Vietnam’s capital since reunification in 1976, Hanoi is a city with a thousand-year history. Centuries of occupation, colonization and near annihilation have shaped it into the headstrong, dynamic metropolis that it is today.
Home to nearly 8 million people and almost as many motorbikes, Hanoi operates at an incessantly frantic speed. Daily life unfolds as a set of rituals performed on the street: worship, cooking and commerce all take place in full view; closed doors are only for sleeping behind.
Here are some of our favorite spots to soak up Hanoi’s incomparable atmosphere.
Get Lost in the Old Quarter
You easily could spend an entire day wandering around Hanoi’s historic Old Quarter, a labyrinth of alleyways and backstreets. For generations, merchants and craftspeople from the countryside around Hanoi descended on these city blocks to sell their wares. Each of the district’s 36 streets was devoted to a particular product (salt, silk, charcoal, woven baskets) and named accordingly.
Now, the trades have all but disappeared in favor of fashion boutiques, coffee houses and bars, but the streets still bear their traditional monikers. Other highlights of the Old Quarter include St. Joseph’s Cathedral, Bach Ma Temple and Dong Xuan Market.
Wander Around Hoan Kiem Lake
The centerpiece of the Old Quarter, Hoan Kiem Lake (Lake of the Returned Sword) is considered by many to be the heart of Hanoi. Ngoc Son Temple (Temple of the Jade Mountain) sits in the northeastern corner of the lake and is reached by crossing the distinctive red-painted The Huc (morning sunlight) Bridge. The area is, indeed, liveliest at dawn, when locals come out in droves to run laps around the lake and practice tai chi and aerobics in the surrounding gardens.
Get a Taste of Vietnamese Coffee Culture
Introduced by the French and fully embraced by the Vietnamese (so much so that the country is now the world’s second-largest exporter of coffee beans), ca phe is Hanoi’s beverage of choice. Local joints with low-to-the-ground, street-facing tables serve classic Vietnamese coffee — a potent drip brew diluted with condensed milk and ice.
Hanoi’s signature ca phe trung (egg coffee) is another must-try. More of a dessert than a drink, it uses sugar and whipped egg yolks in the place of milk — a product of wartime resourcefulness.
Stroll Down Atmospheric Avenues
One of Hanoi’s lesser-known gems, Phan Dinh Phung Street runs east-west for almost a mile along the top of the Old Quarter. The picturesque thoroughfare is lined with turn-of-the-century villas and dracontomelon trees that are older still. Dappled light makes it a favorite place among local photographers, while expansive footpaths mean it’s one of the few pedestrian-friendly spots in the city.
Close to the eastern end is Truc Bach, another historic neighborhood that’s home to Tran Quoc, Hanoi’s oldest Buddhist pagoda.
Brush Up on History at the Vietnamese Women’s Museum
This world-class museum chronicles Vietnam’s modern history from an alternative perspective: that of its women. There’s a permanent showcase of the country’s 54 recognized ethnic minority groups; another section looks at the role of women in the family.
Of particular note are displays that focus on the pivotal role women played in the struggle for independence. A program of special exhibits explores other themes, such as the life and trials of Hanoi’s predominantly female street vendors.
Visit the Temple of Literature (Van Mieu)
Established in 1070 to house Vietnam’s first national university, Van Mieu caters to followers of the country’s dominant belief system: a “triple religion” (Tam Giao) that blends Buddhism, Confucianism and Taoism.
The temple is made up of five courtyards divided by manicured gardens and ornate gates. It lives up to its reputation for being a peaceful retreat in the middle of humming Hanoi.
Van Mieu is an especially auspicious place for scholars. Students often come here to light incense before taking their exams, and it’s common to see groups of young people posing for photos in their graduation regalia.
Visit Uncle Ho
Revolutionary leader Ho Chi Minh, affectionately known as Bac Ho or Uncle Ho, has legendary status in Northern Vietnam. His final resting place is an imposing mausoleum loosely modeled off Lenin’s own edifice in Moscow.
Most days, groups of Vietnamese schoolchildren descend on the mausoleum to pay homage. Even if you don’t want to go inside, the pageantry of the flag-raising and -lowering ceremonies (daily at dawn and 9 p.m., respectively) and the regular changing of the guard is quite a spectacle.
The Mausoleum faces Ba Dinh Square, where Ho famously presented Vietnam’s Declaration of Independence in 1945.
See the Iconic Long Bien Bridge
Completed in 1902, Long Bien Bridge has bared witness to Hanoi’s boom and bust. It was one of the few pieces of infrastructure to survive the war and, as a result, is beloved as a symbol of endurance.
With a cantilevered design dreamt up by Gustav Eiffel, the bridge accommodates all walks of life, with room for both motorbikes and pedestrians on either side, and flower fields and urban farms below.
Daily from about 1 a.m., the biggest wholesale market in Northern Vietnam, the Long Bien Market, unfolds around the western abutment.
Indulge in Curbside Cuisine
Up-market restaurants and chic cafés are a dime a dozen in Hanoi — but the best eats are still found down at street level. There are thousands of hole-in-the-wall eateries and makeshift food stalls scattered across the city, most of them specializing in one single dish.
Must-try Northern delicacies include bun cha (grilled pork and noodles), banh cuon (steamed rice-flour pancakes with ground pork and mushrooms) and pho cuon (beef and fresh herbs rolled in a rice noodle sheet).
Come sundown, it’s all about the fresh beer. Bia Hoi Corner, at the junction of Ta Hien and Luong Ngoc Quyen streets, is famous for its rowdy keg spots, which are just as popular with locals as tourists.
Take in a Performance at the Hanoi Opera House
Adjacent to the city’s historic district, Hanoi’s French Quarter is characterized by wide boulevards and canary-yellow colonial buildings. Completed in 1911 and subject to a $14 million restoration in the 1990s, Hanoi Opera House is the most distinguished example of neoclassical architecture in the area.
The venue hosts regular recitals and weekly performances of Lang Toi (My Village), a local production that evokes Vietnamese folk tales through contemporary dance and acrobatics.