While it may not be Vietnam’s largest city, the capital city of Hanoi is arguably the most important. Situated on the banks of Red River, the city is more than 1,000 years old and is one of the country’s important economic centers.
Hanoi is also one of the most ideal places to start or end a trip to Vietnam due to its large airport and the city itself is rich in history, delicious food, and places to explore. Russian, French, and Chinese influences can be seen throughout the city as you explore ancient pagodas, some of the largest mosaics in the world, unique museums, and colonial buildings.
Explore Hanoi on a Free Walking Tour
One of the best ways to become acquainted with any new city is to take a walking tour. Fortunately, there are now free walking tours in numerous cities around the world, including Hanoi. Hanoi Free Walking Tours offers a variety of tours, including Old Quarter, War Sites, and even Food Tours. These tours last anywhere from three hours to a full day, giving travelers plenty of options for exploring historic sites, finding the best spots for food, and discovering hidden gems.
Hoan Kiem Lake
Possibly Hanoi’s most famous spot, Hoan Kiem Lake (or “Lake of the Returned Sword”) is believed to be a mystical lake, home to a mythical resident turtle of Vietnamese legend. The beautiful vistas are now what primarily draw visitors and the lake offers a perfect place for an afternoon stroll and to simply relax.
The Imperial Citadel
The Imperial Citadel was formerly the seat for military power in Vietnam and a particularly important site during the Vietnam War. Boasting around 1,000 years of history and the designation of a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Imperial Citadel features a number of archaeological treasures, military maps, and weaponry. Eight gates and the Forbidden City Wall from the Nguyen Dynasty still stand at the perimeter. There is a small fee (just a little more than a dollar) to explore the inside.
Eat the Food
Whether it’s street-side stalls, full-service restaurants, or food markets, Hanoi has no shortage of amazing food you need to try. There are two in particular, however, that are a must.
Pho is one of the best known dishes in Vietnam and you can’t leave the city without having a bowl of this delicious noodle dish. One of the most famous places to enjoy a bowl of Pho is Pho Bat Dan in the Old Quarter. There’s usually a long line out the door, but the food is worth waiting for. The broth is simmered for hours, resulting in a superior soup and there are chilies and fresh herbs you can use to customize your bowl of delicious noodle soup.
Banh Mi is one of the world’s most famous sandwiches, a mix of local ingredients and French elements from the colonial past of Vietnam. There are plenty of spots to grab one of these sandwiches, but Banh Mi 25 is perhaps the best. It certainly is one of the most popular.
Take in Panoramic Views at Lotte Center
If you’re looking for impressive views, the Lotte Tower Observation Deck provides panoramic vistas from the 65th floor. You can see the Old Quarter sprawling in every direction. Inside the Lotte Center, which is the second tallest building in Hanoi, are a scenic rooftop bar and restaurants as well. The observation deck is open from 9:00am until midnight, but if you stay at the hotel you may get similar views from your room.
Explore the West Lake Area
West Lake is the largest freshwater lake in the city and a hub for Hanoi’s international-quality shops, restaurants, and bars. Seafood restaurants line the southernmost lakeshore, where you can dine on affordable seafood while gazing out onto the water. Heading north towards the city’s Tay Ho expat enclave, you pass through the Xuan Dieu strip of luxury shops, restaurants, and hotels. On Saturday mornings, there’s also the Tay Ho market where shoppers can find locally made artisan products.
Temple of Literature
The Temple of Literature is one of Hanoi’s most famous sites. Dating back to the year 1070, the temple is part of a larger complex which includes the Lake of Literature. The Stele of Doctors is one of the complex’s main highlights, including more than 80 blue stone carved turtles. It’s customary for any aspiring publisher or writer to pray at the Temple of Literature in hopes of publishing a masterpiece.
Tran Quoc Pagoda
The Tran Quoc Temple boasts the title of being the city’s oldest Buddhist temple, built back during the 6th century. The pagoda is located in the middle of West Lake on a small island. One of the pagoda’s signature spots is the 11-floor stupa filled with gemstone-covered statues.
Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum
A pilgrimage destination for numerous Vietnamese, the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum is a massive complex surrounded by beautiful gardens. The mausoleum is the final resting place of Ho Chi Minh, the founder of modern Vietnam, whose embalmed remains are preserved in a glass case. The museum on the same grounds shares the story of the life of Ho Chi Minh.
Sip a Cup of Vietnamese Coffee
The Vietnamese have put their own spin on the coffee culture of France, reinventing the classic French press into a unique drip filter known as phin and replaced cream with condensed milk. This has resulted in a coffee that’s strong, hot, and exceedingly sweet. Hanoi is full of coffee shops ranging from street-side, open-air stalls to air-conditioned, high-end shops. If you want the traditional Vietnamese style of coffee order it “ca phe nau,” or if you prefer your coffee black, request “ca phe den.”
Hoa Lo Prison
Maybe not the most pleasant place to visit during a trip to Hanoi, the Hoa Lo Prison is an important part of history during the Vietnam War as it housed prisoners of war from the United States. Galleries inside explain the history of the prison up to the 1950’s, after which it was used as part of the struggle for independence. Pieces on display here include memorabilia associated with American pilots who were kept prisoner in Hoa Lo Prison and a French guillotine.
Shop in Hanoi’s Old Quarter
Just a short walk from Hoan Kiem Lake is the Old Quarter of Hanoi, the ultimate shopping destination in the city. This maze of streets provides travel services, must-eat dishes, and cheap shopping in abundance. Shaped in a triangle, the Old Quarter features streets named for the items sold along them. Just note that many of the shopkeepers are quite persistent.
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