Top 5 Things To Do In Hanoi

On our recent trip through Vietnam, we fell in love with Hanoi.  Many people spend only a couple of days in this fantastic city, before heading to either Halong Bay or Sapa.  Those people are missing out on one of the best cities to explore in Southeast Asia.  If you’re heading to Vietnam, and wondering what to do in Hanoi or want to know about Hanoi attractions, check out our list of the Top 5 Things To Do In Hanoi!

Check out all our posts on Vietnam here and our picture galleries here.

1. Eat the Amazing Food!

Honestly, just eating the food in Hanoi could make up all 5 of our “Top 5”.  Yes, it’s that good.  For some reason that we don’t even know, we didn’t eat a lot of Vietnamese food before we went there.  But once we got to Hanoi, we couldn’t get enough of the local specialties.  Most people have heard of the famous Vietnamese noodle soup, pho, but that’s only the start. 

Mmmm...a fantastic Banh mi sandwich
Mmmm…a fantastic Banh mi sandwich.  Looks ordinary, but it is anything but!

We loved the banh mi sandwiches, the spring rolls (fried and fresh), and unique to Hanoi, the egg coffee.  Think of a shot of rich espresso topped with whipped eggnog.  Sounds weird, but it was a revelation!  Try the original at Cafe Giang.

Egg coffee at Cafe Giang. Delicious!
Egg coffee at Cafe Giang. Delicious!

The best way to explore the food, and try some food stalls and restaurants you might not have the guts to go into otherwise, is to do a food walking tour.  We did a private tour with Ngat from Food Tours Hanoi.  Since Christine doesn’t eat pork or red meat, Ngat customized our tour to be entirely seafood and poultry dishes.  We tried dishes we’d never had before, and ate in restaurants surrounded by locals rather than other tourists.  We highly recommend Ngat. 

A collage of food we tried on our Hanoi food walking tour. The food in Hanoi was fantastic!
A collage of food we tried on our Hanoi food walking tour. The food in Hanoi was fantastic!

2. Wander the Old Town

Old towns in southeast Asia are different than old towns in Europe.  There are no castles and few town walls.  Instead, you find bustling streets, narrow alleyways, tons of shops and restaurants, a temple or two, and some real “personality”. 

In Hanoi, the old town surrounds Hoan Kiem lake, extending to the north.  The old town is the best place to go to shop for souvenirs, go for a stroll around the lake, people watch, and explore alleyways for amazing street food.

View of Hoan Kiem Lake in the old quarter of Hanoi
View of Hoan Kiem Lake in the Old Quarter of Hanoi

If you want to try something different, and uniquely Vietnamese, check out a water puppet show.  Originating in the flooded rice paddies of the countryside, puppet shows are now popular cultural activities in the cities.  We got tickets to the Thang Long Water Puppet show.  While the show is in Vietnamese, the action and music is worth the visit.  Each day has multiple shows, and tickets can be bought at the theatre (but it’s best to buy in advance).  No need to book through a tour company.

A water puppet performance in Hanoi
A water puppet performance in Hanoi

3. Explore the Ho Chi Minh Complex

No, the Ho Chi Minh Complex is not in Ho Chi Minh City.  Why would you ever think that?  Instead, it is a large area of Hanoi that includes both “Uncle Ho’s” mausoleum (if you want to check out the preserved body of the former President), the Presidential Palace, and Ho Chi Minh’s former residence.  Make sure to check hours, as the mausoleum is often closed.  When it is closed, you can still explore the rest of the grounds. 

The outside of the Ho Chi Minh mausoleum
The Ho Chi Minh mausoleum

 

Ho Chi Minh's stilt house in Hanoi
Ho Chi Minh’s stilt house in Hanoi

Don’t count on any english signboards, so this is one of those places where it helps to have a guide.  See below for our tips on that.

4. Learn the History of the Vietnam War

You can’t come to Hanoi and not spend some time learning about the city’s history during the Vietnam War. 

The two best sites to visit, in our opinion, are the Vietnam Military History Museum and the Hoa Lo Prison Museum (better known in the West as the “Hanoi Hilton”).

While the Military History Museum isn’t as good as the War Remnants Museum in Saigon, it’s worth a visit for anyone with a few days in Hanoi.  Keep in mind the exhibits are presented from the point of view of the Vietnamese, but hearing the other side of the story is interesting.  For those people that view it as “propaganda”, remember that Western views of history aren’t exactly unbiased.  

The most interesting part of the museum is the open-air exhibit of military armaments and aircraft from both sides of the war.

A display of a downed US Air Force B52 at the Hanoi Military Museum
A display of a downed US Air Force B52 at the Hanoi Military Museum

The “Hanoi Hilton” was a French Colonial prison that was converted into a POW detention center during the war.  The museum details the jails’ history as a French prison housing Vietnamese revolutionaries as well as its role during the Vietnam War. 

One of the group cells in Hao Lo Prison, with mannequins
One of the group cells in Hao Lo Prison, with mannequins

It is most famous in the West as where US Senator John McCain was imprisoned for years after being shot down over Hanoi.  According to the exhibits, the prisoners were well treated, well fed, and had lots of fun playing sports in the courtyard.  Hmmm….better take that with a grain of salt!

The outside of the "Hanoi Hilton" prison, where John McCain was kept as a POW during the Vietnam War
The outside of the “Hanoi Hilton” prison, where John McCain was kept as a POW during the Vietnam War

For those people with a morbid curiosity, the museum also displays a French guillotine that was used by the French to execute Vietnamese revolutionary soldiers during the 1930s. 

5. Take a Student walking tour

We’ve saved our best tip for last.  Throughout Vietnam, student groups offer free walking tours.  And this isn’t like the European “Free Walking Tour” movement, where guides are paid through tips.  These tours are actually free, often with the student guide not being allowed to accept tips.  As the client, you are responsible for paying for any transport required to get around during your tour (including your guide), pay for any food if you request a meal stop, and pay any entrance fees to museums.  To us, that seems more than reasonable.  The students participate in order to practice their english, so expect a lot of conversation.

While the guides are not professional tour guides, without exception we found them to be extremely knowledgeable about the local history.  Their english was also excellent, so that was never an issue.  The tours we did were private, allowing us to request specific parts of the city to be covered. 

Tran Quoc Pagoda, on the edge of West Lake in Hanoi
Tran Quoc Pagoda, on the edge of West Lake in Hanoi

We signed up for two student tours while in Hanoi, one exploring the Old Town and the Temple of Literature, and the second showing us around the Ho Chi Minh Complex and introducing us to egg coffee.  What a fantastic value these tours were!  We saw parts of Hanoi we never would have seen otherwise, and learned more about the sights than we ever would have picked up on our own.

Temple of Literature, Hanoi
Temple of Literature, Hanoi

If you’re planning a trip to Vietnam, we hope this post gives you a few ideas on what do to in Hanoi.  Make sure you plan for a few days to see the Hanoi attractions – you won’t regret it!

 

 

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