During my week in Vietnam this year, I only made it to a couple of the main attractions in Hanoi. While the Street Food Tour and Halong Bay were the highlights of my visit, the other attractions I saw were really interesting.
As one of the last five communist countries in the world, Vietnam has a really interesting culture, and many of the attractions in Hanoi are centered around this. The attractions I didn’t get to see while I was there were the Tran Quoc Pagoda (Hanoi’s first pagoda), Ho Chi Minh’s Mausoleum, the Thăng Long Imperial Citadel, the Temple of Literature and the Hoa Lo Prison Memorial. These were all listed as attractions I shouldn’t miss. But I did. I’ll be back to see them someday. In the meantime, here’s a review of the cool things in Hanoi I did manage to see.
Vietnam’s Water Puppet Show
Out of all the attractions in Hanoi, the Vietnamese Water Puppet show is by far the most unique. In other words, it’s something you won’t see anywhere else unless the Vietnamese bring it to you. Thus, it was the one I figured I had to do before leaving Vietnam.
The roots of the traditional water puppet show date back nearly 1000 years. In Hanoi, there is a permanent theater where you can watch the show several times a day, but there are other places around Vietnam where you can see the show, and sometimes for free. On my trip to Halong Bay, I saw a show happening in the harbor on the way out to our boat.
The show takes place in a waist-deep pool. The puppeteers stand behind a curtain above the water and operate the puppets with long bamboo poles underwater. The puppets themselves are lacquered wood. Along both sides of the pool are the musicians who also speak the lines of the puppets. The one disadvantage of the show is the lack of English translations (like I had at the Raveleijn show in Efteling). Yet even though I didn’t know the language, I still thoroughly enjoyed the show.
The show in Hanoi takes place in the Thăng Long Water Puppet Theater, located just a few steps from the central square of the Old Quarter at the north end of Ho Hoan Kiem Lake. Tickets at the door are $4.30, $6.45 or $8.60, depending on which seat you want. The show is about 50 minutes long and has no intermission. If you want to take photos or a video of the show, you have to pay a bit extra.
My seat wasn’t great, but neither was it horrible. I was about halfway up in the audience on the side. Luckily the seats were on a good slope, and I was able to set up my tripod in front of me to see the stage without heads the way, and without blocking the view of anyone behind me.
The show is very basic. It is a puppet show after all. Having said that, I loved the intricacy of the puppets and their colorful artwork. The way the puppets were handled was amazing, and I spent much of the show wondering how the puppeteers stood in the water manipulating each puppet for nearly an hour.
The live music is typically Vietnamese, employing traditional instruments such as drums, wooden bells, cymbals, horns, gongs and bamboo flutes. Singers use a form of Vietnamese opera to tell the story of the puppets, but they also interact with the puppets, although that’s hard to understand without knowing Vietnamese.
While the show seems basic and I couldn’t understand anything that was being said, I was mesmerized throughout the performance. The movements of the puppets were both intricate and comical, and often two or more puppets would have a mock battle in the water. Even without understanding the words, I was able to get the gist of the story…which is basically a synopsis of Vietnamese culture, including rice picking, herding animals, etc.
Hanoi Ancient House
Another attraction I got to see was the Hanoi Ancient House, which I also chose because of its uniqueness to the region. This house, in the northeast quarter of the Old Town, was built in the 1890s and then restored in 1999. It’s now a museum to show a typical Vietnamese dwelling in Hanoi from the middle of the French occupation.
Not that I want to spoil the attraction for when you visit, but here’s a basic synopsis of the house. The entrance on the ground floor is the museum reception and gift shop where you can buy local products. Further in on the ground floor is an open courtyard which let sunlight into the house, helped to moderate the temperature and gave an outdoor place for activities. The dining area and kitchen are behind the courtyard, with the toilet at the far back.
On the second floor (which is called the first floor in most countries outside the US) above the gift shop is a room dedicated to the altar of ancestors, a shrine for deceased members of the family. On the table and alter were all kinda of gifts, fake fruits and pottery. Chinese paintings were on the walls, and there were two large wooden couches, but otherwise the room was rather bare.
Behind the courtyard on the second floor was the bedroom. There was a large bookshelf with different artifacts, and clothes hanging on the wall. What really caught my attention in the center of the room was the bed. It was big and had two small pillows, but no mattress. Perhaps they just removed the mattress when they restored the house, but that would be strange. Then again, it’s strange to think that the Vietnamese used to sleep on hard wooden surfaces.
It only took about half an hour to visit the house, and that was with reading all the information panels, taking lots of photos and browsing the different items in the gift shop. Entrance to the house is 20,000 Vietnamese dong, which comes out to $0.86. Not exactly something that’s going to break the bank.
Another really unique attraction in Hanoi is the train street. Every day in the early morning evening (and throughout the day on weekends), a relatively fast-moving train passes through the center of Hanoi. I didn’t actually check the schedule before I went, so the three times I was on the street I didn’t see the train. But it has become a very popular tourist attraction and now there are numerous cafes lining the tracks just so that tourists can watch the train pass by while sipping their favorite flavored latte or egg coffee.
Many of the cafes actually have the train schedule written on the wall. On weekdays, the train comes at the following times: 6:30, 19:00 (7 p.m.), 19:20, 19:40, 21:00 and 22:00. On the weekend, the train comes at these times: 8:30, 9:20, 11:30, 15:30, 16:20, 17:40, 18:40, 19:20, 21:10 and 21:35.. All times are approximate, and it’s recommended that you show up 30 minutes early so you don’t miss seeing the train.
Ngoc Son Temple on Ho Hoan Kiem Lake
Actually, the temple on a small island in Hoan Kiem Lake was kinda disappointing, considering half the temple was under renovations when I went. There also wasn’t really anything unique about the temple, beyond the fact that it was on a lake. The name of the temple translates to English as Temple of the Jade Mountain.
The most interesting thing in the temple is a massive, 7-foot turtle encased in glass. The turtle is one of four that used to live in the lake, but died in 1967 during the Vietnam war (but not because of the war). Supposedly, it was 600-900 years old when it died. There was still one giant turtle living in the lake which wasn’t spotted until 1998, but it too died in 2016.
Connecting the temple to the shore is a beautiful, red wooden bridge. At night the bridge is lit up and the reflection on the lake was really nice to capture. You have to pay at the beginning on the bridge to walk across and access the temple. The fee is only $0.86, but even that hardly seemed worth it considering how little there was to see, and also because there’s a bigger and better temple you can visit for free.
The Attractions in Hanoi That I Missed
That bigger and better free temple is Tran Quoc Pagoda on Thụy Khuê Lake. It’s the oldest temple in Hanoi, dating back 1500 years to the reign of Emperor Lý Nam Đế. Sadly, it was one of the key attractions in Hanoi that I failed to visit.
The other attractions that I really wanted to see but failed to do so were Ho Chi Minh’s Mausoleum, the Thăng Long Imperial Citadel, the Temple of Literature and the Hoa Lo Prison Memorial. I actually went to the prison memorial but they were closing, and also made it to the citadel just after they closed. Just as I once wrote about as the Law of the Traveler, I’ve just left things for my next visit to Hanoi.
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Headed to Vietnam? Here are my other articles for things to do in Hanoi, what to eat…and why you shouldn’t visit for New Year’s.
- Finding My Favorite Meals and Restaurants in Hanoi, Vietnam
- Celebrating New Year’s in Vietnam Wasn’t What I Expected
- Exploring Halong Bay: One of the New Seven Wonders of Nature
- Pho and Egg Coffee on the Old Quarter Street Food Tour in Hanoi with Lan
Here’s some extra reading to save hundreds on your next vacation or stage of your journey.