Itinerary: 36 Hours in Hanoi, Vietnam
The capital of Vietnam is a popular stopover for travelers seeking to explore other parts of Vietnam like Halong Bay or Sapa Valley. Most visitors flock to Hanoi’s Old Quarter for a day or two to soak in its chaotic energy. Photo opportunities are abound everywhere: crumbling buildings, lively markets, vendors hawking goods from pendulum baskets, and hordes of moped riders. The following guide and recommendations will give you a quick introduction to this dynamic city:
>DAY 1: AFTERNOON IN HANOI’S OLD QUARTER
- Arrive in Hanoi in early afternoon. The closest international airport is Noi Bai International Airport, about a 30-minute taxi ride to the Old Quarter.
- Check into MK Premier Boutique Hotel. It’s conveniently located in the heart of the Old Quarter where a portion of the Weekend Night Market is setup and many lively cafés ans and pubs are located.
- Grab a tasty, vegan lunch a few blocks away at Minh Chay.
- Spend the afternoon exploring the Old Quarter and Hoan Kiem neighborhoods. Many streets have concentrated market districts that specialize in everything from kitchen steel-work to toys. The laid-back Au Trieu street along St. Joseph’s Cathedral is lined with independent boutiques and cafés. Here you can stop at IndigenouS for a cup of fair-trade Vietnamese coffee and to peruse affordable and beautifully hand-made ceramics.
- Hanoi is one of the cheaper areas to purchase souvenirs like tee shirts – but be warned that vendors can be pushy. For quality crafts and textiles without the need to haggle, stop at Chie Design.
- Take advantage of Vietnam’s low spa prices and pamper yourself with a foot rub or massage at Mido Spa. Walk-ins and couple treatments are accepted. The service is consistently professional and facility is clean.
- Enjoy sunset with a scenic stroll around the western side of Hoan Kiem Lake. Head a few blocks south to enjoy an upscale, vegetarian feast at Uu Dam Chay restaurant. A satisfying meal for two with fancy drinks, appetizers, soup, and entrées will cost around $25 USD.
- Wander back north along the lake. With cooler evening temperatures, many locals come out to practice group dancing and exercise in the parks.
- Meander the narrow, moped-laden streets of the Old Quarter to sip a cocktail on MK Premier’s rooftop bar (or neighboring pubs) before retiring to bed.
>DAY 2: SIGHTSEEING
- Have a complimentary breakfast at the hotel’s café.
- Time to leave the Old Quarters! Venture southwest to Hao Lo Prison and allow 1-2 hours to explore the museum and exhibits on its infamous history. Many political Vietnamese prisoners were held captive here by the French, and later it’s where the Vietnamese kept American POWs like John McCain.
- Head west to pay respects to Confucius at the Temple of Literature. Many students visit this landmark to celebrate finals or graduation. This site may also look familiar because it’s depicted on the back of the 100,000 Dong banknote.
- Take a coffee break and stop at Craft-Link to stock up on beautiful tribal handicrafts.
- Proceed north to Ba Dinh Square. This commemorative area is home to the Presidential Palace, ministry headquarters, and Ho Chi Minh’s Mausoleum.
- Make your way west along the shady Hanoi Botanical Garden for lunch at the tranquil Sala Quan Café. This vegetarian establishment is tucked away but well worth the visit for it’s home-cooked dishes and cheap prices.
- Explore the promenade along Ho Tay (West Lake) – or bike around it. The city’s oldest pagoda, Tran Quoc is here and worth a stop for its picturesque surroundings and Buddhist shrines.
- Head back to the Old Quarters to indulge in another treatment at Mido Spa.
- Grab a vegetarian dinner at Cai Mam or Jalus – they are across the street from each other.
- If you’re in the Old Quarter on a Friday or Saturday night, join the fanfare at the lively Night Market.
This stylish hotel is in the heart of the Old Quarter with modern rooms that don’t break the bank. It’s a step up for independent travelers who have outgrown hostels and is walking distant to the lake and lots of sites. Perks include a complementary buffet breakfast, rooftop bar, lobby art gallery, and front patio lounge that spills into the street. The service is excellent, the front desk staff provides maps to guests and makes personalized recommendations. 72-74 Hàng Buồm, Hoàn Kiếm, Hà Nội, Vietnam |+84 4 3266 8896 | mkpremier.vn
Hao Lo Prison was called “Maison Centrale” by the French colonials who established it in the late 1800’s to hold Vietnamese Communist political prisoners. During the 1960’s and 70’s, the Vietnamese placed American prisoners of war (POWs) there, most notably John McCain, and its new, infamous nickname became the “Hanoi Hilton.” Take heed, there’s a bit of a propaganda slant to the exhibits. While the museum goes to great lengths to highlight the atrocities the Vietnamese captives endured, it portrays the American POWs’ experiences more like cultural summer camp than jail. 1 Hoả Lò, Trần Hưng Đạo, Hoàn Kiếm, Hà Nội, Vietnam | www.expedia.com/Hoa-Lo-Prison-Museum-Hanoi
Built in 1070 A.D., this temple was constructed to honor Confucius and was the site of Vietnam’s first university. The grounds are also home to landscaped ponds, courtyards, pagodas, and statues. Many students flock here during exams to leave offerings and as do graduates for photo ops. Quoc Tu Giam Street, Dong Da District, Hanoi 100000, Vietnam
This important, imposing square is surrounded by the President’s Palace, National Assembly, ministry complexes, and Ho Chi Minh’s Mausoleum. It holds major historical significance as the site where president Ho Chi Minh read the Proclamation of Independence of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam on September 2, 1945. Hùng Vương, Điện Biên, Ba Đình, Hà Nội, Vietnam
Bordering West Lake, the tall and intricate Tran Quoc is the oldest Buddhist temple in Hanoi. Visitors can burn incense to receive good luck or leave offerings like food or money as a gift to the gods. Thanh Nien, Hanoi 10000, Vietnam
Uu Dam Chay Restaurant
This is the place to go for an upscale, vegan dining experience – and definitely worth a visit for omnivores as well. Located a few blocks south of Haon Kiem Lake, Uu Dam Chay serves sophisticated, nutritious, and delicious fare. Dishes are beautifully presented and even though the establishment is considered pricey by Vietnamese standards, it’s still a bargain by Western ones. Standouts include the southern soup, virgin fruit mojitos, and the mushroom and tofu served on crispy girdle cake. uudamchay.com/en
This gem is a bit off the beaten path from the Old Quarter, but very close to the Hanoi Botanic Garden. It is a welcoming oasis set back from the street. Food is fresh and flavorful and cheap – entrées go for approximately $2.00 USD. The menu offers mostly traditional dishes plus some creative ones like “rotisserie chicken” legs – seasoned tofu meat served on a fresh stalks of lemongrass. 170 Ngọc Hà, Ba Đình, Hà Nội, Vietnam | +84 4 3722 8857 | www.facebook.com/ComchaySalaquan
This friendly, vegan restaurant offers a menu of traditional Vietnamese cuisine and “fast food” items like pizza, tacos, and sandwiches. Stick to the traditional food and sample a savory pho or snail soup. There are two locations around the Old Quarter area. 9 Ấu Triệu, Hàng Trống, Hoàn Kiếm, Hà Nội, Vietnam | +84 98 123 45 45 | minhchay.com/en/
This cozy restaurant serves meat dishes but provides an extensive, separate vegetarian menu upon request. Located on a busy street, it’s easy to miss its sign and must be accessed from the Hoam Kiem hostel lobby. The interior feels nostalgic which reflects the style of its authentic, family-style food. 11 Hàng Mắm, Lý Thái Tổ, Hoàn Kiếm, Hà Nội, Vietnam | +84 98 492 43 84 | caimamrestaurants.com
If you’re craving a break from Vietnamese food, venture to Jalus for some wholesome, organic fare. The café has a relaxing atmosphere in an upstairs space removed from Hanoi’s noisy streets. The service was a bit lackluster, but we appreciate the efforts the business takes in recycling and reducing waste. 46 Hàng Trống, Hoàn Kiếm, Hà Nội, Vietnam | www.facebook.com/Jalus-vegan-kitchen-cafe
Handicrafts from Chie Designs
This lovely boutique specializes in handicrafts made by ethnic groups in northwest Vietnam. It offers a quality selection of textiles, ceramics, jewelry, and fair-trade snacks with tags that explain where each item originated. Chie ensures that artisans are paid a fair wage while selling products at a fair price. The Hoan Kiem shop is slightly below street level, look for a small set of stairs to access it. 66 Hang Trong – 70 Hang Gai – 109 Hang Gai, Hanoi, Vietnam | www.facebook.com/Chiehandmade.shop
Craft Link is a Vietnamese not-for-profit Fair Trade organization that works with traditional craft producers to revive their culture and improve their livelihoods. It has two storefronts close to the Temple of Literature. One shop is dedicated mostly to textile-based products like scarves, bags, pillow cases, and clothes. The other the next corner down is geared more towards home decorations and tableware. 43 – 51 Vanmieu, Hanoi, Vietnam | (84 4) 3 7336101 | www.craftlink.com.vn
IndigenouS is a combination of a small café and gift shop. It sells Vietnamese-sourced coffee and reasonably priced ceramics that are hand-made and painted by different ethnic groups. 36 Au Trieu Hoan Kiem (near the Saint Joseph Cathedral), Hanoi 10000, Vietnam | +84 4 3938 1263 | www.facebook.com/Indigenous.Vietnam
There’s not much for travelers to buy at this lively market other than trinkets and cheaply-made clothes, but it’s worth a stroll if you happen to be in the Old Quarter on a Friday or Saturday evening. Streets are closed off to cars, lights are strung, and there’s a palpable festivity in the air. Word of caution: beware of pickpockets. Hang Duong, Hanoi, Vietnam
Mido Spa is a tightly-knit operation that has two locations in Hanoi’s Old Town. Services include massages, skincare, waxing, and nails. The staff is professional and facility is well kept. Guests can drop in anytime between 9:00 am and 10:00 pm to indulge in a treatment. We recommend going for a nightly foot rub after a long day of walking. 26 Hang Manh Str., Hoan kiem Dist., Hanoi | 11A Hang Be Str., Hoan kiem Dist., Hanoi | midospa.com
Lara was instilled with the travel bug at an early age and has visited over 25 countries. Her mother’s job as a flight attendant enabled a childhood of discovering the world. She recently relocated to Seoul, South Korea, where she hopes to explore some of Asia for the next few years. In addition to being the founding editor of En Route Traveler, Lara also works as a freelance graphic designer. In her spare time, she contributes as a Local Expert to AFAR, is an ambassador for FIG Clothing, enjoys vegetarian cuisine, instructs Zumba, practices yoga, dabbles in photography and, of course, travels as much as possible.