After traveling for a month through western China the first few days in Vietnam felt like a breeze. The constant crowds, the lack of English information, and the slow internet in China. In Vietnam, everything is so much easy for travelers. One of our first stops in Vietnam was Hanoi, the capital in the north of the country. A bustling place full of life, scooters, and non-stop noise. I loved it! Most travelers start or end their Vietnam trip in Hanoi. In this blog post, I am sharing my top 10 things to do in Hanoi, Vietnam.
1. Experience Hoan Kiem Lake on the weekend
If you ask me, Hoan Kiem Lake (in Vietnamese: Hồ Hoàn Kiếm) is the best place to see in Hanoi, especially on the weekends. From Monday to Friday the lake is surrounded by never-ending traffic, but on Friday night it all shuts down. The roads will be blocked and Hoan Kiem Lake becomes one big pedestrian zone. This is the perfect time for travelers to see this place. When I was there, there were tons of spontaneous activities like dance groups and kids playing Jenga. Moreover, Hoan Kiem Lake also has a great strategic location, because Hanoi’s Old Quarter is tucked around it.
Learn about the Lake’s Turtle legend
Of course, I cannot talk about Hoan Kiem Lake without mentioning the mythical turtle. According to an ancient legend, a dragon gave a magic sword (from Hoan Kiem Lake) to the 15th-century emperor Le Loi. This sword helped the emperor to win the battle against China. After the victory, the emperor took a boat ride over Hoan Kiem Lake and a giant turtle surfaced. The turtle was sent to collect the sword, and so the emperor gave the sword back to the lake. This legend led to the name of the lake. Hồ Hoàn Kiếm means Lake of the Returned Sword.
2. Walk across the iconic red bridge to Ngoc Son
Sticking with Hoan Kiem Lake, because it also has two islands. The smaller one with the stone pagoda can only be admired from a distance, but it is possible to visit the bigger island, Jade Island. It is connected to the mainland through the iconic red Huc Bridge. On the island, you can check out the 18th-century Ngoc Son Temple (also known as the Temple of the Jade Mountain, Đền Ngọc Sơn). It is a popular stop on many tour programs, so it can get really busy.
The islands also have plenty of turtle references. Up until 2016, there was even a gigantic turtle living in the lake. Sadly, the animal died. At Ngoc Son Temple visitors can ‘admire’ a preserved turtle from the lake. And remember that stone pagoda on the smaller island? It is called Tháp Rùa, which means Turtle Tower. It was built to honor the legend of the turtle and folk hero Le Loi.
Entrance fee for Ngoc Son Temple: 30,000 VND. Tickets can be purchased on the left side of the bridge.
3. Visit the Tran Quoc Pagoda – the oldest temple of Hanoi
Speaking about temples, one of the most photogenic temples that you can visit in Hanoi is the Tran Quoc Pagoda (Chùa Trấn Quốc). This temple was built in the 6th century on the orders of King Ly Nam De, on the banks of the Red River. This is not the same river as where the temple can be found now. In 1615 the banks crumbled and the temple had to be moved. The new location was West Lake, today the largest lake in the city.
The Pagoda is located a bit outside the city center. Take bus 50 to get here, it stops in front of the temple. Use Google Maps or download the app BusMap to find the best bus option. A bus ticket costs 7,000 VND (fixed price for the center of Hanoi). Another option would be to book a taxi through the Grab app.
Entrance fee for Tran Quoc Pagoda: free.
4. Take a look at the Notre Dame of Hanoi
In addition to the temples, you will also see many French influences in Hanoi. Not surprisingly, because this country spent nearly 70 years as a French colony. The French built a wide range of buildings in Hanoi and they even had their own neighborhood (today’s French Quarter). Here, the typical busy streets and small Hanoi buildings are replaced with wide roads and classical architecture. The most well-known French architectural piece is the Saint Joseph Cathedral. Weirdly enough, it is not located in the French Quarter but close to Hoan Kiem Lake. It has a lot of similarities with Paris’s most famous church, which is why it is called ‘the Notre Dame of Hanoi’.
Entrance fee for Saint Joseph Cathedral: free. The entrance is a side door at the compound of the Diocese of Hanoi. Also, the church closes between 11 or 12 am and 2 pm.
5. Dive into history at Hoa Lo Prison
Sadly, the French colonist era also had a dark side. Oppression, prosecution, and torture. Hỏa Lò Prison is the place in Hanoi to learn more about this side of Vietnamese history. This prison was built in 1901 by the French colonists to lock up, interrogate, and torture political prisoners. The cells were overpopulated with 2,000 prisoners at its peak in 1954 (max was 600). Also after the French left Vietnam, Hỏa Lò Prison continued to stay in use. During the Vietnam war, the American prisoners of war were brought here, locked up, and tortured. This led to the famous sarcastic nickname for the place: Hanoi Hilton.
Today, only a small part of the prison is left. Most of it was demolished to make room for a new skyscraper. The buildings that are left are now a museum. It is good to know that the prison museum mostly tells the story of the Vietnamese revolutionaries and the way the French ran this place. When it comes to the suffering of the American prisoners, it will show a story that the POWs were treated pretty well. We now know that this is not true.
Entrance fee for Hỏa Lò Prison: 30,000 VND. I highly recommend taking the audio tour (20,000 VND extra).
6. Visit or take a look at the Ho Chi Minh Memorial
During the Vietnamese war, Ho Chi Minh was the first president of North Vietnam. It was a beloved man who was called Bác Hồ (Uncle Ho) by the Vietnamese. After his death, a memorial was built in Hanoi to present his embalmed body to the people. Oddly, this was not the wish of Ho. He wanted to be cremated and to have parts of his ashes buried all over the country. The Memorial, and the gigantic Ba Đình square where it is located, is quite a strict place which is something that you will immediately notice at the square’s entrance. Guards are keeping a strict eye on the dress code. Shorts, slippers, and tank tops are not welcome.
Entrance fee for the Ho Chi Minh Memorial: free. The mausoleum is only open during the early morning hours and in the fall it is closed for two months (September & October). The embalmed body is then sent to Russia for preservation.
7. Watch the train on Hanoi Train Street – from a safe distance
Hanoi Train Street is quite an unusual tourist attraction. It is a train track passing through a local neighborhood in the center of Hanoi. Every time the train passes, residents and visitors press their backs to the wall or stand in a doorway and wait until the train passes. An everyday ritual for the locals who live at the side of the track, but for most tourists unthinkable in their own country.
There are two spots in Hanoi where you can watch the train. First there is Ngõ 224 Lê Duẩn. This part of the track is located a bit further away and doesn’t attract as much tourists as the other part. The second part of the track is located between Trần Phú Road & Điện Biên Phủ. This is the most popular part of the train track as it is close to the Old Quarter. Compared to Lê Duẩn the train passes here more often. On weekdays about four times between 7 and 10 pm. On the weekends it is more, about 12 times a day. More often between 5.30 and 9 pm.
Changes: no more train cafes
Because the Street Train attracted so many tourists, there were also bars, cafes, and restaurants located at the side of the track. The idea was: enjoy a coffee or a beer while you watch the train pass right in front of you. In October 2019, the local government decided that this situation (hundreds of people walking on a train track) was too dangerous and ordered all bars and restaurants to close. I was in Hanoi just before this decision was taken, so the photos still show the old situation. Today it will look different.
8. Drink a cà phê dừa
Coffee is a big thing in Vietnam, and it is served a bit differently than we are used to in the Netherlands, or in Europe. Traditional Vietnamese coffee is a slow drip coffee. It comes with a glass and a Phin filter on top of it. This is a metal filter with a press. The idea is to put ground coffee in the filter, put the press on it, and fill the filter with hot water. Sometimes a glass of hot water will be served separately and you have to pour it in yourself, but most times it will already be dripping when it arrives at your table. Wait a few minutes until all water has gone through the filter and you’ll have delicious (super strong!) coffee.
My favorite coffee places were the Coffee Station, Loading T, Tranquil Coffee, and The Note Coffee. Tip: if you want to order coffee without milk, then go for cà phê đen. Want it iced? Then add the word ‘đá’.
9. Eat a Banh Mi Chay – tip for vegetarians & vegans
And now over to the food. The French colonists brought the baguette to Vietnam and the Vietnamese made it better. The result: delicious banh mi. A small baguette with pate, various meats, cucumber, carrot, chili, coriander, and sauce. It is typical street food in Vietnam. Normally it is a meat-heavy sandwich, but luckily most places also offer a chay (non-meat) version. Vietnam has a large Buddhist community and eating meat is taboo in Buddhism. But don’t you worry, Vietnam is a true superstar when it comes to mock meats. So a banh mi chay is still super delicious!
Try these places in Hanoi for a good banh mi chay: Banh Mi 25, Pateta (with a free complementary banana) and Vegan Banh Mi.
Want to taste more typical Vietnamese dishes? Join this Hanoi street food tour with 10 tastings.
10. Temple of Literature: an green oasis in a busy city
I end this list with another great Hanoi temple. The Temple of Literature (Văn Miếu) is a stop you’ll definitely want to add to your list. It is close to the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum, so you can easily combine the two (15-minute walk). The temple is dedicated to Confucianism, education, science, and literature. For centuries this was the national university where the scholars of the richest families were educated. It is a rather large complex with five connecting courtyards. As a visitor, you will walk from one courtyard to the other and end at the main temple of Confucius.
Entrance fee for the Temple of Literature: 30,000 VND.
More tips for what to do in Hanoi
- See the street art on Phùng Hưng Mural Street: close to Hanoi Train Street you can see about 20+ murals on the arches of the train tracks. They show old and new everyday scenes of Vietnamese life.
- Order a butter beer at the Harry Potter cafe: yes, that is right. Harry Potter fans can visit the Always Café in Hanoi. Have a butter beer and cast your best spell with a wand.
- Try a cà phê trúng: I told you, coffee is important in Vietnam and cà phê trúng (coffee topped with whipped egg) is a Hanoi specialty. Almost all tourists go to Cafe Giang, because it is founded by the sun of the egg coffee inventor. Another good spot for egg coffee is Dinh Cafe (entrance through a bag shop, 2nd floor).
Interested in learning more about Hanoi from a local? Take a look at this highlights and hidden treasures tour.
Where to stay in Hanoi?
We stayed in an Airbnb near Hanoi Train Street. The place looked great and had a lovely balcony. However, staying near the train track also meant hearing the claxon of the train a lot. If you’re looking for a hotel, I would recommend checking out these two. For a budget traveler: Nexy Hostel, but if you have a bit more budget, then Hanoi Center Silk Hotel might be a good fit.
And there you have it: a list of 10 fantastic things to do and see in Hanoi. Do you want to visit the Vietnamese capital?
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