Travel Destinations

Exploring the Paris of the East: 4 Must-See Hanoi Attractions

Ho Chi Minh City might be Vietnam’s beating heart, but Hanoi is its soul. Built on the banks of the gently winding Red River, it is the jewel of Northern Vietnam, a city that has emerged relatively unscathed even after decades of war ravaged the rest of the country.

Dubbed the “Paris of the East”, it has consistently ranked within TripAdvisor’s list of the world’s top ten destinations and welcomes millions of visitors each year. A flourishing economy has led to the rise of rapid real estate development in the city, forming a modern skyline outside what locals call “Old Hanoi”. Today, Vietnam’s capital is best illustrated by the phrase “best of both worlds”, a serene holiday destination with plenty of hidden surprises up its sleeve. Discover it with us; read on for a list of some of our favorite Hanoi attractions:

  1. Hoan Kiem Lake

This freshwater lake at the heart of Hanoi features prominently in one of the city’s beloved local legends. It states that a magical sword was bequeathed to a nobleman’s son named Lê Lợi by a water god called the Dragon King, who intended for him to use it to prevail over the conquering Ming Chinese. After peace was restored to the land and Lê Lợi was named its emperor, an emissary from heaven came to him in the form of a golden turtle to ask that the sword be returned to its divine owner. The radiant blade was surrendered to the waters from whence it came, and that is why the lake is called Lake of the Restored Sword. Today, it is a major scenic attraction and a fixture in Hanoian daily life, a popular communal spot for gatherings and fitness activities.

  • Vietnam Museum of Ethnology

Located in the Cầu Giấy district, this museum is a major draw for foreign tourists despite being somewhat removed from the more popular points of interest in the city. Fifty-four officially recognized Vietnamese ethnic groups are represented here; dedicated exhibit halls showcase each group’s culture, traditions, and ritual practices. The outdoor display area houses replicas of traditional dwellings and houses typically used by these ethnic groups. Make sure to stop by the restaurant before you go—they serve great baguettes and chocolate at affordable prices. Admission is 40,000 VND for adults (about US $2); the museum is open from Tuesdays to Sundays from 8:30 AM to 5:30 PM.

  • Thang Long Water Puppet Theater

Water puppetry is an art form that originated in the villages located on the Red River Delta, where Hanoi stands today. The tradition dates all the way back to the 11th century and is said to have been invented as a way for villagers to amuse themselves while the rice paddies were flooded. The Thang Long Water Puppet Theater holds five 1-hour shows every day; each performance is accompanied by a traditional Vietnamese orchestra. The shows are divided into sketches and typically revolve around local folklore, legends, and myths, including the one about Hoan Kiem Lake. Booking for tickets in advance is highly recommended, as the theater only seats a small audience of a few hundred and slots sell out fast. General admission costs 100,000 VND or about US $4 and some change, with an additional fee added on top if you wish to bring in a camera to photograph or film the program.

Bún chả is not considered a Vietnamese national dish. In Hanoi, bowls of beef phở are much more ubiquitous as the meal most associated with the region. We’re recommending it, and this tiny hole-in-the-wall restaurant specifically, for one simple reason.  Bún Chả Hương Liên is home to the dish the establishment now calls Bún chả Obama, named after the former US president Barack Obama, who dined there with the late, great Anthony Bourdain during the Hanoi episode of the CNN travel and food show Parts Unknown.

Onto the meal: the Obama combo consists of an order of bún chả, grilled pork served with rice vermicelli noodles in an herb-infused broth made with sugar and pungent Vietnamese fish sauce; a serving of nem hải sản, a fried seafood roll made with prawn, crab, pork and vegetables; an order of nem cua bể, a fried crab roll; and a bottle of the famous Hanoi Beer. Is it the best bún chả in the city? Opinions on that vary. What we know for sure is that Obama and Bourdain both left their bowls and plates clean. You can see it for yourself, as their table hasn’t been touched since they left. It is now under a glass display case, chairs and all, preserved in a place of honor against one wall of the restaurant.

In a word, Hanoi is captivating, and her varied delights are sure to charm and enthrall even the most cynical and world-weary of travelers. We hope that this list has inspired you to come visit and experience it for yourself. It’ll be well worth it—it always is.