Hanoi offers a great balance of museums, walks, architecture, delicious food and shopping in a wonderfully exotic atmosphere. This is our suggested itinerary for 72 hours or 3 days in Vietnam’s capital. While there are more interesting sites in Hanoi than any other city in Vietnam, some of the highlights will be the little encounters that you’ll have walking the streets and making your way around the city. We recommend covering as much of Hanoi on foot as possible.
Parts of Hanoi are pedestrian friendly but the Old Quarter is downright hostile. You're safer riding a bike or a cyclo through the chaotic old streets. Which must in part explain why the locals seem so disinclined to walking.
Photo: Mark BowyerCyclo driver in the Old Quarter, Hanoi
The good news is that away from the Old Quarter, Hanoi becomes more amenable to walkers. This itinerary can mostly be done on foot but beware when walking the Old Quarter.
Cycling’s an option but you’ll need to be brave. And in the hot humid months from April to August cycling or walking will be pretty sweaty - but don’t let that stop you.
Cyclos can be a nice way to cover short distances and everything in this itinerary is within a radius of a few kilometres.
We’ve included lots of museums but most of them only require half an hour or so and their locations and architecture are often a big part of their appeal. If you overdose on museums, do the walks and admire the architecture.
Day 1 Morning - Ba Dinh Square - Paying homage to Uncle Ho at his mausoleum, house on stilts and museum, One Pillar Pagoda, colonial architecture, Hanoi Citadel, Vietnam Military History Museum Afternoon - Hanoi Hilton, Women’s Museum, Old Quarter
Logistics - Take a cab or cyclo to Ba Dinh Square and walk the rest.
Get straight to the political and historic heart of the capital with a visit to Ba Dinh Square - aka. the Ho Chi Minh Quarter. Here you’ll find Uncle Ho’s Mausoleum, his house on stilts, the bizarre Ho Chi Minh Museum and one of Hanoi’s oldest monuments - the One Pillar Pagoda. The Soviet hand is on display at Ho’s mausoleum and museum. The perimeter of the square showcases some of Hanoi’s grandest French colonial buildings including the Presidential Palace - once the residence of the French Governors General of Indochina.
Photo: Mark BowyerHo Chi Minh's Mausoleum
You can easily spend two hours visiting these sights and wandering around the square but there’s more nearby too.
Hanoi Citadel is the original military precinct in the city. It even predates the official founding of the city in 1010. It's located directly opposite Ho's mausoleum.
The demolition of the Soviet styled National Assembly building uncovered a treasure trove of artefacts from Vietnam's imperial past. There are now numerous digs in the area. Regrettably, precious little information is provided to appease curious travellers.
Hanoi Citadel only recently opened its imposing gates to visitors and includes structures from Vietnam’s dynastic period, French colonial times. It's also home to the simple reinforced headquarters from which North Vietnam’s military commanders waged their war against the US backed South Vietnamese government. In 2010, the Citadel became Vietnam's newest World Heritage listed site.
The Military History Museum, connected to the citadel complex, tells the victor’s tale of wars against the French and the US.
Photo: Mark BowyerCot Co Tower looks over Hanoi's Citadel.
For lunch, food Street aka. Tong Duy Tan St, is close by. So if you want to go local, there are loads of small, tasty eateries. Puku Cafe and Southgate restaurant are also located on Tong Duy Tan St if you’re craving something more familiar.
After lunch, it’s back on the museum trail - just briefly. Hanoi Hilton prison and the Women’s Museum are very worthwhile, small and easy to fit in post lunch. You can stay on your feet or grab a cab for the short ride.
A small section of the original Hanoi Hilton (Hoa Lo) prison has been preserved. John McCain and other US POWs were held here. Before them, the French incarcerated many of Vietnam's most celebrated independence leaders here.
The Women’s museum isn’t far along Ly Thuong Kiet St. The collection’s modest but it tells its story well. It’s one of the best in Hanoi.
Photo: Mark BowyerSt Joseph's Cathedral, Hanoi
From there, it’s time to wander through the Old Quarter visiting shops and galleries along the way. Nha Tho St, where St Joseph’s Cathedral is located, is a civilised place to start. You’ll likely pass by the small Museum of Independence (48 Hang Ngang St). It’s a modest tribute to Vietnam’s Declaration of Independence in the house where Uncle Ho drafted it, using the US version for inspiration. The restored traditional house at 69 Ma May St is close by as is Bach Ma Pagoda, one of the city’s oldest.
Wrap up the day with a leisurely stroll around Hoan Kiem Lake and cool off with a drink and an ice cream - either at Thuy Ta by Hoan Kiem Lake, or Legends’ Beer, overlooking the lake.
You should make time on one of your Hanoi nights to see the traditional water puppetry show at the theatre right by Hoan Kiem Lake.
For dinner, if authentic Vietnamese in a cosy rustic setting takes your fancy, try Chim Sao. For French, La Badiane is a good choice.
Day 2 Morning: Hoan Kiem Lake, Temple of Literature. Afternoon - French Quarter, Museum of Vietnamese History, colonial architecture
Logistics: You may want to cab it to and from the Temple of Literature.
After a high energy start to day 1, you might want a more leisurely approach today. Revisit Hoan Kiem Lake early to catch the morning Tai Chi session or head to the Hanoi Social Club for a healthy breakfast in one of the city's coolest cafes.
Photo: Mark BowyerTemple of Literature, Hanoi
After breakfast head to the Temple of Literature for a visit to Vietnam’s first university, a Confucian institution dating back to the founding of Hanoi 1000 years ago. There is little if anything of the original complex remaining but the setting is beautiful.
For lunch, KOTO (Know One Teach One) restaurant is right nearby. Or, if you’d prefer a classic Hanoian speciality, check out Cha Ca La Vong in the Old Quarter. It serves just one dish, Cha Ca - consisting of “bun” noodles, fried fish, turmeric, lots of greenery and the most pungent and delicious sauce you may ever encounter - “mam tom” (ask for it as they think Westerners won’t eat it). It’s all cooked right before your eyes.
In the afternoon, head to the area known as the French Quarter - where many of the most impressive colonial era edifices are located. Mid to late afternoon sees better light for photographers.
Start at the Museum of Vietnamese History, housed in one of the grandest buildings of them all. By now you'll be pleased to visit a museum focused on everything but the war.
If your hunger for Vietnam’s twentieth century revolutionary history wasn't satisfied on day 1, pop across the road to the Museum of the Vietnamese Revolution. The collection is heavy on propaganda, photos and documents and very light on context and information.
Photo: Mark BowyerHanoi's Opera House draped in red.
From here we'll head back to the grandest of the city's French era buildings, the 1911 Opera House. Close by, the Metropole Hotel has played host to everyone from Graham Greene to Jane Fonda as well as a long list of world leaders. It’s the city's finest hotel and should be included for a drink, a meal, or both during a Hanoi stay. The Government Guest House and the State Bank building are further grand pieces of colonial architecture. There are also lots of less dramatic but very charming villas in the area.
Tonight, grab a pre dinner drink on the southern side of the Opera House. The bar is part of the 1911 Restaurant. The views of the Opera House are superb, it’s usually pretty quiet too. During our last visit though, the music was a confused mix of Viet dance beats and Christmas carols - in August. A little strange...
For dinner, check out 1911, or, at the other end of the budget and style scale, try a simple local meal in the Old Quarter. New Day Restaurant in Ma May St is recommended.
Day 3: Morning: Historic streets, pagodas, West Lake, Truc Bach Lake. Afternoon: Chill in a cafe before passing by Dong Xuan Market and walking across Long Bien Bridge as the sun goes down.
NB. If you’re planning to visit Sapa and the far north, a visit to the Ethnology Museum, a little out of town, is very worthwhile and could be squeezed in today.
Logistics: Get a cab to the corner of Phung Hung and Phan Dinh Phung St and head west.
Start with a leisurely walk from the old French era water tower at Phan Dinh Phung St (outside Galaxy Hotel) and head west. There’s plenty of time so stop as you please. The walk will take you past some of the city’s most post picturesque French era villas and an imposing cathedral. You’ll also pass the northern citadel gate - still bearing the scars of the French attack in 1882 that marked the consolidation of French control of the city. This area is where Vietnam’s political top brass live so there are plenty of soldiers around and photography is restricted.
Photo: Mark BowyerQuan Thanh Pagoda, Hanoi
A left turn at Hung Vuong St will take you back to Ba Dinh Square and Ho’s Mausoleum. We’ll take a right and head towards Quan Thanh Pagoda overlooking West Lake. On your right side is Truc Bach Lake. It was here that US Senator John McCain was shot down in 1967 before being imprisoned in the Hanoi Hilton. A small memorial marks the shooting down of the enemy aircraft mentioning McCain by name.
Across from the memorial is Tran Quoc Pagoda - another of the city’s most famous pagodas.
For lunch, Bun Cha is a must try Hanoi dish and Bun Cha Hang Manh is a favourite spot in the Old Quarter.
This afternoon might be a good time to take a well earned break and chill or read a book in one of the capital’s cafes. La Place, Marilyn’s, Hanoi House, Hanoi Social Club and Chuon Chuon are all worthy spots.
In the late afternoon, energy restored, head down for a look at Dong Xuan Market before crossing the Red River on foot via historic Long Bien Bridge. Built at the height of the French colonial project at the turn of the 20th century, it was repeatedly bombed in US raids. It’s never been completely repaired and even today looks jury-rigged.
Tonight, for upscale dining, take your pick between La Verticale or out by West Lake, Bobby Chinn’s or Don’s a Chef. For atmospheric Vietnamese, try Madam Hien - the setting’s stunning.
Hanoi is a common base for day trips to Halong Bay as well as Ninh Binh and Perfume Pagoda. Many travellers choose to overnight in these places and we’d certainly recommend that if time allows. To make sure you’ve seen all that is of interest, check out our Hanoi See and Do pages.
Mark Bowyer is the founder and publisher of Rusty Compass.
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