Hanoi might be home to around 7 million people, but despite decades of population boom, the 1,000 year old capital still has something of a compact, local feel. The urban area sprawls out for a long way from the centre of town, but the main hotspots remain the old quarter and its surrounds, and West Lake just a few kilometers away.
With the right itinerary then, just about all of Hanoi’s best features can be experienced in two days. Here’s what we get up to when we visit Hanoi for a city break:
7am: Stroll through The Old Quarter, St. Joseph’s Cathedral and Hoan Kiem Lake
The streets are alive from an early hour in Vietnam. Food vendors, merchants and cafe-goers usually begin to stir from around six o’clock, while plenty of Hanoi’s pension age citizens can be found exercising from before 5 am in public spaces, before the heat and pollution becomes too much!
In Summer, early morning is one of the only times of day where it’s not far too hot, and in Winter it’s full on chilly, but the morning mist and fog makes Hanoi an even more mystical place. Use the early hours to stroll around Hoan Kiem Lake and through the old quarter before it becomes a hive of tourist activity. The narrow streets wind through characterful old French buildings, stained yellow and brown. (If you didn’t already know -- Vietnam was ruled by colonial France until the mid 20th century, and back then it was known as Indochina.)
A good target for your walk is the Gothic St. Joseph’s Cathedral, Hanoi’s architectural tip of the hat to Notre Dame in Paris. It was built in 1886 by the ruling French government, and is Hanoi’s oldest Christian church.
9am: Breakfast Time: Pho in Winter, Banh Cuon in Summer
Pho, that aromatic bowl of steaming noodle soup, is considered the national dish of Vietnam, and is in fact mostly a breakfast dish. Pho differs slightly from region to region, but North Vietnam is the place of origin, so it wouldn’t be a bad place to try a bowl.
If you’re in no mood for something to sweat inducing, a must-try local dish is Banh Cuon, which is more widely available in Hanoi than any other city. Thin delicate strips of rice batter lightly filled with stuffed with ground pork, wood ear mushrooms, and shallots. Slices of Cha Lua (cured pork sausage) and cucumber is usually served on the side, with a bowl of the national condiment Nuoc Mam Pha, a fish sauce based dipping sauce, laced heavily with chilli, garlic, and sugar.
10am: Hoa Lo Prison “The Hanoi Hilton”
While in one of Vietnam’s most historical cities, it’s worth checking out some of its past. Hoa Lo Prison was built by the French and used to incarcerate Vietnamese political prisoners during the Indochina Wars. Then in a twist of fate, the North Vietnamese began using it during the Vietnam War, when American POWs bestowed it with the darkly comic nickname “The Hanoi Hilton”. In fact, former US Senator and Presidential candidate John McCain was kept here for five years, between 1968 and 1973, after his fighter jet was shot down over Hanoi.
While the majority of the prison itself was demolished in the 1990s, the gatehouse remains and is today used as a museum, mostly depicting the incarceration of Vietnamese during the French Colonial era. It even includes an original Guillotine!
1pm: Bun Cha lunch
Another Hanoi’s must-eat dish is Bun Cha, which shot to worldwide fame in 2016 when Barack Obama and famous travelling foodie Anthony Bourdain chowed down on the northern specialty. Bun Cha is yet another pork and noodle dish (Vietnam has plenty of those, each as delicious as the other). Pork in the form of meatballs and succulent, fatty strips, comes swimming in a watery sauce of yes, you guessed it, sweetened fish sauce. Thin rice noodles are added along with a mixture of characteristic Vietnamese herbs, for a blast of freshness.
It can be eaten at any time of the day, but we love it at lunch time, since it’s a filling but light dish.
2pm: Ba Dinh Square, Ho Chi Minh’s Mausoleum and The Hanoi Citadel
It’s time to head away from the centre of town, just a few kilometres away, to the wide open spaces of Ba Dinh Square, the home of the Presidential Palace.
This is the spot where former President and revolutionary Ho Chi Minh delivered the Proclamation of Independence in 1945.
After his death in 1969, his body was embalmed deep within the northern Vietnamese jungle, and now it remains, fully preserved and on public display in his Mausoleum in Ba Dinh Square.
A few minutes walk will bring you further back through Vietnam’s history to the Imperial Citadel of Thang Long. It was built in the year 1010, back when Thang Long was the given name for what is now Hanoi.
5pm: Sunset over West Lake and Dinner
Away from the hubbub of downtown lies the far more relaxing West Lake (Tay Ho in Vietnamese), a vast freshwater lake where most of the city’s expat population lives. With international residents comes high level international dining and drinking.
If you’re after coffee, check out Maison de Tet Decor, Oriberry Coffee, or Space Bar. If a sundown drink appeals, any of Standing Bar, Turtle Lake Craft Brewery.
For food, just take a stroll along Xuan Dieu Street and you’ll be sure to find some excellent international food.
8pm: Bia Tuoi - Fresh beer at knockdown prices
If you’re in the mood for more of an upbeat vibe, why not hit the streetside for some good old fashioned Vietnamese drinking. Bia Tuoi simply means fresh beer, and the homebrew is served up on street corners around the city for a pittance (as low as 20 cents US per glass!) It’s a very low percentage drink, usually around just 3%, so it’s very crushable!
You’ll be able to find some in the Old Quarter for sure -- one of our favourites is Ta Hien beer street, but it can be a bit rowdy, and filled with young backpackers. We also really like the no-fuss Bia Hoi Duong Thanh, near Hoan Kiem lake.
9am: Dong Xuan Market
Before we get started informing you on all things Dong Xuan, it’s worth knowing that this place is also a very popular night market on the weekends. The streets all around the outside of the market turn into pedestrian-only market stalls, where you can buy anything from footwear to phone covers.
If you’re after more of an insight into everyday market life in Hanoi thoough, and not something geared so heavily towards tourists, Dong Xuan Market is a fantastic place to check out by day. The cavernous building is the largest indoor market in Vietnam, and here merchants sell just about any useful thing imaginable, in large wholesale volumes, from dried foods, kitchenware, hardware, and clothing.
11am: The Museum of Ethnology, the Temple of Literature & The Fine Arts Museum
Something not widely known about Vietnam is that the country is made up of 54 different ethnic groups. Around 85% belong to the group known as the Kinh (also called the Viet), nut aside from them, the other 53 minority groups, many of whom have their own language, help tell another side of the story of this land.
Hanoi’s Museum of Ethnology offers a great insight into the various groups that make up the embroidery of Vietnam, and is well worth the 7 km trip away from the centre of town.
If you’re back in town in good time, the 1,000 year old Temple of Literature is a sight to behold. It was built as a place of Confucian worship, but later became Vietnam’s Imperial Academy, where some of the land’s brightest minds came to study. Today, the temple exists mostly as a shrine to honour the beginning of formalised education in Vietnam.
A great alternative to the Temple of Literature, or indeed an extra place to go if you have the time and energy, is the Vietnam Fine Arts Museum. First off, it’s located in a beautiful old French colonial building, a stunning piece of art in itself.
Inside, there are enough artefacts and works of art to walk you through a history of art in Vietnam, from early Champa carvings all the way up to 21st century paintings and installations.
3pm: Train Street & Egg Coffee
In a residential neighbourhood on the edge of Hanoi’s old quarter, an old Vietnam Railways crosses Tran Phu Street twice a day. Before reaching the street crossing though, it chugs along a track which runs right through a narrow opening between the house, with only a few feet to spare on either side, even less in some places.
It’s just a part of life here, the residents know to clear away tables, chairs, motorbikes and hanging laundry, and children busy playing make their way indoors.
Train Street has become such an icon of Hanoi that visitors have begun to do as the locals do the rest of the time on the tracks, that is take a seat and have a coffee or a beer right by the iron railroad, watch the world go by, and wait for the train to roll by at 3pm, and again at 7pm.
As for Egg Coffee, yes it sounds weird, but it tastes really good. Think of it as more of a dessert than a cup of joe.
5pm: Have it your own way
We’re not here to boss you around! But if it was our last night in Hanoi, we’d just pull up a stool by the roadside, order a coffee, a beer or a cocktail and just soak up the atmosphere of a place. Travelling in a rush isn’t always a thrill, and it’s important to take a few moments, or even hours, to just drink a place in.
Get some dinner, have a stroll, find something no one else told you about. Random discovery is all part of the magic of travel.