Having celebrated its 1,000th birthday back in 2010, Hanoi is without doubt one of Asia’s most historic cities — and one of the most charming.
The capital of a unified, rapidly modernising Vietnam, Hanoi still offers the chance to connect with a more traditional past — and as the former capital of French Indochina, the fusion of French and traditional architectural styles is really something special.
Enjoy this Hanoi travel guide.
Hanoi is a history buff’s delight from start to finish.
Begin with a visit to the imposing Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum complex. You pretty much can’t escape the venerable Ho Chi Minh on your visit to Vietnam. The kindly bearded face of Uncle Ho, as he is affectionately known locally, is everywhere. Ho Chi Minh lived from 1890 to 1969 and was the founder of the ruling communist party. He ousted the French, but died before the end of the American conflict.
Along with the mausoleum, you can visit the simple stilt house where Ho lived for several years, and the excellent Ho Chi Minh Museum. You’ll need a full day to do it all justice.
Your one-stop-shop for retail therapy in Hanoi is the fascinating Old Quarter.
Visit the network of ‘specialist’ streets that have traditionally only sold one type of product — Wedding Cake Street, Silk Street etc. It’s a colourful, crazy cacophony of sights, sounds and smells, and it will soon become clear that this is not just another Asian market centre flogging souvenirs and sarongs to the tourists. These are locals living their lives in an extraordinary maelstrom of activity, and tolerating the travellers that flock here as part of the deal.
Hanoians in the Old Quarter can appear standoffish and aloof at first, but it’s often a language issue more than anything else. If you directly engage them with a genuine smile, it works wonders and usually opens doors. It is always a good idea to ask permission before you poke a camera in someone’s face. It can and does cause offence. At times you may be asked for a donation in exchange for the photo opportunity. Just go with the flow.
Hanoi oozes traditional Vietnamese culture from every pore.
The famous Hanoi water puppets show is one of the city’s most popular and affordable cultural experiences. This form of puppetry is said to have originated about a thousand years go in the rice fields of what is now northern Vietnam. Set to a live musical score, the puppets act out local stories and myths, and appear to literally dance on water. You’ll spend quite a bit of the time trying to work out how it’s done. It actually takes considerable skill and a couple of years of training to master the art.
For a more upscale cultural experience, attend a performance at the fabulous Hanoi Opera House. It was built in 1911 as a replica of the Palais Garnier opera house in Paris. Booking tickets can be a little tricky, so ask your concierge to check availability for you.
Watch our video guide to top things to see and do in Vietnam:
Looking for ideas on things to see and do in Vietnam? In this episode of the Tour the World travel TV series, we join Wendy Wu Tours on an incredible journey through Vietnam. This is the perfect introduction to Vietnam as a travel destination, with visits to all the key cultural centres.
There are hundreds of great places to eat in Hanoi, and your tour guide or concierge will be happy to make recommendations.
Here are a few tried and tested suggestions from us.
Affectionately known as the ‘yellow restaurant’, dining institution Nha Hang Ngon serves traditional street food in a tourist-friendly setting. It’s safe, the variety is superb, and being able to wander around to the different food stands is a lot of fun.
For upscale dining, head for two of our big favs. Firstly, Wild Lotus is a must-try for classic Vietnamese cuisine. The setting is beautiful and the food is out of this world. The perennial Green Tangerine in the Old Quarter is also superb. We first visited this restaurant in 2009 and it’s still going strong. It offers French-style cuisine with a Vietnamese twist. Snaffle a table in the central courtyard of the magnificent French villa that houses the restaurant. It dates back to 1928. This is one of the most charming dining spaces in the entire city.
At the other end of the culinary spectrum, pull up a stool at any of the hundreds of tiny pho noodle houses that line Hanoi’s streets. If you’re not game to go totally local, even the Pho 24 restaurant chain is a good option. Pick a venue that’s busy and don’t be shy. You’ll invariably be seated at one of several rows of functional stainless steel communal tables with any number of local diners. Take up your chop sticks with gusto and dig in.
For those wanting to get a good feed and give something back at the same time, head to Vietnamese/Australian social enterprise Koto. The restaurant provides underprivileged and at-risk youths with training in hospitality and some much-needed life skills.
If you want to take home some Vietnamese culinary know-how, the Hanoi Cooking Centre has classes that focus on different geographical regions and classic dishes.
Street food is an integral part of Vietnam’s culinary scene. Street eats are cheap, bountiful, mostly delicious and occasionally a little strange. Remember the golden rules of dining al fresco on the street: clean water source present; food freshly cooked. Tick those two prerequisites off, then try everything!
The French ruled Indochina from the late 1880s through to their ousting by Ho Chi Minh in 1954.
Their legacy is reflected in the city’s architecture, and in its cafe culture. There are small family run patisseries and hidden cafes to uncover throughout the old quarter — including fabulous Café Pho Co. This is probably fast becoming one of Hanoi’s worst kept secrets (the address is listed in Lonely Planet).
You access it down a long corridor from the street, which opens onto a central courtyard and garden. It’s actually a private home but doubles as a café. The place is packed with rustic relics, antiques and trilling canaries. The residents always appear a little perplexed when a westerner wanders in, but don’t let that put you off. Head up to the top floor for a restorative latte (or possibly an egg coffee!) and amazing views across the picturesque Hoan Kiem Lake and the red Huc Bridge.
Make your way to the lake afterwards for relaxed stroll.
Most visitors to Hanoi combine their stay with a cruise on UNESCO World Heritage-listed Halong Bay — located just under 200 kilometres east of the city. Drifting on the emerald waters beneath the age-old limestone monoliths that rise up from the bay is a wonderfully relaxing experience. Halong Bay can be done as a day trip from Hanoi, but be warned: the trip out and back is long and slow. Prepare yourself for a very big day. If you can afford the time, take the option to stay overnight on one of the traditional junk boats that cruise the famous waterway.
Five tours we love
If you only have a day or two to explore Hanoi, this full day tour with a local guide will show you most of the must-see highlights. Discover the city’s tree-lined boulevards and lakes, and its blend of French, Chinese and Vietnamese architecture. Hotel pick-up and lunch are included.
Take a guided stroll through Hanoi’s Old Quarter on this small group tour and discover the diverse flavours of Vietnamese street food. Sample fresh fruit and hawker street eats, including delicious local specialties like pork crepes.
No visit to Hanoi would be complete without cruising the sublime waters of Halong Bay. This full-day trip to the bay is perfect for visitors with limited time and includes a seafood lunch cruise.
If you have more time available, push the boat out on a deluxe two-day cruise on Halong Bay. Climb aboard a traditional junk boat and set sail on the serene waters of the bay, which are dotted with numerous islets. Hanoi transfers, accommodation and meals on board your cruise are included.
For those looking to venture north from Hanoi to the Sapa region, this private small group tour offers a fascinating insight into the lives of the ethnic minority villagers that thrive in this mountainous region. Starting with an overnight stay in Hanoi and including overnight train travel to and from Sapa and hotel accommodation in the region, this guided experience is an ideal addition to any trip to Vietnam.
Do you have any tips to add to our Hanoi travel guide? We would love to hear from you. Please leave a comment below.
Additional images: Bigstock
About the writer
Adam Ford is editor of The Big Bus tour and travel guide and a Melbourne-based travel TV presenter, writer, blogger and photographer. Adam has travelled extensively through Europe, Asia, North America, Africa and the Middle East. He worked as a travel consultant for a number of years with Flight Centre before taking up the opportunity to travel the world himself as host of the TV series Tour the World on Network Ten. Adam also appears regularly as a travel commentator on Sky News Business Class. He loves to experience everything a new destination has to offer and is equally at home in a five-star Palazzo in Pisa or a home-stay in Hanoi.