Hanoi provides a rich blend of new and old Vietnam, from the thousands of young workers on scooters streaking down the wide Parisian-style boulevards, to the chic fusion restaurants housed in former colonial buildings. Even as the city buzzes with heavy development and modernization, it retains its idyllic charm. Enjoy Hanoi's tranquil parks and lakes, peruse galleries filled with emerging Vietnamese artists and fashion designers, and sample the city's amazing cuisine and bustling street life.
Explore the bustling streets of Hanoi’s Old Quarter, with its small shops and charming cafés. You will notice that some of the alleyways are named for the guilds that established themselves in this area as far back as the 13th century. For example, Pho Hang Gai translates to “Silk Street,” and silk products are still sold here, although that is not the case on every street.
In addition to locally made handicrafts, you will also find all manner of goods – herbal medicines, plumbing supplies, wooden carvings and boxes, textiles, rice paper notebooks, greeting cards, and more. If you wish, explore the Old Quarter by traditional rickshaw.
Hoa Lo Prison
One of the most notorious sites from the Vietnam War is the Hoa Lo Prison, better known by its ironic nickname of "Hanoi Hilton." It was built by the French in the late 19th century to house Vietnamese political prisoners – those opposed to colonization – and called Maison Centrale. Its Vietnamese name is derived from the street it is located on, and is far less sarcastic; it literally means stove but can be translated as “fiery furnace.”
Temple of Literature
Visit the serene Temple of Literature, built in the 11th-century to honor academics. The Temple grounds also housed Vietnam’s first university, in operation there until the 19th century, and include Hanoi’s best-preserved buildings and immaculate gardens.
Tran Quoc Pagoda
With an expert guide, visit the stunning Buddhist Tran Quoc Pagoda, perhaps the oldest pagoda in the country. Purportedly founded 1,400 years ago by King Ly Nam De, the building was originally named “Khai Quoc,” which translates to "Establishing the Nation."
Thang Long Water Puppet Theater
Visit Thang Long Water Puppet Theater, which, if you can forgive the canned music, is a good opportunity to see this traditional Vietnamese art form. Various puppets, be they dragons, dogs, or people, are brought to life with grace and precision on the surface of the water in this 20-minute show.
Hanoi Opera House
Peek behind the scenes at the Opera House, a smaller scale version of Palais Garnier in Paris and a remarkable example of French colonial architecture. Depending on the opera’s schedule, you will have a chance to chat with performers during breaks in rehearsal for an upcoming show.
Museum of Ethnology
Hanoi’s Museum of Ethnology offers a comprehensive overview of the country’s 54 ethnic minorities through its colorful, interactive displays. Examine the similarities and differences in tradition, clothing, language, and other markers of cultural identity among these diverse groups of people. Meet with a senior curator for deeper insights on the exhibits.
Stop in the Hanoi Sports Department to learn how to play sepak takraw, which combines elements of volleyball, gymnastics, martial arts, and soccer. The sport is called da cau in Vietnam, but is known internationally as sepak takraw, from the Malay word sepak for “kick” and the Thai word takraw for “woven ball.”
Hoan Kiem Lake
Go for an early morning bicycling or walking tour of Hoan Kiem Lake (which means “Lake of the Returned Sword”), a tranquil and scenic spot where locals come to relax and socialize. The surrounding park is a popular spot to practice the ancient, meditative art of tai chi.