If you’re looking for one of the most bustling, vibrant and unique cities in Asia, then Hanoi is for you. The capital of Vietnam is one of our favourite cities in Asia and has so much to see, do and eat that you’ll find yourself struggling to fit everything in!
Fear not, we’ve put together a comprehensive two day itinerary that will cram in the best there is to do at the start of your trip (and should be on everyone’s Vietnam itinerary).
Day one - History and Culture
Make an early start as the first stop on your itinerary gets incredibly busy. If you get to Ho Chi Minh’s Mausoleum when it opens, you’ll be able to experience this place when there’s not so many people around and avoid long queues.
Ho Chi Minh is an important figure in modern Vietnam, being integral to the revolution against the French and the war against the Americans. He is seen as a father figure and Vietnam would look a lot different today without his leadership after the Second World War.
Like many other Communist Leaders in the 20th Century, Ho Chi Minh’s body was embalmed and placed in a mausoleum so people could see him for decades after his death. The Mausoleum is in a communist building in the middle of huge manicured gardens which also contains his old house, the Presidential Palace and a museum. You’ll see ceremonial soldiers marching up and down and a unique scene even before getting inside.
Once inside you won’t have long as the line is forced to move at a steady pace. You’ll be lucky to have more than a minute before being asked to move on. Seeing Ho Chi Minh’s body is a surreal experience, but the best way to start in Hanoi as you’ll see this man on every bank note and many murals across the city. Ho Chi Minh is to Vietnam what George Washington is to the USA - a person who is revered for changing the course of history in their country.
Getting to Ho Chi Minh’s Mausoleum
Ho Chi Minh’s Mausoleum is 3km away from the Old Quarter and 10 minutes away by taxi. It shouldn’t cost any more than 20,000 dong ($1 USD), but keep an eye out for the unscrupulous taxi drivers who love to rig their meters and double the price (or more!). It’s particularly difficult to pick up a legitimate one in this area to get back to town, the Grab app is your best bet.
Check out our guide to avoiding the scams in Hanoi to mitigate these kind of problems.
After the early start, it’s time for a morning coffee…. Vietnamese style.
At first we thought the sound of the speciality coffee in Hanoi sounded disgusting. Coffee, milk and egg and the hint it contained butter was not really a combination we were looking forward to. However, once you’ve tried one, you’ll begin to question everything you held true before this moment!
Giang Coffee is the original coffee maker and mastermind behind egg coffee and you’ll have it with the locals in an authentic setting. Once you’ve gone through a rabbit warren of rooms, you’ll reach an area with wooden stalls, tiny tables and fans. Giang is always busy, but you’ll be served pretty quickly with a really creamy and an unexpectedly delicious egg coffee! Try it because we promise you can’t actually taste egg.
If you really can’t bring yourself to have egg in your brew (we can understand), try the other Vietnamese favourite, iced coffee with condensed milk. This is also surprisingly delicious and something that hasn’t been replicated elsewhere - they’ve tried, but no one does it quite like the Vietnamese.
Getting to Giang from Ho Chi Minh’s Mausoleum
Be careful when getting a taxi from Ho Chi Minh’s Mausoleum as this is an area that is known for dodgy taxis. If possible, walk a few blocks away as you may have better luck there.
Giang is only a 10 minute taxi ride away from Ho Chi Minh’s Mausoleum and will place you right in the middle of the Old Quarter.
Read more: Phong Nha - a very special place in Vietnam
Now you’ve had your caffeine fix, you can take on the Old Quarter - the heart of Hanoi. These narrow streets are unlike anywhere else in South-East Asia as you’ll find shops on top of each other, food sellers on the road and motorbikes whizzing past you. It’s one of the unmissable things to do in Hanoi.
It’s an intense experience and most people’s first encounter with the Vietnamese love affair with the motorbike. Hanoi has five million motorbikes that serve the seven million people who live there, meaning that there are a lot of them on the road!
Even a simple thing like crossing the road can seem intimidating, but you’ll soon learn there is method in the madness. The key is to cross at a slow and steady pace without any sudden movements or stops. This will give the motorbikes time to anticipate where you’ll go and steer clear, enabling you to feel like Moses parting the Read Sea.
Simply wandering around aimlessly is fun in the Old Quarter as you’ll soon see specialist areas (we saw an area with dozens of toy shops that soon changed to mechanics and then tailors). You’ll be able to find anything you need.
Read more: Cat Ba Island - island bliss in Halong Bay
Getting to the Old Quarter
Giang Coffee is in the middle of the Old Quarter, so you can simply step outside and start walking. The Old Quarter are the narrow streets primarily to the north of Hoan Kiem Lake.
Read more: Sapa - why we didn’t love it
At the end of your walk, head towards Banh Mi 25 for a French lunch with a Vietnamese twist. We became addicted to Banh Mi for lunch as it packs in everything you love about a french baguette with the spices and flavours that make Vietnamese food so delicious.
Banh Mi 25 is a great option as the food here is good, cheap and popular with all travellers. We loved just sitting on a wooden stool and watching the bustle of the Old Quarter while we ate our lunch. The ones on the street are also great if you don’t need a place to sit for a while.
Once you can muster the energy to stand up after lunch, it’s time to see a bit more history. Head over to Hoa Lo Prison for a glimpse of the last 100 years in Hanoi.
Hoa Lo Prison is a tale of two important parts of Vietnamese History: the French occupation and the American War. It is a fascinating place to understand more of how Vietnam became the country it is today.
The prison starts giving a lot of information about how Hoa Lo was created by the French to imprison locals who they deemed as criminals or a threat. The conditions were horrific, with nothing in the way of comfort, proper food or basic ammenities. Prisoners were locked in manacles to benches and crushed into small spaces. Others were locked away in tiny, dark cells in solitary confinement. It is an exhibition of the horrific treatment of prisoners by colonialists in the 19th and 20th Century.
The rest of the prison takes you through the Vietnam War with the United States. Here is where it changes tone significantly as they claim how nicely prisoners of war were treated and there’s several pictures of smiling servicemen playing basketball or having Christmas Dinner. The contrast is huge and intentional. However, this isn’t the whole truth.
Don’t believe all you see
You will need to take with a pinch of salt everything in the prison as it is intentionally slanted as propaganda for the Communist Party. The revolution against the French was the birth of the independence movement and the brutality of the French occupiers is meant to be contrasted against the supposed benevolence of the Vietnamese to the American POWs.
Anyone who knows the experience of John McCain (the senator and presidential candidate) will know that for photos and film he was told to praise his prison masters, but was then tortured so severely that he couldn’t lift his hands above his shoulders. The Vietnamese were known for their brutality and didn’t actually declare any Americans as Prisoners of War, choosing to torture them barbarically outside of international law.
Don’t let this put you off going though. It is still interesting to see the Vietnamese government’s side of history. However, don’t believe all that you’re being fed!
Getting to Hoa Lo
Hoa Lo is only 1.5 km away from Bun Cha Huong Lien and should only take five minutes by taxi. It is open from 8am until 5pm each day but closed between 11.30am and 1.30pm for lunch.
Have an early dinner to fit in the Water Puppets and try something that is the most popular culinary export of Vietnam - Pho Bo. Newday is a locals favourite and really close to the theatre, so you won’t find a better place to chow down on this delicious local delicacy.
Pho Bo is a beef noodle soup that is made over the course of six hours! The broth is a complex combination of flavours which then has rice noodles, slices of beef, herbs and vegetables added to it. Pho is so delicious, it becomes addictive!
Newday was our favourite place for Pho as it is an unassuming, non-touristy, humble place that’s busy and has the nicest staff. You’ll be guided through the huge menu (if you want something different) and have a delicious meal that barely breaks $1 USD.
Getting to Newday
Newday is in the heart of the Old Quarter and is 3km away from Hoa Lo Prison. It should take 10 minutes by taxi depending on the traffic.
One of the surprise highlights of Hanoi for us was the Water Puppet show! This is even more surprising when you learn that the whole show is in Vietnamese, meaning we didn’t understand a word of it. Add in the several coaches of tour groups filling every seat and it’s shocking that we liked it so much!
However, the show is beautiful with traditional music throughout and stories being enacted by puppeteers using surprisingly intricate puppets to tell folk stories. You don’t have to understand Vietnamese to get a gist of the stories and you’ll even see the puppets do tricks like breath fire and set off fireworks.
Getting to the Water Puppet show
The theatre for the Water Puppets is right next to Hoan Kiem Lake and is a five minute walk from Newday.
Day two - the modern side of Hanoi
Now that you’ve seen the icons and history of Hanoi, day two will take you through a new and different side of Hanoi.
The Lotte Tower is a glimpse of the future Vietnam is flying towards. For the last few years, Vietnam has seen some of the highest rates of economic growth in Asia with new buildings popping up all the time.
The Lotte Tower sits to the west of the city centre and has a huge observation deck on the top floor. From here you’ll see across the whole city and begin to take in the changing face of the capital of Vietnam.
This is a tourist attraction, so obviously there are a few cheesy photo spots including a big heart to have your photo taken with. But the glass box observation spaces are actually pretty cool and makes for a good photo.
The only drawback of the Lotte Tower is that the smog can make it hard to see much! Even on a really clear day, the pollution of Hanoi can obscure a lot of the places you should see. Note that if you go before 10.30am you will receive a 50% discount on the otherwise very pricey entrance ticket which is otherwise 230,000 dong (approx was $10 USD).
Getting to the Lotte Tower
The Lotte Tower is 5km from the centre of Hanoi and should take about 15 minutes by taxi (depending on traffic).
For lunch, head to the viral sensation that is Obama Bun Cha! This is a great introduction to some incredible Vietnamese food in a place that was propelled to fame by Anthony Bourdain and Barack Obama devouring this locally made food on a set of plastic chairs.
You can visit the same restaurant (Bun Cha Huong Lien - make sure you don’t go to Number two or any others labelled as Obama Bun Cha which are fakes), the original is covered in pictures of Obama and Bourdain, and the menu has even been printed so you can buy the same meal they had.
What you’ll be greeted with is a sweet & sour broth with smokey pork patties with noodles. It is another one of those dishes which doesn’t sound half as good until you try it. Like all Vietnamese food, it is served quickly and is delicious.
Sadly there’s no vegetarian option though.
Getting to Bun Cha Huong Lien
Firstly, make sure you go to the right place (seen on the map below). There are a few copy cats in town and places that will claim they are the right place. Bun Cha Huong Lien is only 3km away from the Old Quarter and should take 10 minutes to get to by taxi.
In the afternoon it’s time to see a place off the traditional tourist trail that shot to popularity through social media: the aptly named “Train Street”.
Asia seems to have quite a few train streets - a place where the locals have built so close to the train line that there are only inches between their front doors and the train carriages. However, few seem quite as crazy as the one in Hanoi! As soon as you see it, you’ll realise why it’s one of the most instagrammable places in Vietnam.
The Train Street in Hanoi feels particularly narrow and you can walk down the train tracks to see locals living their everyday life. This all changes at 3.30pm every day as all the chairs, tables and belonging on the street are packed away as the train comes through, seeming to barely miss the walls.
The residents have become quite entrepreneurial with this and have set up drinks stalls for tourists wanting to see this daily event. Before the train arrives, you can enjoy a juice or even a beer in this now-famous street, before being rushed to the side to ensure you don’t get run over by the train!
Getting to Train Street
Ignore the location on google maps as Train Street is not north of Hanoi Train Station. Train Street is just south of Gare Ha Noi, between Kham Tien and Le Duan. It should only take five minutes from Bun Cha Huong Lien by taxi, but ensure you get a Grab for the next leg of the itinerary (the taxi drivers at Hanoi Train Station are rip-off merchants).
You can see the exact location marked on the map below.
For sunset, head to Hoan Kiem lake so see the sky light up behind the iconic Thap Rua. This little tower is built on the middle of an island in the lake to commemorate the victory over the Chinese that liberated Vietnam. It is a place that is full of myths and legends with grand stories about how Le Loi received a sacred sword from the Dragon King. After defeating the Chinese, a tortoise took the sword back and Le Loi believed it was on behalf of the Dragon King. That’s how the lake got its name: The Lake of the Returned Sword.
Getting to Hoan Kiem Lake
The best spot for sunset is on the Eastern Shore of the lake (you can see it on the map below). It is 3km away from Train Street and takes about 10 minutes if the roads are clear. We recommend hiring a grab driver from Train Street as few taxi drivers around the Train Station will accept a metered fare and try to charge extortionate fixed rates.
Where to stay in Hanoi
Holiday Emerald Hotel
We loved this hotel in Hanoi! Yo'u’ll struggle to find a friendlier and more helpful staff in South-East Asia. We actually stayed somewhere twice the price before and it was nowhere near as good.
Holiday Emerald is in the middle of the Old Quarter, meaning you can simply walk to many of the major sights. The rooms are spacious, clean, really comfortable and come with a good breakfast (we recommend the ice coffee as a “pick me up!”).
Make sure you request a room with a window ($10 extra) as many don’t have any. We’ve discovered this is a bit of a thing in Hanoi so check any hotel booking carefully.
Essential Items for Hanoi
You will want a daypack for exploring Hanoi and Pacsafe has been designed with travellers in mind. These bags have all kinds of locks and devices to stop people from trying to thieve your belongings as well as materials to ensure people can’t break in. If you’re worried about scams or pickpockets, this is the pack for you.
An essential item for when you plan to spend your whole day exploring the city. We’ve used Anker Powercores for years and love them as they can charge your phones and electricals for days.
A universal power adapter will mean you won’t have to carry several different adapters if you plan on visiting multiple countries. This one also has slots for you to plug in your usb cables for your phones as well.
Vietnam Lonely Planet Guide
The perfect resource for planning the rest of your trip. We don’t go to any country without having the relevant Lonely Planet Guide.
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Are you planning a trip to Vietnam? What are your favourite things to do in Hanoi? Let us know in the comments below!