11 Must-See Attractions in Hanoi
Hanoi is one of those rare places in South East Asia where the past traditions and modern mentalities merge together to create a magical experience for all those who visit.
Known as sacred land of Vietnam, Hanoi literally means "the hinterland between the rivers" (Ha: river, Noi: interior). Located on the Red River, Hanoi was originally named Thang Long, the “soaring dragon,” by Emperor Ly Thai To during the Ly Dynasty in 1010. Renamed Hanoi in 1831, the city grew out of snake-infested swamplands for over a thousand years, before blossoming into the culturally charismatic and chaotic capital we know it as today. After hundreds of years of war, natural disasters and new administrations, visitors may now delve into the past. Take in intricate details of the ancient architecture, battle the barrage of merchants and millennials on motorbikes and drink fresh bia hơi in the Old Quarter. Hanoi will simultaneously surprise, charm and chew you up.
HO CHI MINH MAUSOLEUM
Take photos and risk getting shooed off the premises. Photo by Justin Mott.
This commanding construction was built from 1973 to 1975 to house the embalmed body of Vietnam’s greatest and most iconic political leader, Hồ Chí Minh. Dressed in a khaki wardrobe and encased in a glass sarcophagus, tourists and Vietnamese queue for hours every morning to pay their respects. Slowly stroll straight past Ho Chi Minh’s cadaver lying in state. Photography is strictly prohibited.
Admission: 35,000 VND
Hours of Operation: 8 - 11 a.m., Tue-Thu, Sat-Sun (December to September) last entry at 10:15 a.m.
Address: So 1, Hung Vuong, Dien Bien, Ba DInh
THE ONE PILLAR PAGODA
A foundation built on a singular pillar is an incredible feat of architecture. Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.
The Buddhist wooden pagoda was built in the middle of a lotus pond on a single stone pillar by the Emperor Ly Thai To in 1049. The archives suggest that it was built in honor of the Goddess of Mercy who is said to have answered the Emperor prayers to provide him with a male heir. The singular structure is designed to resemble a lotus flower blossoming out of the muddy waters, which represents purity of mind, body and speech in Buddhist philosophy.
Admission: 25,000 VND
Hours of Operation: 8 - 11:30 a.m., everyday and 2 - 4 p.m., Tue-Thu, Sat-Sun
Address: Chua Mot Cot, Doi Can, Ba Dinh
THE OLD QUARTER
Be careful to not get lost in this urban labyrinth. Photo by Justin Mott.
Hanoi’s historic and hectic Old Quarter is a square kilometre comprised 36 streets centrally located around Hoan Kiem lake. Since the 15th century, each street has been home to artisans, craftsmen and makers who traded as neighbours in specific merchandise and services for which their street was named. Today, the traditional crafts have in most cases been replaced by their modern mass-produced counterparts, but the charm of most streets dedicated to each specialism still remains. Dodging the motorbike mayhem, and admiring the fusion of French Colonial and Vietnamese architecture, prepare to marvel as you wander from silver street to bamboo street, silk street to decoration street, all within a stone's throw from one another.
At night, the capital of commerce and culture keeps going until the late hours. Make sure you head down to bia hơi corner (at the intersection between Ta Hien and Luong Ngoc Quyen) to sample sensational street food and bargain brew (USD$0.50 a glass) of freshly-made lager. Sitting shoulder to shoulder on tiny plastic stools with every nationality imaginable is one of the most authentic Hanoi experiences you can have.
Hours of Operation: 7 a.m. to midnight
Address: North of Hoan Kiem Lake
THE OPERA HOUSE
The stunning pale yellow structure is not to be missed! Photo courtesy of Hanoi Tourist.
Constructed at the turn of the 20th century, this beautiful and decorative French colonial building is the largest theater in Vietnam. After nearly 100 years of operation, the opera house was carefully refurbished in 1997 and equipped with state-of-art facilities. Today the venue attracts a plethora of world renowned performers, productions and musicians dedicated to charming Vietnam’s upper class. A must-see landmark of cultural creativity in the city, the Hanoi Opera House is a worthy destination to witness architectural artistry and exclusive entertainment.
Admission: 300,000 VND
Hours of Operation: Check the website for dates and times of performances
Address: So 01, Trang Tien, Hoan Kiem
VIETNAMESE WOMEN’S MUSEUM
A gorgeous inventory of female regalia. Photo courtesy of De Leon by Ricardo Ramos.
The Vietnamese Women’s museum is one the best and most modern museums in Vietnam, yet it is one of the most overlooked as a must-see destination. Housing a stellar series of excellent exhibitions carefully presenting preserved artefacts, costumes, crafts, memoirs,and photographs from the past 100 years, the museum reveals the pivotal and inspiring role Vietnamese women play and have played in shaping the nation into what it is today. The museum organised around five main themes: 1) women in the community; 2) the involvement of women in the fight for national independence; 3) the Vietnamese Women's Association’s struggle to liberate women; 4) the preservation of handicraft traditions; and 5) the female regalia of the 54 Vietnamese ethnic groups.
Admission: 30,000 VND
Hours of Operation: 8 a.m. - 5 p.m., Tue-Sun
Address: 36 Ly Thuong Kiet, Hang Bai Ward, Hoan Kiem
THE WATER PUPPET THEATRE
The puppetmasters are submerged in water the whole performance. Photo courtesy of Leotie/Shutterstock.
Dating back to the 11th century, the water puppet theatre is the ideal cultural performance for tourist in Hanoi looking for both light entertainment and an insight into Vietnamese folklore traditions. Wading around in waist deep water holding long bamboo poles, puppeteers operate the lacquered wooden characters from behind a screen reenacting scenes from rural village life. This unique performance art was originally acted out on real rice terraces each season when the paddies would flood to entertain the villagers.
Admission: 100,000 VND
Hours of Operation: 3:30 - 5:00 - 6:30 - 8:00 - 9:15 p.m., every day, and an additional performance on Sundays at 9:30 p.m.
Address: 57b Dinh Tien Hoang, Hoan Kiem
HOAN KIEM LAKE
The Lake of the Restored Sword is the site of a legendary tale. Photo courtesy of Aaron Joel Santos.
Hoan Kiem lake is the stuff legends are made of. Meaning ‘The Lake of the Returned Sword,’ the story tells a tale of when Emperor Ly Thai To was gifted a magical sword by a giant golden turtle who lived in the lake in order to defeat the Ming dynasty. Once victorious, Ly Thai To gave the sword back to the turtle who dove down into the lake to return the sword to the gods from whence it came. Turtle Tower stands solitary in the centre in the lake to celebrate this great legend, whilst also providing shelter for the three giant softshell turtles that still live in the lake today. Acknowledged as the historical centre of Hanoi, Hoan Kiem Lake can be admired for both its beauty, as well as insight into the daily life of Hanoians. One one can observe local Vietnamese people practicing their daily exercise and Tai Chi routines, in the gardens by the water's edge.
Admission: Free to the general public
Hours of Operation: Open all day
NGOC SON TEMPLE
A picturesque bridge leads you to the quaint temple. Photo courtesy of City Pass Guide.
The Ngoc Son Temple, aka The Temple of the Jade Mountain, is situated on a small- tree-sheltered island on the north side of Hoan Kiem lake. Connected by a stunning scarlet bridge, the classic Vietnamese structure was built in honour of the intellectual scholar Saint Van Xuong, and the national hero General Tran Hung Dao who defeated Yuan invaders in 13th century. In 1884, the Confucian scholar made a series of renovations and additions to the site such as a large pen-shaped tower built at the entrance of the temple including several parallel sentences (câu đối), written on the walls. These câu đối were part of traditional word puzzles played by educated individuals. Be sure to cover your shoulders and knees out of respect in order to gain entry into this site.
Admission: 20,000 VND
Hours of Operation: 7:30 a.m. - 5:30 p.m., every day
Address: Hoan Kiem Lake
THE TEMPLE OF LITERATURE
The nation's oldest university, a revered temple of learning. Photo courtesy of Ton Duy/Shutterstock.
Built by Emperor Ly Thanh Tong during the Ly dynasty, the Temple of Literature known as Văn Miếu in Vietnamese was erected in honour of the Chinese philosopher Confucius and his disciples and scholars in 1070. In 1076, it became home to Hanoi’s first university, Quốc Tử Giám, before changing it name to Thái Học Viện (Higher Educational Institute) in 1483. Considered one of Hanoi’s most picturesque places, the temple underwent major restorations in 1920, 1954 and 2000 due to centuries of natural disasters and wars. The site is now one of the oldest in Hanoi and has become a national symbol of Vietnamese education and traditional-style architecture. Today, the temple houses the historical remains of an 1000-year-old statues of Confucius and his disciples (Yan Hui, Zengshen, Zisi, Mencius), ancient constructions such as Khue Van Cac (Pavilion of the Constellation of Literature), the Worshipping Hall, five court yards, the records of Vietnam’s most educated scholars, and statues of turtles which are said to bring students good luck and knowledge in their exams.
Admission: 30,000 VND
Hours of Operation: 8 a.m. 0 5 p.m., from November until March and 7:30 a.m. - 6 p.m. for the rest of the year, Tue-Sun
Address: 58 Quoc Tu Giam, Dong Da
THE MUSEUM OF ETHNOLOGY
The Museum of Ethnology is the premiere destination for learning more about Southeast Asia. Photo by Aaron Joel Santos.
Ranked by Tripadvisor as the 4th most fascinating museum in Southeast Asia, this amazing museum examines the everyday life and artefacts of Vietnam's diverse 54 ethnic minorities. Duly designed by ethnic Tay architect Ha Duc Linh and French architect Veronique Dolfus, the museum first opened its doors to the public in 1997 and hosts three main exhibition areas. The Tong Dong building is divided into nine main themes and presents a general overview of the different ethnic groups. Exhibitions are primarily comprised of cultural costumes, handicrafts, video interviews, artefacts from both daily life and displays representing ceremonial rituals. The outdoor space showcases impressive life-size replicas of traditional ethnic architecture including long houses, stilt houses, grave houses and the communal spaces of the Tay, Kinh, Gia Rai and Ba Na peoples. The Southeast Asia exhibition area promotes the textiles, daily life, social life, performance arts and religions/beliefs of ethnic and tribal communities across the whole region.
Admission: 40,000 VND
Hours of Operation: 8:30 a.m. - 5:30 p.m., Tue-Sun
Address: Nguyen Van Huye, Nghia Do, Cau Giay
SAINT JOSEPH’S CATHEDRAL
There's an antique charm to this sacred site. Photo courtesy of One Soul Life.
Saint Joseph’s Cathedral (also known as Hanoi Cathedral), was built on the site of the Bao Thien Tower, which was once the most famous landmarks in the capital during the Ly Dynasty in the 11th and 12th Century. Built during the French occupation, the architect was inspired by the Neo-Gothic style of the Notre Dame de Paris. Located just a short stroll from Hoan Kiem lake, the Roman Catholic cathedral first opened its doors for public prayer on Christmas Day in 1886, two years after construction first began. Today, the cathedral operates several services per day, with the most popular mass being held every Sunday. Expect to see a multicultural crowd of Christian worshippers and plenty of Vietnamese newlyweds having romantic photo shoots.
Hours of Operation: 8 a.m. - noon, 2 - 6 p.m, every day
Address: 40 Nha Chung, Hoan Kiem