Hanoi, located on the banks of the Red River, is one of the most ancient capitals in the world, where travellers can find well preserved colonial buildings, ancient pagodas, and unique museums within the city centre. This place offers examples of both contemporary and classical architecture right in the city centre. A great place to explore on foot, this French colonial city is also known for its delectable cuisine, vibrant nightlife, silks and handicrafts, as well as a multi-cultural community that’s made up of Chinese, French and Russian influences.
There is plenty to enjoy in Hanoi, from mouthwatering street food to fascinating history, from traditional entertainment to recreational activities. Even with a short amount of time, you can still feel the tranquilness of the city while sipping a cup of coffee. Wandering around and shooting creative photos on elegant streets in the Old Quarter would give you unique experiences that are hardly found anywhere else. Outside the suburban areas, you can discover small charming villages which are homes to so many ethnic minorities.
Meanwhile, its tranquil countryside is a short drive away, featuring lush parks, verdant mountains, and traditional villages, and not forgetting, the iconic Ha Long Bay.
With Noi Bai International Airport, Hanoi takes an important role as the first gate to visit well known attractions in North Vietnam. After exploring Hanoi, tourists can easily visit Halong Bay, Ninh Binh, and Sapa. After visiting these, one can easily fly to Hue, drive to Da Nang and Hoi An. Afterwards catch a flight to Ho Chi Minh.
1. One Pillar Pagoda
If Buddhists were to build a treehouse, it would likely look a lot like this. This eleventh century temple was built by the emperor in gratitude for finally being blessed by a son. The temple was meant to look like a lotus flower blossoming from a single pillar in the pond, similar to the one seen in the prophetic dream of a child that this emperor had received. Inside, there is a small shrine to the Bodhisattva of Mercy. The current structure is a rebuild, as the French had the first destroyed after their retreat from the country.
2. Hanoi's West Lake
This largest urban lake is a favourite location for tourists and Hanoi residents alike. It is where the high end homes of Hanoi’s wealthy live, and contains a large number of hotels, restaurants, and luxury shops as well. It has been a popular location for residents here for thousands of years, and is home to one of Hanoi’s four sacred temples, as well as the oldest pagoda in the city. This pagoda, dating back to the sixth century, can be found on an island in the centre of the lake. Boating, sightseeing, and shopping along the boardwalk are common activities here, and well worth the trip.
3. Thang Long Water Puppet Theater
This theatre celebrates a peasant art form that began in the rice paddies over a thousand years ago. Puppets were simply carved and puppeteers would stand in the water of the paddies, using it as a prop, and act out traditional activities like farming, or legends like the golden turtle and the emperor. The more modern version continues the use of water and audience participation. Traditional Vietnamese instruments perform an opera that narrates the puppets’ actions, and musicians will interact with puppets, encouraging the heroes and warning them of impending danger. Guests of the theatre need not brave the monsoon weather that once would pour on outdoor audiences, but can sit and enjoy a meal while discovering this ancient dramatic art.
4. Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum
The final resting place of Vietnamese communist leader Ho Chi Minh sits in Ba Dinh square, the location where he read the nation’s declaration of independence in 1945. This tall, blocky pillared building is modeled after Lenin’s crypt in Moscow and meant to evoke a traditional communal house, though to many tourists it looks like a concrete cubicle with columns. Contrary to his desire for a simple cremation, the embalmed body is on display in plexiglass casing, and a dress code of long sleeves and pants is required to visit. The mausoleum is closed for a couple months around the end of the year, when the body goes to Russia for maintenance.
5. Ho Chi Minh Presidential Palace
Behind Ho Chi Minh’s Mausoleum is a humble stilt house, where Ho Chi Minh supposedly lived in the 60s, though some claim that it would have been too risky during the war for him to live here. The house is an interpretation of a traditional rural dwelling, and has been preserved just as Ho left it. It is set in a well tended garden next to a carp filled pond. It shares grounds with the much more luxurious and impressive Presidential Palace built for the French Governor of the Indochina colony in the early 1900’s. The palace is now used for official receptions and isn’t open to the public.
6. Hanoi Hilton (Hoa Lo Prison)
The Hoa Lo Prison, sarcastically coined the Hanoi Hilton by American POWs, was originally built by the French to house Vietnamese political prisoners. The North Vietnamese Army later used the prison to house prisoners of war during the Vietnam War. Well known figures such as Senator John McCain, James Stockdale and Bud Day were just a few of the many prisoners of war that spent time in this prison. Two thirds of the prison was torn down to make way for the Hanoi Towers; the rest was turned into a museum and is now a popular tourist attraction in Hanoi. In 1999 a Hilton Hotel opened in Hanoi and was carefully named the Hilton Hanoi Opera Hotel.
7. Vietnam Museum of Ethnology
Like many colonial regions that were united by European rule, the country of Vietnam is actually a coagulation of 54 different officially recognized ethnic groups. The Museum of Ethnology strives to give a better understanding of each one, and does so quite elegantly. It is widely believed to be the best of all the modern museums in Vietnam. Displays include a combination of art, everyday objects, and historic artifacts to better tell the story of each unique culture.
8. Temple of Literature
This is one of the temples of Confucius, and home of the nation’s first university. Originally built in 1070, the temple is meant to honor all scholars. Today, calligraphists will come and write good will wishes in Han characters during the Asian New Year at the steps of the temple, to give as gifts. The temple was built to replicate Confucius’ birthplace, with five courtyards and various temples and other buildings throughout the expansive grounds. Of special note are the Stelae of Doctors, a series of over 100 carved blue stone turtles, which honor the names of all who pass the royal exams.
9. Hanoi's Old Quarter
The old quarter is a mesh of the old and the new, as antique narrow streets snake between old brick buildings, covered in modern motorbikes and street vendors. This region of Hanoi is a mix of French Colonial architecture and ancient temples, and sits along the shore of Hoan Kiem Lake. It is the centre of many attractions in Hanoi, from temples to the water puppet show to its street market. As the quarter was designed around the market, you will find that the streets here are all named for the kind of products that were once sold along its sidewalks, from wood to silver to paper.
10. Hoan Kiem Lake
Known as the lake of the returned sword, this lake marks the historical centre of ancient Hanoi. The name comes from a legend in which Emperor Le Loi was given a magical sword by the gods, which he used to drive out the invading Chinese. Later, while boating on the lake, he encountered a giant turtle, which grabbed the sword and carried it down to its depths. Every morning at around 6am local residents practice traditional t’ai chi on the shore. The lake also houses Jade Island, home of the eighteenth century Temple of the Jade Mountain. The island is reachable via the red painted and picturesque Morning Sunlight Bridge.
11. Dong Xuan Market
If Saigon has Ben Thanh market, Hanoi has Dong Xuan market. Dong Xuan Market is the busiest and oldest shopping area in Hanoi, built-in 1889 under the Nguyen Dynasty. This is also one of the must-visit attractions in Hanoi, which is considered a symbol associated with the capital.
12. St. Joseph’s Cathedral
Ranked sixth on Hanoi attractions list is the St. Joseph’s Cathedral, the oldest church in Hanoi Capital. The Cathedral is not only the place where the religious activities of Catholics belong to the Archdiocese of Hanoi but also a famous Hanoi tourist attraction. With unique and ancient architecture, this is a destination that cannot be missed when visiting the Capital.
13. Imperial Citadel of Thang Long
Thang Long ancient citadel is an important historical and cultural citadel of Vietnam and has been recognized by UNESCO as a world cultural heritage since 2010. Here was the political center of the country (feudal period) for 13 centuries, later Thang Long was renamed Hanoi.
14. Day trip to Halong Bay
Experience the very diverse natural landscape, varying from long sandy beach to thousand year old lime karst. Halong Bay covers nearly 1900 islets of different size, some very large such as Thien Cung Cave or Surprise Cave, others as small as a few meters wide.
Halong Bay is an extraordinary UNESCO World Heritage Site that you must make time for while in Northern Vietnam. There are so many different options for you to choose from day trips or overnight trip (1 - 4 nights). Some boats offer many stops and keep you moving the whole trip where others allow you to rest and take in the views. There is something for everyone. Know what you want before you book. There is well over 1,600 islands and islets, which offers spectacular seascape views of limestone mountains surrounded by emerald green water.