Things to Do in Hanoi: 23 Attractions and Sights to Visit on Your First Trip

23 Fun Things to Do in Hanoi on Your First Trip

Wander around to explore its tranquil temples, historical landmarks, and great food and coffee!

Posing as the historical capital of Vietnam for more than a thousand years, the city of Hanoi is steeped in tradition. Here, you can find ancient temples and pagodas sitting beside French colonial buildings, a testament to its storied history after being colonised by the Chinese and the French. Some even bear American influences as a result of the Vietnam War.

With such a hodgepodge of cultural influences, it can get dizzying trying to explore all of Hanoi. Nevertheless, take your time to see its numerous temples and museums, have some street food or Vietnamese coffee, or take in a traditional water puppet performance. Read on to find out how to make the most of your time with these unmissable things to do in Hanoi!

Also read: Here Are All the Countries With Zero Travel Restrictions

Things to do in Hanoi for first-timers

1. Visit Uncle Ho at the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum

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This large imposing building is the final resting place of the first Communist leader of Vietnam, Ho Chi Minh, or “Uncle Ho” as he is affectionately called by locals. Located in the centre of Ba Dinh Square, where Ho read the Declaration of Independence on 2 Sep 1945, the mausoleum is modelled after Lenin’s Mausoleum in Moscow, but incorporates distinct Vietnamese architectural elements.

You can enter the mausoleum to see Ho’s embalmed body in a glass case, but do note that photography and video taking are strictly prohibited. There is also a strict dress code: no shorts, mini skirts, or sleeveless shirts. You can also observe the “changing of the guard” ceremony in the morning. Here, admission is free for Vietnamese folks and VND25,000 (S$1.40) for tourists. 

Note: The mausoleum is closed on Mondays and Fridays, so do plan your visit accordingly!

2. Take in the sights at Hoan Kiem Lake

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Located in the centre of Hanoi, Hoan Kiem Lake attracts both locals and tourists who want to get away from the hustle and bustle of the city. Also called the Lake of the Returned Sword, legend has it that in the 15th century, Emperor Le Loi was sent a magical sword by Heaven to drive the Chinese away from Vietnam. After he had won the war, a giant golden turtle grabbed the sword and disappeared into the depths of the lake to return it to its divine owners.

Get here early in the morning to watch the locals do their morning yoga and tai chi, or take a leisurely stroll along the lake with your loved one and watch the sunrise or sunset. See if you can spot an elusive large soft-shelled turtle swimming in the lake, which is supposed to be an auspicious sighting!

3. Bask in the tranquillity of Ngoc Son Temple

Hanoi’s most visited temple, Ngoc Son Temple (also known as the Temple of the Jade Mountain), sits in the middle of Hoan Kiem Lake. Built in 1841 and expanded in 1865, this historical and religious site is dedicated to national hero General Tran Hung Dao, who drove away the Mongols in the 13th century. Sitting on a small island in the northern part of the lake, it is connected to the lakeshore by the strikingly red Welcoming Morning Sunlight Bridge.

As the temple is still used as a place of worship, you can watch monks pray and take in the smell of their burning joss sticks. It is an Insta-worthy location, so come prepared to take pictures with the bonsai trees, beautifully designed statues, and even a preserved giant turtle! The temple is open from 8am to 6pm daily, and has a small admission fee of VND30,000 (S$ 1.69).

4. Shop ‘til you drop at the Old Quarter

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Just a stone’s throw away from Hoan Kiem Lake is yet another top tourist destination: the historic Old Quarter! Here, you can find a plethora of shops selling souvenirs, as well as delicious street food. The streets themselves are named after the goods that were traditionally produced there, with some stall owners still sticking to those same goods until this day.

Filled with locals and tourists alike, it may seem daunting at first to try and navigate the numerous small and narrow streets filled with scooters, bicycles, and cars. So, our advice is to follow the locals and do as they do — you can’t go wrong! From Friday to Sunday night, roadside stalls and local food vendors crowd the streets for the Hanoi Weekend Night Market, with local performers playing traditional Vietnamese music as well. Don’t forget to bargain!

5. Shop for souvenirs at Dong Xuan Market

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Housed in a four-storey Soviet-style building on the northern edge of the Old Quarter is Dong Xuan Market. It was built in 1889 and is Hanoi’s largest indoor market. The ground floor has a bustling wet market section where locals shop for fresh produce and dried goods. Meanwhile, the upper levels sell T-shirts, handicrafts, and other souvenirs at wholesale (read: cheap!) prices.

After shopping up a storm, you can enjoy some local delicacies in the dining area. Relish exotic dishes such as duck blood soup (tiet canh) and fried frog. However, as it does get crowded, do watch out for pickpockets and take care of your belongings. 

Also read: From Tokyo to Istanbul, These Are the Public Markets Around the World That Deserve Your Attention

6. Sip some tasty Vietnamese coffee

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If you are tired of shopping or walking around Hanoi, why not pop into a cafe for some Vietnamese coffee (ca phe)? It’s one of the most sought-after things to do in Hanoi for a relaxing and calming afternoon. Ca phe is prepared in its own distinct style: coarsely ground beans go into a French drip filter (phin) which sits on top of the cup. A thin lid weighs down the beans, hot water is added to the phin, and the coffee slowly trickles into the cup. Sweetened condensed milk is then added to finish off the drink.

Hanoi offers both modern air-conditioned coffee shops and traditional sidewalk cafes alike. For the best of both worlds, visit Trieu Viet Vuong, also known as Coffee Street, which apparently packs the most cafes per square meter in all of Vietnam. Cafe Tho is an absolute must-try and a local favourite. If you’re feeling more adventurous, have some egg coffee (ca phe trung) at Cafe Giang, which invented the egg yolk and coffee mixture. 

Also read: Your Guide to Hanoi’s Coffee Shops: Top 10 Vietnamese Cafés to Check Out 

7. Eat like a president at Bun Cha Huong Lien

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When former United States President Barack Obama visited Vietnam in 2016, celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain brought him to this no-frills eatery to enjoy a meal of bún chả: grilled fatty pork served in broth (chả) with rice noodles (bún) and fresh herbs. Paired with an ice-cold Hanoi beer, this meal combo will leave you stuffed and satisfied. 

The eatery has since immortalised this table where Obama and Bourdain sat by enclosing it in a glass box. They have also started selling the “Obama Combo,” which is a set meal of the same dishes that Obama ate. Reviews are generally good, and although tourists have flocked here in droves due to the buzz, locals still frequent the place, which is generally a good sign. Why not try it for yourself?

8. Learn how to cook sumptuous Vietnamese food

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If you love Vietnamese food and have a bit more time to spare, why not learn how to cook it yourself? You can check out Cookly, a website that allows you to conveniently book cooking classes online. These classes often take half a day and include a market tour at the beginning to shop for ingredients. Plus, most of its instructors are local chefs who will be able to teach you authentic home-style Vietnamese cooking. Who knows, you might find out that you’re a natural! 

Also read: 10 Best Vietnamese Food That You Have to Try

9. Get some respite from the city at the West Lake

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A 15-minute drive from the Old Quarter, the affluent Tay Ho District houses the largest freshwater lake in Hanoi: West Lake. In comparison to the bustling city centre, the lake is a good place to spend a lazy afternoon at. You can hire a boat to take you around the lake, or simply walk around the lakeside to enjoy the view.

You can also check out the Tran Quoc Pagoda, the oldest pagoda in Vietnam, which is located on a small island in the middle of the lake. Then, cap off the day by having a feast at one of the local seafood restaurants along the southern part of the lake.

10. Soak in the culture at the Hanoi Opera House

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This beautiful yellow-hued Hanoi Opera House was built by the French in 1911 and modelled after the Palais Garnier, one of the traditional opera houses in Paris. It is one of the architectural landmarks of Hanoi and an example of classic European architecture: marble floors, copper chandeliers, and French murals on the ceiling.

Here, you can watch a variety of performances; from art shows to concerts by the Vietnamese Orchestra, local pop singers, and even internationally-renowned classical musicians like violinist Hilary Hahn. If you’re an architectural buff or simply curious about Vietnamese culture, this place is definitely worthwhile. 

11. Visit the Imperial Citadel of Thang Long

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The Imperial Citadel of Thang Long was made a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2010, signifying its historical and cultural importance to the country. Built in 1011 by the founder of the city of Hanoi, Emperor Ly Thai To, it served as the political centre of ancient Vietnam for eight centuries until many structures were torn down by the French.

Look out for the remaining preserved structures, including the 40-metre-tall flag tower, as well as a display room containing excavated items dating back to the 6th century and mock-ups of the citadel. Open daily except for Mondays, this place is definitely one that history lovers can’t miss. 

12. Attend a performance at the Thang Long Water Puppet Theatre

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No trip to Hanoi would be complete without taking in a water puppet performance, a traditional Vietnamese art form that dates back to the 11th century. Back then, farmers made use of flooded rice paddies to stage creative puppet shows by standing in waist-deep water and controlling the puppets to make it seem as though they were gliding over the water.

At the Thang Long Water Puppet Theatre, puppet masters control the water puppets via large rods behind the screen. And to add a more dramatic feel, it features a Vietnamese orchestra to provide musical accompaniment, modern fog effects, and moody lighting. Watch puppets dance and glide over the water, retelling Vietnamese folk stories and legends. Truly, this show is not to be missed while you are in Hanoi!

13. Visit the Temple of Literature

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Built in 1070, the Temple of Literature is the site of Vietnam’s oldest university. Originally dedicated to the Chinese sage Confucius, the temple’s layout takes inspiration from his birthplace. This historic site is extremely well-preserved and an example of traditional Vietnamese architecture.

Explore its five hallowed courtyards and relax among its picturesque gardens that have seen many students lounge around as well. If you’re lucky, you may be able to see graduating doctors visit the temple, as is the tradition in Hanoi.

14. See the four sacred temples of Hanoi

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If you have time to spare, why not hunt down the sacred temples at the four corners of the city? Bach Ma Temple, the oldest, lies in the east;  Voi Phuc Temple is located in the west; Kim Lien Temple in the south; and Quan Thanh Temple in the north along the West Lake.

Constructed by emperors of ancient times to block bad energy from flowing in, these four temples are collectively referred to as “The Four Guardians” (Thang Long Tu Tran). The annual Thang Long Tu Tran Festival is held by locals in the spring to express their gratitude for the temples’ collective protection.

15. See the Vietnamese Military History Museum

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For those who wish to learn more about the Vietnam War, the Vietnamese Military History Museum is the place to be. It has various exhibits that recount the history of Vietnamese military struggles against the Chinese, and later, the French colonists. A rusting collection of captured or decommissioned US and French planes, tanks, helicopters, and other machinery will catch your eye as you walk into the museum’s courtyard. It is also located right next to the Flag Tower of Hanoi, which is another sight to behold! 

16. Go back in time at the Hoa Lo Prison

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The Hoa Lo Prison is a vast complex built by the French colonists in 1896, who used it to hold Vietnamese prisoners, particularly political dissidents advocating for independence. During the Vietnam War, it was then used to hold American prisoners of war (POWs), who sarcastically nicknamed it the “Hilton Hanoi” after the Hilton Hotel group, as they experienced miserable conditions.

Most of the prison has now been demolished, with a small section being retained for use as a museum featuring exhibits detailing the history of the prison. The exhibits relating to the treatment of American POWs give a much more “sanitised” account of what happened. Nonetheless, it is still worth visiting to see its collection of relics like a French guillotine used to behead Vietnamese revolutionaries, and the flight suit of war veteran and former US Presidential candidate John McCain.

17. Explore St. Joseph’s Cathedral (Nha Tho Lon)

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If you can’t visit Notre Dame in Paris, why not pay a visit to St. Joseph’s Cathedral? Built in 1886 by the French colonial government, its neo-Gothic architectural style resembles that of Notre Dame, with its twin bell towers and stained glass windows. It is the oldest church in Hanoi, and serves as the cathedral of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Hanoi.

If you’re lucky, you may be able to see a couple getting their wedding photos taken or even getting married in the cathedral itself! The area around the cathedral has also taken on a life of its own, as locals and tourists alike sit down to eat and drink and chit-chat at cafes nearby. Swing by the cathedral to marvel at its beauty and stay for its charm!

18. Explore the rest of Hanoi on a cyclo tour

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Want to explore the rest of Hanoi in a unique way? Go on a cyclo tour! This three-wheeled Vietnamese rickshaw (pedal or motor-driven) is one of the most popular modes of transportation, and has played a significant role in the daily lives of its locals. Even just a quick ride via cyclo lets you experience the charm of this centuries-old tradition. 

Locating cyclo-riders is fairly simple, as they’re pretty much all over Hanoi. You’ll usually spot them parked near the fountain at Dong Kinh Nghia Thuc Square, Hang Ngang Street, Hang Dao Street, and the iconic Thuy Ta Ice Cream Store. Typically, a cyclo tour takes about an hour and will cost around VND100,000–150,000 (S$5.63–8.44); prices may vary depending on your route. 

19. Cross the iconic Long Bien Bridge

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Another attraction not to be missed on your sightseeing adventures in Hanoi is the Long Bien Bridge! This historic architectural gem stretches over the Red River and connects the districts Hoan Kiem and Long Bien. With a history of over a hundred years, it not only functions as a passageway but is an iconic symbol of the capital’s resilience during two of its resistance movements. 

Now, a gateway to the lesser-known side of the Vietnamese capital, visitors can step away from the usual tourist spots and explore Hanoi off the beaten path. Hop on a bicycle or motorbike and catch sight of stunning sunset views. While you’re at it, brush up on your photography skills and capture its scenery!

20. Step back in time at the Vietnam Museum of Ethnology

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Clearly, we can’t get enough of museums! Another place that’s worthy of a spot in your list of things to do in Hanoi is to pay a visit to the Vietnam Museum of Ethnology. It offers visitors an excellent perspective on the history, culture, and customs of 54 ethnic groups in the country. 

Here, you can spot its massive collection of artefacts from jewellery and clothing to weapons and musical instruments. Observe three of its main exhibitions: inside the Drum Dong Building, an outdoor installation area, and the Southeast Asian Exhibition. 

21. Snag great deals at Hang Da Market

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While it may not be as popular as Dong Xuan Market, Hang Da Market remains a premier destination for shopping. It started as a small village-type market where locals gathered for trading leather goods or hang da. Now, it’s a bustling three-story mall right in the heart of Hanoi. 

If you’re looking to score more goods for a reasonable price, Hang Da is definitely a convenient spot for shopaholics. Shop fresh produce in the basement, breeze through local booze and delicacies on the first floor, or score high-end products on the second floor.

22. Relish views on a Red River cruise

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One of the most popular things to do in Hanoi’s Red River is to take a boat tour, which is a great way to experience its natural beauty. This 1,200-kilometre-long body of water runs through the capital city and boats magnificent panoramas you can’t see elsewhere. Along its riverbanks, you can catch a glimpse of a few ancient temples and pagodas like the Tran Quoc Pagoda and the Quan Thanh Temple.

If you’ve got more time to spare during your trip, cruising along the Red River definitely makes for a worthwhile experience. Fortunately, different tours offer different options, from short trips to longer cruises — depending on your interests and time constraints! 

23. Experience the local nightlife at Bia Hoi Junction

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Last but most definitely not least on this round-up of the best things to do in Hanoi is to witness its buzzing nightlife! Bia Hoi Junction is a popular area for drinking and partying in Hanoi that’s simply hard to pass up. Locals and tourists frequent this spot as it boasts a variety of bars and pubs to enjoy cold booze, street food, live music, and candid conversations. Fun fact: It is home to the world’s cheapest draft beer, which costs around VND3,000!

Also read: Hanoi or Ho Chi Minh: Which City in Vietnam Is Perfect for You?

This ancient city may feel hard to navigate sometimes, but don’t get too intimidated! My advice would be to take your time and alternate exploring temples, museums, and shopping at markets. When you’re tired, make a stopover at its local eateries and cafes for some delicious street food and Vietnamese coffee. Certainly, there’s something here for every traveller!


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About Authors

Andrea Larice Yap
Andrea Larice Yap

Andrea is a writer and creative individual based in Manila. This tiny human runs on iced coffee, music and films. You’ll probably catch her daydreaming in a park or jotting down random words to to put in a song. Otherwise, expect her taking a dive in the pool of uncertainty called “life.”

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Isaac Neo
Isaac Neo

Isaac used to love airports, until he went on exchange and experienced one too many delays for his liking. He believes the best part of travelling is experiencing the local food, which explains his expanding waistline. When not at work, he can be found reading, watching football, or browsing the dankest memes.

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