Things to Do in Hanoi
You can be forgiven for thinking that Halong Bay couldn’t possibly be a real place. After all, beauty like this only exists in movies, where high-tech equipment can create a landscape that is mesmerizing, awe-inspiring and perfect. Not only is Halong Bay real, however, but it’s a convenient side trip from fast-paced Hanoi that should be on the itinerary of any traveler passing through North Vietnam.
Classified as a UNESCO World Heritage site and one of the seven New Wonders of Nature, Halong Bay contains over 1,900 islands and jagged limestone islets. Cruise in silence on a traditional junk through the morning Halong Bay mists, and watch as vertical karst formations appear and then fade from view. In addition to the islands and turquoise waters, Halong Bay is riddled with grottoes that feel like hidden lairs. Dock the boat at Bo Hòn Island and descend into Sung Sot Cave, a 130,000-square-foot chamber that drips in dozens of stalactites.
The Old Quarter is the cultural heart of Hanoi where the pulse of life has constantly beat for nearly 2,000 years. Daily routine starts early and builds to a friendly bustle. Streets have distinct character and are named after the crafts once made there - silver, ladder, silk, paper.
St. Joseph's cathedral rings for mass regularly throughout the day, follow the bells to check its Neo-Gothic style. Huyen Thien Pagoda is another of the many temples peppered around this part of town. The Old City Gate is one of four original entrances to the heart of the Royal City to survive over a thousand years.
Take time to sample the spirit, atmosphere and shopping on offer here - nothing says Hanoi like its Old Quarter.
The Hanoi Opera House (Nha Hat Lon) is a 100-year-old performance hall with architecture modeled on the Palais Garnier opera house in Paris. Nha Hat Lon was erected by the French colonial administration at the turn of the 20th century and is a landmark building in Hanoi. It was built in a typical French style with classic gothic features.
In 1997, the modernization and repair of the building was undertaken by Vietnamese French architects, and the decorative designs on the ceilings, arches, walls, and doors were renewed. Home to the Vietnam Symphony Orchestra, the Opera House also hosts the Hanoi Philharmonic Orchestra, the National Ballet, plus both traditional and modern local productions.
No tours of the building are offered but the exterior makes for some good photo opportunities. In terms of atmosphere, the Opera House is best seen at night when it is illuminated by lights.
The Lake of the Restored Sword holds as big a place in local folklore as it does in Hanoi’s city culture. According to local legend, an ancient emperor was once floating along the lake when the Golden Turtle God requested his magic sword. It’s an age-old story that locals still tell to curious tourists who wander the lake’s scenic shores. It marks the divide between Hanoi’s Old Quarter and French Quarter and is also home to an endangered species of massive soft-shell turtles that gave nearby Turtle Temple its name.
Today, travelers flock to the lake to escape the hustle of the city. And while the morning hours prove a calming way to greet the day (locals like to gather at one of the many quiet cafes to sip cups of strong, sweet coffee as the sun rises), it’s worth sticking around after dark to capture pictures of Hanoi’s skyline aglow with glittering white lights.
At this mausoleum the preserved body of Ho Chi Minh, founder of unified Vietnam and the country's liberator from Western colonialism, lies in a glass case for public viewing.
The Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum Complex was built with assistance from the USSR and the austere and impressive architecture is recognizably Soviet/Communist in design. Around the building lie 240 ordered squares of manicured grass cut with concrete walkways. This dedication to 'Uncle Ho,' as he is affectionately known, is unsurprisingly one of the nation's most revered sites and as such this is a moving, and eerie, experience. Nearby is the popular Ho Chi Minh Museum dedicated to his life and work.
The Temple of Literature (or Quoc Tu Giam) was originally built as a Confucian Temple in 1070 AD. Six years later on the same grounds was founded Vietnam's first university to educate the administrative and military warrior Mandarin classes.
Over the years buildings have been added and renovated but much of the architecture dates back to the Lý (1010 - 1225) and Trần dynasties (1225 - 1400). The university operated for more than 700 years but today you can experience the tranquility without its warrior students, with its beautiful gardens and pavilions in a series of courtyards.
Don't leave Hanoi without seeing a Thang Long Water Puppet Theater show. These musical stories portrayed are of historical legends and folk tales. These ever-popular performances are given by a troupe of talented actors and accompanied by a traditional Vietnamese pit orchestra. Great entertainment for all ages. Charming, curious, and enchanting - you'll be pleased you experienced it.
Designed by Parisian architects and built between 1899 and 1902, Hanoi’s Long Bien Bridge was the first steel bridge spanning the Red River and has long been a point of pride for the Vietnamese. During the war against the French in 1954, the bridge served as a vital transportation link for moving food into Northern Central Vietnam. During the Vietnam War, the bridge was bombed by American air attacks, and yet today, it still stands as a testament to the nation’s tumultuous history.
Apart from its historical significance, the bridge has a pedestrian path where vendors often set up stalls selling some of the city’s tastiest street foods. It’s also one of the best spots in Hanoi for watching a sunrise or sunset, and it’s not unusual to see young couples having their wedding pictures taken on the historic structure.
Legend has it that while Emperor Ly Thai Tong was troubled about being childless, he dreamt that he met the bodhisattva, Quan Am, who, sitting on a lotus flower, offered him a son. Soon after he married a peasant girl who bore him a son, and in gratitude he built the One Pillar Pagoda (or Chua Mot Cot) in the design of a lotus flower on its stem rising from a square pond.
The original temple was destroyed by the French Union in 1954, it was rebuilt on a single concrete pillar of 1.25 meter (4 foot) diameter. The temple itself is made from wood and bears a statue of Quan Am, to whom it is dedicated, inside.
More Things to Do in Hanoi
Amid the congested streets of Hanoi, the neo-Gothic facade of St. Joseph’s Cathedral (Nha Tho Lon) seems somewhat out of place. Located in the French Quarter of the Vietnamese capital fronting a small plaza near Hoan Kiem Lake, the Roman Catholic cathedral was built between 1882 and 1886, shortly after the French conquered the city.
The most striking characteristics of the building are its twin bell towers reminiscent of Notre Dame in Paris. The interior of the cathedral features stunning stained glass windows and an intricate alter where mass is held several times each day. Visitors to Hanoi around Christmastime will find the cathedral a bustle of activity, and the small plaza in the front takes on a street fair-like atmosphere.
Three stories of wholesale and traditional goods, local food and hand-tailored clothes, as well as cosmetics and crafts, make the massive Dong Xuan Market a true experience of southeast Asia.
Both locals and tourists hustle through the jam-packed stalls of Dong Xuan during daylight hours, bartering for better deals on just about anything imaginable. But it’s after dark that the market truly comes alive, as travelers gather to sample traditional foods while watching cultural performances that include music, dance and plenty of energy, too.
Cat Cat Village, located in the hills of the Sapa District, is a great place to witness the distinct culture and traditions of the Hmong people. Originally from mountainous regions of China and known for being independent artisans and farmers, the Hmong escaped to the south to other Asian countries due to political unrest.
Travelers can wander the village where welcoming locals are eager to teach about the ethnic group’s fascinating customs—including a three-day engagement event called “pulling wife.” Shops of traditional craftsmen, like brocade weavers and blacksmiths who make custom gold and silver jewelry, line the dirt streets that wind through Cat Cat Village. These local shops provide the perfect opportunity to gather gifts for friends back home. Visitors can also trek through the mountains to a scenic waterfall or through nearby rice patties.
Dedicated to General Tran Hung Dao, who defeated the Mongols in the 13th century, the picturesque Ngoc Son Temple on Hoam Kiem Lake is one of the most-visited temples in all of Hanoi. A brilliant red bridge connects the mainland to the temple’s tiny island, where cooling waters and shaded trees circle the place where locals gather for worship and contemplation.
Also known as the Temple of the Jade Mountain, Ngoc Son offers breathtaking lake views and picture-perfect shots of the storied Tortoise Tower, as well as a rare glimpse of richly colored wall paintings, handcrafted sculptures and the Pen Tower. Although crossing the bridge is free, there is a small fee to enter the temple.
Once used by French colonialists to house political prisoners—and later by North Vietnam to hold activists rallying for independence—what now remains of Hoa Lo Prison has become a popular destination for travelers visiting Hanoi.
Sometimes sarcastically called the “Hanoi Hilton,” Hoa Lo once held more than 2,000 prisoners in subhuman conditions within its crowded quarters. Prisoners included a number of leaders from Communist North Vietnam, as well as American pilots and soldiers during the Vietnam War. Hoa Lo became a school for revolutionaries once its prisoners were released, before being totally demolished in the 1990s. Today, the original gates to Hoa Lo lead to a replica of the prison, where travelers can tour cells, explore prison culture and better understand the conditions political captives lived under.
Located in the Quan Hoa and Ba Thuoc Districts of Northern Vietnam, Pu Luong Nature Reserve comprises 43,643 acres (17,662 hectares) and one of the largest swathes of limestone mountain forest remaining in the nation. The park attracts eco-tourists from around the globe with its incredible biodiversity: nearly 600 species of fauna, including the second largest population of Delacour’s langur in Vietnam.
While many visitors come – and rightly so – for the spectacular natural scenery and wildlife watching, the two mountain ridges that make up the reserve also sandwich a valley of agricultural land where a Thai ethnic minority live. In Hieu Hamlet, visitors can see traditional Thai water wheels, verdant rice terraces and traditional stilted houses. Homestays with local families living in the valley are also an option.
The Perfume Pagoda located in a vast grotto on Huong Son mountain, in a national park where the scent of flowers lends the shrine its name. Enjoy the scenery as you are rowed up a winding river to the site. You can hike the 2 kilometers (1.25 miles) up the mountain, or take a cable car.
At the top, you may feel like you're on some sort of bizarre Hollywood set where you'd expect Indiana Jones or Lara Croft to meet a spiritual Bruce Lee. Here spirituality lives in harmony with nature. This Buddhist shrine is situated in the throat of a giant cave amongst spectacular rock formations and stalactites, and even features a spiritual stairway to heaven.
Built in the late 20th century and restored in 1999, Ancient House offers visitors to Hanoi a chance to travel back in time and experience what life was like for locals in this bustling urban center hundreds of years ago. History buffs will love exploring the small two-block home decorated in old-world style and its quiet courtyard.
Ancient House’s architecture may still speak to a past that’s long gone, but it should be noted that this popular destination has become more souvenir shop than museum, where visitors can find traditional embroidery, games and silk paintings for reasonable prices.
This local museum, which explores the life of Vietnam’s famous leader from the early 1940s until his death in 1979, is housed in a modern-style white concrete building in the heart of Hanoi. Travelers can explore well-lit halls decorated with artifacts from Ho Chi Minh’s past, including family photos and historical documents.
Some argue displays serve more as tools for propaganda than for education, but a trip to the Ho Chi Minh Museum still offers travelers a glimpse of the past, as well as a chance to experience how the Vietnamese tell their story. English-speaking guides are available for a small fee and visitors agree they are worth the price, as display translations are limited.
Travelers looking to experience a bit of royalty can venture to the Presidential Palace in the heart of Hanoi. Built in the early 1900s, this French Colonial-style structure, protected by impressive wrought iron gates, was meant to house local dignitaries. But in 1954, after leading Vietnam to independence, Ho Chi Minh refused to live in the palace’s gilded halls and instead built a rustic stilt house on the royal grounds.
Today, travelers can explore the area surrounding this ornate government structure, which includes well-kept botanical gardens and lush fruit groves. Guides are available for hire, but visitors are not allowed into the palace. Those looking to learn more about the history and life of Ho Chi Minh can visit his silt home, which also sits on palace grounds.
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