12 Things to Do in Hanoi
1. Visit the Museum of Ethnology
Vietnam is home to dozens of ethnic minority groups. This museum offers visitors a chance to read about them and see reconstructions of traditional homes. It is an indoor-outdoor experience where you can wander the pathways outside to see full scale replicas of building styles, while inside you can explore some of the clothing, tools, and symbolic items. Notably, displays are translated to multiple other languages including English, so you can learn more about the country and its people.
2. Take in the best view from the Lotte Tower
This is the second tallest building in Hanoi (the tallest is the AON Hanoi Landmark Building) and features a bar and resturant at the top for you to enjoy the views. There is a special elevator designated to take guest to the “Top of Hanoi.”
3. Explore the American War Museum
This was one of the most impactful experiences I had in Hanoi. It was insightful to learn about the Vietnam War from Vietnam’s perspective. The museum showcases hundreds of photos of the war and allows you walk through and read about each image’s story.
Upon further research, it appears this gallery may not be available anymore. I visited in 2014, but today a search for this museum comes up with the Vietnam Military History Museum. You might find the gallery of images and a perspective on the American War there.
4. Wander the Old Quarter
Wandering the old quarter will be a sensory overload. You will navigate streets zooming with scooters and smell countless eats from street vendors. Head your way towards Dong Xuan Market and the St. Joseph’s Cathedral to see some of the main attractions in the district. This is a good spot to grab a stool in front of a cafe to try a Vietnamese coffee or perhaps at a resturant for some phở. You could also see the Long Bien Bridge in the neighborhood, a left over from the French architect who constructed the Eiffel Tower.
5. View the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum
This mausoleum is the resting place of the Vietnamese leader Ho Chi Minh. It is in the center of Ba Dinh Square. On September 2, 1945 Ho read the Declaration of Independence in this square, establishing the Democratic Republic of Vietnam. Given the significance of Ho Chi Minh, the mausoleum is guarded and there are strict rules about photography.
6. Check out the Trấn Quốc Pagoda
Located on a small island of West Lake, this is the oldest Buddhist temple in Hanoi. It was first built in the 6th century, making it more than 1,400 years old. The pagoda actually used to stand in a different location, but was moved due changes in water levels in the Red River. The building is quite photogenic with its tall pagoda, but be sure to be respectful as this is still a religious center.
7. Walk the Temple of Literature
You can escape some of the bustle of the hectic streets of Hanoi in gardens such as the one found at the Temple of Literature. It has been dedicated to Confucius and scholarship. It is also home to Vietnam’s first national university. This location is so signifiant that it is actually printed on Vietnam’s currency.
8. Shop the night market
Every Friday, Saturday, and Sunday the night market set up shop through the Old Quarter. It starts at Hang Dao Street and runs up to the edge of the Dong Xuan Market. Here you can find just about anything. Take your time as you explore lots of different foods and maybe pick up a souvenir here.
Keep your eyes open for the impressive networks of electric cables knotted together along poles and strung between buildings, unmatched in their sheer quantity to any other place I’ve seen.
9. Explore the Trompe-l’oeil Murals
There are several murals in Hanoi that are painted as a bit of an optical illusion. People often pose along with the mural, given its challenging to distinguish where the mural stops and reality begins. The murals begin at 27 Phùng Hưng, Hàng Mã, Hoàn Kiếm and continue northward. You can check them out yourself and then pull up a seat at a cafe for people watching to see how others engage with the fun artworks.
10. Visit West Lake
This is the largest freshwater lake in the city. You can find the Trấn Quốc Pagoda (mentioned above) here as well as tons of shops and restaurants. It is a great spot for a walk and to catch the sunset with a beer. You could rent a bike or a swan boat to peddle the lake. If you like shrimp, you could also try the famous shrimp cake on Thanh Nien Street nearby. Coconut ice cream is also popular in shops in the neighborhood.
11. Drink Vietnamese Coffee at Cong Caphe
Cong Caphe is a popular mini chain cafe. It has a stylish, hip interior and sells most things you’d expect in a coffee shop, from European style espresso to Vietnamese specialties. If you are on a working holiday, this is a spot to bring your laptop and get some work done.
If you don’t stop at Cong Caphe, at least try cà phê đá (Vietnamese coffee). It is one of my all time favorite coffees. The brew itself is dark and bitter, but it’s served over sweetened condensed milk and ice making it into quite a treat.
12. See St. Joseph’s Cathedral
Located in the Old Quarter, the French built this cathedral in 1886 during a period of colonization. It may look familiar because it is based on the Notre Dame de Paris with its neo-gothic style. This church is typically one of the must see points of interest in Hanoi, however to me the area around the church (the Old Quarter) is more interesting to explore.
Bonus: Are you a fan of Harry Potter? Check out this Harry Potter cafe!
Related: If you are heading to Hanoi, I also encourage you to explore Vietnam’s main southern city: Ho Chi Minh. Also known as Saigon, the city offers a wealth of opportunities for travelers, including many free activities. Both cities provide a different type of travel experience. On average, you’ll likely find Ho Chi Minh to be a more urban experience with greater diversity in food and nightlife.
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