Hanoi is one of those cities which polarises travellers. If you can look past the scams - and you should - then you can enjoy exploring one of the most interesting cities in Asia.
Whether it’s history, food, culture - or just the intensity of millions of motorbikes, street sellers and narrow laneways - Hanoi will be an experience you’ll always remember.
Places to visit and attractions in Hanoi
Hanoi has enough to keep you busy for a week, but we know it’s highly unlikely that you’ll commit that kind of time to it with everything that Vietnam has to offer! Here’s our picks of the best attractions in Hanoi as well as some great street food which you can get round in just a few days.
The Old Quarter
If you’re looking for a truly authentic Vietnamese experience, then head to the Old Quarter. Here the roads are narrow and full of life. Shops, street sellers and restaurants are piled on top of each other.
The Old Quarter has a real buzz to it and is a great place to people watch as there’s always something going on. Or you can just wander aimlessly, just watch out for those pesky donut sellers, one of Hanoi’s most prevalent scams.
Train Street is one of those places which has become incredibly popular on Instagram. Just a short distance from Ga Ha Noi is a really narrow street with houses on either side and a train track running right through the middle.
It might not sound that interesting at first but watching the train come through is pretty incredible! You can hear audible gasps at just how close to the edge it comes.
The train runs through the street everyday at 3.30 pm (and again in the evening but obviously you wouldn’t really see it), so you can either choose to grab a seat and have a drink (there are plenty of enterprising locals who have set up makeshift cafes on the street), or test your nerve and squeeze into the little space that is left by the train! It really is little though watch out!
Train street is south of the the Hanoi Train Station (Ga Ha Noi) and is the small road that runs between Khâm Thiên and Lê Duãn - see the map below.
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Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum
Uncle Ho had a profound impact on the modern nation of Vietnam, leading a revolution against the French and then the Americans to create an independent and unified Vietnam. He’s on every bank note and his image can be seen all across the city.
Just like other Communist leaders of the 20th Century - Lenin (Russia) and Mao (China) - Ho Chi Minh was embalmed after his death and kept in a Mausoleum in the centre of Hanoi.
HoalVisitors can go to the Mausauleum and see his embalmed body every morning from 7.30am - 11am (apart from Mondays and Fridays). Best to go as early as possible for the shortest queues.
I’ll be honest, it’s a strange sight to see such an influential figure of the 20th Century up close. You queue up and gently shuffle along before being rushed through the room where his body lies. You’ll spend a lot more time queuing that seeing, but it is certainly a unique experience. You can’t take photos and you can’t take any bags inside.
Within the grounds of the mausoleum is also Ho Chi Minh’s stilt house, a museum and presidential palace.
Entrance Price: Free!
Opening Hours: Everyday (except Monday and Friday) from 8am - 11am
Other information: You won’t be allowed to take a bag or camera into the mausoleum. You’ll need to wear trousers and clothes that cover your shoulders. Also, be respectful as Ho Chi Minh is revered and there’s lot of armed guards around.
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Hoa Lo Prison (The Hanoi Hilton)
If you want to learn a bit more about the history of Vietnam (and the north in particular) then the Hoa Lo Prison is a great place to go.
There’s plenty about the French rule of Vietnam as well as the American Pilots shot down in the Vietnam War.
Hoa Lo started as a prison during the French rule. The conditions looked atrocious with prisoners shackled to long wooden platforms and others being locked down in tiny solitary confinement cells. It’s a grim scene.
During the Vietnam War, the Vietnamese used Hoa Lo to imprison American pilots that were shot down. There are plenty of exhibits to check out including photos that take you through the returning visits of former prisoners here.
However, we’d recommend reading up on the Vietnam War before visiting to get a full and rounded picture. If you have the time, we’d highly recommend the Ken Burns documentary “The Vietnam War” (we warn you, there are 10 episodes - each of which are over an hour long).
Whilst it may not be the easiest of experiences, Hoa Lo should be on everyone’s itinerary for Hanoi.
Entrance Price: 30,000 VND ($1.50 USD)
Opening Hours: 8am-11.30am & 1.30pm - 4pm
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Water Puppet Show
The water puppets are a bit of an institution in Hanoi and despite the fact it is only tourists watching now, they were a traditional way of telling folklore and stories in Vietnam.
The Water Puppet theatre in Hanoi is the oldest in the country and is a surprisingly enjoyable and beautiful way to experience traditional Vietnamese culture (something that is in low supply after the Vietnam War).
Traditional music accompanies the short stories and while you won’t understand a word being said as it is all in Vietnamese you can still kind of get the gist. It’s cleverly done and a great way to spend an hour.
Entrance price: There are three tiers of ticket with the best costing 200,000 Dong ($10 USD), the middle costing 150,000 Dong ($7.50 USD) and the cheapest being 100,00 Dong ($5 USD). There’s little difference between the seats, all you’ll get is closer to the stage. We bought the cheapest and still had a very good view.
You may not be able to get the most expensive tickets unless you book in advance anyway as they seem to sell to tour groups.
Show times: (9.30am Sunday only), 3pm, 4.10pm, 5.20pm, 6.30pm, 8pm & 9.15pm
Temple of Literature
The temple of literature is one of the few original Vietnamese buildings left in Hanoi after the French rule and the bombings during the Vietnam War. Whilst it is isn’t on a par with many of the temples in Bangkok, it is an interesting place to explore and escape the noise and bustle of the city.
The temple is made up of a manicured garden, pool and two temple rooms that are decked out with Confucian teaching. It was Vietnam’s first university and whilst there are a few information boards around, if you are interested in more than just a cursory look around you probably need to hire the audio guide.
Entrance Price: 25,000 Dong per person (just over $1 USD)
Opening hours: 8am - 5pm every day
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For Vietnam’s answer to the Burj Khalifa, head to the Lotte Tower which is about 5km west of the city centre. At the top you get sweeping views of Hanoi with lots of seating areas to really take in the views.
There are lots of coffee and drinks stands. Or - if the photo booth at the bottom of the tower wasn’t enough - you can get a photo under two huge love hearts. Cringe.
Sadly, the pollution and smog in Hanoi means that you’re unlikely to get a clear view. Despite having sunny weather, we couldn’t see very far for all the mist.
With that in mind you might prefer visiting in the evening as it would be a great spot for a drink looking down on the twinkling lights below.
Entrance Price: 230,000 Dong (about $10 USD) but it is half price if you go between 8.30am and 10.30am, or 10pm and 11pm. We went at 8.30am and for the 45 minutes we were there it was just us and a family of three so if you like quiet time it’s ideal (the coffee stands weren’t open though!)
Opening Hours: 8am - 11pm
Hoan Kiem Lake
Hoan Kiem Lake divides the Old Quarter and the French Quarter and is a useful reference point in a city full of thousands of tiny roads. It’s also a pleasant bit of nature and semi-tranquility in the middle of a city that can feel pretty over crowded and polluted at times.
It was previously home to a Cu Rua, a sacred turtle and a symbol of Hanoi. Legend had it that a hero received a magical sword which was used to drive out the Chinese from Vietnam.
The hero then returned the sword to a turtle that surfaced on the lake. Sadly, that turtle died in 2012, just as the Communist Party was electing a new leader, prompting fears of bad omens.
The lake is also home to Ngoc Son Temple, a pagoda that sits on the lake, joined to the city by a red bridge. It’s a place to take in the views, smell the burning incense and learn a few chess playing tips from the locals.
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Best street food in Hanoi
On our first visit to Vietnam we met a couple of Hanoi locals who could only recommend a couple of things. to do in the city but could name about 12 foods we had to try! That pretty much sums up Hanoi to us, it is a city of foodies and everyone will ask you what you have tried.
The capital serves up local cuisine that is unique and incredibly tasty. Anthony Bourdain put Vietnam down as his top place in the world for food and Hanoi is the pinnacle of this foodie heaven.
It isn’t as easy for vegetarians but there are still lots of places where you can try great local dishes which aren’t meaty.
Bun Cha is a sweet and sour broth, served with noodles and barbecued pork. It is hard to really state how delicious it is and it was my (Joe’s) favourite meal in Hanoi.
For 85,000 Dong ($4 USD) you can get a beer, Bun Cha and a crab & pork spring roll, which will leave you completely stuffed!'
There are plenty of fakes claiming to be where Obama ate so if you want to head to the same one use the map below.
Phó Bo - Newday
Phó is a staple part of the Vietnamese diet and is served just about everywhere in Hanoi. It is a delicious broth that takes hours to create and is topped with slices of beef, noodles and herbs.
Newday is a great spot for veggies too, and there’s even a tofu and egg broth. Just be prepared, there’s a whole lot of egg in there!
Banh Mi - Banh Mi 25
Baguettes aren’t necessarily a food you might associate with Vietnam, but Banh Mi is a local favourite and a quick eat. A leftover from the French rule, these baguettes are the perfect lunch stop. You can find them on most streets and you can usually choose pork, chicken, egg or laughing cow cheese as the base. Salad, mayo, chilli sauce and herbs are then added to give it that real Vietnamese flavour.
There are plenty of stalls selling delicious Banh Mi throughout the city, but if you want to sit down in a cafe Banh Mi 25 in the Old Quarter is the place to go. They also sell great fresh juices.
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Egg Coffee - Giang
Mixing egg with coffee. It seems so wrong on so many levels. If you believe the rumour that cheese and butter are also added it sounds even worse.
However, we decided to go in with an open mind. After all, it couldn’t be that popular if it was rancid (well, there is durian that contradicts that). To our surprise, it was actually pretty good! The egg was blended in and added a little more creaminess to the coffee. Not eggy at all.
Mix in Vietnamese drip coffee and some ice cubes and you get a great drink for a hot day. If you want to try it, head to Giang in the Old Quarter as the original egg coffee makers. There are plenty of wooden stools to perch on and it’s always popular. Again there are loads of places that claim to have been the original but this is the genuine one!
Where to stay in Hanoi
Holiday Emerald Hotel
We loved this hotel in Hanoi, the staff were unbelievably friendly and helpful. We actually stayed somewhere twice the price before and it was nowhere near as good.
The hotel is in the middle of the Old Quarter, meaning you can walk to many of the major sights. The rooms are spacious, clean, really comfortable and come with a good breakfast (we recommend the ice coffee as a “pick me up!”).
Make sure you request a room with a window ($10 extra) as many don’t have any. We’ve discovered this is a bit of a thing in Hanoi so check any hotel booking carefully.
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Are you heading to Vietnam? Is there a gem in Hanoi that we haven’t included? Let us know in the comments below!