Visiting Hanoi: A Journey Through Vietnam’s Historic Capital

Hanoi, the capital of Vietnam, is a historical and cultural jewel that dates back over a thousand years. It was established as Thang Long in 1010 under the Ly Dynasty.

It symbolizes Vietnam’s resilience and complexity. It has endured various occupations, including those by the Chinese and the French, which have shaped its unique cultural and architectural blend.

Hanoi was declared the capital of an independent Vietnam after the withdrawal of the French in 1954, playing a central role in the country’s path to modernity while preserving its ancient traditions.

The city is known for its well-preserved Old Quarter, where narrow streets buzz with traditional crafts and colonial architecture, and its many iconic landmarks. Hanoi’s rich history is etched in its structures, vibrant street life, and cuisine, offering a living museum of Vietnamese heritage.

Best Time to Visit Hanoi, Vietnam

Tran Quoc Pagoda, aka Khai Quoc in Hanoi, Vietnam
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The best time to visit Hanoi entirely depends on your preferences. 

Spring and fall are ideal to visit the city because of the mild temperatures that hover around a pleasant 80 degrees Fahrenheit (27 degrees Celcius). 

July and August can often be too hot and humid, with lots of rain and temperatures around 95 degrees Fahrenheit (35 degrees Celcius). 

There will be fewer crowds during the winter, which makes it ideal if you like to explore in the off-season. However, the days can be foggy during this time of year. The temperature is still nice, hovering around 65 degrees Fahrenheit (18 degrees Celcius).

Things to Do in Hanoi, Vietnam

Hanoi, Vietnam
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When you first arrive in Hanoi, the city can be overwhelming, especially if it’s your first time in Southeast Asia. The streets are packed with small shops and eateries, the Vietnamese shout to you on the street, trying to sell you something, and you must be careful not to get hit by one of the thousand motorbikes when you want to cross the street.

While the city might initially seem hectic and intimidating, don’t worry. It will grow on you soon enough. If you arrive in Hanoi by plane, you must take a local bus, taxi, or minivan from Noi Bai Airport to the Old Quarter

Hoan Kiem Lake

Ngoc Son Temple of Hoan Kiem Lake in Hanoi, Vietnam
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Hoan Kiem Lake is the center of the city. It is right next to the Old Quarter, the best neighborhood for tourists to stay and the best place for a leisurely stroll to learn about Hanoi’s historical center.

In the early morning, you can see locals practicing aerobics in large groups, pumping music. The evening brings a more romantic atmosphere, perfect for a date night with a Hanoi beer and fried spring rolls.

There are two small islands on the lake with temples: Thap Rua and Den Ngoc Son. While the small temple on Thap Rua is inaccessible, you can visit the Den Ngoc Son temple by taking a lovely red bridge that is illuminated at night.

Hanoi Old Quarter

Old Quarter Hanoi, Vietnam
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The Old Quarter of Hanoi is the city’s historic center and the most popular place for tourists to stay in Hanoi. It is located right next to Hoan Kiem Lake, and it is a lively place where you can find many hostels and hotels, eateries, tour agencies, and the (in)famous Pub Street. 

One of the things that the Old Quarter is known for is its 36 streets, each dedicated to a different trade. It’s very funny to walk around in, but also very practical when you need something! 

Hang Ma Street is especially spectacular because it’s a street dedicated to festive decoration and is lovely to walk through around Christmas!

Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum

Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum in Hanoi, Vietnam
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The Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum is one of the most important attractions in Hanoi. It is the resting place of President Ho Chi Minh, the iconic leader of Vietnam who established the independent Republic of Vietnam in 1945.

Many Vietnamese visit the site as a place of pilgrimage, but it is also interesting to foreign tourists. It is free to visit, but because of its popularity, you’ll probably need to wait in a long line before you can enter.

Once inside, you’ll have to obey the strict rules of the Mausoleum, and you’ll get one minute of time to witness the preserved body of the former leader of Vietnam displayed in a glass box.

Temple of Literature

Temple of Literature in Hanoi, Vietnam
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Another famous place to visit in Hanoi is the Temple of Literature. It was founded in 1070 by emperor Lhi Tanh Tong and is dedicated to Confucius, scholars, and intellectuals. 

It has been a university for over 700 years, from 1076 to 1779. The Vietnamese elite and royals learned about the Confucian principles of morality, society, and humanity.

Today, the temple is open to visitors, intending to showcase its traditional Vietnamese architecture. The highlight of the trip are the 82 stone steles erected on turtle backs, which UNESCO recognizes as part of the Memory of the World Program.

Hanoi Street Food

Bún Chả found in Hanoi, Vietnam
Photo Credit: [@lenyvavsha/DEpositPhotos]
If there’s one thing you should do while in Hanoi, try some of its exquisite street food. Forget about the touristy restaurants in the Old Quarter and immerse yourself in pho, bun cha, and banh mi.

One of the most iconic street food places to visit in Hanoi is Bún Chả Hương Liên. While it looks no different than any other budget-friendly eatery, this is where Anthony Bourdain and Barack Obama sat together at a table in 2016. They ordered bún chả here and Vietnamese beer while shooting an episode of Bourdain’s famous show “Parts Unknown.”

If you’re looking for the best place to indulge in Banh Mi, check out Banh Mi 25. Plant-based travelers can’t leave the city without trying a bowl of pho at Quan Pho Chay Anh Hai

Water Puppet Show

Water Puppett Show in Hanoi, Vietnam
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If you are into culture and art, you should take the opportunity to watch a traditional water puppet show. Water puppetry is an ancient form of Vietnamese art that dates back to the 11th century.

The best place to watch one of these shows is Thang Long Water Puppet Theater. This old theater is located in the Old Quarter near Hoan Kiem Lake and probably within easy walking distance of your accommodation. The shows are held every day and last 50 minutes. The cheapest tickets cost 100.000 VND.

Hanoi Opera House

Hanoi Opera House in Hanoi, Vietnam
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Hanoi Opera House is one of Hanoi’s most remarkable pieces of colonial architecture. It is located in the French Quarter, bordering Hoan Kiem Lake. It officially opened in 1911, and its style resembles the grandeur of the Palais Garnier in Paris.

There are various ways to visit the Hanoi Opera House. You can opt to go on a guided tour of the building during the day or buy a ticket for one of the shows, which range from ballet and Vietnamese opera to traditional music and international concerts.

Dong Xuan Market

Dong Xuan Market in Hanoi, Vietnam
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Don Xuan is one of the largest indoor markets in Hanoi. It’s only a 5-minute walk north of the Old Quarter’s main areas and is a great activity for a rainy afternoon.

The market offers products ranging from household items and electronics to food, clothes, and traditional Vietnamese souvenirs like bamboo products and ceramics.

Dong Xuan Market is open daily from 6 a.m. to 7 p.m. It’s the perfect place to test your bargaining skills. As with many markets in Southeast Asia, you’ll be quoted a much higher price than the items are worth, and you’ll have to haggle it down!

Bia Hoi Culture

Bia Hoi in Vietnam
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Bia Hoi are not just bars where you can get a pint of beer. For the Hanoians, they are a way of life. After work, they go there to unwind and enjoy “Bia Hoi,” which means “fresh beer.”

Initially introduced by the French during the colonial period, the locals fully embrace the Bia Hoi culture today. Most of the time, you can buy beer in a Bia Hoi bar and a meal or appetizers, like fried spring rolls and noodles.

For an authentic Bia Hoi experience, it’s better to leave the Old Quarter searching for a traditional Bio Hoi bar. Ask your accommodation for the best local recommendations in the city. 

Hoa Lo Prison Museum

Hoa Lo Prison Museum in Hanoi, Vietnam
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Hoa Lo Prison Museum is a former prison that has now become a museum to inform visitors about the activities that took place there during the French colonial period and the Vietnam War.

Initially built by the French, it was used to lock up political prisoners, forcing them to live in cruel conditions. Prisoners got chained with their arms to the ground, most of the time awaiting execution by the guillotine. 

This changed when the Vietnamese ruled the prison. During the Vietnam War, American soldiers were held there, but instead of the cruel practices by the French, they “humanized” the prison. This resulted in the nickname “Hanoi Hilton” by the Americans.

Tickets for Hoa Lo are 50.000 VND, and an audio guide is recommended to get the most out of your visit.

Ha Long Bay Day Trip

Ha Long Bay in Vietnam
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Ha Long Bay is a UNESCO site about a two-and-a-half-hour drive from Hanoi. It features around 1600 islands of limestone karsts that jut majestically out of the sea. Day trips to Halong Bay from Hanoi can be bought online or at one of the many travel agencies in Hanoi. They typically include transfers, a boat ride, kayaking, cave visits, and lunch.

Cat Ba Island Day Trip

Cat Ba Island in Vietnam
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If you want a less touristy experience, consider visiting Cat Ba National Park and Lan Ha Bay. Lan Ha Bay is as beautiful as Halong Bay but without the crowds. Additionally, you can visit Cat Ba Island. This island features the same limestone cliffs, and you can hike to the top of Ngu Lam Peak for incredible mountain views.

Ninh Binh Day Trip

Ninh Binh in Vietnam
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Ninh Binh is another destination close to Hanoi that you must add to your Vietnam itinerary. This province harbors some of the most wonderful activities in Vietnam, like a boat tour of Trang An, The Mua Cave viewpoints, and the lovely town of Tam Coc. Tours to Ninh Binh can be easily found in Hanoi and include a boat ride, temple visits, and, most of the time, a visit to the ancient city of Hoa Lu.

Visiting Hanoi, Vietnam

Hanoi, Vietnam
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Visiting Hanoi, Vietnam, offers a captivating blend of old and new, where ancient history and modern development coexist harmoniously. The city’s vibrant street life, rich in tradition and bustling with energy, allows travelers to explore authentic Vietnamese culture. Hanoi is a destination that promises a memorable journey through its unique heritage, lively atmosphere, and warm hospitality.


Visiting Hanoi: A Journey Through Vietnam's Historic Capital
Annelies De Gelas

Annelies is a conscious travel blogger who travels around the world as a plant-based foodie. On her website, Travelers & Dreamers, she covers different topics like slow travel, plant-based food guides, responsible wildlife tourism, sustainable packing, and more!