Dive into Hanoi’s pulsating city streets, and you’ll capture the essence of Vietnamese life. The country’s capital is a burgeoning economic center that still clings strongly to traditional culture, managing to be a showcase of both old and modern Vietnam.
The old quarter district hums with street vendor action; the cafés and restaurants are vibrant, contemporary scenes; and just trying to cross a road here can end up being an adrenaline-fueled escapade.
When the crowds begin to wear you down, Hanoi has a bundle of places to visit where you can escape for some peace. Hoan Kiem Lake is a relaxing respite right within the city, while the Temple of Literature and Vietnam Museum of Ethnology provide plenty of opportunities to reflect on Vietnam’s grand history.
For more ideas on things to do, see our list of the top attractions in Hanoi.
1. Hanoi Old Town Quarter
For many visitors to Vietnam’s capital, the major attraction is strolling the streets of the city’s ancient core. This labyrinthine quarter of narrow alleys is the commercial heartbeat of town and has a history that stretches back 1,000 years.
It’s a delightfully dilapidated place, where the odd piece of medieval era architecture has managed to cling on within the modern hubbub of whizzing motorbikes, street vendors, and pulsating commerce.
If you look up while you’re wandering, the area has plenty of vernacular shophouse architecture, where merchants would traditionally live above their shops in very long but narrow two-storey dwellings, squeezed together on the alleyway rows. The backstreets here are a great opportunity to soak up the buzz of Hanoi street life.
As well as there being plenty of street food on offer and lots of pavement vendors selling fruits and vegetables, there are also stalls selling traditional medicines and Buddhist religious trappings.
A relic of French Colonial rule, right in the heart of the old town quarter, St. Joseph’s Cathedral (Nha Tho Street) was built in 1886 and is a fine example of neo-Gothic architectural style. The façade is intricately decorated, with two bell towers, while inside are some delicate stained glass window details. The main entrance is kept locked except for mass. At other times, you can access the interior of the church from the back through the offices for the Diocese of Hanoi.