Top things to do in Hanoi
Having celebrated its 1000th anniversary, Hanoi is without doubt one of Asia’s most historic cities – and possibly 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.
Here’s a city guide to the top things to do in Hanoi.
Vietnam is a history buff’s delight from start to finish and there are plenty of historical things to do in Hanoi.
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.
Also visit the simple stilt house where Ho lived for several years, and the excellent Ho Chi Minh Museum.
On to the fascinating Hanoi Old Quarter. Visit the specialist streets that have traditionally only sold one type of product – Wedding Cake Street, Silk Street etc. It’s a colourful, crazy cacophony of different sensations – sights, sounds and smells.
It soon becomes clear that this is not just another big Asian city where the old streets and open air markets are maintained to provide the tourists with photo opportunities and souvenir sarongs. These are locals living their lives in an extraordinary maelstrom of activity, and tolerating the tourists 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. If you directly engage them with a genuine smile it works wonders.
The temptation is to only look at what’s happening at street level – remember to look up from time to time to take in the extraordinary, ageing French inspired architecture with large plantation shutters and ornate cornices. It’s fascinating.
The French ruled Indochina from roughly 1887 through to their ousting by Ho Chi Minh in 1954. Their legacy continues not only in the architecture. 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. Head up to the top floor for a restorative latte and amazing views across the picturesque Hoan Kiem Lake and the Huc Bridge. The café is a fabulous oasis of calm in the midst of the complete chaos outside.
For cultural things to do in Hanoi, take the opportunity to enjoy a performance of the city’s famous water puppets. This form of puppetry is said to have originated about a thousand years go in the rice fields of what is now northern Vietnam. The puppets act out local stories and myths, appearing 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 another cultural experience, pay a visit to the Hanoi Opera House for a range of live performances. The Opera House was built in 1911 as a miniature replica of the Paris Opera. Booking tickets can be a little tricky, so ask your concierge to check availability for you.
There are hundreds of great places to eat in Hanoi, and your tour guide or concierge will be happy to make recommendations. Here are just a few of the highlights.
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 for traditional Vietnamese cuisine. The setting is beautiful and the food is superb.
If you get the opportunity, try the perennial Green Tangerine in the Old Quarter. We first visited this restaurant in 2009 and it’s still going strong. The Green Tangerine offers French-inspired cuisine with a Vietnamese twist. Snaffle a table in the beautiful courtyard in the middle of a magnificent French villa that dates back to 1928. This is one of the most charming dining spaces in the entire city.
At the other end of the spectrum, one of the best culinary experiences on offer is simply to pull up a stool in one of the pho noodle houses that can be found on just about any street. If you’re not that game, even the Pho 24 chain is pretty good. 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!
Adam travelled as a guest of Wendy Wu Tours and Vietnam Airlines.
Do you have any tips for top things to do in Hanoi? We would love to hear from you. Please leave us a comment.
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.