Vietnam’s capital may be known more than anything for its chaotic and motorbike-filled streets but I have to say that Hanoi remains to be one of my favorite Southeast Asian capitals. There is something about the city that always puts it at the back of my mind as a destination I’d want to visit again. It may be the excellent food or the fascinating history or simply the pulsating and distinctively Vietnamese energy. Whatever it is, each visit to Hanoi always leaves me with new finds and restaurants that I won’t hesitate recommending to friends.
For those looking to visit Hanoi, I have come up with this suggested itinerary for a quick visit. As it is just 2 days, it’s something easy to execute if you’re coming here only for the weekend or a short getaway.
General Tip: In Hanoi, a common scam occurs with some taxi drivers at the airport where they claim the hotel you booked has closed. This is a trick to get you to stay in another hotel where they can get commission. To avoid this, you can ask your hotel to pre-book your transport. Better yet, just take an UBER. The ride from the airport to the city should cost around $10 or VND ~220,000.
Start the day early and get your bearings at the Lake of the Returned Sword (Hoan Kiem Lake), the focal point where touristic activities in Hanoi are concerned. How the lake came about is the stuff of legends. In the morning, you will find locals doing tai-chi at the park encircling the lake. There is a pagoda in the middle of the lake – an often photographed structure – as well as the Ngoc Son Temple in the northern side which you can cross over to via a red bridge.
Afterwards, head east towards the French Quarter. You will find this area of Hanoi calmer, with plenty of small parks, charming turn-of-the-century hotels as well as buildings dating from the French period such as the post office.
By early afternoon, the cramped streets of the Old Quarter starts to buzz with life and that’s a great time to head there to see how local commerce is done. The area offers a beguiling mix of stores housed in old shophouses. The streets are named according to the types of shops found there – there is a street for jewelry (Hang Bac); a street for shoes (Hang Dau) and so on. You can easily spend the entire afternoon here, which is not a bad idea. Bach Ma Temple, said to be the oldest in Hanoi, is located here. For cheap souvenirs, head to Dong Xuan Market. Make sure to stop by Cha Ca La Vong for lunch.
In the late afternoon, you can head out of the Old Quarter and head southwest to see the imposing St. Joseph’s Cathedral with its neo-gothic façade. A fantastic dinner place I highly recommend, Madam Hien, is just a block or two away.
The Imperial Citadel of Thang Long is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and is open to the public. There isn’t much to see here these days so I would only rate it as an optional stop. But if you ever decide to make a visit, try to combine it with the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum as it’s within the same area.
Try to beat the queues and venture to Ho Chi Minh’s Mausoleum in the morning (weekdays are better). It’s free to enter. Do note that the venue is closed on Mondays and Fridays.
From here, it’s a short walk to the Presidential Palace, Ho Chi Minh’s Stilt House as well as the One-Pillar Pagoda. The latter’s exceptionally small size makes it one of the most iconic tourist attractions in Vietnam. As there is a good number of tourist attractions within the area, it’s often crowded here so try to avoid the weekend and public holidays if possible.
It would be midday by the time you finish, just in time to take an UBER to Quan An Ngon for lunch. The venue takes you on a quick culinary tour of Vietnam. While it’s possible to order from the menu, there are stalls that allow you to have a peek at various dishes before you order.
From Quan an Ngon, it’s around a 10 minute walk to the Temple of Literature. The spread of Confucianism in Vietnam is perhaps never more apparent than here. During imperial times, only the most gifted scholars were able to study here and the venue offers a good peek of life in the imperial era.
Spend the rest of the afternoon exploring the chic district of Tay Ho, one of the up and coming neighborhoods of Hanoi filled with plenty of local designer boutiques, some of the city’s best international restaurants as well as hipster cafes. Nha Chung Street is filled with plenty of great cafes and one to try off a small lane from Nha Chung (Au Trieu) is Oriberry. Otherwise for a great view of the lake, Summit Lounge – the rooftop bar of the Sofitel Plaza Hanoi – is the place to go.
Most people who visit Hanoi also make their way to Ha Long Bay or Ninh Binh. For booking of these tours, you can check out Vietnam tours which offers various excursions from Hanoi.
Getting Around: UBER is a cheap, safe and reliable way to get from point to point within Hanoi. Most trips between the various city attractions should not cost more than $5.
Entry Requirements: Certain nationalities may require a visa to enter Vietnam. It’s better to check beforehand. For visa services, you can try Vietnam Visa.