Despite there being some decent things to do in Hanoi, it’s more of a place to pass through than a destination in itself. It’s the gateway to northern Vietnam, which is one of the most beautiful regions of Southeast Asia, and spending one or two days in Hanoi before moving on to greener pastures (and mountains) is pretty much all you’ll need. I’ve passed through Vietnam’s capital a several times over the last few years and came up with a two day Hanoi itinerary that’ll show you some of the best things to do in Hanoi without wasting any valuable vacation time.
I’m not big on giving people specific, hour by hour itineraries, so this will all be pretty loose and interchangeable. On day one I’d recommend sticking to the “old town” area, where your hotel is likely to be. There’s heaps to see and it’s a good place to plan your voyage further north.
Hoan Kiem Lake
A good way to start your Hanoi experience is to take a walk through the hectic old town streets to Haon Kiem Lake. This serene oasis in the centre of the city is a good place for a relaxing stroll, or to meet local students who are keen to practice their English. You can also cross the iconic red bridge to the Temple of the Jade Mountain (Ngoc Son Temple), which is worth a quick look.
French Colonial Architecture
Hanoi’s old town is mostly made up of rail thin hotels and other not so old buildings. There are some remnants of the city’s French history though, and seeking them out will take you on an interesting journey through the city centre. St. Joseph’s Cathedral and the Hanoi Opera House should be on your hit list, but you’ll see heaps of others while wandering around the French Quarter.
The Hanoi Hilton
Being a guest of the Hanoi Hilton wasn’t something to celebrate. It was a prison (its official name was Hao Lo Prison) and the conditions were apparently less than ideal. John McCain, the former American presidential candidate was a “guest” at the Hanoi Hilton, as were many more US soldiers. Hao Lo Prison was built by the French and originally held Vietnamese political prisoners. It’s now a museum displays detailing life during the Vietnam / American War. If you’re interested in learning more about the war you can also visit the Vietnam Military History Museum, or you could wander around a wide range of other museums in the city.
Temple of Literature
I can’t believe I still haven’t been to this place. I planned to a few times but things always got in the way – last time it started raining really heavily just as we were about the walk there. It’s one of the oldest temples in Hanoi (parts of it date back to 1070). I’ve heard it’s one of the best things to do in Hanoi, so let me know if you’ve been to it and maybe I can add some of your thoughts to this post!
Ho Chi Minh’s Mausoleum
A slightly morbid visit to Ho Chi Minh’s Mausoleum is an interesting way to start a day in Hanoi. It’s only open in the mornings (8am – 10.15am every day except Monday and Friday), but is usually closed from September 4 to December 4 so his body can travel all the way to Russia for maintenance (I have no idea what that involves). A trip to see Ho Chi Minh’s body involves lots of waiting in lines, but you’ll eventually enter the mausoleum to get a quick glimpse of the body before being ushered back out again. Make sure to dress conservatively and act in a polite fashion – Ho Chi Minh is revered figure in Vietnam and you don’t want to show any disrespect.
Thang Long Citadel
Even though it was mostly destroyed in the 19th century, Thang Long Citadel is still one of the most interesting historic places in Hanoi. A few structures survived but it’s hard to tell what’s old and what isn’t – it’s a pretty big complex though and there are heaps of cool things to see. Thang Long Citadel was used by the Ly Dynasty between 1010 and 1810 and is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It was probably my favourite attraction in Hanoi and I’d say it’s one thing you shouldn’t miss.
Tran Quoc Pagoda
This ancient temple complex was moved to its current location (on a causeway over West Lake) in 1615, but as with a lot of things in Vietnam it’s pretty hard to tell how much of the “original” is still around. Despite that, Tran Quoc Pagoda is still worth visiting. There are several tall pagodas and various shrines to check out – it’s not the most amazing place but the lakeside setting and peacefulness make it worth a visit.
Quan Tanh Temple
Another temple claiming to be really old but looks fairly new, Quan Tanh Temple is close to Tran Quoc Pagoda and is easily tacked on to a visit there. You could be tempeled out by this stage in your Vietnam trip (assuming you’ve travelled up from Saigon) so you may want to skip this one. There are a few other temples in Hanoi, including Quan Su Temple and the One Pillar Pagoda. You’d have to be a bit of a completist to visit them all!
Water Puppet Shows
Traditional water puppet shows are a popular evening activity for tourists in Hanoi. I went to one on my first trip back in 2011 and really enjoyed it. I have no idea which theatre it was but I’d recommend going to one if you’re after a bit of culture.
Shopping in Hanoi
If you’re heading further north you might need to buy some warm clothes and hiking shoes. There are lots of shops selling this kind of thing in Hanoi and almost all will try and overcharge you. Bargain hard and remember the branded items are either fakes or rejects. I bought some decent shoes for around $25, and nice jackets should be $20 – $30.
Eating in Hanoi
Street side eating is one thing you definitely want to experience in Hanoi. Locals, ranging from the working class to sports car driving businessmen pull up to small street eateries complete with small plastic chairs and tables. The food is cheap and you get to meet plenty of friendly locals. You’ll find pho pretty much everywhere in Hanoi, but there are plenty of dishes to sample. If you’re after a bit of comfort food you should head straight to Yummy Hanoi, which sells delicious crepes.
Where to stay in Hanoi
There are hotels to suit all budgets in Hanoi, but it’s not quite as easy to find super cheap hotels as it is in other parts of the country. We walked around for an hour before finding a $10 room recently – there seems to be an abundance of mid-range options which don’t seem like they’re worth the extra money. If you’re arriving on a late flight it’s a good idea to book ahead, but if you’re arriving first thing in the morning on a bus it’s actually a bad idea, as you might not be able to check in until the early afternoon. If you find one when you arrive you should be able to check in straight away.
Why only two days in Hanoi?
You may have noticed that I do a lot of these “two days in …” posts for big cities. Major cities are very rarely best places to see in a country, with the obvious exception being Europe. The big cities in Southeast Asia are interesting enough, but most can be seen in a couple of days, allowing you more time to spend at beaches, in quiet riverside villages or hiking through jungles to waterfalls and sunset spots. For backpackers like me time often isn’t a huge deal, but I know most people who travel only have a week or two and want to make the most of it. Making the most of a trip to Vietnam means passing through the big cities quickly and spending more time in places like Hoi An, Phong Nha and Ha Giang.
FURTHER READING: Backpacking in Vietnam: Costs, Tips and Places to See
Where to go next
Ha Long Bay is the obvious choice, and it is an amazing place. The one night cruise is a solid option – book it in Hanoi (bargain hard) and it’ll include the bus ride to the coast. My favourite place in northern Vietnam is Ha Giang, a mountainous province on the border with China. Check out my posts about it and I’m sure you’ll be keen to go there!
Are you planning a trip to Vietnam? Which places are on your itinerary? Let me know in the comments below!
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