. It is located amidst one of the biggest lakes in town, the West Lake. It is also the oldest Buddhist temple in the city. If you wish to get in, then plan your day accordingly because the pagoda’s visiting hours are between 11:30 am to 1:30 pm.
Or, alternatively, opt-in for a 5-hour Vespa tour around the city, which will take you to most of the places worth seeing in town. The list will include the West Lake and the pagoda.
20. Visit the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum
This is one of the stops that we skipped. Coming from the country that is still shaking off the consequences of Marxism-Leninism, we avoid any museums and monuments erected in honor of the communist party leaders.
It is hard to deny, however, the impact that this figure had on the history of Vietnam. He changed the country in so many ways and received the true Soviet-leader-treatment after death. It is interesting that Ho Chi Minh wanted to be cremated. Instead, the government embalmed his body and placed it inside the huge monument/building constructed in his honor.
21. Continue Your Acquaintance with Hanoi Near the One Pillar Pagoda
Since you are already in the neighborhood, why not walk by the One Pillar Pagoda also known as Chua Mot Cot? This is an interesting wooden construction built on a concrete pillar. Many call it one of the most unique architectural monuments in Southeast Asia.
There are no entrance fees, but there is a schedule, and it may be slightly inconvenient for those of you planning a relaxed walk around the city with this pagoda being one of the possible stops. One of the ways to make it on time and within a smartly-organized daily itinerary is by taking the full-day guided tour, which will also cover many other essential stops in Hanoi.
22. Optional on the Hanoi Travel Guide: Stop by the Ho Chi Minh Museum
Just as with the mausoleum, the museum was a no-thank-yous stop for us. However, all of its five floors of memorabilia may be a good idea for everyone keen on the Marxist-Leninist concept. All of Ho Chi Minh’s achievements are listed and displayed within the walls of the museum that operates Tuesday through Thursday.
23. Enjoy the Panorama of Hanoi at the Lotte Center
This will probably be one of your first stops if you are staying in the Ba Dinh area (we’ve talked more about the best areas to stay in our Hanoi Budget Trip travel guide). For those of you staying around the Hoan Kiem Lake, it is a 20-minute car ride.
Lotte Center is the modern mall with tens of stores, as well as cafes and bars on its roof. Most travelers head here for the Observation Deck located on the 65th floor. The deck operates daily, from 9 am to 10:30 pm. The tickets will cost around 10 USD (7 USD for children). The glass Skywalk Zones offer a breath-taking experience and open panoramic views of the city.
24. Find Time for the Vietnamese Women’s Museum
This is an impressive building with a cheerful facade. Its five floors are dedicated to the achievements of the Vietnamese women. What is peculiar is that this museum was established by the government. Among its objects and activities, there are pictures, old films, and artifacts. The tickets cost 30,000 VND. For an extra fee, there is an audio tour available.
25. Hanoi Travel Guide Recommends: Stroll Through the French Quarter
This may be the cherry on top of a busy day. The French Quarter is a cozy and stylish part of the city. It is home to many embassies, the Opera House, and fancy restaurants. We’ve already mentioned many of its attractions in this publication, but the picturesque streets of the quarter deserve a separate mentioning.
26. Travel from Hanoi to the Ha Long Bay
This is one of the activities for which you will need to choose the proper timing. Hanoi itself is good to visit any month of the year. With the Ha Long bay, however, it is crucial to catch the season. The best time to visit Ha Long is October through December. Of course, this is also the time when everyone else will be there, too. So, get ready to spot the beauty of nature amidst numerous boats.
It takes approximately four hours to get to the bay from Hanoi. The most common practice is to order a tour while in the city. However, many prefer to purchase tickets on-site. The prices will vary depending on the services and the duration of the tour.
Alternatively, you can choose kayaking over a standard boat ride, or get in touch with the locals and rent a smaller boat just for yourself.
The bay itself is beautiful and definitely deserves a visit.
27. Hanoi Travel Guide Recommends: Head to the Sapa Valley
This is another out-of-Hanoi activity, and once again, timing is everything. The best time to visit Sapa is from March to May, or from September to mid-December. Usual tours to Sapa include trekking, trips to waterfalls, and the tribal village routes.
The area is one of the most recommended places to visit in Vietnam. It has breathtaking panoramas, exciting (and challenging) trekking up Mount Fansipan, and amazing views over the rice paddies.
What to see and do in Hanoi and around? Another way to discover the rural Vietnamese life is via the farm tour. Learn about the traditional Vietnamese fishing, interact with the locals, and cycle down the country lanes.
Written by Inessa Rezanova
I am a Kyiv-based screenwriter with 10+ years of experience in producing scripts. I love my job, and no, I did not quit it to travel the world. I see different countries in my spare time. As a storyteller, I believe that it is the emotional journey that matters the most. This is why together with my sister I started this blog to encourage everyone to travel and to do so with a heart and mind opened to adventures.
Images by Natalie Rezanova
I am a photographer based in Kyiv, Ukraine. I am lucky to be able to do what I love the most for a living. Photography is an endless source of inspiration for me. My mission on this blog is to inspire by sharing some of the favorite captions from my journeys. I also provide professional photography tips to help the readers bring home some beautiful photo memories.