Hanoi First Impressions
After a short, three hour flight from Singapore, we arrived in Hanoi. Crowded. Chaotic. Full of new sights and sounds. We stepped into the arrival area. It was already overwhelming. Fortunately, we had booked a transfer to our hotel and soon located our driver. We were ready for our Hanoi adventure. Below we are sharing our recommendations for a Hanoi 5 Day Itinerary—how you can make the most of your time in the city.
Orienting to Hanoi
More than 7.5 million people live in Hanoi. By our estimate, there are at least 25 million motor bikes and cars. And, no more than three traffic lights in the city. The sidewalks are parking lots for motor bikes, showrooms for businesses and tables/seating for restaurants. Oh, and also places to burn wood, and to cook.
What does this mean for pedestrians? We walk in the street with the cars and motorbikes.
Now, most Vietnamese claim that it is easy to cross the street in Hanoi. Just start walking slowly and steadily and the bikes and cars will go around you. So they say. See below for a Hanoi native’s street crossing technique.
When Reggie and I crossed the street, it started with us looking all around, then a 10 minute discussion about the strategy we should employ to get across safely. Generally, it ended with us deciding to wait for a local to follow across the street. If there was no local to follow, we held hands and prayed.
Well, by the end of our trip, we had mastered crossing the street with a little more decorum.
Hanoi-A (Very) Short History
Many people in the US and France likely associate Hanoi with the Vietnam War (known as the Resistance War Against America by many Vietnamese). Hanoi, however, has been the most important city in Vietnam for more than 1,000 years. It was the capital from 1010 to 1802 and then again after 1945 (from 1802-1945 Hue was the imperial capital). Hanoi was the administrative center for the French.
The Japanese occupied Vietnam during World War II. The occupation was very brutal and repressive. At the end of WWII after the Japanese had surrendered, Ho Chi Minh and the Vietnamese National Assembly picked Hanoi as the capital of the newly established communist North Vietnam.
The French tried and failed to re-establish their control over Vietnam and the next decades were consumed by war. First, against the French for independence, then against the US and finally, between North and South Vietnam.
As the French withdrew, the US entered Vietnam in a (misguided) effort to stop the spread of communism through southeast Asia. This ultimately failed. More than 2 million Vietnamese civilians, 1.5 million North and South Vietnamese soldiers and 60,000 US servicemen died during the war.
In 1976, North Vietnam conquered South Vietnam and Vietnam became a unified, communist country. Many people and families in the South Vietnamese opposition fled the country. At that point, Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia were all communist countries.
Obviously, this is a very abridged version of more than a thousands years of history and a very, very brief synopsis of the Vietnam War. There is much more much to be said about the wars and history, but that goes beyond the scope of this post.
Vietnam and Hanoi are thriving and have one of the fastest growing economies in the world. According to Hanoi’s Department of Tourism, 24 million people visited last year (we’ve also seen a contradictory number of 12 million reported), the majority from Asia, but increasingly from Europe and North America.
20 Places to See In Hanoi Itinerary 5 Days
Hanoi in 5 Days allows for discovery and taking things slower. Three days is the minimum amount of time that you should spend in Hanoi. We actually had 7 days in Hanoi, we spent 5 days in Hanoi and then did a Halong Bay cruise for the rest of our time. In addition to Halong Bay, there are some wonderful side trips to take from Hanoi.
Below are 20 sights and activities that you should do in Hanoi.
1. Wander the Old Quarter
There are so many ways to see the old quarter, but the best way is by foot. We loved getting lost in the small streets and alleyways. The Old Quarter is the best place to stay in Hanoi so we recommend leaving your hotel and then wandering. Give yourself a few hours to wander and discover. Stop for coffee or lunch at a sidewalk restaurant.
2. Go to a Water Puppet Show
We went to the Thang Long Water Puppet show near the Hoan Kiem Lake (9:15 pm show). The show is 50 minutes long and very entertaining. The puppetry is amazing. We went in low season and many shows were sold out. Get your tickets in advance, especially if you are not flexible about time/day.
Tickets costs 200,000 VND). There is a ticket booth and machines outside the theatre.
Address: 57B Dinh Tien Hoang – Hoan Kiem
3. Hoan Keim Lake and Ngoc Son Temple
Visit the Ngoc Son temple (entry fee is 30,000 VND) in Hoan Kiem lake (also called Lake of the Restored Sword). The outside of the temple is currently being restored, but the inside is still lovely to see. The Temple was built in the 19th century.
The bridge leading to the Temple is one of the most photographed in Hanoi. Make sure to see it at night when the red lights reflect on the lake.
You can also walk around the lake. We recommend doing this on the weekend when the streets are closed to car/motorbike traffic.
4. Ho Chin Minh Mausoleum and Grounds
Going to see Ho Chi Minh’s Mausoleum is an experience that you should not miss. We arrived on a weekday around 9 am and only had to wait 20 minutes to get in. Go early as the lines get long, and more importantly, we heard conflicting accounts of what time the site closes. On the grounds are the Mausoleum, Ho Chi Minh Museum and the Presidential Palace. The Mausoleum is free, but there are charges (40,000 VND each) for the other sites.
Visiting the Mausoleum is an experience. No cameras/cell phones are allowed and you’ll have to check your camera inside the grounds. You’ll be asked to line up in twos and then be marched into the mausoleum. No talking. No hats. Or pictures. Or stopping. You walk slowly and quietly around the display and back out onto the grounds. It is highly synchronized and lasts only a few moments..
You can see Ho Chin Minh’s Presidential Palace from the outside, but you will not be allowed inside. You can go in his famous stilted house, see his cars, the pond and walk the grounds that he walked.
The Museum is a history of Ho Chi Minh and the Vietnamese revolution. It is very interesting and very focused on Ho Cho Minh, or Uncle Ho as he is called.
5. Visit Lenin in Lenin Park
A few blocks from Ho Chi Minh is a large statue of Lenin in Lenin Park. It’s worth walking by. There are not many places to see a statue of Lenin anymore.
6. Hanoi Ceramic Mosaics
The Hanoi Ceramic Mosaics are an adventure to see. You likely saw them on the drive from the airport. We recommend experiencing them slowly and up close. They are in the Guinness Book of World Records as the longest mosaic in the world.
For information on how to see the Murals and Mosaics, read Hanoi Highlights Street Art and Mosaics.
7. Murals of Hanoi & Street Art
The Murals of Hanoi are located along the north end of Phung Hung street under the railway. Officially called the Vietnam-Korea Joint Project Public Art for Better Space (NGHE) and listed in Atlas Obscura, the mural contain historical scenes in Hanoi and many appear to have optical illusions. People often take photos interacting with the murals.
Hanoi does not have a big street art scene, but you can catch sight of street art in alleyways as you are walking through the city. You have to keep your eyes pealed and be adventuresome.
8. Temple of Literature
We happened to be at the Temple of Literature on graduation day. We saw many students in their gowns paying homage at the Temple. Built in 1070 and originally dedicated to Confucius, the Temple was historically more of a place of learning than worship. It was Vietnam’s first university and was open from 1076-1779. The layout of the temple is modeled after Confucius’ birthplace. In the third courtyard, you will find sets of turtles—behind them are the names of 1,307 graduates from 1442-1779.
It was fun to be at the Temple with the excitement of the young graduates.
Address: 58 Quoc Tu Giam Street | Dong Da District, Hanoi 100000, Vietnam
9. Vietnamese Women’s Museum
The Vietnam Women’s Museum is an intriguing combination of traditional and revolutionary approaches to the history of women in Vietnam. The Museum has sections devoted to revolutionary women on one floor and marriage, fashion, family and childbirth on the other floors. It is one of the must see museums in Hanoi. We were struck by the portrayal of the major roles that women played in the Vietnam war—they handled guns, heavy artillery, led units, gathered intelligence and risked their lives for their beliefs and their country.
Address: 36 Ly Thuong Kiet | Hang Bai Ward, Hoan Kiem District, Hanoi 100000, Vietnam
10. Hoa Lo Prison
Hoa Lo Prison is a must see for anyone interested in the political history of Hanoi. The Prison was used by the French during the occupation to imprison Vietnamese political activists and by the Vietnamese to hold American POWs during the Vietnam War (including the late Senator John McCain).
It was chilling to see the conditions the Vietnamese prisoners were held in. There is a lot of propaganda about how well the US GIs were treated at Hoa Lo (which the GIs called the Hanoi Hilton). There is also a good exhibition on US/Vietnamese relations since then.
11. Experience Train Street
The Train Street is another Hanoi experience listed in Atlas Obscura. Several times a day, a train passes through a Hanoi neighborhood just inches from the houses. There are cafes and coffee shops in the area set up for tourists to hang out. The train comes two times a day, though again, we were given conflicting information about what time. We saw the 3:20pm train. It was loud and longer than we expected. It left us both a bit scared, and appreciative of the families that live through it everyday.
The train street is located between Le Duan and Kham Tien street in Hanoi’s Old Quarter. The exact lane the train passes along is called Ngo 224 Le Duan.
12. Take a Cooking Class
Many restaurants in Hanoi offer cooking classes. We often take a cooking class when we travel to learn more about the local food and culture. In Hanoi, we took a class at Duong’s and it was one of the best classes we have ever taken. Albert, the chef was a wonderful teacher. On the market tour, he taught each of us to speak Vietnamese and had us purchase some of the ingredients for dinner. We then went back and worked with him to cook three dishes.
After cooking, we had a wonderful dinner of the food we had cooked.
Duongs (U$55/person), the 4 hour class includes a visit to the market to purchase ingredients for making your meal
13. Old City Gate and Water Tower
The Old City Gate (Quan Chuong) was built in 1749 and is the last remaining gate. It is named after a military leader who died fighting the French in 1843.
A short walk from there is the Water Tower (Bot Hand Dau). Built in 1894, it was used as a hiding place by Vietnamese resistance fighters during the war. The water tower sits in the middle of 6 streets (Hang Than, Hang Luoc, Hang Giay, Hang Dau, Quan Thanh and Phan Dinh Phung streets)
Address: 56 Hang Chieu | Dong Xuan, Hoan Kiem, Hanoi 100000, Vietnam
14. West Lake Pagoda
West Lake is one of the largest lakes in Hanoi. The Pagoda sits in the lake by the Thanh Nien road that splits the lake in two. The Pagoda is lovely but be mindful that it closes from 11:30-1:30 every day.
15. Quán Thanh Temple (Place of the Gods)
The Quán Thanh Temple is a Taoist Temple located a short walk away from the Pagoda at West Lake. The temple dates to the 11th century during the reign pf Emperor Ly Thai Quan. It is beautiful and tranquil place. There are many bonsai trees in the temple (and in the other temples that we visited).
16. Hanoi Opera House
Built by the French and opened in 1902, the Hanoi Opera House is a good example of French architecture in Vietnam. We weren’t able to see a performance at the Hanoi Opera House, but went by to see the building. There are traditional music, dance and other performances at the Opera House. Going to a performance should be on your Hanoi Itinerary.
17. Long Bien Bridge
The Long Bien Bridge is a historic bridge that crosses the Red River. Many people say that is was designed by Gustav Eiffel (designer of the Eiffel Tower), but it was more likely designed by the firm of Daydé & Pillé of Paris. The original bridge was bombed during the war, then reconstructed. Only motor bikes are allowed on the bridge. If you find the staircase, you can walk onto the bridge. It is across the street from the end of the Hanoi Ceramic Mosaics, so remember to take a look at them while you are at the Bridge.
18. Shopping at the Night Market and in the Old Quarter
If you are in Hanoi on a Friday, Saturday or Sunday night, the Night Market should be on your Hanoi Itinerary 5 Days. It’s full of clothes, electronics, and many other things for tourists as well as locals. We also had the best satay of our visit from a street vendor there. Be careful with bags and wallets at the night market and there are reports of pick pocketing. The Night Market starts at Hang Dau Street.
You’ll see countless stalls selling North Face and other outdoor wear throughout the the Old Quarter. Bargain with the merchants and compare prices before you buy.
19. St. Joseph’s Cathedral
Opened by the French in 1889, St Joseph’s is the oldest church in Hanoi. From 1954-2008, the church was closed by the communist government. The interior is worth seeing, but the church has sporadic opening hours (we went in right before noon and it was closing in 15 minutes). Walk in if you see it open, it may not be open again.
It is at the end of the Nha Tho (Church) Street and the corner of Pho Nha Chung
20. Drink Coconut Coffee at a Cafe
Sitting at a Cafe and watching the people and traffic is a must do activity in Vietnam. We did it on our last day, sitting in the low slung Vietnamese chairs, and enjoyed the sounds of the city. We particularly liked seeing the motorbikes loaded high with boxes going by. While you’re at it, make sure to have at least one meal of one of the sidewalk restaurants.
Coconut coffee is very sweet coffee and worth trying once (more if you have a sweet tooth).
Getting Around Hanoi
There are many ways to get around in Hanoi. You can call a taxi or motorbike with Grab. Both are relatively cheap. Rent a bicycle. Take a motorbike or cycle tour. Use the hop on hop off bus.
You’ll need to be careful about hailing a taxi on the street as there are many reports or high fares, rigged meters and scams. When we were there, Uber was not in Hanoi.
We walked almost everywhere. Part of the joy of Hanoi is getting lost and stumbling upon a neighborhood or street art or a great cafe. Give yourself time to do that, especially in the Old Quarter.
Hanoi Itinerary 5 Days
Below is a recommended itinerary for 5 days in Hanoi. The days are organized according to proximity of sites (meaning the Day 1 sites are listed in order based on how close they are to each other). We including approximations for the amount of time you should allocate for each place, though these will be longer or shorter depending on your interests. The days can be done in any order if you are more interested in one topic area. You could also chose to do three days and a Halong Bay tour instead.
First Day (Old Quarter)
Wander the Old Quarter (2 hours)
St. Joseph’s Cathedral (15 minutes)
Stroll around the lake and visit the Ngoc Son temple (1-2 hour)
Have lunch at a local restaurant, on the street if you are adventurous
Go to a Water Puppet Show (1 hour)
Have dinner in the Old Quarter and wander around near the Lake at night (evening)
Second Day (Vietnamese History & Street Art)
Ho Ch Minh Mausoleum, House and Museum (3 hours, could be longer depending on lines)
Walk to Lenin Park (30 minutes)
Temple of Literature (1 hour)
Train Street (arrive at 3 pm for 3:20 train)
Street Art on Phung Hung St (1 Hour)
Third Day (Ceramics Mosaic and Local Experiences)
Hoa Lo Prison (2 hours)
Vietnamese Women’s Museum (2 hours)
Walk towards Hanoi Opera House (to get to Ceramics Mosaic)
Hanoi Ceramic Mosaics (1 hour)
Long Bien Bridge (30 minutes)
Take in performance the the Hanoi Opera House (evening)
4th Day (Relaxing and Cooking)
Old City Gate and Water Tower
Cooking class (4 hours, either 9-1 or 2:30-6:30)
5th Day (Lakes and Coffee)
West Lake Pagoda (1 hour)
Quán Thanh Temple (1 hour, including walk)
Spend time at a Cafe Drinking Coconut Coffee (1 hour)
Shopping, if you haven’t already (rest of the day)
Substitutions for Days 4 and 5: Ha Long Bay and other Day Trips
Most travelers spend at least one day visiting Halong Bay. We did a 3 day Halong Bay cruise. One day to Ha Long Bay is really short and we’d advise spending at least 2 days.
Other popular day trips include Ba Dinh and the Perfume Pagoda.
Eating in Hanoi
We loved eating in Hanoi. The food is cheap and interesting. We like to go to restaurants frequented by locals or recommended to us by locals. Lastly, we are adventuresome (but careful) and will eat street food.
Note: when we were in Hanoi, the exchange rate was 23,000 Dong = $1 USD. Unless otherwise noted, all of the meal costs below are for 2 people.
Address: 1 Hang Manh St
Upon checking into our hotel, we decided to venture out for our first meal in Hanoi. Mr Hung, the receptionist recommended Bun Cha, just down the street from the hotel. Bun cha is grilled pork in a noodle soup. The fatty pork was extremely tasty, the broth flavorful and you can order it as a combo with fried spring rolls. 2 bowls of bun cha with a plate of spring rolls cost 125,000 VND.
Pho Xao (fried pho with beer & vegetables)
Address: 11 Hang Buom St
Check out this restaurant only if you’re prepared to sit on the little stools and tables at the sidewalk along with other Vietnamese diners. One of our very favorite and most delicious meals, the menu offered only a few choices – fried pho with vegetables and cow muscles. We noticed a division of labor going on. There are 3 separate stations each frying up different items: one for the noodles, another for the vegetables and finally, the main chef combining both with the meat. This is excellent especially with Hanoi Beer. Our meal of 2 plates of fried pho and 1 bottle of beer came to 140,000 VND.
Address: 6A Duong Thanh St, Cua Dong
This was our one splurge meal for New Year’s Eve. Grandma’s had a 5 course set dinner special (790,000) and another set with wine pairing at 1,496,000 VND. We felt it was too much food for the 2 of us so we chose from the menu and ordered an appetizer of fresh spring rolls (148,000). We also ordered Grandma’s signature dishes of deep fried duck (299,000) and fried rice with seafood in claypot (169,000). Stir fried seasonal vegetables (119,000) rounded out the meal. The spring rolls, vegetables and duck were excellent but the seafood rice a little on the dry side.
Duong’s Restaurant and Cooking School
Address: 27 Ngo Huyen St (cooking school is at another location)
While we did not eat at Duong’s (they had a similar 5 course set dinner at 680,000), we did a cooking class with one of the chefs. Duong was a finalist (3rd place) of the Vietnamese Iron Chef show.
The cooking class was US$55 per person, and there are 2 classes every day (starting at 9:00am-1:00pm and 2.30pm-6:30pm). Our class was intimate with only 4 students. Albert, our chef and teacher, took us in individual cyclos to the market. He was very patient and instructive, taught us basic Vietnamese words, pointed out the vendors to buy fresh ingredients from during our visit to the market. He also introduced various Vietnamese snacks and fruits along the way.
We had a lot of fun and ate very well at the end of the class. Not only was cooking class a great way to learn more about Vietnamese cuisine, it was also a wonderful way to meet other travelers.
Cafe Ga Dong Duong (Train St Cafe)
Address: 5A Chan Tau Tran Phu, Quan Ba Dinh, Thanh Pho
This very enterprising little cafe along train street sells more than cold drinks and coffee. We had bowls of chicken pho and coffee while waiting for the 3.20 pm train to pass by. The owner had lined up the little stools and chairs along the walls on each side of the tracks, and you can sip the quintessential egg coffee while waiting. The cafe also has a second story and the passing train can be viewed from there as well.
10 mins prior to the arrival of the train, the staff folded up the chairs and made everyone lined up against the walls to avoid being hit by the oncoming train. It was exhilarating while it lasted!
Pho 10 Ly Quoc Su
Bun Bo Nam Bo
Address: 67 Hang Dieu St, Cua Dong
Our final meal in Hanoi was had at this eatery (again recommended by our hotel). We ordered warm marinated beef salad (comes with noodles in a sweet & sour sauce), stewed chicken in broth – both excellent dishes originating from the south. We also ordered some pork rolls and a deep fried bun. Cost 157,000 VND.
Address: 54 Hang Dieu St, Cua Dong
Cong Caphe serves traditional egg coffee, coconut coffee, ice coffee, matcha tea and various smoothies (if not a coffee or tea drinker). This was a great place to sit and watch the traffic and people. 90,000 VND
(soft fluffy buns), 34 Hang Gai
We stumbled upon this place after the water puppet show. People and motorcyles were lined up to buy the buns. We joined them and were rewarded with wonderful, warm, sweet buns fresh from the oven. The Vanilla and Matcha flavored buns were delicious. 15,000 VND a piece.
Where to Stay
We stayed at the Hilton Hanoi Opera prior to our Halong Cruise trip. Note that the Hotel does not use the name Hilton Hanoi because of the historical connotations.
The hotel restaurant offers an excellent cooked to order and buffet breakfast and various western and Asian choices. They were very accommodating relative to our need for an hypoallergenic room. The bed was comfortable and bathroom large enough to hold a walk-in shower and tub. There’s also a large safe in the room and complimentary fruit and bottled water.
After our cruise, we stayed in the Old Quarter at Holiday Emerald Hotel. We picked this hotel due to its excellent reviews and ideal location. The newish boutique hotel (about 2 years old) has only 17 rooms with a 24 hour reception and very helpful staff. Every morning, we looked forward to having the cooked to order breakfast in addition to the buffet. Their suggestions for sites, recommendations on food and importantly warnings about hailing taxis from the street made our stay even better. The service is excellent.
We did not find Hanoi to be very accessible. The Old City is very challenging to travel in given the use of the sidewalks for parking and restaurants. The pavement is very uneven. Many sites have have steps if not at the entrance, inside of the building. Many of the museums are accessible and have elevators.
We traveled to Hanoi as a lesbian couple and spent time with a gay couple that are friends of ours from the US. We didn’t have any incidents that caused concern for us a gay and lesbian travelers. There is are reportedly some LGBTQ friendly bars and restaurants in Hanoi but we did not have time to visit any of them.
Hanoi is a good city for family travel as long as you can deal with crossing the street. The Hanoi Water Puppets is a good activity. When walking the Old City, you’ll also find flower street, toy street and some of the streets that are good for children. Taking a ride on a cyclo is also a great adventure. On the weekends, walking along Hoan Keim Lake, there are many opportunities to rent scooters, skates and little motorized cars. The street is closed to traffic on the weekend. Many of the temples are good activities for families and children. Some museums may not be appropriate for younger children (Hoa Lo, Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum).
We rented a pocket wifi to stay connected in Hanoi. We booked the wifi in advance and picked it up from Changi Airport in Singapore before we left. It was very useful to have. You can also purchase a local sim card. Many of the hotels and restaurants have free wifi.
8 Tips for Enjoying Your Hanoi Itinerary
We found Hanoi to be a wonderful place to visit. Here are some tips that will make your stay an excellent one.
- Be adventuresome. Wander the streets with no destination and enjoy the experience of being in Hanoi.
- Decide on your Hanoi Itinerary before you go, but don’t get too attached to it. Throw it out and go somewhere you didn’t know about before.
- Crossing the street is an adventure. Try following the locals at first. By the end of your stay, you will be more adept.
- Eat like the Vietnamese on little chairs and tables on the sidewalk.
- If you see a line at a restaurant, go there. You’ll find the places where the locals eat.
- Don’t be afraid to bargain. Check the price at multiple stalls so you get a sense of the average price first.
- Convert your money to Vietnamese Dong. The local merchants will not give you a very good exchange rate if you use USD, Euros or your local currency.
- Bringing a pocket wifi or purchasing a local SIM card is very helpful for getting around the city and booking Grab when needed.
Have you been to Vietnam or Hanoi? Planning to Go? Why or Why Not?
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