We visited Hanoi on a whim with few days to spare in Southeast Asia. In that short time, we found a plethora of things to do in Hanoi, the vibrant Vietnamese capital city. Vietnam holds a special place in our hearts. It’s still one of those places in the world that captures the imagination of the traveler. It’s vibrant culture, friendly locals, tantalizing food, and breathtaking landscapes beg to be explored.
Hanoi is a wild mix of Chinese and French influences with a chaotic Old Quarter filled with narrow alleys, tiny shops, and thousands of restaurants. Take a walk along the street before bartering for a new souvenir, eating a fresh meal, or enjoying a bia hoi with the locals. Hanoi is the kind of city that bewilders travelers and begs for a return visit — just don’t overstay your time the chaos is great in short doses.
Amazing Things to do in Hanoi
1. Hoàn Kiêm Lake & Turtle Tower
Hoan Kiem Lake is a freshwater lake in the center of the city, and the relaxing, laid back mood of the area earns it a mention on the list of things to do in Hanoi. Also known as the Lake of the Restored Sword, its origin myth is an interesting tale: according to legend, the Heavens sent the Emperor a sword to drive the Chinese from Vietnam. It is said that after the ensuing war, a giant golden turtle swam to the surface and took back the sword to return it to its owners.
There have been sightings of real turtles on the lake for decades (one of two nearly-extinct species). Since they are so rare, and being that the last known turtle living in the lake died in 2016, consider it a sign of good luck if you happen to spot one of these creatures. The lake has a 17th-century tower in its center, called Turtle Tower. There is also the Temple of the Jade Mountain, with a red bridge that takes visitors across the water and into the temple.
2. Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum
Though the name can be confusing for some, this particular spot is indeed in Hanoi. The mausoleum is the final resting place of Revolutionary leader Ho Chi Minh (for whom the eponymous city is named) and is a large pillared structure located in Ba Dinh Square. Its architecture was designed to mirror the Lenin Mausoleum in Moscow, but with Asian elements that include a sloped roof.
Ho Chi Minh’s embalmed body lies in a glass case in the mausoleum’s central hall, protected by a military guard. The hall is open to visitors daily; though somewhat morbid, it’s a fascinating attraction and provides insight into the degree to which this leader was venerated.
3. Temple of Literature
Despite its name, the Temple of Literature wasn’t always a temple. It was constructed in 1070 as a university dedicated to Confucius and learning. Originally meant for nobility and aristocracy, it later opened its doors to the general population. The layout was designed to mimic the temple in Qufu, Shandong, the birthplace of Confucius.
The grounds are regarded as among the most visually attractive things to do in Hanoi, and there are many different sights within the temple area. Stone turtle steles display the carved names of every graduate, and pavilions, courtyards, and passageways are found all over. Don’t miss the Well of Heavenly Clarity and its two flanking halls, which house treasures of the temple.
4. Thăng Long Imperial Citadel
Vietnam has a rich and diverse history, and relics of this past remain even today, which means it’s easy to find things to do in Hanoi. The Thăng Long Imperial Citadel is definitely one of those things. Due to the significant discoveries made here since the 2004 excavations—including relics, artifacts, palace foundations, and even ancient roads—it became a UNESCO World Heritage Site. There were even discoveries made from artifacts traced to other parts of Asia, indicating that Hanoi was heavily involved in trade.
During the Vietnam War, the citadel was the official headquarters of the North Vietnamese military, with evacuation tunnels in case of sudden attacks. The site is open to visitors every day except Sunday, with an entrance fee of ₫30,000.
5. One Pillar Pagoda
The One Pillar Pagoda is pretty much exactly what it sounds like: an ancient wooden pagoda sitting atop a single stone pillar said to represent a single lotus flower blooming upwards from its stalk. The legend goes that the heirless then-emperor dreamt that a deity seated on a lotus handed him a son; a short time later, his wife bore him the child from his dreams. The pagoda was commissioned by the emperor for his gratitude.
The pagoda that sits here today is not the original; before the French retreated in 1954, their last act was to destroy the ancient pagoda, which was reconstructed afterward. The surrounding gardens make this a tranquil and serene place to wander and relax. There are stands nearby selling refreshments to make the most of your time here.
The temple is open daily to visitors, though bear in mind that because it is a sacred place, appropriate attire should be worn.
6. Hỏa Lò Prison Memorial
Though this particular attraction is emotionally heavy, it is of great cultural and historical importance and should be on your list of things to do in Hanoi, even if just to pay respects for a dark time in history. The Hỏa Lò Prison Memorial is all that is left of the Hỏa Lò Prison, which stood here and housed prisoners political prisoners during the French colonization of Vietnam, and later, US prisoners of war during the Vietnam war. Torture was a common occurrence within the prison walls. There is even a French guillotine on display, used to decapitate Vietnamese revolutionaries.
Many US Air Force pilots were held here after their planes were shot down; there is an exhibit showcasing their experiences with the Army and in captivity.
7. Presidential Palace
The Presidential Palace was originally built as a residence for the French Governor of Indochina, and Ho Chi Minh built himself a stilt house in the gardens. As with many buildings constructed during colonial periods, the building is decidedly European in design, featuring mustard-colored outer walls across three stories.
The site’s beautiful gardens are worth a wander; you can observe the stilt house and gain insight into Ho Chi Minh’s life while he lived here. The building, which hosts government meetings, is not open to the public but you can visit its grounds for a fee of ₫40,000.
8. Thăng Long Water Puppet Theatre
Water puppetry is a traditional art and form of theatre that dates back to the 11th century when villagers would wait out flooded rice fields by making puppets dance across the water’s surface. The puppets are made out of lacquered wood; shows take place in shallow water with the puppets mounted on bamboo sticks in the water, giving the illusion of the figures moving independently. The Thăng Long theatre performances also include live music & singing, using traditional instruments, to add to the overall storyline and audiovisual effect.
Tickets range in price from ₫100,000 to ₫200,000 and performances are generally available throughout the day, meaning you can fit this into a daytime schedule or add it to an evening date night.
9. Trompe l’œil Murals of Hanoi
French for “trick of the eye”, these murals are a joint street art project between Vietnam and Korea to celebrate their shared diplomacy, with large, life-like murals covering the blank stone walls between train station arches. Many of the murals are optical illusions, hence the name. Many are so skillfully painted that it can be difficult to discern where the painting ends and reality takes over, as they are slotted into the true landscape around them.
This invites a very fun opportunity for photographs; you can insert yourself into the painted scenes and make it look as though you were drawn into the original painting.
10. B-52 Wreckage
The Huu Tiep Lake is home to something you wouldn’t normally expect to find in a body of water. The lake contains the wreckage of an American B-52 bomber plane that was supposedly charged with a failed bombing campaign, and subsequently shot down by the Vietnamese army. The sobering monument is one of many throughout the country that commemorate the Vietnam War, the lives it cost, and its effect on both the Vietnamese and the US.
The monument is only 20 minutes by foot, to the west of the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum, so it’s easy to lump these two in together to maximize your time in this area of the city.
11. Lotte Tower
If you’re afraid of heights, this attraction might not be for you. The Lotte Center Tower is a skyscraper located in Ba Dinh; it is the second tallest structure in the whole of Vietnam. At 65 stories, the Lotte Center Tower contains more than just offices; it also boasts a department store, residences, a 5-star hotel, restaurants, and a high-end spa, to name a few.
Easily its most intriguing facet is the observation deck on the 65th floor – called “Top of Hanoi” – that provides views across the city. If 65 stories aren’t enough, true daredevils can get on the elevator and journey up an additional two stories to the 67th floor, which has no roof (being the very top of the building). Bonus: the floors are clear glass, in case you weren’t exhilarated (or terrified) enough already.
12. Quan Son Lake
Ha Long Bay is quite a jaunt from Hanoi, but luckily there’s a similar option for those who can’t make it up to Ha Long. Quan Son Lake is roughly 50 km from the city center, so the drive is generally no more than an hour and a half. It’s a perfect escape from the hustle and bustle of Hanoi.
Rowboat rentals are available here for a scenic tour of the lake, but if you prefer to keep your feet on land, there are hiking and biking paths following the water’s edge. For extra beauty, come between mid-May and mid-June – lotus blossom season will be in full swing. If you have a sweet tooth, you can guide your boat through the lotus pond to Hoa Qua Son island, famous for its many fruit trees like lychee and oranges.
13. Quang Ba wholesale flower market
Quang Ba flower market is a unique addition to the list of things to do in Hanoi, not for its contents, but for its schedule. It’s something that many travelers will miss since it hits its peak in the middle of the night—between 2 and 4 am. Regardless of the loss of your beauty sleep, you’ll be glad you came.
The flower market can be a bit overwhelming; hundreds of stalls sell fresh flowers left and right, for what in the Western world would be considered incredibly inexpensive. Even if you go just to observe, the fragrance infused in the entire area is in itself worth the trip. If you do decide to make a purchase, here’s an idea: gift them to your hotel or homestay as a thank you for hosting!
14. Day trip to the Perfume Pagoda
Located only an hour’s drive from Hanoi, the Perfume Pagoda would not necessarily qualify as a day trip if it weren’t for its enormous span. The Perfume Pagoda is a huge complex of Buddhist temples built into the limestone Huong Tich mountains and cliffs. The complex dates from the 15th century, though local legend suggests that it is over 2,000 years old, having been discovered by a meditating monk. The site itself is in a haven of natural beauty; nestled in the mountains’ foothills, the surrounding environment is green and lush.
The Perfume Pagoda itself is the very center of the complex, sitting inside a cave. The spot attracts hundreds of pilgrims and travelers in search of good fortune from the stalactites and stalagmites hanging within the cavern walls. These structures are named for what they supposedly offer the wisher, with blessings ranging from fertility to a good harvest.
15. Day trip to Bat Trang
Even though travel is more about collecting memories than objects, nobody would blame you if you wanted to take a little something home from here. Bat Trang, also known as the Ceramics Village, is a 14th-century village across the river from Hanoi that specializes in traditional pottery and porcelain. It is a fascinating thing to wander through the shops and see the masterful creations made by locals.
But you don’t just need to observe; there are actually pottery classes offered here for a mere ₫60,000. The best of both worlds: created in a village steeped in tradition and history, but still made by your own hard work.
Check if you need a visa for Vietnam
Before traveling to Vietnam check to see if you need a visa (most visitors do). Americans do need a visa and the process is confusing and inefficient. First you will need to apply for an e-visa online before entering the country. The process can take up to three days to clear, although we got our letter of approval in two days. Be prepared to pay $25 or more for a one month visa if you use an agent for this beforehand.
Then once you arrive in Vietnam you will need to take your proof of e-visa (as it is only a letter of approval) to immigration. From there you will have to have either a passport sized photo with you or have them take yours for $2. You will also need to pay another $25 in cash upon arrival to Vietnam for your actual visa. You can also pay in Vietnamese Dong, but you will likely get a bad exchange rate.
For us, the rate kept changing the more I questioned it with the immigration officer. In the end, we ended up paying 700,000 Vietnamese Dong plus 60,000 for the photos per person. Slightly more than I think it should have been if we were paying in USD – but we didn’t have USD on us. The whole process is confusing and inefficient, but it’s a lot better than it used to be when you actually had to go to an embassy to get a visa.
Where to stay in Hanoi?
Hanoi has some fabulous Airbnb’s to choose from. To feel more at home we use Airbnb – you can check out some tips and read more about getting an Airbnb coupon code here. Or just take this coupon for your first stay!
Oriental Central Hotel
This is just one of the places we stayed in Hanoi. It was centrally located anf comfortable. The best thing about it was the friendly and hepful staff!
Noble & Swan Boutique Hotel
Another hotel that is located in the old quarter of Hanoi We stayed here our first night in Hanoi and enjoyed the boutique charm and elegant bathrooms!
Plan Your Trip to Vietnam
- Book your Halong Bay Cruise! Planning on visiting the beautiful Ha Long Bay? Read our full review of our trip and use the code THEWORLDPURSUIT20 for 20% your three-day cruise!
- Need Transportation? See the best ways to get around Asia here.
- Travel Insurance: We never travel without travel insurance with World Nomads. Natasha is a bit of a worry wart and would rather stay safe than sorry. World Nomads offers incredible flexible and great plans!
- Water: The water in Vietnam is not drinkable. Check out some of our favorite purified travel water bottles here.
- Guide Book: Sometimes it’s nice just to have a real book in your hands when traveling. We recommend Lonely Planet.
- Adapter: Make sure you find a good universal adapter like the one I have to keep you charged. Otherwise, you may struggle to find one once you land.
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