Vietnam’s capital may be known more than anything for its chaotic and motorbike-filled streets but I have to say that Hanoi remains to be one of my favorite Southeast Asian capitals. There is something about the city that always puts it at the back of my mind as a destination I’d want to visit again. It may be the excellent food or the fascinating history or simply the pulsating and distinctively Vietnamese energy. Whatever it is, each visit to Hanoi always leaves me with new finds and restaurants that I won’t hesitate recommending to friends.
For those looking to visit, I have come up with this suggested Hanoi itinerary. Depending on whether you intend to visit Ha Long Bay and Tam Coc, this itinerary is something you can execute in as little as 2 days if you’re coming here only for the weekend or up to 4 days if you intend to make it a short getaway.
General Tip: In Hanoi, a common scam occurs with some taxi drivers at the airport where they claim the hotel you booked has closed. This is a trick to get you to stay in another hotel where they can get commission. To avoid this, you can ask your hotel to pre-book your transport or you can book one yourself here.
Heading to Central Vietnam? Check out this suggested itinerary for Hue, Hoi An and Da Nang
Day 1 – Old Hanoi
Hoan Kiem Lake
Start the day early and get your bearings at the Lake of the Returned Sword (Hoan Kiem Lake), the focal point where touristic activities in Hanoi are concerned. How the lake came about is the stuff of legends. 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 – an often photographed structure – as well as the Ngoc Son Temple in the northern side which you can cross over to via a red bridge. Opening hours: 8:00 to 18:00, daily / Admission: 30,000 dong (adult)
Afterwards, head east towards the French Quarter. You will find this area of Hanoi calmer, with plenty of small parks, charming turn-of-the-century hotels as well as buildings dating from the French period such as the post office. The neoclassical Hanoi Opera House in particular, is a fine example of the French influence. The building was modeled after the Palais Garnier in Paris.
By early afternoon, the cramped streets of the Old Quarter starts to buzz with life and that’s a great time to head there to see how local commerce is done. The area offers a beguiling mix of stores housed in old shophouses. The streets are named according to the types of shops found there – there is a street for jewelry (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 (daily 11AM to 2PM, 5PM to 9:30PM) 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 appreciation with Backstreet Academy. For foodies, you can go on a 3-hour food tour of the Old Quarter where you get to visit various eateries specializing in different dishes.
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 façade.
Day 2 – Monumental Hanoi
The Imperial Citadel of Thang Long (daily except Monday, 8AM to 5PM) 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 it’s within the same area.
Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum
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 10:30 / Admission: Free
Presidential Palace and One Pillar Pagoda
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
Lunch at Quan An Ngon
It would be midday by the time you finish, just in time to take a cab ride to Quan An Ngon for lunch. The venue takes you on a quick culinary tour of Vietnam. While it’s possible to order from the menu, there are stalls that allow you to have a peek at various dishes before you order.
Temple of Literature
From Quan an Ngon, it’s around a 10 minute walk to the Temple of Literature. The spread of Confucianism in Vietnam is perhaps never more apparent than here. During imperial times, only the most gifted scholars were able to study here and the venue offers a good peek of life in the imperial era. The sprawling complex is filled with courtyards, pavilions and ponds and showcases the extent of Chinese influence in Vietnam. Opening hours: 8:00 to 17:00, daily / Admission: 30,000 dong (adult)
Shopping and Cafes at Tay Ho
Spend the rest of the afternoon exploring the chic district of Tay Ho, one of the up and coming neighborhoods of Hanoi filled with plenty of local designer boutiques, some of the city’s best international restaurants as well as hipster 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 Pan Pacific Hanoi – is the place to go.
Sky High Views at Sky Lotte Observation Deck
For a bird’s eye view over Hanoi, you can head to Lotte Center for the Sky Lotte Observation Deck. At 65 floors up, you can spot some of the city’s landmarks from the viewing gallery. A highlight here is the Skywalk where visitors get to walk on the floor is made of glass. Best time to visit is around 5 to 6PM – it’s a great place to catch the sunset. You can get discounted tickets here.
Day 3 – Ha Long Bay & Other Excursions
Ha Long Bay (Day Trip or Overnight Option)
Most people who visit Hanoi also make their way to Ha Long Bay. For booking of these tours, you can check out Vietnam tours which offers various excursions from Hanoi. While going to Ha Long Bay is practically a “yes” for most, the main decision you’d likely be facing is whether you should stay overnight in Ha Long Bay or just make it a day trip?
An overnight stay in Ha Long Bay will definitely enable you to visit more spots and you can climb the jagged peaks of some of the islands as well on a longer cruise to get a bird’s eye view of the bay (for example, in Titop Island). This is something you would not be able to do on a day trip though if you are really lacking in time, there’s little other choice.
If you decide to go for a day trip, you can expect a few hours’ cruise along the bay, a seafood lunch, some time for kayaking and exploring a cave called Thien Cung Cave. You can book the Ha Long Bay day tour here.
If you decide to go for an overnight cruise, you can expect the same highlights from the day tour plus around 2 more caves, a nice view point from Titop Island, an additional dinner and breakfast plus a likely cooking class.
Tam Coc / Hoa Lu
If you have already been to Hanoi before and are looking for a different day trip option, a journey through the river valleys of Tam Coc / Hoa Lu is also worthwhile. The landscape is lush and the experience is quite fun as you ride a small bamboo boat down the river surrounded by limestone rock formations.
Travel Tips for Hanoi
- In this age of uncertainty, you might wish to get travel insurance. If you reside in Singapore, check out Starr Travelead, one of the cheapest travel insurance. They have a promotion that comes with S$10 cash rebate that helps to offset the insurance cost. For those residing elsewhere, Worldnomads is dependable with its many inclusions for claims.
- Do note that Hanoi has a pronounced winter season from November to February. A jacket would come in handy. If you visit during these months, there’s a possibility you might not even see any sunshine. On the other hand, July and August is a very humid time in Hanoi. Even if it just says 30 to 32 degrees celsius in the thermometer, you’ll sweat buckets.
- You can pay in USD in many places including shops, restaurants and other tourist-oriented establishments. This does not apply to the small eateries or groceries.
- For those who constantly need to be online, you can purchase local sim cards upon arrival at the airport.
Where to Stay in Hanoi
I’ve been to Hanoi twice and a hotel I can personally recommend is the La Sinfonia del Rey Hotel which conveniently overlooks Hoan Kiem Lake. Rooms are incredibly sleek and I found the clouds painted on the room’s ceilings to be quite relaxing. For a slightly cheaper option, you can check out La Mejor Hotel located in the Old Quarter. Alternatively, you can use this aggregator HERE to compare for the best prices for hotels in Hanoi with just one look.
Getting Around: GRAB is a cheap, safe and reliable way to get from point to point within Hanoi. Most trips between the various city attractions should not cost more than $5.
Entry Requirements: Certain nationalities may require a visa to enter Vietnam. It’s better to check beforehand. For visa services, you can try Vietnam Visa.