The Essential Hanoi: Must-See Sights in Vietnam's Capital

What to See, Do, Drink and Eat Around Vietnam's Millennium-Old City

Downtown Hanoi, Vietnam at night
••• Downtown Hanoi, Vietnam at night. Paul Panayiotou/Getty Images

Don't say you've been to Hanoi in Vietnam until you've seen the majority of the sights on this list. Take your time; with over a thousand years of history, the capital of Vietnam boasts an extensive must-see itinerary that reflects its long, long time in the sun.

You'll find places in Hanoi that reflect the full breadth of the Vietnamese cultural and historical experience, from the country's founding as a Chinese vassal state a thousand years in the past, to its liberation from French and American colonial powers in the 20th century, to its confident stride into the 21st.

First time visitor? Check out these top reasons to visit Vietnam before proceeding. 

  • 01 of 13
    Yoga practitioner in front of the Hoan Kiem Lake, Hanoi, Vietnam
    ••• Yoga practitioner in front of the Hoan Kiem Lake, Hanoi, Vietnam. Simon Rawles/Getty Images

    This historic lake is the site of a foundational legend for Vietnam: Hồ Hoàn Kiếm means "Lake of the Returned Sword", alluding to the legend that a future emperor received a sword from a magic turtle at the lake's edge. The emperor later used the sword to drive the Chinese out of Vietnam.

    Today, Hoan Kiem Lake is a charming social and cultural center for Hanoi citizens – the lakeside is a popular stop for couples' wedding photos and fitness buffs' morning workouts. The lakeside offers an excellent opportunity to take in the local color – plus, it's an easy walk to the Old Quarter afterwards.

    A graceful, red-painted wooden bridge leads from the lakeside to Ngoc Son Temple, where devotees continue to perform their religious duties as they have been doing so for almost a thousand years.

    Location: French Quarter, Hanoi (Google Maps); entrance fee: access to Ngoc Son Temple costs VND 30,000 Dong ($1.30, read about money in Vietnam). 

  • 02 of 13

    Tour the Temple of Literature

    Temple of Literature, Hanoi, Vietnam
    ••• Temple of Literature, Hanoi, Vietnam. Image © Mike Aquino, licensed to About.com

    The Temple of Literature is a 1,000-year-old temple to education, site of the country's oldest university. Almost destroyed by war in the 20th century, restoration work done in 1920, 1954, and 2000 have given the Temple much of its former glory back.

    The Temple of Literature is laid out in a sequence of five courtyards from south to north, spanned by three pathways running through the Temple's length. The northernmost and last courtyard is the site of the former university for mandarins called Quoc Tu Giam, literally the "Temple of the King Who Distinguished Literature", established in 1076.

    Location: Hồ Giám, Văn Miếu, Hanoi (Google Maps); entrance fee: VND 30,000 Dong ($1.30)

  • 03 of 13
    Lacquerware shop in Old Quarter, Hanoi, Vietnam
    ••• Lacquerware shop in Old Quarter, Hanoi, Vietnam. Lynn Gail/Getty Images

    Hanoi's Old Quarter is a short walk away from Hoan Kiem Lake, and is the city's ultimate shopping hotspot. The Quarter's maze of streets offers a wealth of cheap shopping, delicious must-try dishes, and essential travel services.

    The Old Quarter is shaped like a triangle, with streets named after the goods sold in them. The place wears its age well – visitors encounter narrow sidewalks and persistent shopkeepers imploring you to check out their stuff, covering a wide range from Chinese knockoffs to lacquerware to fine silk shirts.

    You can stay at any of a number of Old Quarter Hotels and backpacker hostels – just to find the area's shopping right at your footstep when you wake up in the morning!

  • 04 of 13
    Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum, Hanoi, Vietnam
    ••• Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum, Hanoi, Vietnam. Image © Mike Aquino, licensed to About.com

    "Uncle Ho" would have hated to see how he ended up – he had wanted to be cremated, not revered Soviet-style in a huge mausoleum on Ba Dinh Square next to the Presidential Palace, the One Pillar Pagoda, and a Ho Chi Minh Museum erected to his memory.

    But the people's will won over Uncle Ho's, and the Mausoleum opened to the public on on August 29, 1975.

    Inside the Mausoleum, Ho Chi Minh's preserved body lies in state under a glass case, with a military honor guard watching the visitors filing past. Visitors are allowed to pay their respects from 9am to noon, under strict rules: no photography, no shorts or miniskirts, and silence must be observed.

    After visiting Uncle Ho's final resting place, go next door to the Presidential Palace grounds and check out his living quarters; Ho Chi Minh's stilt house looks much the same as it did when he was still living there.

    Location: Ba Dinh, Hanoi (Google Maps); entrance fee: free

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  • 05 of 13
    Diorama in Hoa Lo Prison, Hanoi, Vietnam
    ••• Diorama in Hoa Lo Prison, Hanoi, Vietnam. Image © Mike Aquino, licensed to About.com

    "Hoa Lo" literally means "stove"; the name is apt for a hell-hole of a prison built by the French in the 1880s and maintained till the end of the Vietnam War.

    This was the place American POWs sarcastically named "Hanoi Hilton" - Senator John McCain was confined here after he was captured, and his flight suit can still be seen here to this day.

    Most of Hoa Lo was demolished in the 1990s, but its southern part was preserved for posterity. Visitors can now see grisly exhibits showing the sufferings of the Vietnamese prisoners (and a highly sanitized depiction of the American POWs in the 1970s).

    Hanoi was terribly hard-hit during the Vietnam War, and locals commemorate their hard-won victory through museums like Hoa Lo and others like it, like the Vietnam Museum of Revolution (Wikipedia/Google Maps) and the B-52 Victory Museum (Wikipedia/Google Maps).

    Location: 1 Hoa Lo, Tran Hung Dao, Hoan Kiem, Hanoi (Google Maps); entrance fee: VND 30,000 Dong ($1.30)

  • 06 of 13

    Explore The Imperial Citadel

    Flag Tower, Hanoi, Vietnam
    ••• Flag Tower, Hanoi, Vietnam. Image courtesy of the Vietnam National Administration of Tourism

    The 18 hectares that make up the Hanoi Imperial Citadel are all that remain of what used to be an even larger agglomeration of three forts erected by Emperor Ly Thai To in 1011.

    In the 1800s, the French colonial masters decided to tear down most of the Citadel to make way for their own structures. The Citadel they left behind now houses the Ministry of Defence, but the government has cannily left a few historic parts open to the public.

    The Forbidden City Wall and eight gates left over from the Nguyen Dynasty stand at the Citadel's perimeter (location on Google Maps); after paying the VND 30,000 entrance fee, you can explore the rest at your leisure: the Flag Tower, the Kinh Thien Palace, and several others. 

  • 07 of 13

    Sip Vietnamese Coffee

    Coffee shop in Hanoi, Vietnam
    ••• Coffee shop in Hanoi, Vietnam. vinhdav/Getty Images

    The Vietnamese took France's coffee culture and made it their own: reinventing the French press into a uniquely Vietnamese drip filter called phin, and replacing cream with condensed milk. The resulting drink is hot, strong and exceedingly sweet – the perfect fuel for a couple of hours' exploration of Hanoi's Old Quarter.

    Hanoi's coffee shops range from open-air streetside stalls to high-end air-conditioned establishments. To see both extremes mushed side-by-side in one place, head over to Hanoi's Trieu Viet Vuong (Google Maps), a tree-shaded lane packed with the most cafes per square meter in all of Vietnam.  

    How to order coffee like a Hanoi local: ask for hot, sweet, condensed-milky coffee by ordering ca phe nau. If you like your cuppa black, as for ca phe den. But don't leave Hanoi without trying their famous egg coffee, ca phe trung, where egg yolk and condensed milk are whipped together to make a sweet and airy head.

  • 08 of 13

    See Hanoi's Four Sacred Temples

    Quan Thanh Temple, Hanoi, Vietnam
    ••• Quan Thanh Temple, Hanoi, Vietnam. TkKurikawa/Getty Images

    In accordance with the rules of feng shui, the Emperors of the ancient Thang Long capital decreed the construction of four directional temples to block bad energy from flowing in. Collectively, Bach Ma, Voi Phuc, Kim Lien and Quan Thanh temples are referred to as Thang Long Tu Tran (the four guardians).

    Bach Ma Temple (Google Maps) guards the east: built in the 9th century, this is the oldest of the four, dedicated to a white horse that guided the site's construction. Voi Phuc Temple (Google Maps) looks to the west, constructed in honor of a prince whose kneeling elephants helped him defeat invading Chinese forces.

    Kim Lien Temple (Google Maps) ostensibly safeguards the south, despite its northernmost location relative to the rest. And the northern guardian Quan Thanh Temple (Google Maps), located on the shores of West Lake, is dedicated to a god who helps drive off evil spirits and foreign invaders alike.

    In gratitude for the temples' collective protection, Hanoians hold the...MORE annual Thang Long Tu Tran Festival in the spring. Converted to the Gregorian calendar, the festival takes place from March 9 to May 1, 2018; March 15 to April 20, 2019; and March 2 to April 8, 2020.  

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  • 09 of 13

    Take in Sky-High Views at Lotte Center

    Aerial view of Hanoi at sunset
    ••• Aerial view of Hanoi at sunset. Bob Henry/Getty Images

    Take a unique, birds'-eye perspective on Vietnam's capital from the viewdeck of the Lotte Center Hanoi. Completed in 2014, the Lotte Center is the city's second-tallest building, which the management capitalizes on with a 360-degree viewpoint from its very top floor.

    Once you've gotten enough of looking around the city, test your agoraphobia at the Photo at Skywalk, where you can walk on a glass floor with a heartstopping view of the 65 floors between you and the pavement. Afterward, slow down your rushing heartbeat one floor up at the roofdeck bar.

    The viewdeck is open from 8:30am to 11pm. Read their official website for more information. If you can't get enough out of a single visit, you can book a room at the Lotte Hanoi – in the same building – and get similar views, albeit on lower levels. Compare rates on the Lotte Hanoi via TripAdvisor.

    Location: 54 Lieu Giai Street, Ba Dinh, Hanoi (Google Maps); entrance fee: VND 230,000 (about $10)

  • 10 of 13
    Thang Long Water Puppet Theatre performance
    ••• Thang Long Water Puppet Theatre performance. Carol Ann Willey / LPI / Getty Images

    The abundance of water in Vietnam's rice fields led creative farmers to a brilliant idea: using disused but waterlogged rice paddies to stage puppet shows. The water covers up the operating mechanism of the puppets; the puppeteers work behind a black curtain, accompanied by traditional musicians.

    What Hanoi lacks in rice paddies, it more than compensates with a grand water puppet theater near the Old Quarter. The Thang Long Water Puppet Theatre caters to tourists and nostalgic locals with four-shows-daily, all-year-round water puppet performances.

    The water puppets act out stories from Vietnamese village life and national legend. Unlike its rice-paddy-bound forebears, the Hanoi theater uses enhanced with modern smoke effects and lighting. Over 150,000 visitors watch this traditional Vietnamese art form at Thang Long every year; visit on your next trip there and add to that number!

    Location: 57B Dinh Tien Hoang, Hanoi (Google Maps); entrance fee: VND 100,000 (about $4.40) per visitor

  • 11 of 13

    Take a Red River Cruise

    Red River, Hanoi, Vietnam
    ••• Red River, Hanoi, Vietnam. PHUONGNGO88/Getty Images

    The Red River has been at the heart of trade and warfare for all of Hanoi's millennium-long history; today, tourists can embark on a trip down its length to see the capital from a different viewpoint, and head on out to a few key sites just outside city limits.

    Gorgeous views of farmland pass by as you head east towards the Red River Delta and the sea. Along the way, you'll stop at historic temples like Chu Dong Tu in Hung Yen province; and traditional manufacturing villages like Bat Trang, in the business of producing high-quality porcelain for hundreds of years.

    Longer Red River cruises even go as far east as Ha Long Bay, or as far west as Hoa Binh (a stone's throw away from Mai Chau).

    Budget Red River tours can be commissioned through your Hanoi hotel; for luxury tours, book one like the 11-day Red River tour offered by Pandaw Travel.  

  • 12 of 13

    Shop and Eat at West Lake

    Temple on shores of West Lake, Hanoi
    ••• Temple on shores of West Lake, Hanoi. Thien Do/Getty Images

    Visit Hoan Kiem Lake for Hanoi's history; for culture and nightlife, head over to West Lake, the city's largest freshwater lake and nexus for the capital city's international-quality restaurants, ultra-hip bars, and interesting shopping finds.

    Along Duong Thuy Khue at the lake's southernmost point, seafood restaurants line the lakeshore, offering cheap seafood overlooking the waters. Travelers with a little more cash to burn can head north towards the Tay Ho expat enclave, passing by the Xuan Dieu strip of luxury hotels, shops and restaurants.

    Visit West Lake on Saturday mornings and find the Tay Ho weekend market (official site/Google Maps) selling locally-crafted artisanal products like small-batch perfume and honey.

    If you're watching your calorie intake and your wallet is screaming for mercy, just take a walk or a bike ride around the lake instead, taking in the view and stopping by temples like the Tran Quoc Pagoda (Wikipedia/Google Maps) along the way.

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  • 13 of 13

    Bargain Hunt at Dong Xuan Market

    Market stalls at Dong Xuan, Hanoi
    ••• Market stalls at Dong Xuan, Hanoi. Greg Elms/Getty Images

    Not even an all-consuming fire in 1994 could dampen Dong Xuan Market's drive to sell, sell, sell. This imposing building north of the Old Quarter was founded in 1889, and even over a century after its founding, it retains its place as Hanoi's biggest indoor market.

    The ground floor offers little to the foreign tourist except atmosphere: the shops here cater mainly to locals, selling meat, vegetables and seafood to haggling housewives. The upper floor offers wholesale-price dry goods, including handicrafts and other souvenirs for tourists. The food hall lets you chow down on hearty local fare for mere pennies a meal.

    If the pickings feel a little slim, wait for the Hanoi Weekend Night Market that breaks out around Dong Xuan from Friday to Sunday nights: its goods range from China-made knockoffs to fine handicrafts from the handicrafts villages beyond Hanoi's city limits.

    Location: Dong Xuan, Hoan Kiem District, Hanoi (Google Maps)