Visiting Vietnam’s bustling capital city? Here are all the best things to do in Hanoi to make the most of your trip!

Like many other countries, Vietnam also has two main cities that are always somewhat competing in tourists’ eyes. In Korea, you have Seoul and Busan; in the US, you have New York City and Los Angeles, and in Vietnam, it’s Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City. If you can’t tell by the fact that I’ve found myself living in HCMC for six months, I preferred the south to the north after my initial trip in 2016.

I couldn’t even tell you why because both times I’ve been here, I’ve had a pleasant time! On my first visit, Hanoi fell at the tail end of my trip and I spent my three days sightseeing, souvenir shopping, and meeting another expat. On this recent trip, I spent a day before and a few days after my trip to Sapa and managed to do a little more sightseeing as well as trying out some more restaurants. Both lovely experiences!

Who knows? Guess I just have to go back and visit for longer ;)

Anyway, if you’d like to see all that I got up to on both trips as well as want a little bucket list for your own, check out my little guide on what to do in Hanoi below! I split it up into two main parts: sightseeing activities and what and where to eat/drink.

Sightseeing Things to Do in Hanoi

Okay, there’s a lot to do in Hanoi as you might expect from a major city! As a visitor, the two main districts you’ll want to keep in mind are Ba Đình and Hoàn Kiếm as they’re where the main attractions are. I’d stay in Hoàn Kiếm and dedicate one day to Ba Đình and nearby and maybe two days to Hoàn Kiếm depending on how much and how quickly you want to do your sightseeing.

What to do in Hoan Kiem

Hoan Kiem Lake around sunset

1. Meander around Hoan Kiem Lake.

  • Address: Hang Trong, Hoàn Kiếm
  • Vietnamese Name: Hồ Hoàn Kiếm
  • Other/Past Names: Lake of the Returned Sword, Hồ Gươm, Sword Lake, Luc Thuy Lake, Thuy Quan Lake

I mean on way to know you’re definitely in Hoàn Kiếm district is when you see its namesake lake. So much is right around and even on this lake, that it has to be the #1 thing to do in Hanoi. Grab a drink and just take a nice stroll around and enjoy the people watching. It’s especially pretty a sunset and quite active at night.

Ngoc Son Temple, Hanoi, Vietnam

2. Visit Ngoc Son Temple.

While you’re meandering around Hoan Kiem Lake, make sure to check out the little islet towards the northern end. After you buy your ticket, you can cross over this beautifully intricate red bridge, called Cầu Thê Hú, and then enter into the temple itself. Just a warning it can get crowded very easily, so your best bet for a quiet experience is to go earlier in the morning on a weekday!

Ngoc Soc itself is dedicated to a few different people. In general, it’s dedicated to Confucian and Taoist philosophers and more specifically, to Trần Hưng Đạo, a military hero who lived during the 1200s under the Trần Dynasty. He led armies against the Kublai Khan and won the last two of three major Mongol invasions (he was only an officer during the first). Reminds me a lot of Korea’s Yi Sun Shin!

Side note: random fact I learned while doing a quick read up for Tran is that there’s a road in Westminster, CA, where many Vietnamese-Americans call home, nicknamed Tran Hung Dao Boulevard!

3. Catch a show at the Hanoi Opera House (or just admire its architecture from the outside).

I’ve seen maybe two operas in my whole life but I do love a beautiful opera house! As you might guess from the neoclassic/eclectic style, Hanoi’s version was built under the French between 1901 and 1910. It was inspired by the Palais Garnier in Paris, though instead of beige, its colors are warm yellow and white. Given its central location, it also bore witness to many of Vietnam’s revolutionary gatherings in the mid-1900s.

Today, the Opera House is back to its artistic roots with plenty of ballets, symphonies, musicals, and operas to see. Check out their performance schedules here.

Yellow exterior o the National Museum of Vietnamese History, Hanoi, Vietnam

4. Learn more about the country pre-1945 at the National Museum of Vietnamese History

Behind the Hanoi Opera House is a beautiful yellow building made up of both French and Chinese architectural influences that once held the French School of Asian Studies. After Vietnam took back control from France, its arts and history collections were expanded to become the National Museum of Vietnamese History.

The whole museum covers the history of the country from prehistoric times up to the August 1945 Revolution. Sadly I got there too late when I tried to go, so it’s on my list for a future visit!

Hoa Lo Prison, Hanoi, Vietnam

5. Pay your respects at Hoa Lo Prison

You know what’s kind of a weird thought? If it weren’t for this building’s sordid history, it would honestly just look like any other picturesque holdover from the French colonial times. The pretty, yellow facade with the simple “Maison Centrale” entrance. Could you not see many an Instagrammer posing in front in a pretty outfit?

Thats just how innocuous this building looks! In reality, this building was once the gatehouse to a much larger prison that has seen like likes of much suffering and agony. Initially it was under the French, who built the prison in the later parts of the 1800s and gave it its initial name of Maison Centrale, or Central House to hold Vietnamese political prisoners. After a 1913 expansion, it was supposed to only hold up to 600 but would often hold over twice that in horrible conditions.

During the Vietnamese war, it became known as the Hanoi Hilton after acting as the prison for many US POWs, most famously Senator John McCain. I met a military vet who said that when he passed away, she came to the front of this building to pay her respects, which I like to think many have done over the years.

In the nineties, the prison itself was demolished and the gatehouse is all that remains becoming a museum. I don’t know if the, uh, exhibits have gotten anymore nuanced but I’ve never visited as its claims of hospitality pretty much go against every POW account…

Vietnamese Women's Museum, Hanoi, Vietnam

6. Learn more about the country’s female history at the Vietnamese Women’s Museum

More interesting to me was the Vietnamese Women’s Museum, which Frances recommended I check out! This beautiful museum was opened in 1995 and has quite a number of exhibits all about the incredible female history of this country. Each floor is dedicated to a different theme: Women in Family, Women in History, and Women’s Fashion.

I think one thing I’d like to see more of is the more ancient history as the Women in History section is mostly contemporary. Like have you heard of the Trưng Sisters?

St. Joseph's Cathedral, Hanoi, Vietnam

7. Catch the sunset at St. Joseph’s Cathedral.

Does St. Joseph’s remind you of a certain cathedral in Paris? That’s because when it was being built in 1886, its architects took inspiration from the famous Notre Dame’s Gothic style! It was actually built on the ruins of Bao Thien Pagoda, one of the four great treasures of Annam, which had collapsed back in 1542 and was never repaired. Its name comes from St. Joseph, Jesus’s earthly father, and the patron saint of then Indochina.

I highly recommend grabbing an outdoor seat at the nearby Cong Caphe and enjoying the sun set over St. Joseph’s. If you’re here on a Sunday, you might be able to catch evening mass around 6:00 PM!

8. Walk the many alleys of the Old Quarter

Honestly, one of the best things you can do in Hoan Kiem or really most places in Hanoi is to just walk and get a bit lost. I met up with Frances for coffee before she went back to Saigon, and we straight up just wander down this alley right in front of the shop! All in that alley we saw women with their conical hats and bikes piled with flowers, an open air food market, parked (and moving) motorbikes, and just normal life in one compact area all under the many, many entangled wires Vietnam is known for.

Tan My dress in Hanoi, Vietnam

9. Shop at Tan My Design

So funny story. Back when I was shopping in 2016, I stopped in Tanmy Design as it was one of the places a blog I loved recommended. It’s a very cute boutique with lots of different designers. Definitely on the higher end. At the time I think I only bought a few little fabric pouches because I had exactly 0 room in my carry-on, and I actually still have both items today!

Anyway, after learning about Metiseko during my trip in Sapa, I wanted to try to see their clothes in person and Tanmy is the only place that carries them in Hanoi. I didn’t realize it was the same place I’d visited on my first trip until I walked in and got that deja vu feeling that everything looked very familiar. Unfortunately they didn’t carry my size in the Metiseko products or have the specific items I was looking for, so I just waited until I got back to Saigon for that. Instead I wound up getting this cute cotton slip that’s now my go-to for sleepwear!

Chie Craft and Design souvenirs, Hanoi, Vietnam
The lil passport + one of the scarves!

10. And/or at CHIE Craft and Design

CHIE Craft and Design (which was known as Chie Handmade when I visited) was another one of Geneva’s recommendations, and I absolutely loved it! Everything is handmade from natural materials, and when I visited, the shopkeeper was the loveliest. I found their products to be really unique and the prices quite fair. I still have the passport case I got with me now in Vietnam and the scarves are back at home in my closet! I remember those scarves became clutch because Hanoi was so much colder in February than I thought it would be ha!

What to Do in Ba Dinh District

So when I did my sightseeing day, I started all the way at Tran Quoc Pagoda (technically in the Tay Ho district, so more on that in the next section). From there I’m pretty sure I walked along D. Thanh Nien into Ba Đình, so I’ll go in order! Also I’m including some spots that I either missed or might be new since I didn’t go into this area on my most recent trip!

11. Stop to pay your respects at the John McCain monument

So as I was on Google Maps trying to retrace my steps, something titled the “John McCain Monument” popped out. I must have walked right by it! It’s to commemorate where McCain fell into Truc Bach Lake during the war on October 26, 1967 before being taken in as a POW for 5 1/2 years.

I started to do a little reading on McCain’s relationship with Vietnam because it really is such an interesting story I wish I had paid more attention to when he was alive. Like did you know he and John Kerry led the normalization of relations with Vietnam in 1995? Like I said, fascinating history I have to do more digging on. In the meantime if I get a chance to return to Hanoi, I’ll be sure to visit to pay my respects.

12. Visit Quan Thanh Temple

So I’m pretty sure I was going to visit this temple but for some reason I didn’t. A part of me thinks I couldn’t find it and the other is saying it was under repair? Either way, also on the list to visit on a future trip!

This Taoist tempe dates back to the 1000s and is dedicated to Xuan Wu, or Trấn Vũ, in Vietnamese. In Taoism, he’s considered a powerful god who can control the elements and god of the north.

13. Pop over to Cua Bac Church

Before you get into the main attractions of Ba Dinh, pop over to Cửa Bắc church! Of course this is another spot I didn’t know about in 2016 and want to visit now. This Catholic church is one of the three main churches in Hanoi with St. Joseph’s and Ham Long Church and was built in 1932.

Its name comes from being in front of the northern gate (Cửa Bắc) of the Hanoi Citadel. Stylistically, it’s a mix of Art Deco and traditional Vietnamese, which is quite a change from most Catholic churches in the country! Haven’t figured out why it’s now yellow when it was gray at least as recently as George W. Bush’s visit in 2006.

Presidential Palace, Hanoi, Vietnam

14. Walk around the grounds of the Presidential Palace.

This palace is on the way to the mausoleum from Phan Dinh Phung road, so so it’s pretty impossible to miss with its bright yellow exterior. As you might guess from the architecture, the palace was originally built between 1900 and 1906 when Vietnam was Indochina for the French Governor-General at the time.

Apparently Ho Chi Minh refused to live in the palace during his rule and only accepted state guests there. While you can’t visit the building itself, you can walk around the grounds.

Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum, Hanoi, Vietnam

15. Visit the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum

I remember everything around this structure felt so imposing! Guards everywhere and, of course, the mausoleum itself its very sharp and serious. It was built in the 1970s and is, as you might guess, the final resting place for Ho Chi Minh. It sits in Ba Dinh Square, wich is where he read Vietnam’s Declaration of Independence in 1945.

If you want to visit be sure to cover your shoulders and knees and, as you might also guess, security here is probably the strictest in the whole country. I remember I didn’t go in because it was pretty crowded as it’s probably the most popular spot in Hanoi!

16. Check out where Ho Chi Minh actually lived.

In the same area is what is now known as the Presidential Palace Historical Site. This stilt house is where Ho Chi Minh lived and work for most of his life.

17. Check out the One Pillar Pagoda

This Buddhist temple that dates back to 1049 when it was built under Emperor Lý Thái Tông in gratitude for being given a son. It’s made of wood and one stone pillar and is meant to look like a lotus blossom. Unfortunately, what you can see how is a recreation as the French destroyed the original in 1954 (ahhh… colonialism -_-).

18. Learn more about Ho Chi Minh at his namesake museum

Near the mausoleum, this museum covers all of Ho Chi Minh’s life in great detail over a number of exhibits from his youth to how he became a national hero. Would really like to just come and spend the day here to learn more about him!

Flag Tower, Hanoi, Vietnam

19. Check out the Flag Tower of Hanoi.

I remember coming up to this flag tower and kind of laughing a the juxtaposition between this ancient symbol with a Highlands Coffee right below! The tower itself was once part of the citadel and is over 33 meters high. It dates all the way back to 1818 under the Nguyen dynasty and managed to even survived the French coming in the 1890s.

At 33 meters high, this flag tower is one of the major symbols of Vietnam. It’s an interesting juxtaposition to the franchise coffee shop right below it. I was actually looking for this when I came across the Imperial Citadel (below).

Imperial Citadel of Thang Long, Hanoi, Vietnam

20. Wander around the Imperial Citadel of Thang Long.

Okay you know what’s kind of crazy? When I was visiting this area in 2016, the Imperial Citadel of Thang Long wasn’t even on my guidebook. I was looking for the Flag Tower, saw this ancient-looking yellow building in the distance, and though, surely this place must be interesting?

Turns out it is! And to this day I don’t understand why it was left off my map! The citadel is a UNESCO World Heritage site first built under the Ly dynasty in 1010. For about 700 years until 1810 it served as the capital until the Nguyen dynasty moved things to Hue. Today you can walk around what remains and even see a bunker that was used during the war.

Vietnam Military History Museum, Hanoi, Vietnam

21. Visit the Vietnam Military History Museum

Something for those interested in some war history! Opposite Lenin Park around the Flag Tower, this museum goes over Vietnam’s military history, going back to the BC wars, and in the front you can see different equipment captured during the different wars. The museum is more about displaying artifacts, so you may want to do some studying up on your own before going.

22. Bonus: Take in a view of the city from the Lotte Observation Deck.

Technically, this is in Ba Dinh but not particularly close to everything else. Anyway, head up to the 65th floor to get a bird’s eye view of the city! Given its name and ties to Korea, I am not shocked at all to see there are themed photo zones lol.

Other Districts

Graduates posing at Temple of Literature in Hanoi, Vietnam

23. Catch the photo shoots and celebrations at the Temple of Literature.

Built in 1070, the Temple of Literature is dedicated to Confucius. If you go in, you can walk around and learn all about the different intellectuals who call Vietname home. It’s a beautiful area made of five different courtyards, so chances are you’re going to find someone or a whole group of students taking fun photos!

It’s technically in a different district but it’s so close to Ba Dinh, you can walk there.

Tran Quoc Pagoda, Hanoi, Vietnam

24. Visit Tran Quoc Pagoda

Trấn Quốc Pagoda is where I was dropped off to do my day of sightseeing! It’s the oldest Buddhist temple in the city, having been built in the 500s under Emperor Lý Nam Đế. It really does have to be one of the most beautiful spots in Hanoi!

25. Learn more about Vietnam’s ethnic minorities Museum of Ethnology

This museum looks at all 54 recognized ethnic groups in Vietnam and celebrates their diversity and contribution to the country’s culture. It’s definitely on my future trip itinerary!

26. Bonus: Meet up with some expats in Hanoi!

Sometimes I’m so sociable, I don’t really know who I am! For whatever reason, though, on m first trip, I reached out to Laura on Instagram for some advice about Hanoi, and we wound up arranging to get coffee and something to eat during one of my days there. It was fun meeting up, and she took me to two eateries I wouldn’t have known to visit on my own! We still on and off keep in touch on Instagram.

Hanoi is a big hub for expats, especially those teaching English, so try meeting up with someone! Look through the Hanoi hashtags on Instagram or, for women, join the Hanoi Beautiful group on Facebook.

Foodie Things to Do in Hanoi

What & Where to Drink

27. Get a coffee at Cong Caphe.

By far one of my favorite places is Cong Caphe! It’s a mini-franchise in Vietnam. I went to the one on the Ba Dinh district as well as grabbed out by St. Joseph’s Cathedral for the sunset twice! It’s decorated with war memorabilia and has the most delicious drink, called coconut coffee. I loved this place so much I even went when I discovered they opened up one in Seoul! I love that they offer a bigger size these days lol.

28. Experience the tastiness of egg coffee

Upgrade your normal ca phe sua with an egg yolk! I’m not kidding, ca phe trung or egg coffee is so delicious! Like a little dessert. The iconic spot to go is Cafe Giang, who is credited with inventing the creation. When I met up with Laura, we also went to Cafe Phố Cổ which has some nice rooftop views.

Note Coffee, Hanoi, Vietnam

29. Enjoy a cozy drink at the Note Coffee

The Note Coffee is by far one of the cutest spots in Hanoi and all of Vietnam to enjoy a drink. If you can’t tell from the name of photos, the theme of this cafe is all about leaving messages on post-it notes! Obviously, this could just be a gimmicky Instagram thing, but the vibe is so nice and friendly, go even if you don’t believe in cameras!

They have a bunch of drinks, including egg coffee, which is what I got.

Bia Corner, Hanoi, Vietnam

30. Grab some beer at Bia Corner

Frances and I came here to eat when were in Hanoi! It’s also known as the Old Quarter Ta Hien Corner but more well known as Bia Corner (Beer Corner). She wanted to try a Bia Hà Nội and we both wanted to check out this nighttime stop by the lake. It’s very busy and the food is okay, so I probably won’t be back any time soon, but it could be fun if you’re planning on a night out.

Where & What to Eat

Bun Bo Nam Bo Bach Phuong, Hanoi, Vietnam

31. Try the bun bo nam bo at Bun Bo Nam Bo Bach Phuong

I tried this dish with Laura and her boyfriend for dinner back on my first trip, and these days I think it’s my favorite dish! We went to Bún Bò Nam Bộ Bách Phương. Despite the name, which translates to “southern beef noodle dish,” it’s not that common down here in Saigon! Most dishes include veggies, fried onions, peanuts, and bean sprouts. The beef is soaked in sugar, fish sauce, and other ingredients while the sauce for the dish is also made from fish sauce, etc. All of this is over some vermicelli noodles. Trust me, it’s so good!

Xoi Yen, Hanoi, Vietnam

32. Try the sticky rice dishes at Xoi Yen

Sierra, who called Hanoi home for a long time, sent me two places to try and Xôi Yến was one of them! It’s conveniently right next to Cafe Giang so you can get your coffee and then go over!

33. Try the cha ca at Cha Ca Thang Long

Chả Cá Thăng Long was Sierra’s other suggestion! Chả Cá is a speciality dish of Hanoi and the whole street this restaurant is on is known as “Cha Ca street.” It’s different kinds of fish, seasoned and put over some veggies. Seriously so flavorful!

34. Get BBQ at Xuan Xuan

My friends over at Bobo and Chichi recommend Bò Nướng Xuân Xuân! Here’s what they had to say, “It is similar to Korean bbq but instead served with a tub of butter and french baguettes to dip in the grease & butter! We were regulars at this place during our month stay in Hanoi!” YUM!

BBQ in Hanoi, Vietnam

35. Try a random food spot!

While I didn’t do BBQ there, I did stumble across this random spot on my way home one night and absolutely feasted on grilled meats and veggies! You pick out what you want in the front and then they’ll prep it all for you. It didn’t even come up on Google Maps but I tried pinning this spot which is at least nearby!

Obama Bun Cha, Hanoi, Vietnam

36. Try bun cha where Obama and Bourdain did

Want to dine where Obama and Anthony Bourdain ate at? Then head right over to Bún chả Hương Liên! I mean even if it didn’t see the likes of two icons, Bún chả is definitely a dish you want to try in Hanoi. It’s made with grilled pork, rice noodles, and veggies. Basically you want to add as many noodles and veggies to the pork bowl as you want. Yummmmm.

Muoi Tieu (Salt n Pepper Kitchen), Hanoi, Vietnam

37. For something Western, grab brunch at Muoi Tieu

Also known as Salt n Pepper Kitchen, I popped into this cafe one day to get some work down and eat a nice brunch! There are probably lots of cute cafes in Hanoi that I haven’t even begun to explore, but this was a good spot to start!

38. Try a food tour!

Try one of these food tours if you’d like a more guided foodie experience:

Things to Do Near Hanoi

Hanoi is a great city to base yourself for a lot of Vietnam’s most iconic natural sights. I feel like I need to do a whole post on trips from Hanoi but in the mean time here are some things to do nearby-ish.

Multi-Day Trips from Hanoi

Halong Bay, Vietnam

39. Cruise Halong Bay

Halong is one of the New Seven Natural Wonders, and it’s incredible. I know it gets a bad rep as it often feels littered with tourist boats, but when I went it was peaceful and mostly empty. Granted, we were there in the off-season, so maybe that’s why!

40. Trek Sapa

Go trekking in Sapa! There are so many ethnic minority tribes that call Sapa home and really the only way to learn more about them is trekking! I recently had the chance to visit with Topas Travel and had such a lovely time at their lodges and learning about the Red Dzao tribe as well as the Blue Hmong and Xa Pho tribes.

41. Explore Ninh Binh

If you want a lesser known area to visit besides Halong Bay, check out Ninh Binh. All my friends who have been love it and call it a sort of Halong above ground if that makes sense. Still dying to go!

Hanoi, Vietnam

Quick Hanoi Travel Tips

Will have to dedicate a whole planning guide for Hanoi but in the meantime here are so quick tips for your trip.

How to Get There

Since we were coming from Halong Bay, I took a series of modes of transportation to get back to Hanoi that I’d probably nix if I did it all over again. Depending on where you’re coming, you can fly into Hanoi or take the train. Just check Baolau for the train.

If you’re flying, the airport is called the Noi Bai International Airport, and it’s about 40 minutes from the Old Quarter. You can get a SIM Card there and, of course, book a pretty cheap private transfer to your hotel ahead of time.

Where to Stay

If you’re just visiting, you’ll want to stay in Hoàn Kiếm in the Old Quarter to be closest to everything.

For longer term visitors, I know the main expat neighborhood is Tây Hồ, and it has lots of cute restaurants and cafes.

I’ve personally stayed at three different places now: New Vision Palace Hotel, Acoustic Hotel & Spa, and Eco Boutique Hotel. Of the three, I’d say Acoustic was my favorite (pictured above). It felt the most luxurious for its price and the staff was so nice.

I’m not sure about New Vision because I think thy upgraded and rebranded from my stay but it was a really good budget pick at the time. As for Eco, while the staff was super friendly, it was… not remotely eco-friendly and for its price, there are a ton of cuter boutique hotels in the Old Quarter.

Here are some other highly rated picks:




Honestly there are SO many beautiful hotels with 9+ ratings and crazy cheap prices in the Old Quarter. You can compare even more here.

Yellow tiled floor of the Imperial Citadel of Thang Long, Hanoi, Vietnam

How to Get Around

It’s super easy to get around Hanoi. When I first went, I basically mapped out where I wanted to go and got a taxi to drop me off at the furthest point. I don’t even think I had a SIM card at the time!

This last trip I did mostly walking too, but was able to get a Grab (the SE Asia answer to Uber) when I needed it!

Tours in Hanoi

  • Half-Day Small Group Tour – A pretty classic tour to take you around the major sites of Hanoi.
  • Hanoi Street Food: Small Walking Tour – 3 hours and goes through the Old Quarter. It’s also in the evening, so you might be able to fit it in on the same day you arrive!
  • Film Photography Tour of Hanoi– Is this not such a fun tour You get to use a film camera to check out some lesser known spots around Hanoi and learn more about photography in relation to the city.

What to Wear in Hanoi

Don’t be fooled by Vietnam’s southeast Asia location — its northern areas can get quite chilly in the winter! When I went in February, I was sweating in HCMC and Hoi An, but Hanoi was around 60F (16C) in comparison! I had been lugging around a light jacket to get to and from Korea’s winter, and I actually wore it the whole time.

In the summer, it actually felt more stuffy and humid than elsewhere, so as always dress in light fabrics, breathable fabrics. Hanoi is also more conservative than the south. While you can probably where shorts and a crop top around Saigon, you should be a little more covered in Hanoi.

Have you been to Hanoi? What are your picks on what to do? Let me know!

for more vietnam travel

I’ve been able to explore a lot of this country, so here are all my other guides:

General Vietnam

Northern Vietnam

Central Vietnam

Southern Vietnam

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Originally published in 2016; Updated August, 2020

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