Many people think Ho Chi Minh is the capital of Vietnam due to it being the largest city in the country and a central business hub in Southeast Asia. However, Hanoi is indeed the capital!
We found Hanoi to be very traditional compared to other major Asian cities; unlike Bangkok or Kuala Lumpur, there was a distinct lack of skyscrapers and tourists in sight.
Hanoi is a historical city with a brilliant night market, vibrant restaurant and café scene and it’s a great place to start or finish your Vietnam holiday. You can see most of the sites in a full 2 days – 3 nights, which is the perfect amount of time if you want to see as much as possible in 2 weeks. Many holiday seekers and travellers combine a Hanoi city break with a visit to the nearby Halong Bay, which we highly recommend doing.
Read on for our culture rich 2-day itinerary that is sure to leave you feeling enlightened…
Day 1 – Morning:
Hoan Kiem Lake – The mystical lake of Hoan Kiem (also known as the ‘Lake of the restored sword’) is an idyllic place to start your first morning. Get up bright and early for a Tai Chi class overlooking the lake as the sun rises. Simply pop over to the lake and ask if you can join one of the local classes – it’s a great way to energise yourself for a day of busy sightseeing.
After Tai Chi, stroll around the pretty lake and over to the iconic Japanese Bridge. In this area you’ll also find Ngoc Son Temple, which is a tourist hotspot, but also an active place of worship. Spend time admiring and taking pictures of these top Hanoi attractions before heading to a coffee shop for breakfast. Just make sure you cover your shoulders.
Coffee break – The west area of the lake has a number of colonial cafes and food stalls that have outdoor seating overlooking the river. We highly recommend ordering a traditional Vietnamese coffee. It’s particularly sweet and tastes unlike coffee we’ve tried!
Presidential Palace – After breakfast, jump in a taxi to Hanoi Presidential Palace (or you can take a scenic 40-minute walk). This area of the city is where most government events and processions take place and is rich in Vietnamese history. You’ll immediately notice the bold monuments and buildings that have a distinctive communist design. Visitors aren’t allowed access to the palace itself but for an entrance fee of 25,000VND (around £1), you can wander the neatly decorated gardens at your leisure. Guided tours are also available.
Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum – Located right next to the Presidential Palace is the iconic Mausoleum of Ho Chi Minh, Vietnam’s most renowned leader. This sight is one of the most popular in places to visit in the country due to Ho Chi Minh’s historic significance in the development of the country and the towering façade of the monument. Be sure not to cross the red boundary line! The armed guards mean serious business.
Lunch (Hanoi Social Club) – After an early rise and non-stop sightseeing, we’re sure you’ll be hungry. Take a taxi or 20-minute walk back into the old town for a spot of lunch at Hanoi Social Club. This was one of our favourite eateries in the city and welcomes locals, backpackers and hungry holidaymakers. The café has a ‘hip’ and ‘trendy’ vibe and plenty of Vietnamese and western foods to try.
Vietnam Military History Museum – Located a 10 minute walk away from Hanoi Social Club, the Vietnamese Military History Museum was one of the best we saw during our travels through Vietnam. It features countless large aircraft and vehicles from the past decade and an insightful view into Vietnam’s view of conflicts stretching back from French occupation to the US – Vietnam War. Learn something new and snap some intriguing pictures of the many artefacts. There’s even a full size tank and B-52 US bomber! Entry to the museum costs 40,000 VND (£1.40). Take note of the opening times before you arrive as they close at intervals throughout the day.
Hotel relaxation – After any busy of sightseeing we always pop back to the hotel for a couple of hours to re-energise, chill by the pool or nap, before heading back out on an evening. Feel free to do the same.
Night market – Hanoi night market is an experience not to be missed if you like gift shopping. Located to the north of Hoan Kiem Lake in the old town, the market sprawls 4 long streets. It’s a vibrant collection of food stalls, handmade gifts, fake designer clothing, snacks, apparel and many of the other items found in typical Southeast Asian markets. We actually found the Hanoi market to be one of the cheapest and least touristy night markets in Vietnam – ideal negotiating a bargain. You’ll find Hanoi to be one of the best places to buy authentic North Face branded clothing and accessories, for a fraction of the western prices. North Face is made in Vietnam and you’ll find it in on offer in many markets. Check for the trademark label and quality to ensure you’re not buying a fake.
Dinner – When it comes to food, Hanoi is arguably the best place in Vietnam. It has everything from cheap but delicious street food to romantic fine dining by the river. We’d recommend staying in the old town for dinner for the best atmosphere and less travelling around – we’re sure you’re tired after a busy day of seeing the sights. We recommend Red Bean Restaurant for classical Vietnamese food in a relaxed and nicely decorated environment, or a ‘hippie vibe’ restaurant called Lantern Lounge, where you can lie on large cushions, looking at a ceiling dotted with colourful lanterns whilst you eat.
Nightlife – If you’re eager to continue your adventure of a first day and check out the party scene in Hanoi or enjoy a few beers whilst people watching, the old town is the place to be. You’ll find a variety of bars on Ta Hien street, including our favourite, Nola Café on the next street along (Ma May). Alternatively, you can simply pull up a plastic chair outside one of the street food vendors and enjoy a cold beer with the locals. Hanoi isn’t the kind of place to have a big night of clubbing but there are some very cool bars to check out.
Day 2: Morning
Hoa Lo Prison – Hoa Lo Prison is a small museum that is very interesting and worth visiting. It’s a short stroll west of the old town and right next to Hanoi Police museum, so you can visit both together. The prison is rich in history and portrays the views and thoughts of the Vietnamese throughout the independence wars against the French and the US – Vietnam War, in which US prisoners of war were stationed there. Spend 45 minutes to an hour learning something you may not have known and reading the intriguing but somewhat biased views of the English translations.
Hanoi Police Museum – The police museum is set in a charming white colonial building that houses a number of artefacts and exhibits. It tells you the story about the Hanoi police force through the ages, including the ‘fight against the CIA’ and their influence in the city on the brink of the US – Vietnam War. The police museum is highly interesting for those that like history but also worth a quick browse if you’re only mildly interested.
Gift shopping in the Old Quarter – You would have already explored this area at night if you followed day 1 of our itinerary, however the Old Quarter is completely different during the day. It’s a bustling selection of 40+ narrow streets with low-rise buildings and no paths. That’s right, you have to walk on the road! The Old Quarter has a charming appeal with its variety of boutique shops and restaurants and this is one of the best places to buy gifts and souvenirs for cheap. What we particularly liked about the area was the large number of craft shops. It didn’t feel tacky at all! The Old Quarter is currently the top-rated place to visit in Hanoi on Tripadvisor and will give you a great glimpse into how the locals live and work.
Lunch – Also in the Old Quarter is the highly popular ‘Bahn Mi 25’ sandwich shop. You’ll find this unique take on a French baguette throughout the country, but we found Bahn Mi 25 to be one of the best. For less than £1 you can grab a satisfying Bahn Mi sandwich with meat choices, coriander, shaved carrot, hot sauce and cucumber, served warm. You have to try one!
Hanoi Ancient House – The cultural tour continues at Hanoi Ancient House, a traditional Vietnamese house typical of building in the area, built in the late 20th century. Walk around the house for a glimpse into how the locals lived and some continue to live. The house is quick to walk around but is a unique attraction in the city.
Chua Tran Quoc – Catch a taxi to Chua Tran Quoc temple. This small but impressive temple is located on the edge of the giant West Lake and is the oldest Pagoda/Buddhist temple in Hanoi. Monks have inhabited Chua Tran Quoc for centuries and continue to do so today, although tourists are welcome to explore some areas of this fascinating building and its grounds. The décor is Chinese inspired and features the bright red colour that you’ll see on many of the temples in Vietnam, symbolising ‘good luck’.
West Lake – West Lake overlooks Chua Tran Quoc Temple and is particularly impressive on a foggy day where it looks particularly mysterious. Walk around the edge of the lake and back to capture some great panoramic pictures of the Hanoi city riverbank.
Food tour – You’ve experienced nice restaurants, lunches and Bahn Mi’s, but one of the best ways to dive deep into Hanoi’s food flavours is with a street food tour. The Hanoi Street Food Tour is run by locals and aims to tantalise your taste buds with sample dishes from a variety of street stalls in the old town. Our advice – pace yourself and don’t eat too much at the first stall. You want to try as much as you can!
Hoan Kiem Lake at night – It would be crazy to visit Hoan Kiem Lake only once during your trip. An area of tranquillity during the day, Hoan Kiem comes alive on an evening. Families go for a walk around the lake, kids play alongside the river bank and newlyweds take pictures in front of the lit up Japanese Bridge backdrop. The whole area is lit up beautifully and sets a romantic scene for your evening. Enjoy a drink by the lakeside or go for a walk and soak in the atmosphere. We found the street artists and performers particularly amusing to watch.
Thang Long Water Puppet Theatre/Hanoi Opera – Being your final night in the city would be the perfect chance to catch a traditional show. Thang Long Water Puppet show is a popular choice if you haven’t seen one before and it’s located right next to Hoan Kiem lake. Alternatively, don your best outfit and head to the opera for a more classical evening.
The above itinerary is Hanoi city centre based, but there are dozens of outer city tours to the rice fields, local villages, rivers and of course the ‘not to be missed’ Halong Bay. The best way to see Halong Bay is on a 1 or 2-night cruise; check out our cruise recommendations in our comparison article here.
Other top sites if you’re in Hanoi for longer:
- Perfume Pagoda
- Vietnamese Women’s Museum
- Museum of Ethnology
- Visit a spa
- Temple of Literature
- Thap Rua Tower
- Imperial Citadel of Thang Long
Where to stay in Hanoi
In our opinion, the Old Quarter and Hoan Kiem Lake are the best places to stay in Hanoi. They’re central so you can walk to all of the main attractions, the areas are full of bustling Hanoi city life atmosphere and they’re not too touristy, as with most places in Hanoi. As with almost everywhere in Vietnam, hotels are very cheap compared to the west and your currency goes a long way. Location is everything but a nice hotel to relax and wake up in can make a great difference to your holiday too!
Hoan Kiem Lake accommodation
In addition to the beautiful lake and Japanese Bridge, Hoan Kiem Lake is the hotspot for luxury and boutique hotels and features some of the best in the city, including the infamous Sofitel Grand Metropole Hotel. Hotels are colonial in design and have a touch of class. We’d recommend the Silk Path Boutique Hotel in particular for its excellent location and welcoming colonial design. Hoan Kiem Lake is a quieter part of the city on an evening.
Old Quarter accommodation
The Old Quarter is one of the busiest and loudest areas of the city, but this also means that you get to immerse yourself deep into Hanoi city life and experience the wonders of the city. You’ll find lots of hostels adjoined onto bars and restaurants, hidden back alley guest houses and apartments to rent for all budgets. You’re in a central location for the night market and the more cultural and historical attractions and the bar and restaurant scene are vibrant throughout the week.