The grand old capital of Vietnam, with its rich heritage dating hundreds of years back and undeniably good food, makes quite an attractive destination. But aside from touring the Old Quarter, admiring the charming colonial structures and enjoying tasty local fares, where else to go and what to do in Hanoi? It all depends on interest of course, so take your pick from the below highlights:
The city bears witness to so many events in the past, there is practically at least a few dozen of historical sites in every district. From the pre-colonial era, there is Vietnam’s first national university – the Temple of Literature – a long-standing beacon of the country’s learning spirit since 11th century. Then there’s the Imperial Citadel of Thăng Long, a large archaeological site from which old artifacts are still continually being excavated to reconstruct the original Imperial Palace.
Fast forward to the colonial era, there’s the nearby Vietnam Military History Museum, which hosts displays and artifacts pertinent to national conflicts especially the Indochina Wars. The complex also includes the iconic Flag Tower of Hanoi, which is originally a feature of the Imperial Citadel site, then utilised as a military post from the French administration period onwards. Another notable site pertinent to the history of conflicts is the Hỏa Lò Prison, now a war museum and memorial site.
One also cannot forget to mention Hồ Chí Minh Mausoleum, the final resting place of the country’s most beloved leader. The memorial complex also includes Uncle Hồ’s actual residential compound, now a museum dedicated to his life and ideals. One can also find an interesting cultural landmark within the site, the One Pillar Pagoda, whose unique structure was immortalised on the national currency as well as various other publications.
For such a high population density, Hanoi has surprisingly plenty of natural features such as lakes, one of which is the famed Sword Lake situated near the Old Quarter. Shrouded in myths and legends, this centrepiece of the city also houses the offshore Ngọc Sơn temple and the iconic Turtle Tower. The latter is a tribute to the Golden Turtle Deity, who was believed to lend his help to various emperors in the past to fend off invaders.
If one prefers a more laid-back vibe compared to the bustling atmosphere of Sword Lake, the picturesque West Lake would be your ideal destination. Ideally toured on bike given the large distance covered, the lake’s surroundings is littered with gems for explorers. Firstly there’s the impressive view of the city skyline, best enjoyed at the break of dawn or dusk. Then, a trail of more than 20 temples, each with its own architectural highlights in particular Trấn Quốc pagoda, Hanoi’s oldest temple. Elsewhere along the shore are quaint pubs and cafes, many are well-known haunts within the expat community in Hanoi, together with traditional eateries (check out shrimp pancakes or bánh tôm!) and bia hơi joints, the staple of everyday life for local Vietnamese.
The heart of the city also offers plenty of parks, many are conveniently located in close proximity to other attractions such as West Lake and the Hồ Chí Minh Mausoleum. These green spaces are apt for an early morning or evening walk, a respite from the bustling streets served with a generous portion of people-watching.
Being the epicentre of Vietnam’s cultural development for generations, Hanoi undoubtedly has a lively and diverse art scene. There’s Vietnam Fine Arts Museum, offering visitors especially those coming from the neighbouring Temple of Literature a quick glance at Vietnam’s art throughout history. For the art aficionados, there are also numerous galleries in the vicinity where the local contemporary art scene comes to life. In the realm of traditional art, one must mention the water puppet show at Thăng Long theatre near Sword Lake. The performances, often comedic in nature, offer a glimpse into everyday life in rural Vietnam, with added folkloric elements.
For those preferring hands-on activities with ample time to spend, the suburban village of Bát Tràng would make a great destination. Home to the most famous ceramic guild in Northern Vietnam, Bát Tràng is a hotspot for tourists, with guided tours available together with pottery making classes conducted by local artisans. On the way to the village, one can consider passing by Long Biên bridge and savour the scenery at this historical site, which is one of Hanoi’s signature feature as seen in this article’s cover image.
Having a rich history as the country’s capital city, Hanoi surely offers much to be discovered for those with a keen interest in anthropology. One can start the journey first at the Vietnamese Women’s Museum and the somewhat off-the-beaten-track Vietnam Museum of Ethnology. These two attractions are renowned for its informative and engaging displays, and offer insights into various cultural aspects from the viewpoint of these specific demographic groups.
Those keen on the local culture should not miss touring the numerous Buddhist temples in the city. These sacred grounds offer not only understanding of the locals’ spiritual life, but also a chance to appreciate the architecture and cultivated greenery (especially the aromatic flowering species!). For Christians, there’s St. Joseph’s Cathedral of Hanoi, its grand Gothic architecture standing out in the middle of the Old Quarter.