Hanoi is a great city, and we spent three days seeing the best of Hanoi.
We used Hanoi for a five-night stay because it is a central base to extend your travels to Halong Bay and Sapa.
Hanoi was our final city in our month of travel in Vietnam.
It was time to move on to the next city on our Vietnam itinerary, Hanoi.
Travelling to Hanoi by Train
The train from Hue pulled in at 5 am into Hanoi after what most Vietnam travellers say is “the worst night’s sleep ever.”
The narrow gauge meant the carriage rocked up and down, side to side, at an angle going around the bends. Then screeching to a sudden halt at the next station, the driver has a fetish for blowing the horn every 2-5 minutes.
Luckily, we had taken a small bottle of local wine decanted into a water bottle, so it looked like blackcurrant juice. The wine didn’t help to keep us asleep, but as we were sharing the cabin with another couple, at least we didn’t want to look like winos!
Our cabin mates were Jan and Fleur from Switzerland, travelling for a month. We swapped travel stories as you do, and they gave us tips for the train.
We had to lock the door at night, even securing it with a tie.
Many locals board the train and steal from cabins during the night. Someone did try the door handle during the night, but as it was secure, we were all safe.
Where to Stay in Hanoi Vietnam
We had the pleasure of two hotels in the old quarter. Hanoi is a great city to explore, but it also is the connecting city for tours to Halong Bay and Sapa.
Our guide and driver were waiting for us as the train pulled into Hanoi Train Station for the 10-minute trip to our hotel arriving at 5.30 am.
Luckily for us, our room was ready, so enough time to catch a couple of hours of sleep to refresh our bodies.
By 9 am, we were ready to explore Hanoi city, stepping out into a bustling, noisy, vibrant old quarter.
The streets had been transformed from the quietness of 5.30 am to local sellers and motorbikes parked everywhere, moving through the narrow streets.
Top Things to Do in Hanoi
Everyone is different in what they want to see or things to do when first visiting a new city or country.
We are always researching on social media, looking for experiences to make travel rewarding and enjoyable.
So, we have listed some things to do in Hanoi so you can determine if this must-see place is right for you.
1. Don Xuan Market and Long Bien Bridge
The Don Xuan Market is in the old quarter of Hanoi and gives you a peek at local life in Hanoi.
The market building covers three levels which are hot and crowded with wholesalers busy selling their products.
With so many product stalls, retailers buying goods, and products being dropped off, it seemed like general mayhem.
Long Bien Bridge
From the market, you can walk to the old city gate to view the Long Bien Bridge, designed by the French architect Gustave Eiffel of the Eiffel Tower.
It is not that impressive, so the wet markets around this area may be more interesting!
2. Local Life on the Streets of Hanoi
As you walk the streets of the old quarter, street sellers are out and about selling their products.
You will see shops spilling out onto the pavements with an abundance of products and some shop owners enticing you to buy.
Come with an open mind, as life on the street appears chaotic but seems to run smoothly for the local Vietnamese.
3. Imperial Citadel of Thang Long
If you love history, a visit to the Imperial Citadel of Thang Long dates to the 1300s, with ongoing archaeological digs throughout the site.
But for us, we were more interested in D67 – the bunkers used by the North Vietnamese leadership in the American War.
It was so interesting to explore the various rooms and exits of the bunkers. Knowing it was here, Ho Chi Minh had his command centre and saw the maps and strategies charted in some of the rooms.
The other place of interest in the Imperial Citadel of Thang Long grounds was the Woman’s Pagoda.
The earlier history tells of the Pagoda being used to house the Emperor’s wives and concubines. They were small women as the stairways were narrow and tiny, with three levels opening into a large room.
You can easily spend 1-2 hours here wandering the various buildings, exhibitions and grounds.
4. Army Museum of Hanoi
Next door to the Imperial Citadel of Thang Long is the Army Museum and Lenin Statue in the park opposite.
As we had already explored the War Remnants Museum in Ho Chi Minh City, we decided instead to have something to eat in the cafe next to the museum.
And from the cafe, we could see on display outside the various aircraft – Russian Mig, US Fighters, Tanks and the Hanoi Flag Tower.
We found sitting in the park under the trees with our sandwich, a great place to get away from the sun beaming now at 31 degree Celsius.
5. The Temple of Literature
One of the things to do in Hanoi is visited The Temple of Literature which dates to 1076 and is the first Vietnam university.
What makes it so different is learning the scholars who graduated (some taking 50 years because of the various wars) have their names published on stone tablets.
These tablets are the focus of the site, along with the temple.
And look out for the turtle you can rub for good luck.
Surprisingly we are still energetic, so we wander back along the streets past the Hoa Lo Prison Museum but decide it sounds too depressing to venture in for a look.
Instead, we found a supermarket near the Prison to stock up on some items.
6. Visiting the French Quarter of Hanoi
Visiting the French Quarter is one of the must-sees in Hanoi if you love French architecture and French pastries.
As we approached the Opera House, the first rain for us in 55 days came pouring down.
So, it made the perfect time for a coffee and a selection of French pastries. Oh, and because Terry was celebrating his birthday, we had to try more cake later in the day.
Feeling so refreshed, we went for a wander to see more of the beautiful architecture, like the Hanoi Opera House.
Just make sure you walk with confidence when crossing these large French boulevards.
The motorcyclists are used to navigating around confident walkers crossing the streets. We have to admit; we were a little nervous crossing the road when it was dry, but now it’s wet, and goodness knows what carnage may occur.
7. Museum of History
Unaware of the time, we arrived at the Museum of History (also known as the Revolution Museum) to find it closed for lunch. We are in the French Quarter, so it must be a French thing.
Oh well, may as well have lunch now and shelter from the rain, lasting 90 minutes.
And choosing a restaurant is easy when it is brimming with locals? Right next door to the museum.
The only problem with the restaurant being busy was finding a table, and as we were happy to share a table, we met a lovely Frenchman, Pieretric, now living and working in Hanoi.
We chose a bowl of Pho (meat noodle soup) and a plate of vegetables.
The flavours were great, especially the added chilli and Pieretric organising doughnuts for dipping in the soup.
We all chatted away, and the next thing we knew, its 1.15 pm. We ordered a Vietnamese coffee before going next door to the museum opening at 1.30 pm.
The Revolution Museum gave us a different perspective on the many nations who tried to control Vietnam during the period from 1858 to Present Day.
To read about the Vietnamese history of famine and land taxes, along with the American “puppets”, was so interesting.
Despite the rain, it has been a great day. Leaving the French Quarter, we made one more stop to visit St Joseph’s Cathedral.
8. Booking a Water Puppet Show
Well, men, this is probably not your thing to do in Hanoi, but considering the show is only 45 minutes, go with it.
Throughout Asia, there are many opportunities to attend a cultural experience, and in Vietnam, the water puppet show gives a glimpse of life dating to the 11th century.
The tour groups book out most of the theatre, so we suggest booking early the day before.
We chose the theatre Roi Nuroc Bong Sen for an early evening show.
9. Hoan Kiem Lake
10. Nightlife in Hanoi
Tonight the old quarter came alive with the night market.
Streets are closed off to traffic making it easy to wander along, picking up the odd bit of street food from different stalls, and just enjoying the general vibe of the area.
We wander so far from the old quarter finding ourselves back at the Hoan Kiem Lake.
As we did a circumference walk of the lake, we enjoyed watching:
- Vietnamese couple’s ballroom dancing
- Kids climbing a rocky face of a sculpture
- Locals visiting a temple
- Others just enjoy the bustling nightlife.
And don’t be surprised if you are stopped by a group of young university students for a chat.
English conversation is what they want to practice in their English language skills. Plus, they are great at giving you local insights into what to see and things to do in Hanoi.
11. Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum
With the mausoleum being away from the old quarter, you will need to organise a taxi.
While visiting a mausoleum isn’t for everyone, we found the whole experience humbling of a man who was the hero of his people for going up against a bigger power.
The area of the mausoleum takes up a large block within the city, including the parade ground, museum and the Presidential Palace and living quarters of Ho Chi Minh.
After the bag check and “no water allowed”, we were instructed to line up in twos (just like school) and were marched to the first section of a covered walkway.
After a 5-10min wait, we were marched to another section and told to wait.
Terry took a quick photo and was told, “no photo” (naughty boy). We were then led into the mausoleum, which was at fridge temperature.
No stopping allowed or slow walking, but chance enough to see Ho Chi Minh’s body surrounded by guards dressed in white uniforms.
If you happen to be in Vietnam on the 30th of April, you will find the pace a bit slower as today celebrates the anniversary of the Vietnamese reunification between north and south.
Reunification Day is a public holiday where people return to the country to visit family.
12. Museum of Ethnology Hanoi
A visit to the Museum of Ethnology is a taxi ride from the old quarter of Hanoi as the museum is situated away from the main tourist area of Hanoi.
We learnt Vietnam has 54 ethnic minorities, and this museum is dedicated to showing each ethnicity’s clothing and cutlery/dishes. So, a lot if you are interested in this kind of thing.
We preferred exploring the outdoor area with replica houses and tombs way more interesting.
What was unusual, though, was finding locals sheltering from the sun, enjoying a picnic lunch, and then having an afternoon nap. Classic!
Or was it the Matriarch House with breasts to help climb up to the house? The house would be extended to any new generation.
And before we go, time for another French pastry
One more box to tick is to find a more authentic French bakery.
O’Douceurs on 91A Pho Tran Hung Dao Street is our reward for persistence.
As we entered the bakery café, the owner/baker was having a coffee and saw how mesmerised we were by the delicious food on display.
So, we all got chatting about our travels.
Having skipped breakfast to get to the Mausoleum early, we delighted ourselves in a filled baguette. And we also chose the most exquisite raspberry tart as an afternoon treat. Yum, yum!
We loved Hanoi’s vibrancy, and we hope you have enjoyed what to do in Hanoi for three days. Hanoi’s top attractions give a great insight into its people, history and this wonderful country.
And if you still have time to spare on your Vietnam itinerary, book an overnight train to Sapa.
Then back to Hanoi for an overnight trip to Halong Bay.
Vietnam has a lot to offer a traveller.