hanoi travel guide

Exploring Hanoi: A Full Guide on the Best Things to Do

Hanoi, the capital of Vietnam, is a city where ancient traditions coexist with modern developments. Nestled along the banks of the Red River, Hanoi offers a glimpse into the nation’s history, culture, and daily life. With good access to international airports, Hanoi is often a starting point of a trip. Two common ways to travel Vietnam are either North to South (or vice versa) or by region; North, Central or South. So if you to explore the North of Vietnam, or doing a big south-north trip, you’re likely to pay Hanoi a visit. Here is a guide of best things to do in Hanoi and some travel tips from my visit.

Getting To Hanoi

Hanoi’s Noi Bai International Airport, located approximately 30km north of the city centre, offers a range of domestic and international flights. Taxis and airport shuttles provide convenient transportation options to the city, typically taking around 30 to 45 minutes depending on traffic. However, if you’re on a tight budget (like I was), it’s possible to get to the city via public transport.

For those exploring Vietnam by train, Hanoi is a major railway hub. The Hanoi Railway Station is centrally located and easy to access. The train rides around here offer amazing views of Vietnam’s countryside and it was my favourite way to travel through Vietnam.

If you’d rather go by road, there are a number of budget-friendly bus options. Most cities and towns I visited had tour shops of some capacity, where you could learn about different bus routes and sort tickets. These shops are in abundance in the Old Quarter and was how I sorted bus tickets for my Hanoi to Tam Coc trip.

How Long to Stay in Hanoi

How long you stay in Hanoi will largely depend on your budget, time in Vietnam and what you’re interested in seeing. Hanoi is typically used as a base, to explore, but to do day trips from. I’d recommend spending at least 3 days in Hanoi to properly enjoy what the city has to offer. But longer if you intend to do day trips from the city, e.g. to Tam Coc. I stayed in Hanoi for a week and felt it was enough time to explore the area without rushing.

Best Things to Do in Hanoi

There’s so much to see and do in Hanoi! I was lucky to spend a week there, so here are the best things I did during my time there.

Hanoi’s Old Quarter

The Old Quarter was my favourite place to explore in Hanoi and where based myself in the city. The Old Quarter, known as “36 Pho Phuong” or the 36 Streets, is a labyrinth of narrow streets and alleys dating back to the 13th century. Each street was originally associated with a specific trade, and while the city has expanded considerably, the area remains a bustling hub of activity. The best way to enjoy the Old Quarter is to stroll through the maze-like streets and witness the eclectic mix of shops, markets, and street vendors. It’s a great way to see the fun street life and discover local gems tucked away in the historic alleys.

Train Street

If you’ve done image searches of Hanoi, it’s likely you would have stumbled across photos from the famous Train Street. However, authorities have been trying to shut this down and stop tourists from visiting due to growing safety concerns.

Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum and Complex

A visit to the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum and its surrounding complex provides a fascinating insight into the life of Ho Chi Minh. The mausoleum houses his embalmed body and is a symbol of deep reverence for the country’s founding father. The nearby Presidential Palace, One Pillar Pagoda, and Ho Chi Minh’s Stilt House are also integral parts of the complex, offering a comprehensive view of Vietnam’s political and cultural history.

The museum is free, but note, there are strict policies you must obey to visit. In terms of the dress policy, you must cover shoulders and knees. You’ll be checked at arrival so be sure to dress respectfully. You must also leave your bags at the entrance – I didn’t have one but I believe there were safe areas for belongings. The strictest policies include no photos within the Mausoleum and no talking and no finger-pointing. The Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum is only open between 8-11am and is closed on Mondays and Fridays. Be sure to check opening hours when you’re there to save a failed attempt to visit (like I had).

Temple of Literature (Van Mieu-Quoc Tu Giam)

The Temple of Literature, Vietnam’s first national university, is a serene complex dedicated to Confucius and scholars. This 11th-century temple is home to five peaceful courtyards, with traditional pavilions and red-tiled roofs. There are a number of stunning gardens with statues and fountains to explore, along with the iconic “Well of Heavenly Clarity.” The site reflects Vietnam’s commitment to education and stands as a symbol of intellectual achievement. The Temple of Literature is a great place to take refuge from the city’s craziness and enjoy some calm. An adult ticket costs 30,000 VND so it’s worth popping in for a few hours and having an explore.

Hoan Kiem Lake and Ngoc Son Temple

Hoan Kiem Lake, located in the heart of Hanoi, is a scenic oasis surrounded by parks and historic landmarks. The lake and its surroundings are a great place to take a leisurely walk or to sit and people watch. In Hoan Kiem Lake, you’ll find the iconic red bridge leading to Ngoc Son Temple on a small island. I would get up early to avoid the heat and enjoy lake walks with a fresh fruit juice. So peaceful! . The temple, dedicated to war hero Tran Hung Dao, offers a glimpse into Vietnam’s spiritual traditions. This area seems to be a popular spot for locals engaging in recreational activities too, so it got lively at times. There were lots of good cafes and brunch style spots in the surrounding areas too.

Hỏa Lò Prison (Maison Centrale)

Hỏa Lò Prison, once known as the “Hanoi Hilton,” serves as a stark reminder of Vietnam’s tumultuous history. Originally built by the French colonialists to house political prisoners, the prison later became infamous for housing American prisoners of war during the Vietnam War. The museum offers a somber look at conditions faced by inmates and provides historical context for the complex relationships between Vietnam and foreign powers. Entry to Hỏa Lò Prison cost 30.000 VND (£1!!) and you can find out more about it here.

The Spas!

Hanoi is home to a number of spas, offering a wide range of treatments for very reasonable prices. After a few days of sightseeing, and eating everything in sight, I opted for a spa afternoon. Enjoying a 90 minute massage and 30 minute mini facial was exactly what I needed. Particularly after lugging a huge backpack around. There are so many to choose from, I’d recommend searching for ones near your accommodation or wandering through the Old Quarter and seeing what takes your fancy.

Vietnam Museum of Ethnology

To get an even deeper understanding of Vietnam’s diverse ethnic groups, check out the Vietnam Museum of Ethnology. The museum is home to artefacts, traditional clothing, and exhibits detailing the customs and lifestyles of the country’s 54 ethnic minorities. It provides a comprehensive overview of Vietnam’s culture and pays tribute to the nation’s rich ethnic diversity. Entry fees for the Museum of Ethnology are 40,000 VND and you can read more about what’s on offer here. If you’re visiting Vietnam in rainy season, museums are a great way to enjoy the city during a downpour!

Best Food in Hanoi

Hanoi’s culinary scene is renowned for its diverse street food and traditional dishes. I spent most of my time in Hanoi Old Quarter, so sampled a lot of street food there and probably more ‘touristy’ type restaurants. But here is a list of the best foods I tried in Hanoi;

Pho

No visit to Hanoi is complete without sampling the iconic dish, pho. This noodle soup typically features beef or chicken, rice noodles, and a fragrant broth infused with herbs and spices. From street-side stalls to established restaurants, pho is a staple of Hanoi’s culinary landscape. As with most food in Vietnam, it’s also very cheap! I was often spending £1/2 per portion on the best Pho I’d ever had.

Bun Cha

Bun cha is a popular dish consisting of grilled pork patties, vermicelli noodles, and a bowl of sweet and savoury broth. It’s a favourite among locals and visitors alike, and is a must-try in you’re sampling Hanoi’s street food culture. I stumbled across a long like at a street food stall and tried Bun Cha for the first time! I don’t have a specific place to recommend but walk round the street markets (particularly at night) and you’ll find Bun Cha, among all sorts.

Egg Coffee

Egg coffee, or cà phê trứng, is a Hanoi specialty that has gained international acclaim. The rich and frothy concoction is made by whipping egg yolks with sweetened condensed milk and strong Vietnamese coffee. Served hot or cold, egg coffee is a big part of Vietnam’s coffee culture and is found pretty much anywhere in Hanoi. However, the original egg coffee can be found at Cafe Giang. Back when I visited Hanoi, I wasn’t a coffee drinker, so didn’t really enjoy the egg coffee. However, since moving to Melbourne, i’ve been converted and would love to go back and try egg coffee again.

Other foods to try are; noodle spring rolls (Phở cuốn), noodles with crab (Bún Riêu), fried fish (Cha ca La Vong), beef jerky with papaya (nộm bò khô) and Banh Mi (available throughout Vietnam).

Visit Hanoi!!

Hanoi, with its blend of history, culture, and vibrant street life, offers a multifaceted experience for travellers. From the solemnity of the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum to the lively chaos of the Old Quarter, each aspect of the city contributes to its unique charm. Hopefully this guide provides a good starting point for Hanoi and some inspiration on what to see! From Hanoi, I got a shuttle bus to Tam Coc and had a great few days exploring that region. I’d highly recommend visiting Tam Coc if you’re in the North of Vietnam, or as part of a North-South trip.