The Best Things to Do in Hanoi, Vietnam: Puppet Shows, West Lake, and MUCH More

The Best Things to Do in Hanoi Vietnam

As Vietnam’s capital, the best things to do in Hanoi are as varied as they are spectacular. Scooters whiz all around you. The sound of horns honking rings in your hears. The smell of fresh bread and egg fills the air as another banh mi sandwich is stuffed.

People hustling and busy streets meet you around every corner as you navigate through a day full of temples, pagodas, and other cultural gems.

During the afternoon, you pull up a tiny plastic chair to join your friends at a sidewalk cafe. Boiling tea comes fresh from the pot and into your small glass. Laughter erupts from a group of men enjoying a fresh beer at the stall. Next door.

After a few laughs of your own, you move on to dinner with a sunset view. Grab a nice big bowl of pho, filled to the brim with slimy noodles and flavorful broth. Slurp it down.

Then the music starts blaring all down the street. At least five different songs can be heard at once, at competing for your attention like some sort of competition.

The waiters stand outside of their establishments, telling you all about their specials and why you must stop to get something there. You have a few drinks and a bit of fun, then head back to the hotel to hit the rack. 

The next day, you fight the urge to sleep in. Too much to see. The Mausoleum, Hoan Kiem Lake, St. Joseph’s Cathedral, and more. A packed morning makes way to lunch in the French quarter at an upscale restaurant – where you can’t tell if you are in Bangkok, New York, or Hanoi.

After the sun goes down, you head over to catch this evening’s water puppet show. Cap it all off with a drink and dessert on top of the highest sky bar in town. 

An altar inside of the Temple of Literature

Sound like a busy city? It is. And whatever your tastes, Hanoi offers a bit of something for everyone. The options for activities, tours, and things to do in Hanoi are nearly endless.

Contents:
Our Journey
The Best Things to Do
Day Trips from Hanoi
How to Get Around Hanoi
How to Get from the Airport to Hanoi
Where to Stay in Hanoi

The view from out hotel balcony in Hanoi's Old Quarter in Vietnam

OUR JOURNEY INTO HANOI

As part of a long Southeast Asia trip, we stopped in Hanoi and decided to stay in the busy Old Quarter. After riding the insanely cheap bus from the airport, we walked a couple of blocks and checked in to our hotel.

Our balcony had a nice view overlooking one of the major roads in Old Quarter, so we hung out for a minute taking in the overall excitement and energy. One thing was evident: Hanoi is loud.

The sun began to set and our stomachs began rumbling for food. So we set out to fill up. Thankfully, we only had to cross one busy street to enter the area fenced off to cars, usually very busy during the day.

Booming music and life filled the streets. We browsed the area as we walked around, glancing at menus and getting a general feel for the area. Waiters and hosts from all of the restaurants yelled at us as we walked past, offering cheap drinks and daily specials.

Michael enjoying a fresh beer aka bia hoi in Hanoi

Eventually, we made it to bia hoi corner and took a seat at the tiny table. Ordered up a beer for 5,000 VND ($0.20 USD) and took our first sip of the famous fresh beer. Unsurprisingly, it tasted like a light lager and went down easily.

Suddenly, with a crash of thunder, the sky opened up and torrential rain came down.

As luck would have it, the table we were at happened to be under a nice awning and we were sheltered from the rain. Soaked tourists and scooters flooded the flooded streets in front of us, and the rain kept coming.

Might as well order another fresh beer and wait for it to pass.

The busy tourist streets filled with party-going tourists in Hanoi Vietnam

After a few rounds, we discovered this beer was very light in alcohol and were hardly fazed. The rain let up and our exhaustion caught up to us, so we were on a mission for a quick meal. Grabbed a banh mi sandwich from next-door and went back to the hotel.

The next day, we woke up, had the typical noodle soup for breakfast, then walked over to Hoan Kiem Lake. Although we missed the daily Tai Chi, the vibe around the lake was still serene and relaxed.

We grabbed a small pastry and coffee by the water, then continued exploring the nearby area.

A day full of temples and historical attractions led to another quick evening banh mi and early night. 

The long line outside of the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum in Hanoi

The next day we went over to the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum Complex, but we go there a little late (around 9) and found that it was far too busy for us to stay and go inside. So we walked around the massive complex, got a view of the outside of the mausoleum, but decided to visit the Hanoi citadel instead.

Afterward, we went up to the West Lake area to see the magnificent Tran Quoc Pagoda, followed up with a nice meal and sunset views in the main expat area.

Over the next few days, we explored al over town: saw the street murals, the train street, French quarter, more museums, temples, and restaurants. Eventually, our time came to an end and we started our trek south. Next up for us was Cat Ba Island then off to the oldest city in Vietnam (and perhaps our favorite) Hoi An.

Hanoi is adventurous and fun. We loved walking around the large city until our feet were sore and our legs were tired, but you can always get around on a scooter like a local or rent a car or taxi if you aren’t up to the craziness. You’ll be sure to have fun seeing the historical sites, enjoying the local cuisine, and seeing the busy life in Vietnam’s capital.

THe Turtle Tower in Hoan Kiem Lake

THE BEST THINGS TO DO IN HANOI

Hoan Kiem Lake & Temple of Jade Mountain

As one of the major gathering areas in Hanoi, Hoàn Kiếm Lake is worth visiting at least once. I like to think of it as Hanoi’s version of Central Park. You can stroll around the pedestrian-friendly sidewalk wrapping all the way around the lake.

Stop for a small bite or quick drink at one of the many restaurants and stands nearby. Enjoy the beautiful water, large trees, and laid-back atmosphere at this small oasis within the city.

As you walk around, you’ll notice two structures situated on the lake. You’ll probably notice the ancient Turtle Tower (Tháp Rùa) located near the center of the lake.

This old building makes for wonderful photos of it, sitting alone and undisturbed in the middle of the lake, with no ready access and only to be enjoyed from afar. This building brings you back on time and reminds you of the deep history here.

The Temple of Jade and the Red Bridge at night

The more popular feature in Hoan Kiem Lake is the Temple of the Jade Mountain (Đền Ngọc Sơn). This beautiful temple sits near the northern end of the lake and is accessible by way of The Huc Bridge (Cầu Thê Húc), a stunning red bridge.

Pay the 30,000 VND ($1.30 USD) entrance fee, walk across the famous bridge, and explore a memorable temple out on the water with well-manicured foliage and surroundings. Open daily 8 am to 5 pm.

Over the weekends, stay on the northern side of the lake, around Dong Kinh Nghia Thuc Square. Every Friday through Sunday, the road is closed to motor vehicle traffic and a festive environment pops up in its place. Food stands, carts, and street-performing entertainment of all types fills the roads.

Sometimes large stages are erected for special performances and concerts. The activities are family-friendly and kids hop in the small electric toy cars to zip around on the streets. 6 – 11 pm, Friday through Sunday.

One of the many statues in Hanoi, this one to Ly Thai To

An altar inside of the Bach Ma Temple

West Lake: Tran Quoc Pagoda, Quan Thanh Temple, & Lý Thái Tổ King Memorial

Heading to the northern section of Hanoi, you’ll encounter West Lake (Hồ Tây). This area is known for a large population of expats, with tons of great restaurants and nicer homes and hotels.

Even if the expat communities don’t sound like much fun to you, it’s worth going to West Lake for the Tran Quoc Pagoda. This 6th-century Buddhist pagoda towers over the water and has no entrance fee. Walk around it to check out the beautiful structure from all sides. Arguably the most famous pagoda in Hanoi and an excellent place to visit near sunset.

The Quan Thanh Temple (Đền Quán Thánh) is just south of West Lake and fairly close to Tran Quoc Pagoda. If you can make it before the crowds, this small temple offers a tranquil setting and a beautiful bronze sculpture.

Afterward, you can see the small but ornate Lý Thái Tổ King Memorial. This small but beautiful memorial is dedicated to the founder of the Later Lý Dynasty in Vietnam.

The view of the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum in Hanoi, Vietnam

Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum & Hanoi Citadel

The most popular tourist attraction in Hanoi is the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum (Lăng Chủ tịch Hồ Chí Minh). As the founder and first leader of the Vietnamese nationalist party,

Ho Chi Minh’s importance to the Vietnamese is hard to overstate. After his death, his body has been preserved and put on display for all to see in this Mausoleum.

It is located inside a very large park-like area which spans many city blocks. His former residence – the Stilt House – is on the property, as is the One Pillar Pagoda, a small 11th center Buddhist temple originally designed to resemble a lotus blossom.

Arrive early and be prepared for long lines. Hours: 8 – 11.30 am daily & 2 – 4 pm Tue-Thu, Sat & Sun. Entrance fee is 25,000 VND (about $1 USD).

The entrance the one of the buildings inside of the Citadel in Hanoi, Vietnam

A view of the flag tower from inside the Hanoi Citadel

The war room inside of the Citadel

Nearby, you can explore the Thăng Long Imperial Citadel (aka Hanoi Citadel). Designated a UNESCO World Heritage site, this former city-center has old military bunkers, beautiful gardens, and a lot of historical significance.

Take a nice walk around the area, explore the buildings, and even check out where the headquarters of the Vietnam war efforts were located (and check out those 3-foot, or 1 meter, thick walls!).

This is usually much less crowded than other tourist spots in Hanoi. The famous Hanoi Flag Tower is on the grounds. Tickets cost 30,000 VND per person (about $1.30 USD) and it is open from 8 am to 5 pm Tuesday through Sunday.

The entrance to the Temple of Literature in Hanoi, Vietnam

One of the many coutryards inside of the Temple of Literature

Temple of Literature

Visiting the Temple of Literature isn’t like the rest of the temples. Why? Because it serves a unique purpose of being the place where students go to pray for success in their studies and before big exams.

With a beautiful entrance, many manicured courtyards, and numerous altars/shrines, you’ll soon understand why the students come here. The Temple of Literature is open from 8 am to 6 pm and costs 30,000 VND ($1.30 USD) to enter.

If you were like us, exhausted, hot and hungry, stop by the restaurant Mon Hue to get a nice banh mi in their air-conditioned interior after.

The front of St. Joseph's Cathedral in Hanoi

St. Joseph’s Cathedral

Tired of the usual Buddhist temples and pagodas? You’re in for a treat. Visit St. Joseph’s Cathedral to witness a classic, catholic structure in the heart of Hanoi. The courtyard is pleasant, perfect, for photos, and there are a few restaurants surrounding it. Good place for an afternoon visit and bite.

Bach Ma Temple & Heritage House

The Old Quarter houses a lot of great things to do in Hanoi, but two of the top cultural experiences are at Bach Ma temple and Heritage House. The Bach Ma Temple is from the Ly dynasty and was founded in 1010. The small building houses a lot of ornate sculptures and stunning artwork. Entrance is free.

The Heritage House (also known as Ma May House and Old House) is a historic Vietnamese household which has been well-preserved. Take a self-guided tour or go with a group for a more intense experience. Open 9 – 12 pm and 1 – 6 pm with a cost of 10,000 VND (less than $0.50 USD).

Read more about Hanoi’s Old Quarter in our post on 8 Awesome Things to Do in Hanoi’s Old Quarter.

The night market near Hanoi's Old Quarter

Markets & Restaurants

Two major markets are near Hanoi’s Old Quarter. The biggest one, open daily from 6 am to 6 pm is Dong Xaun Market. If you want to visit a lively night market, then head to Hang Dao Street in Old Quarter on Friday, Saturday, or Sunday after 7 pm.

The restaurants around Hanoi are endless and come in varying quality from high-class establishments down to literally roadside stands with nothing more than a few small stools and a basket of goods.

Northern Vietnam is full of wonderful traditional dishes. Quite a few of them have a substantial French influence.

Some of the typical dishes include banh mi sandwiches, pho noodle soup, hot pots, and crepes/pancakes. But like most major cities, you can also find tons of other cuisines and whatever you desire.

Some tofu and greens served at a roadside restaurant in Hanoi

Want to try the best Banh Mi in Hanoi? Well, that’s up for debate. But tourists love Bánh Mì 25. We also enjoyed the vegan options offered in a small restaurant down an alley, aptly named Vegan Banh Mi.

We loved the mushroom one from here. Quán Bar & Cafe PATETA is a popular option in Old Quarter that offers three different levels, nice balconies, and a free banana with a purchase of a banh mi.

Bánh Xèo Zòn Pancake is known to have some of the best Vietnamese pancakes in town. These aren’t your grannies pancakes though. They’re made with an awesome Vietnamese rice-based twist and sometimes resemble a taco.

A banh mi sandwich, one of Vietnam's staples

If you’re looking for higher-end, sit-down restaurants, then you can head to one of two locations: The French Quarter or West Lake.

Both of these areas of Hanoi have a large offering of great restaurants. There are plenty of sky bars, so make sure you find at least one to enjoy a beautiful city view.

One of our favorite spots was a vegetarian restaurant in the French Quarter: Ưu Đàm Chay. This sleek restaurant and interior combine with excellent dishes crafted artfully. Worth a visit. The hot pot we had from here was incredible.

The northeast side of West Lake is packed with restaurants and sky bars all along the lake’s edge. For more information on West Lake’s restaurant scene, read this article from Rusty Compass.

Michael enjoying a hot pot in the French quarter of Hanoi

Water Puppet Show

Hanoi is very well known for one particular evening show, the Thang Long Water Puppet Theatre. Grab tickets in advance if possible at the stand right outside, and be prepared for a show of masterfully handles puppets on a stage of water.

Get a glimpse into Vietnamese life with this entertaining show.

Front row seats (or as close to it) are recommended. Shows are every day at 3:30, 5, 6:30, 8, and 9:15. Ticket costs between 60.000 and 100.000 VND (about $3-5 USD).

Kristina in front of a street mural in Hanoi

THe many cafes and restaurants on the train street in Vietnam

Street Murals & Train Street

Go for a stroll down the road Phùng Hưng to check out the numerous street murals. These wonderful displays of art are fit for a museum but are instead showcased on the street for all to enjoy.

And just nearby is a feature showcasing quirky engineering and city planning: train street. Here, houses, cafes, and restaurants are packed along an incredibly narrow road that has train tracks on it. And active trains each morning around 7 am and each afternoon around 3 pm.

Unfortunately, and not surprisingly, it sounds like the street has been shut down to tourists. If the surrounding cafes are still open, grab a drink and wait for the train to roll through.

One of the beach areas we stopped at during our cruise ship tour of Ha Long Bay near Cat Ba Island

DAY TRIPS FROM HANOI

Ha Long Bay and Cat Ba Island

As a city, Hanoi has plenty to do to keep you busy and entertained. But if you want to get out of the city to witness some of the country’s stunning landscapes, there are plenty of toppings.

One of the absolute most popular attractions is Ha Long Bay, where over 1,600 jungle-covered limestone islands dot the water. You can easily take a tour from Hanoi and spend a night or two on a boat on the bay.

Cat Ba Island is located in the southern section of Ha Long Bay. You can stay on the island, visit beaches, hike in a wonderful park, and go for a boat tour of the less crowded parts of Ha Long Bay (LAN Ha).

We covered Cat Ba Island and Ha Long Bay in full detail on our Ultimate Guide to Cat Ba Island.

Some of the restaurants near the St. Joseph's Cathedral in Vietnam

North Vietnam: Sapa and Ga Giang

Interested in going inland? Want to see mountains, rice fields, and waterfalls? Then going north is for you.

Sapa is the tourism center of northwest Vietnam, and usually the first place on the itinerary for people going north. Easily accessible by train from Hanoi, this former hill-top French station is a wonderful destination to see the beautiful rural side of Vietnam.

The train takes eight hours though plus you have to take a shuttle after to get into town (and usually something else to reach your hotel, hostel, or homestay). This is not a simple day trip, but plenty of people say it’s well worth the time and effort.

If you want to experience that environment in a slightly less touristy way, then head northeast to Ha Giang. While it’s a bit more challenging to get to with no direct train route, there is plenty of natural beauty and fun here.

Hoi An

Looking for something else entirely? Hop on a plane (or train if you’re brave) down to Da Nang and cruise down to Hoi An.

This small beach community has a cute downtown area and plenty to do: good restaurants, cooking classes, and tours heading into the nearby mountains.

Train street in Hanoi, Vietnam

HOW TO GET AROUND HANOI

Once you step foot in Hanoi, you’ll see how the majority of people get around: motorbikes. Motorbikes with well-functioning horns, to be clear.

If you’re visiting Vietnam for an extended visit and want to explore on your own, it is very common for tourists to purchase a motorbike or scooter the resell it before leaving. Can usually get one for $300-$500 and sell it for a similar price.

You can also rent motorbikes by the hour, day, or week. Make sure to check the tires, gas, and lights before driving away on one.

The inside of the Bach Ma Temple in Old Quarter Hanoi

If you don’t want to deal with driving a scooter around the wild city traffic, then you can use Grab – the local version of Uber. They have scooters and cars and foreigners can sign up without a problem. This is the go-to method for most travelers. They also have a food delivery service.

Of course, you can always rent a car or hire a traditional taxi. When using taxis, it’s best to have your hotel or restaurant call one for you, then agree to a price before entering the vehicle. Sometimes taxis will refuse to provide a price beforehand, arguing that it is based on a meter instead.

This is when most tourist taxi customers get taken advantage of, with little recourse against it, so I’d go for other alternatives before hopping in. And as always for car rentals, check the car and take photos of any damage before driving away.

The bus stop sign at thte Hanoi airport

HOW TO GET FROM HANOI AIRPORT TO DOWNTOWN

It is really nice and easy to get from the airport to downtown. For most people, the bus is the cheapest and easiest way. Head to the platform and stay strong. You will get offers from tons of private vans and other transportation offers. If you want to get dropped off at the door to your hotel, you can check out these options. But otherwise, just use the bus.

Exit the airport and go toward the left side of the drive. Follow signs for the bus to the city center (yes, they’re in English). Walk across the road to the center median and all the way to the left side of it, ignoring any hotel van drivers you’ll encounter along the way.

You want to take the yellow and orange HanoiBus 86 to the city center. It costs 35,000 VND ($1.50 USD) and comes every 20 minutes or so. (If you don’t have cash, there are ATMs inside of the airport near the bus stop.

A city gate near Old Quarter, Hanoi, Vietnam

WHERE TO STAY

There are many sections to Hanoi, but three of the top tourist sections can be summed up like this:

1. Join the partying backpackers in Qld Quarter for some fresh beer and banh mi’s on the sidewalk. Plus, nightlife fun.

1. Head into the French quarter to join the hustling business center for some high-class restaurants and bars. Take an elevator to the top floor and enjoy the view from the sky bar, grab a martini and soak it in.

1. To slow things down a bit, head north to the West Lake area where you’ll find a vibrant expat community. Grab a nice meal at one of be many upscale restaurants in the area and enjoy the peace away from the busy center.

Michael checking out the street art in Hanoi, Vietnam

The flag tower close to the Citadel in Hanoi, Vietnam

Hanoi is an awesome city with so much to do that you likely won’t cover it all in one shot. But take a deep breath, face the blaring horns, and go for an awesome day of sightseeing followed up with tons of options for evening fun.

Don’t miss walking around Hoan Kiem Lake or joining the crowds over the weekend at the busy night market. Check out the many historical temples and pagodas, and follow it up by visiting a sky bar with incredible views.

Whatever it is you’re looking for, the. best things to do in Hanoi, Vietnam has something for you.

Would you stay in Old Quarter or head somewhere a bit quieter, like West Lake? Leave us a comment below to share!

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Best things to do in Hanoi, Vietnam
The best things to do in Hanoi's Old Quarter

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