By turns exotic, squalid, gauche and hip, the high-octane Vietnamese capital of Hanoi provides a full-scale assault on the senses. Its crumbly, lemon-hued colonial architecture is a feast for the eyes; swarms of buzzing motorbikes invade the ear, while the delicate scents and tastes of delicious street food can be found all across a city that – unlike so many of its regional contemporaries – is managing to modernize with a degree of grace. Despite its political and historical importance, and the incessant noise drummed up by a large population, Hanoi exudes a more intimate, urbane appeal than Ho Chi Minh City. Continue reading to find out all there is to know about this incredible city with the best Hanoi travel guide.
Brief history of Hanoi
Hanoi’s beginnings originate from when Tang Chinese armies invaded Vietnam in the seventh century, choosing a small Red River fort as capital of their new protectorate, named, optimistically, Annam, the “Pacified South”. Three centuries later the rebellious Vietnamese ousted the Chinese from their “Great Nest”, Dai La, in 939 AD. After that, the citadel lay abandoned until 1010 when King Ly Thai To, usually credited as Hanoi’s founding father, recognized the site’s potential and established his own court beside the Red River. It seems the omens were on his side for, according to legend, when the king stepped from his royal barge onto the riverbank a golden dragon flew up towards the heavens. From then on Thang Long, “City of the Ascending Dragon”, was destined to be the nation’s capital, with only minor interruptions, for the next eight hundred years.
Ly Thai To and his successors set about creating a city fit for “ten thousand generations of kings”, choosing auspicious locations for their temples and palaces according to the laws of geomancy. They built protective dykes, established a town of artisans and merchants alongside the Imperial City’s eastern wall, and set up the nation’s first university, in the process laying the foundations of modern Hanoi. From 1407, the country was again under Chinese occupation, but this time only briefly before the great hero Le Loi retook the capital in 1428. The Le Dynasty kings drained lakes and marshes to accommodate their new palaces as well as a growing civilian population, and towards the end of the fifteenth century Thang Long was enjoying a golden era under the great reformer, King Le Thanh Thong. Shortly after his death in 1497, however, the country dissolved into anarchy, while the city slowly declined until finally Emperor Gia Long moved the royal court to Hué in 1802.
When is the best time to visit Hanoi
The best time to visit Hanoi, in terms of weather, is during the three months from October to December, when you’ll find warm, sunny days and levels of humidity below the norm of eighty percent, though it can be chilly at night. From January to March, cold winds from China combine with high humidity to give a fine mist, which often hangs in the air for days. March and April usually bring better weather in Hanoi, before the extreme summer heat arrives in late April, accompanied by monsoon storms which peak in August and can last until early October, causing serious flooding throughout the delta.
Where to stay in Hanoi
The best place to stay when you visit Hanoi depends on how much you’re looking to spend and the type of accommodation you’re looking for. The best place to find budget accommodation is in the Old Quarter, and to the west of Hoan Kiem Lake, where you’ll find dozens of hotels and hostels ranging from the most basic dormitories to increasingly ritzy places with air-conditioning and satellite TV. For the cheapest of the cheap, look around Ngo Huyen, just north of the cathedral, where dorm rooms go for $5 per night. The city’s most-sought-after addresses are in the French Quarter, headed up by the venerable Sofitel Legend Metropole and its neighbour, the Hilton Hanoi Opera. Northwest of the centre, there are also a few high-end hotels on the eastern shores of West Lake. Some of the best deals to be found throughout the city are in the mid-range mini-hotels, where you can often find four-star facilities and service at two-star prices.
What to do in Hanoi
There is an abundance of things to see and do in Hanoi. Continue reading to discover the best street food, entertainment, and shopping in our Hanoi travel guide.
Street food in Hanoi
For sheer value for money and atmosphere your best option is to eat either at the rock-bottom, stove-and-stools food stalls or at the slightly more upmarket street kitchens, most of which specialize in just one or two types of food. You’ll find food stalls and street kitchens scattered across the city, often with no recognizable name and little to choose between individual establishments, but there are a few that stand out from the crowd. Here is a list of places where you’ll find the best street food in Hanoi, and what you should try:
- Banh cuon is a Hanoi snack consisting of almost transparent rice-flour pancakes usually stuffed with minced pork and black mushrooms and sprinkled with fried shallots. Try it at 68 Hang Cot.
- Banh goi, sometimes called "pillow cake", is a fried pastry filled with vermicelli, minced pork and mushrooms, and eaten with a thin sweet sauce, parsley and chilli. Sample it at 52 Ly Quoc Su.
- Bun bo nam bo is a hot favourite with most Westerners. It consists of generous bowlfuls of lean beef and noodles, topped with a mound of roasted nuts, garlic and basil. Join the lunchtime queue and fill your belly at 67 Hang Dieu.
- Bun cha, consisting of pork patties served with cold rice noodles and dipping sauce is a popular lunchtime dish and can be found all over the city. A great spot is at 34 Hang Than.
- Bun rieu cua, crab noodle soup laced with tomatoes, tofu, spring onions and fried shallots is usually eaten for breakfast. Try it at 34 Cau Go.
- Nem chua nuong are grilled spring rolls, usually served up with cucumber and/or green mango. They are particularly delicious at 45 Ly Quoc Su.
- Pho bo is Vietnam’s national dish, a beef noodle soup served with chopped spring onion, and is usually eaten for breakfast. The tastiest is at Suong Pho at 24b Ngo Trung Yen; it's also good at 10 Ly Quoc Su, 49 Bat Dan.
Entertainment in Hanoi
Drinking and nightlife
With regards to night entertainment in Hanoi, the city goes to bed pretty early, though the authorities seem to be gradually relaxing their midnight curfew and there are now several bars serving until the early hours. The choice of nightspots is constantly increasing, particularly on Ta Hien, a street packed with lively, dimly lit bars, and nearby Dau Duy Ta, where lots of locals come to hang out. Nevertheless, the busiest venues are without doubt the bia hoi outlets selling pitchers of the local brew.
Hanoi offers an unusual mix of highbrow entertainment for tourists, from traditional Vietnamese water puppetry to performances of traditional music, such as ca tru, and theatres featuring classical opera. The shows at the Golden Bell and Hong Ha theatres offer a glimpse of traditional Vietnamese folk music and drama, but apart from these and a few tourist-oriented restaurants (such as Indochine), there are no other venues regularly showcasing Vietnamese traditional culture in Hanoi. However, things are changing fast, so it’s worth asking the concierge at your hotel if there’s anything interesting happening in your part of town, and you should check out hanoigrapevine.com for news of upcoming arts events. For movie buffs, there are cinema complexes in shopping malls that screen English-language films.
Best shopping in Hanoi
When it comes to shopping for crafts, silk, accessories and souvenirs, Hanoi offers the best overall choice, quality and value for money in the country. Specialities of the region are embroideries, wood and stone carvings, inlay work and lacquerware; the best places to shop in Hanoi are the south end of the Old Quarter, such as along Hang Gai and the streets around St Joseph’s Cathedral. Though smarter establishments increasingly have fixed prices, you’ll be expected to bargain in many shops, and the same goes for market stalls. Hanoi has over fifty markets, selling predominantly foodstuffs at cheap prices – you’ll rarely be far from one.
Districts in Hanoi
Hanoi can be divided into five main districts. Find all you need to know about each district in our Hanoi city guide.
1. Ba dinh district
Hanoi’s most important cultural and historical monuments are located in the Ba Dinh District, immediately west of the Old Quarter, where the Ly kings established their Imperial City in the eleventh century. The venerable Temple of Literature and the picturesque One Pillar Pagoda both date from this time, but nothing else remains of the Ly kings’ vermilion palaces, whose last vestiges were cleared in the late nineteenth century to accommodate an expanding French administration. Most impressive of the district’s colonial buildings is the dignified residence of the governor-general of Indochina, now known as the Presidential Palace; part of its former gardens now house two great centres of pilgrimage – Ho Chi Minh’s Mausoleum and Museum.
East of Ba Dinh Square, the Hanoi Citadel was the seat of power for all Vietnamese dynasties apart from the Nguyen dynasty. To the south of the Citadel stands the Cot Co Flag Tower, which is accessed via the Military History Museum.
There’s a lot to see in this area, and though it’s possible to cover everything described below in a single day, in order to digest everything it’s best to spend one day exploring the sites around Ba Dinh Square and the Citadel, then return another day to see the Temple of Literature, the Fine Arts Museum and the Military History Museum.
2. Hoan kiem district
Hoan Kiem Lake is the city’s spiritual, cultural and commercial heart, so it makes a good place to start exploring Hanoi – especially on weekends when the lack of traffic noise makes it particularly enjoyable. The lake itself has a magical quality that fully deserves the legend of its naming. The streets to the east, south and west of the lake are home to the city’s biggest banks, airline offices and the general post office, as well as some swanky hotels and stylish restaurants. A block west of the lake, the trendy shopping street of Nha Tho leading to St Joseph’s Cathedral is a dedicated homage to fashion. The north end of the lake signals the beginning of the Old Quarter, with its maze of narrow lanes.
3. The French Quarter
The first French concession was granted in 1874, and was a mosquito-infested plot of land on the banks of the Red River, southeast of where the Opera House stands today. Once in full possession of Hanoi, after 1882, the French began to create a city appropriate to their new protectorate, starting with the area between the old concession and the train station, 2km to the west. In the process they destroyed many ancient Vietnamese monuments, which were replaced with Parisian-style buildings and boulevards. Elegant villas gradually filled plots along the grid of tree-lined avenues, then spread south from Hoan Kiem Lake in the 1930s and 1940s towards what is now Thong Nhat Park, a peaceful but rather featureless expanse of green marking the French Quarter’s southern boundary. The streets south of Le Lai on the east side of Hoan Kiem Lake, which include the Metropole Hotel and the Government Guest House, are also generally considered part of the French Quarter because of their architectural features.
4. The Old Quarter
North of Hoan Kiem Lake are the tumultuous streets of the Old Quarter, also known as “the 36 Streets” after the guilds that once operated here, though there are many more than 36 streets these days. It occupies a congested square kilometre that was closed behind massive ramparts and heavy wooden gates until well into the nineteenth century. Apart from one gate, at the east end of Hang Chieu, the walls have been dismantled, though the crowded enclave still has its own distinct character. To explore it, the best approach is simply to dive into the maze of twisted lanes and wander at will, equipped with a map to find your way out again. Alternatively, you might like to see it first from the seat of a cyclo or one of the electric cars that zigzag through, to help you pinpoint places you’d like to come back to.
Everything spills out onto pavements that double as workshops for stone-carvers, furniture-makers and tinsmiths, and as display space for merchandise ranging from pungent therapeutic herbs and fluttering prayer flags to ranks of Remy Martin and shiny-wrapped chocolates. With so much to attract your attention at ground level, it’s “easy to miss the architecture, which reveals fascinating glimpses of the quarter’s history, starting with the fifteenth-century merchants’ houses otherwise found only in Hoi An. As you explore the quarter you’ll come across some sacred sites – temples, pagodas, dinh and venerable banyan trees – tucked away between the houses.
The Old Quarter is the best district to stay in if you’re on a budget as the majority of cheap places to stay can be found here.
5. West Lake - Tay Ho District
As in the days of Vietnam’s emperors, West Lake (Ho Tay), to the northwest of the city centre, has once again become Hanoi’s most fashionable neighbourhood. It’s particularly popular among the city’s expats, who tend to hone in on Xuan Dieu, and you’ll find a wealth of exclusive residential developments, lakeside clubs and spas, as well as a clutch of luxury hotels.
In the seventeenth century, villagers built a causeway across the lake’s southeastern corner, creating a small fishing lake that’s now known as Truc Bach and ringed with little cafés. Attractions around West Lake include several temples and pagodas as well as the excellent Museum of Ethnology, a short distance from the lake’s southwest corner.
What to do around Hanoi
Despite the chaotic traffic, getting around Hanoi on foot remains the best way to do justice to its central district, taking an occasional motorbike taxi to scoot between more distant places. Alternatively, enjoy a leisurely tour by cyclo. Bicycle and motorbike hire is not recommended for the city itself, since traffic discipline is an unfamiliar concept in Hanoi: teenagers on their Hondas ride without fear, and everyone drives without signalling, preferring to sound the horn constantly to warn others of their presence. If you prefer something solid between you and the maelstrom, there are numerous taxi companies operating in Hanoi, and tariffs aren’t exorbitant. Finally, the much improved city buses are mainly useful for getting out to the long-distance bus stations, and a new metro system is on the horizon.
Hanoi endears itself to most visitors with its unique attractions, which include the bustling Old Quarter, tranquil Hoan Kiem Lake, the atmospheric French Quarter and several museums that bring Vietnam’s turbulent history to life. Continue reading to discover the best things to see and do around Hanoi with our travel guide.
1. Exploring the Old Quarter
You could easily spend several hours in the Old Quarter, which make up Hanoi’s commercial heart. The best way to explore the intoxicating tangle of streets, is to simply take a wander. And when you need a rest, pull up a plastic stool and watch the world go by over a cup of Vietnamese coffee or beer.
2. The Opera House
The French Quarter is famous for its Parisian-style architecture, the standout being the magnificent Opera House, modelled on the neo-Baroque Paris Opera. Attend a performance to see the equally sumptuous interior, with its plush red fabrics, marble floor, mirrors and chandeliers.
3. Ho Chi Minh’s Mausoleum
You’ll find the most important of Hanoi’s monuments in the The Ba Dinh District, the most visited being The Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum. Visit the ghostly figure of Ho Chi Minh, or “Uncle Ho”, embalmed against his wishes and displayed in a glass casket.
4. Temple of Literature
Escape the hubbub of Hanoi in the courtyards of Vietnam’s foremost Confucian sanctuary and centre of learning. Founded in 1070, The Temple of Literature complex is a wonderful example of traditional Vietnamese architecture and one of Hanoi’s most charming attractions.
5. Museum of Ethnology
Although 7km west of the city centre, the The Museum of Ethnology is well worth the trip. Discover the staggering variety and creativity of Vietnam’s ethnic minorities through the museum’s exhibits of domestic objects, traditional dress and musical instruments.
6. Street food
The enticing smells of exotic Vietnamese dishes waft through the air along almost any street. Join the locals squatting on tiny stools to sample some of Hanoi’s best street food, such as pho, the traditional beef-and-noodle breakfast soup.
7. Bia hoi bars
Look out for streetside stalls serving this mild draught beer from metal barrels at a cost of next to nothing. Enjoying a spot of bia hoi is a great way to start an evening, and as essential to Hanoi culture as the city’s street food. Try to find a space at the stalls that line Hang Buom, Ma May and Luong Ngoc Quyen in the Old Quarter.
8. Water puppets
Marvel at the aquatic antics involved in this quirky art form, developed in the floodlands of the Red River Delta. The Thang Long Water Puppet Troupe is by far the most popular, and polished, of Hanoi’s water-puppeteers. Catch them at the small Thang Long Water Puppet Theatre at the northeast corner of Hoan Kiem Lake.
What to see near Hanoi
Hanoi, somewhat unjustly, remains less popular than Ho Chi Minh City as a jumping-off point for touring Vietnam, with many making the journey from south to north. Nevertheless, there are still plenty of things to see around Hanoi and it provides a convenient base for excursions to Ha Long Bay, and to Sa Pa and the northern mountains, where you’ll be able to get away from the tourist hordes and sample life in rural Vietnam.
When you’ve taken in Hanoi’s main sights, there are plenty more places waiting to be explored in the surrounding area, including the cave-shrine of the Perfume Pagoda, which is one of the country’s most sacred locations. There are dozens of other historic buildings, of which the most strongly atmospheric are the Thay Pagoda and Tay Phuong Pagoda, both buried deep in the delta and fine examples of traditional Vietnamese architecture. You could also spend months exploring the delta’s villages – in particular, the craft villages, which retain their traditions despite a constant stream of tourists passing through. The Ho Chi Minh Trail Museum, southwest of the centre, is also well worth a visit, especially if you’re heading out of town on Highway 6, for example to Mai Chau. Finally, the ancient citadel of Co Loa, just north of the Red River, merits a stop in passing, mostly on account of its historical significance since there’s little to recall its former grandeur.
Perfume Pagoda Hanoi
The cave-shrine of the Perfume Pagoda complex is one of the country’s most sacred locations. To the southwest of Hanoi, steep-sided limestone hills rise from the paddy fields. The most easterly of these forested spurs – known as Nui Huong Tich (the “Mountain of the Perfumed Traces”) – shelters north Vietnam’s most famous pilgrimage site, the Perfume Pagoda (Chua Huong), which is named after the spring blossoms that scent the air. You can get to perfume pagoda by boat which makes for a great day trip.
The Perfume Pagoda
Sixty kilometres southwest of Hanoi, the Red River Delta ends abruptly where steep-sided limestone hills rise from the paddy fields. The most easterly of these forested spurs shelters north Vietnam’s most famous pilgrimage site, the Perfume Pagoda, Chua Huong, hidden in the folds of Ha Tay Province’s Mountain of the Perfumed Traces, and said to be named after spring blossoms that scent the air.
The Perfume Pagoda, one of more than thirty peppering these hills, occupies a spectacular grotto over 50m high. The start of the journey is an hour’s ride by row-boat up a silent, flooded valley among karst hills where fishermen and farmers work their inundated fields. From where the boat drops you (memorize your boat’s number as there are hundreds of identical craft here), a stone-flagged path shaded by gnarled frangipani trees brings you to the seventeenth-century Chua Thien Chu.
Each year, thousands of pilgrims across Vietnam travel to the Perfume Pagoda to partake in the religious festival known as Huong Pagoda Festival. It is believed that the sacred site enriches spirituality and empowers people to stay balanced and relaxed. The festival, which sees the pathway lined with colourful garlands, candles and gold, last for 3 months in accordance to the Lunar calendar and is one of the biggest religious festivals in Vietnam.
How to get to the Perfume Pagoda from Hanoi
To get to The Perfume Pagoda is quite a task, although a pleasant one. First, you must travel from Hanoi to My Duc, where you will then take a boat ride through scenic waterways lead by local people from the village. There are many tours that will assist you to the Perfume Pagoda that cover everything from transport from getting there to being guided through the temple.
Note that respectful attire – meaning long trousers, skirts below the knee and no sleeveless tops – should be worn for this trip; nobody will berate you for not doing so, but you might be the subject of unflattering comments. A hat or umbrella is also a help, as the boats have no shelter.
Path to the Perfume Pagoda
To the right of the Chua Thien Chu as you face it, a path leads steeply uphill for two kilometres (about 1hr) to the Perfume Pagoda, also dedicated to Quan Am. It is a hot and not particularly interesting walk up the mountain or a quick but expensive ride on the cable car.
Note that the hike is hard going and can be highly treacherous on the descent during wet weather; you’ll need good walking shoes and remember to drink plenty of water, especially in the hot summer months. It’s a good idea to bring your own, or be prepared to pay above the odds at drinks stalls along the route. During festival time, the path is lined all the way with stalls selling tacky souvenirs and refreshments, giving the place more of a commercial than a spiritual atmosphere.
Chua Thien Chu
A magnificent, triple-roofed bell pavilion stands in front of the Chua Thien Chu, (“Pagoda Leading to Heaven”). Quan Am, Goddess of Mercy, takes pride of place on the pagoda’s main altar; the original bronze effigy was stolen by Tay Son rebels in the 1770s and some say they melted it down for cannonballs.
The grotto reveals itself as a gaping cavern on the side of a deep depression filled with vines and trees reaching for light beneath the inscription “supreme cave under the southern sky”. A flight of 120 steps descends into the dragon’s-mouth-like entrance where gilded Buddhas emerge from dark recesses wreathed in clouds of incense that are lit as an offering by Vietnamese visitors.
Tay Phuong Pagoda
The small “Pagoda of the West”, Tay Phuong Pagoda, perches atop a 50m-high limestone hillock supposedly shaped like a buffalo. Among the first pagodas built in Vietnam, Tay Phuong’s overriding attraction is its invaluable collection of jackfruit wood statues, some of which are on view at Hanoi’s Fine Arts Museum. As Tay Phuong is also an important Confucian sanctuary, disciples of the sage are included on the altar, each carrying a gift to their master, some precious object, a book or a symbol of longevity, alongside the expected Buddha effigies.
Tram Gian Pagoda
With time to spare, you could combine a day’s outing to the Thay and Tay Phuong pagodas with a quick detour to the Tram Gian Pagoda. Again, the large, peaceful temple sitting on a wooded hill is best known for its rich array of statues. Though not as fine as those of Tay Phuong, they are numerous, including more arhats in the side corridors, alongside some toe-curling depictions of the underworld, and an impressive group on the main altar.
Ho Chi Minh Trail Museum
While this museum is not really worth making a special trip to see, with a bit of forethought it can be combined with visits to the Perfume Pagoda, the Tram Gian or Tay Phuong Pagodas, or on the way to Mai Chau. Once you’re here, there’s much to learn, including the fact that the Ho Chi Minh Trail was never a single trail but a complex network of muddy tracks that crisscrossed the border with Laos and Cambodia.
Co Loa Citadel Hanoi
The earliest independent Vietnamese states grew up on the Red River flood plain, atop low hills or crouched behind sturdy embankments. First to emerge from the mists of legend was Van Lang, presided over by the Hung kings from a knob of high ground marked today by a few dynastic temples north of Viet Tri (Vinh Phu province), known as the Hung Kings Temple. Then the action moved closer to Hanoi when King An Duong Vuong defeated the last of the Hung kings and ruled Au Lac (258–207 BC) from an immense citadel at Co Loa (Old Snail City). At the time it was the first fortified Vietnamese capital, but these days the once massive earthworks are barely visible and all that remains are a couple of quiet temples with interesting histories set amid the streets of modern Co Loa.
Co Loa Temple Complex
The Co Loa Temple Complex forms part of the Citadel of the same name. The principal temple, Den An Duong Vuong, faces a refurbished lake, with a graceful stele-house to one side. Inside the rebuilt temple, a sixteenth-century black-bronze statue of the king resides on the main altar, resplendent in his double crown, while a subsidiary altar is dedicated to Kim Quy, the Golden Turtle.
More interesting, however, is the second group of buildings, 100m north of the archer, where a large, walled courtyard contains a beautifully simple open-sided hall, furnished with huge, ironwood pillars, and containing some of the archaeological finds. Next door is the princess’s small temple, Den My Chau. Sadly, it’s all new concrete, but inside she is still honoured in the surprising form of a dumpy, armchair-shaped stone clothed in embroidered finery and covered in jewels but lacking a head.
History of the Co Loa Citadel
The earliest independent Vietnamese states grew up in the Red River flood plain, atop low hills or crouched behind sturdy embankments. First, to emerge from the mists of legend was Van Lang, presided over by the Hung kings from a knob of high ground marked today by a few dynastic temples north of Viet Tri (Vinh Phu Province). Then the action moved closer to Hanoi when King An Duong ruled Au Lac (258–207 BC) from an immense citadel at Co Loa (Old Snail City). These days the once-massive earthworks are barely visible and it’s really only worth stopping off here in passing, to take a look at a couple of quiet temples with an interesting history.
King An Duong built his citadel inside three concentric ramparts, spiralling like a snail shell, separated by moats large enough for ships to navigate; the outer wall was 8km long, 6–8m wide and at least 4m high, topped off with bamboo fencing. After the Chinese invaded in the late second century BC, Co Loa was abandoned until 939 AD, when Ngo Quyen established the next period of independent rule from the same heavily symbolic site.
Archaeologists have found rich pickings at Co Loa, including thousands of iron arrowheads, displayed here and in Hanoi’s History Museum, which lend credence to at least one of the Au Lac legends. The story goes that the sacred Golden Turtle gave King An Duong a magic crossbow made from a claw that fired thousands of arrows at a time. A deceitful Chinese prince married An Duong’s daughter, Princess My Chau, persuaded her to show him the crossbow and then stole the claw before mounting an invasion. King An Duong and his daughter were forced to flee, whereupon My Chau understood her act of betrayal and nobly told her father to kill her. When the king beheaded his daughter and threw her body in a well, she turned into lustrous, pink pearls.
Top image: Red Bridge- The Huc Bridge in Hoan Kiem Lake, Hanoi © Tony Duy/Shutterstock