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Our suggestions for things to see and do in Hanoi

There's plenty to see and do in Vietnam's fascinating capital Hanoi so here are just a few of our recommendations

You could spend a lot of time exploring Vietnam’s fascinating capital but the country holds a lot more to see, including no less than 8, UNESCO-listed World Heritage Sites as well as the sights of Danang and Ho Chi Minh City, (still Saigon to many of its inhabitants), so here’s a few of our favourites things to see and do in Hanoi that you can conveniently include in a day or two-day tour.

Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum

We’d better begin with what to many Vietnamese would be the city’s most prestigious site – the famous Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum. The former leader died in 1969 and work on his final resting place was completed in 1975 with the imposing building thus displaying classic 70s Communist-style architecture. Between you and us it’s not the city’s most attractive building but it is a must-see if visiting Hanoi and if you can time your visit for the changing of the guard – that’s fun to see.

Changing of the guard at the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum
Changing of the guard at the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum
The Presidential Palace

An area of landscaped gardens and small lakes, situated west of the Mausoleum, is home to the French-style Presidential Palace as well as Ho Chi Minh’s more traditional wooden stilt residence. Definitely worth including at the same time as the Mausoleum, both buildings are impressive and well =restored and the gardens picturesque.

The Old Town

The maze of narrow lanes north of Hoan Kiem Lake constitutes Hanoi’s vibrant Old Town. It’s hectic, bustling and noisy and you’ll have to dodge the ubiquitous scooters but the area and its streetlife are absolutely fascinating and highly photogenic. The streets are crammed full of coffee shops, cafes and noodle bars and get even livelier after dark with a proliferation of pavement restaurants, street food, bars and street corner musicians.

Vietnam, old town
Traditional old house in Hanoi’s Old Town.
The Temple of Literature

If you’re only visiting one of Hanoi’s myriad temples then it should be the Temple of Literature. This sprawling Confucian temple was established as Vietnam’s first university way back in the 11th century and today forms a beautiful collection of halls, shrines, statues and courtyards. Stunning and a shoo-in on any list of things to see and do in Hanoi.

Temple of Literature, Hanoi
These Vietnamese students brush up well – graduation ceremony in traditional ao dais at the Temple of Literature
Hoan Kiem Lake

This scenic lake and park is today downtown Hanoi’s central feature. The Old Town lies immediately north, the Mausoleum, park and palace to the west and the Opera House, and many fine French colonial buildings, are found to the south and east. The Lake is surrounded by a narrow park housing a couple of strategically placed coffee shops while a small island at its northern end is home to the Temple of the Jade Mountain – Ngọc Sơn.

‘Train Street’

This now hugely popular Hanoi destination is a relatively recent phenomenon and consists of a very narrow lane – just wide enough for trains to pass – where visitors can grab photos of trains as they squeeze past houses (and tourists) on their way to or from Ga Hà Nội, Hanoi Railway Station. There are several vantage spots beside the tracks and you of course need to check train timetables so this is probably best done with a good local guide who can get you to the right spot at the right time. (It can also get very busy.)

If you get the right spot it is a lot of fun and some viewing spots now include tiny cafes alongside the rails where you can sup a cold Hanoi Beer and watch the trains go by. (In our opinion this is as good as train spotting gets.)

Vietnam, the Hanoi to Saigon express
The Hanoi to Saigon express
Museum of Ethnology

Not quite so popular but in our opinion one of Hanoi’s most interesting and informative sites is the well-laid-out and extensive Museum of Ethnology or Ethnological Museum. The exhibits cover many of Vietnam’s 54 different recognised ethnic groups. These can broadly be divided into Montagnard peoples of the Central Highlands such as the Muong and Jarai and the northern Hill Tribes including Hmong, (H’mong in Vietnam), Dzao (or Dao), Tay and various Tai groups – White Tai, Black Tai, Red Tai. (These are usually and erroneously named Thai in Vietnam. Strictly speaking, Thai is the nationality and Tai is the ethnolinguistic family.) Other significant groups are the Cham and Khmers of the far south and the Mekong Delta.

Exhibitions cover their traditional costumes and cultures while the Museum gardens feature reconstructions of traditional houses.

If you were to consecrate a half day to explore the Old Town – perhaps an evening or two to check out the myriad cafes and some street food – then most of the above ‘things to see and do in Hanoi’ could be fitted into a day tour of Hanoi. As we said, you could spend a lot of time taking in all of the things to see and do in Hanoi but if you did have another day or so to spare the following additional sites are worth a mention.

Vietnam, Hanoi street food
Checking out some of the wonderful Hanoi street food
The Opera House

The iconic and beautifully restored Opera House was originally built to a classic French design in the early 20th century. As far as we know you can’t visit the building’s interior unless you’re seeing a performance, (you could check out upcoming events and visit the foyer), but the exterior is certainly worth a photo or two in its own right. You could combine a visit with a stroll through the stately tree-lined streets to the south of the Opera House, which include many restored French period buildings to finish at the scenic Thong Nhat Park. (Công viên Thống Nhất.)

Hoa La Prison – the Hanoi Hilton

History buffs may well want to add the Hoa Lo Prison – better known as the infamous Hanoi Hilton – where the Vietnamese held US prisoners taken during the war in Indochina. Note that it was originally constructed by the French to house Vietnamese prisoners – in often just as appalling conditions – so the site certainly provides a different perspective. Little remains of the original structures but there is a museum you can visit.

The Hanoi Water Puppets

The famous Thang Long water puppets are rather a victim of their own success and the shows can get very busy with rows of tourist coaches dropping visitors off outside. Our feedback has often been ‘underwhelming’ but if you can find a quiet time then it can be fun. We’ve put it as an option on our Hanoi and Vietnam tours but what we do include – on our Vietnam family tour – is a scaled-down, private show which also includes explanations on how the puppets are made and operated as well as a chance for the kids to have a go themselves.