Vietnam’s capital may be known more than anything for its chaotic and motorbike-filled streets but I have to say that Hanoi has become one of my favourite Southeast Asian capitals.
There is something about the city that always puts it at the back of my mind as a destination I would want to visit again. It may be the tasty food or the fascinating history or simply the pulsating and distinctively Vietnamese vibe.
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 is something easy to execute if you are coming here only for the weekend or a short getaway.
Start the day early and get your bearings at the Lake Hoan Kiem, the focal point where touristic activities in Hanoi are concerned. 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 as well as the Ngoc Son Temple on the Northern side that 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 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 is a great time to head there to see how local commerce is done. The area offers a beguiling mix of stores housed in old shop houses. The streets are named according to the types of shops found there – there is a street for jewellery (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. If shopping is not your thing, you can check out some really local experiences such as conical hat making, calligraphy, pottery and even coffee shops.
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 facade. 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 its 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. Opening hours: 7:30 to 16:00 / Admission: Free
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. Opening hours: 8:00 to 17:00, daily.
It would be midday by the time you finish, just in time to take a short 15 minute walk to Train Street. Arrive here for about 1500 and experience a train ploughing its way through the narrow streets with only inches to spare from the surrounding buildings.
Spend the rest of the afternoon exploring the chic district of Tay Ho, one of the up and coming neighbourhoods of Hanoi filled with plenty of local designer boutiques, some of the city’s best international restaurants as well as trendy 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.
Spend the evening in Ta Hien (Beer Street) in the Old Quarter and sample to laid by vibes supping over a cocktail and some good Vietnamese local dishes.