Published on 03/10/2017.


Vietnam's capital, Hanoi is a full-throttle blend of contrasts, where fast-paced streets give way to serene lakeside Buddhist havens, and centuries of tradition meet French colonial influence and growing high-tech modernity. Hanoi was founded as the early Vietnamese capital in 1010 and has held a key position in the country's history ever since. But as well as a city crying out to be explored, with ancient temples and unforgettable street food, it's also the starting point for adventures around the country's top natural sights and scenery, from can't-miss Ha Long Bay to mystical mountain landscapes. Here are the must-sees in Hanoi and beyond.

The Old Quarter

You can't visit Hanoi without exploring the Old Quarter. A heaving jumble of streets that pack in diverse shops and street food stalls alongside centuries-old temples, this is the heart of Hanoi. It's less about specific sights than experiencing life in this tangle of lanes, where you're as likely to see wooden furniture and stone carvings being made as you are SIM cards and sweets for sale. Street food abounds and, although it's best to simply wander, there are a couple of must-sees here.

Bach Ma Temple

The pagoda entrance to the Old Quarter's best-known landmark is one of the neighbourhood's icons, and the inside of the Buddhist temple makes it well worth a visit to see the ornate decoration and the famous white horse statue that gives the temple its name. It's held to be Hanoi's oldest temple, originally dating from the 11th century, though a lot of the current building dates from the last 300 years.

Hoan Kiem Lake

The Old Quarter sits within the area of Hoan Kiem, Hanoi's central business district and home to sights including the Hanoi Opera House and the lake that the district is named after. Hoan Kiem Lake borders the Old Quarter, and is moments from the city's major shopping areas and blaring horns – but it's the perfect contrast if you need to slow things down with some tranquillity. Hoan Kiem Lake is a great place to people-watch, attracting office workers, joggers and groups just socialising. But it also has a major place in Vietnamese legend, and is the site of two historic attractions – Ngoc Son Temple in the north of the lake and Thap Rua, the iconic tower that sits in the middle of the lake.

Ho Chi Minh's mausoleum

In 1945, Ho Chi Minh read Vietnam's Proclamation of Independence in Hanoi's Ba Dinh Square. Today, you can visit the mausoleum built on the site after his death and see his embalmed body. The building is as impressive as you'd expect and there's an unsurprisingly sombre air inside, where there are strict rules around behaviour and dress. It remains a site of pilgrimage for many and, as one of the most important monuments to Vietnam's modern history, an essential visit in the city.

Street food in Hanoi

Food in Hanoi is something to get excited about. Southeast Asia is the centre of the street food universe, and Vietnam's capital does a serious line in fresh, spicy, vibrant flavours, from the national dish of Pho to grab-and-go fusion classics like Banh Mi. But there's a lot more on offer than these familiar favourites; thanks to the country's produce-friendly climate and geography, and its mix of historical influences, Vietnamese cuisine is more diverse than it gets credit for. Seek out Banh Cuon (a little like steamed spring rolls) and Bun Cha (barbequed pork served with cold rice noodles and tangy fish broth).

Ha Long Bay

It's one of the world's most photogenic natural sights, but even the pictures don't do it justice. Nothing beats experiencing Ha Long Bay first-hand, sailing past the thousand-plus rock islands that tower above you in one of the most otherworldly sights on the planet. If Hanoi is Vietnam's first city, Ha Long Bay is the country's first natural attraction.


On the northern coast almost due east of Hanoi, Ha Long Bay is Vietnam's top attraction. Simply put, you need to come here on a trip to Vietnam. It's not just the natural beauty of the huge number of jungle-topped islands and rocky pillars (known as karsts) sticking out of the sea. Or even the utter uniqueness. It's also the strong sense of ancientness – the seascape has formed over millions of years, remaining untouched by the effects of humans, and you can picture the prehistoric people who lived here over 15,000 years ago.


Ha Long Bay is around 100 miles (160km) from Hanoi. You can get a taxi or join a tour bus from the capital, arriving in Ha Long City, where boats set out into the bay – the journey takes three to four hours. If you want to max out your time, consider a stay in Ha Long City.

Cuc Phuong National Park

Show-stopping Ha Long Bay tends to overshadow Northern Vietnam's other sights, but there's a long list of attractions here that would be national headliners almost anywhere else in the world. Cuc Phuong National Park, just three hours south of Hanoi, is Vietnam's oldest and largest national park, with an extraordinary biodiversity and a limestone karst landscape that's not unlike a land-based Ha Long Bay. The mountains make for excellent hiking with spectacular views of the unbelievably green landscapes.


Cuc Phuong is easily accessible from Hanoi by bus, arriving at Nho Quan, the nearest town to the park, or you can stay in the provincial capital, Ninh Binh City.

Further North

North of Hanoi, the lush greens and towering, misty mountains become even more dramatic, making for Vietnam's best trekking and real outdoor adventure, as the country's wild landscapes stretch towards the Chinese border.

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