Known as the ‘Paris of the Orient’, Hanoi is the gracious capital and cultural heart of Vietnam. Located on the northern Red River Delta, Hanoi is dotted with scenic lakes and leafy boulevards, including tranquil Hoan Kiem Lake at the epicentre of Old Hanoi where residents gather at dawn to practice tai chi and enjoy light exercise. It is a city of fascinating contrasts where Parisian chic meets Asian vigour. Brightly coloured pagodas and crumbling 11th century buildings stand alongside modern high rises and grand French colonial style villas for an attractive blend of architectural styles.

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Cyclos and mopeds weave at high speed through city streets lined with shops and stalls of produce spilling out onto the pavement. Age-old customs are retained in the winding streets and alleys of the Old Quarter and the city’s French colonial legacy remains evident. The pace of life in Hanoi is not as frenetic as Ho Chi Minh City in the south and whilst it has developed rapidly over recent years and embraced tourism, it retains a refreshing ‘old world’ charm.

Hanoi is a historic city with many acclaimed museums including the Vietnam Museum of Ethnology, the History Museum and Ho Chi Minh Museum where you can learn all about the life of the country’s national hero. Adjacent to the museum at the Ho Chi Minh’s Mausoleum you can pay your respects to the founder of modern Vietnam himself as he lies in state in a glass sarcophagus. Hanoi is also home to many beautiful temples and pagodas, including the spiritual Temple of Literature, dedicated to Confucius. Here's our recommendations of the best things to do in and around Hanoi.

Best sites to visit in Hanoi

Old Quarter

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Hanoi | Vietnam | Southeast Asia

With a history dating back over 2,000 years, Hanoi's Old Quarter is the heart and soul of the city. It's often referred to as '36 Streets', a name that likely started in the 15th century when this part of Hanoi was home to 36 guilds and their workshops that specialised in different crafts from silk tailoring to wood carving. The area is characterised by long tube-like buildings just two storeys-tall with tiled roofs and narrow storefronts that display the goods on sale. One of the best ways to explore the maze of streets and alleys is by cyclo, a three-wheeled bicycle taxi, on a thrilling journey weaving between hawkers, pedestrians and other vehicles.

Hoan Kiem Lake

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Hoan Kiem Lake in Hanoi | Vietnam | Southeast Asia

Situated in the historical centre of the city, Hoan Kiem Lake is a major scenic spot in Hanoi. Although small and circumnavigated in around half an hour, the lake borders parkland where local residents practise their tai-chi with the rising sun while groups of elderly men play games of chess in the evenings, making it a lovely place for a bit of people-watching. The name translates as 'Lake of the Restored Sword', so-called for the mid-15th century legend that tells of divine beings presenting a magical sword to the emperor to use to defeat the Chinese. Once the war was over a giant turtle emerged from the waters and restored the sword to its owners.

Hoa Lo Prison Museum

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The Hanoi Hilton | Vietnam | Southeast Asia

This museum is all that remains of the original Hoa Lo Prison, a place of confinement used by French colonialists during the late 19th century. In its earlier days up to 600 political prisoners were incarcerated in the prison with this figure later growing to some 2,000 detainees. During the Vietnam War, American POWs were held here ironically dubbing the prison the 'Hanoi Hilton', a name that has stuck. Today the museum houses relics from the prison's past that includes a gruesome guillotine, photographs and pilot suits.

Vietnam Museum of Ethnology

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Museum of Ethnology in Hanoi | Vietnam | Southeast Asia

For anyone interested in Vietnam's ethnic minorities, this museum is the place to go. Well-presented displays cover a manner of anthropological objects from art to clothes, jewellery to funerary items, from 54 officially recognised ethnic groups including the Muong and Khmer groups. Widely considered to be the finest modern museum in Vietnam, the grounds of the museum also feature a number of outdoor exhibits including full-scale village houses. The museum is open 8:30am to 5:30pm Tuesday to Sunday.

Temple of Literature

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Temple of Literature in Hanoi | Vietnam | Southeast Asia

Dedicated to the famous Chinese philosopher Confucius, the 11th century Temple of Literature honours the scholars of Vietnam and is also the site of the country's very first university. The well-preserved complex is typical of Vietnamese architectural styles and features a low-slung pagoda, five interior courtyards with ancient trees and a pretty pond known as the 'Well of Heavenly Clarity'. There is also 82 of an original 116 tombstones displaying the names, places of birth and achievements of doctors that graduated between 1442 and 1779 during royal exams held in Hanoi.

Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum Complex

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Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum in Hanoi | Vietnam | Southeast Asia

The final resting place of Ho Chi Minh - Vietnam's revolutionary leader - is one of Hanoi's most visited attractions. Like his communist counterparts in Russia, China and Italy, Ho Chi Minh's preserved body is ensconced in a large granite monument composed of seven steps and a sloping roof. The mausoleum is only open for a few hours on five days of the week and visits are tightly controlled with restrictions on dress (no shorts or skirts), talking and photography. If you find yourself visiting on a Monday or Friday, or in the afternoon when the mausoleum is closed, the outside is still worthy of your time.

Recommended things to do in and around Hanoi

Water Puppet Theatre

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Water puppets show in Hanoi | Vietnam | Southeast Asia

The tradition of water puppetry dates back to the 11th century and originated in northern Vietnam where villagers would entertain themselves with puppets during the wet season floods. Made of wood, painted in bright colours and then lacquered, the puppets appear to walk on water as the hidden puppeteers control them using long bamboo rods. Music accompanies the performances of Vietnamese folklore and day-to-day living. Hanoi is an excellent place to watch a show at the world-famous Thang Long Water Puppet Theatre, which holds over 500 shows each year.

Perfume Pagoda

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Perfume Pagoda near Hanoi | Vietnam | Southeast Asia

Located in a stunning spot sixty kilometres southwest of Hanoi, the Perfume Pagoda is a large complex of Buddhist temples and one of Vietnam's most important pilgrimage sites. Built into limestone mountains overlooking a flooded valley, getting to the site is an adventure in itself with a scenic boat ride among karst hills followed by a hike up a stepped pathway surrounded by frangipani trees. A cable car is also available. Highlights of the complex include the 17th century Chua Thien Chu pagoda with an impressive triple-roofed bell pavilion stood in front.

Eating out in Hanoi

Ly Club

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Set in an ambient French colonial building, the Ly Club is an elegant dining venue in Hanoi offering gourmet Asian, Vietnamese and European dishes. Flavours are delicately combined with standouts including soft-shell crab and salmon baked in banana leaf with passion fruit sauce. Fine wines from Australia, Spain, France and others, as well as cocktails, champagne and cigars can be enjoyed in the softly lit lounge.

Bun Bo Nam Bo

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Hanoi is famed for its cheap and delicious street food and one of the best places to try stirred beef vermicelli is the authentic local eatery of Bun Bo Nam Bo. It's not unusual to find lines of locals queuing to nab a seat, testament to the chopstick-licking deliciousness of the restaurant's one and only dish, which contains noodles, vegetables, peanuts, beansprouts and beef marinated in a secret recipe.

KOTO Van Mieu Training Restaurant

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An acronym for 'know one, teach one', the KOTO Van Mieu provides career training and guidance to disadvantaged children and teens in Hanoi. With an enviable spot overlooking the Temple of Literature, the modernist building and smart interior is a great spot to sample a wide range of local and international dishes and a delicious selection of cakes and pastries.

Hanoi Social Club

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Serving a mouth-watering selection of healthy favourites in a bohemian setting, the Hanoi Social Club is the city's most cosmopolitan cafe. Spread over three floors with inviting retro furniture and arty decor, the atmosphere is welcoming and laid-back with a menu that focuses on wholesome vegetarian and vegan food, though the potato fritters with chorizo are often too irresistible to ignore.

Shopping in Hanoi

Night Market

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Open on the weekends from Friday to Sunday, Hanoi's popular night market is a busy gathering of stalls and vendors selling a wide range of cheap goods from clothing to handicrafts. The roads are closed to traffic and the market attracts high volumes of people making it an ideal spot for street photography if nothing else. It's also a good place to sample Hanoi's street food with numerous vendors selling a variety of local delicacies.

Craft Link

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For those visiting northern Vietnam without the time to make it as far north as the frontier towns and ethnic minority villages, Craft Link is a highly recommended place to pick up colourful handicrafts made by hilltribe artisans. The not-for-profit organisation seeks to help traditional crafts people keep their traditions alive with a range of products that includes ethnic clothing, lacquer collections and silk lamps.

Metiseko

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Fans of cotton and silk will find a superb collection of chic fashion designs and smart homeware textiles at Metiseko. Inspired by Vietnamese traditions with a contemporary flair, the materials are carefully selected, eco-friendly and of high-quality with prices indicative of the nature of the garments. Attentive staff are there to help and provide a friendly service and shopping experience.

Hanoi Moment

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For elegant Vietnamese handicrafts and souvenirs head to Hanoi Moment, which houses an attractive range of products from stylish bamboo bags to ceramic tea sets. Various materials are used to a high standard with rattan boxes, silverware, wooden bowls and marble vases. The store also stocks jewellery and embroidery artwork.

Transport links in Hanoi

Flying In

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Hanoi International Airport (Noi Bai airport) links the city with destinations around the world though receives fewer direct international flights than Saigon in the south. Many airlines flying between Hanoi and cities outside of Asia will often include a stop in the important transport hubs of Singapore, Hong Kong and Bangkok. The national carrier - Vietnam Airlines - links Hanoi with destinations throughout Vietnam with daily flights to Danang, Saigon and Hue to name just a few. The airport is reached from Hanoi city via a modern highway with journey times between 45 minutes to 1 hour depending on traffic and time of day.

Railway Services

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Travelling by train in Vietnam can be a pleasurable experience with attractive vistas out the windows and a leisurely pace of travel perfect for actually enjoying them. The area north of Hanoi is particularly scenic and many travellers will choose the overnight train from Hanoi to the hill tribes around the border with China, notably Sapa and Mai Chau. There are three stations in Hanoi - the main Hanoi station for southern destinations; the Tran Quy Cap station for northern destinations; Long Bien station for eastbound destinations; and Gia Lam train station for a variety of destinations, including Lao Cai for Sapa.

By Road

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Hanoi is the epicentre of a number of highway routes in northern Vietnam that connect the capital with various destinations. The decent quality of road surfaces makes travelling by private car a pleasant option with highways crossing scenic valleys and rural villages. This is certainly the case for the 3-4 hour road transfer to Halong Bay, which passes alongside rice paddies and verdant countryside.

Best Time to Visit

October to December is considered the best time to visit Hanoi when the dry season is in full swing resulting in minimal rain, moderate temperatures and largely clear skies. Early October may see some rain while temperatures start to drop at the end of December. March is another great time to visit with plenty of sunshine and the months either side bring pleasant weather too. The weather is at its most troublesome between June and September with heavy rains and storms.

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