There are travelers who have never picked up a guidebook in their life, or, did so once and promptly put it back down (ahem, Sergey). Then, there are travelers who like to know the destination like the back of their hand before they arrive (who, me?) Coming from the opposite ends of the spectrum on travel approach, Sergey and I have reached our own equilibrium. There are times when we go off into the unchartered territory with no plans and no timelines – to keep it interesting, to test the guidebook, or sometimes simply because I haven’t had the time to look into what’s good. But most of the time, I at least have an idea of where I would like to go, what I want to see, and most importantly, the best foods and drinks that must be consumed.
Long Biên Bridge spanning the Red River. Hanoi, Vietnam.
And really, one of my greatest natural talents is planning sight-seeing itineraries. It would be a shame to let such skills go to waste. I have a whole science to this, which includes copious amounts of research via numerous social media platforms, blogs, and official guidebooks, specialized mapping software with color coded markers (maps with me), and ability to estimate time frames – and plan for refreshments accordingly.
Life in the Old Quarter. Hanoi, Vietnam.
We spent a glorious week in Hanoi, of which we devoted three days to hardcore sightseeing planned by moi; the rest of the time we whiled away by getting lost in tiny alleys and sitting for hours in indie cafes. We thoroughly enjoyed each method of getting to know the city – ok, maybe Sergey liked the ‘just hanging out’ a bit more. But, I would be hard pressed to suggest one approach over the other. What I can do is share my 72-hours in Hanoi plan, which is by no means a definitive guide – after all we are no locals, or even expats – but which did work beautifully for us.
Hanoi: Day 1
Following arrival, spend your late morning / early afternoon getting to know the historic Old Quarter of Hanoi. Its densely packed streets are teeming with ‘best of’ Vietnam, and you can easily spend 4-5 hours just people watching, window shopping, and learning the art of crossing the intersection — ‘Nam style. There are swarms of motorbikes that seem ready to topple over as soon as you will start crossing the street, pots and pans bubbling with the most delicious street food, eager vendors selling tourist chatchkas, and general street life theater played out right then and there with no regard for the fact that we are in the very center of the most important city of the country, it’s capital.
Haircuts will be given, chickens will be scalded, and kegs will be driven the minute you cross the threshold to leave your hotel in the Old Quarter. Hanoi, Vietnam.
If you pay attention you will soon notice that each street in the busy Old Quarter is devoted to a specific type of merchant. For example, Hang Gai is dedicated to tailors, textiles, and linens, Hang Trong houses more fabric and homewares, and vendors on Nha Tho and Ly Quoc ply clothing and souvenir crafts. One of my favorites was Hang Gai – I loved garments and bed linens at Tan My Design, and when I am back I will be taking home a set of silky smooth, hand-embroidered sheets with me. Have a good look, window shop, or start buying right then and there – even at tourist prices, shopping in Vietnam is a bargain.
Beans, grains, conical hats – what you want, they got it in Old Quarter (except for women’s shoes size 8 or larger). Hanoi, Vietnam.
Hoan Kiem Lake
As soon as you realize that all this walking, people watching, and window shopping is getting you quite winded head on over to Hang Gai St and find Café Pho Co, otherwise known as the “Secret Café.” Contrary to its moniker, Café Pho Co, isn’t terribly unknown, but there’s two very good reasons for that. One is that it makes a mean cup of Cà Phê Trứng – raw egg coffee – one of two coffee delicacies in Hanoi that should be on your ‘must try’ list. The other being that Secret Café has a pretty sweet terrace with a stellar view of Hoan Kiem Lake.
Enjoying refreshing caphe sua chu’a and beautiful views at Café Pho Co in Hanoi, Vietnam.
To get to Café Pho Co, find 11 Hang Gai St, which is a souvenir shop. Just walk on through to the back, and there will be a courtyard. That’s it! This is where you place your order and then take your self-serve drink up several flights of stairs to the open air terraces. Sit, take it all in, enjoy your caphe, and think about how awesome Vietnam is.
Café Pho Co in Hanoi, Vietnam.
Following coffee refreshment, it will be time to explore the area around Hoan Kiem Lake. Vietnamese congregate in public spaces, so this is where you can watch evening group dance / tai chi sessions, teenagers showing off to their friends, and young and old enjoying each others company. You can also find Turtle Tower – which commemorates the story of the Restored Sword , and the Ngoc Son temple, which houses a gigantic turtle that is purportedly one of the Turtle God’s descendants.
Bia Hoi Junction
Best way to complete your first day in Hanoi? With more refreshments, of course. Head over to the popular Bia Hoi corner at the intersection of Ta Hien and Luong Ngoc Quyen in the Old Quarter, grab a stool, and enjoy!
Balloons and Bia Hoi in Hanoi, Vietnam.
Bia Hoi is brewed fresh daily, and was one of Vietnam’s highlights for us.You can also order some snacks and foods from one of the fine Bia Hoi establishments. Or head over to the nearby New Day restaurant at 72 Ma May. We really enjoyed the informal atmosphere there, and the value / tastiness quotient was about right.
Hanoi: Day 2
Your hotel will most likely serve breakfast. But you should skip it, and make off like an expat for the Hanoi Social Club over on 6 Ngõ Hội Vũ . Spend an hour or two over delicious breakfast and caphe, preparing to take on the day (it will be a long one!) and watching young Vietnamese and expats catching up, working, reading, whatever. Hanoi Social club is also an excellent place to look for announcements of local Indie band concerts or photo exhibits, motorbikes for sale, and long-term apartment sublets.
Cà Phê Trứng at Hanoi Social Club. Hanoi, Vietnam.
Quan Su Pagoda
Following this leisurely morning, it’s time to get cracking on some big-ticket attractions in Hanoi. First up: Quan Su Pagoda at 73 Chua Quan Su. Quan Su was originally built in 15th century and serves today as the headquarters of Vietnam’s Buddhist Congregation.
Quan Su Pagoda, Hanoi, Vietnam.
Hoa Lo, aka the Hanoi Hilton
From Quan Su its an easy walk to Hoa Lo Prison, on the corner of Hai Ba Trung and Hoa Lo. Built by the French Colonialists in 1896 to contain and punish political activists and independence agitators, it was subsequently used by the North Vietnamese government to hold American POWs (who nicknamed it the Hanoi Hilton). The former prison has been turned into museum depicting all of its incarnations, and though some suggest that the exhibits don’t necessarily provide an accurate portrayal of how things went down, it’s a fascinating introspective on how Vietnamese view history.
Reading the news. Hanoi, Vietnam.
St. Joseph Cathedral
After a sobering walk down the Vietnamese history memory lane at Hoa Lo, head on over to St. Joseph Cathedral on Nha Tho. This area is chock full of boutique shops, restaurants, and of course, cafes.
St Joseph Cathedral, Hanoi, Vietnam.
Caphe Sua Chua – yogurt coffee – would be an excellent choice at this point either at Hanoi House (Level 2, 47A Ly Quoc Su ) or Cong Caphe (27 Nha Tho). Both of these cafes will provide good views of the Cathedral as well as plethora of people watching opportunities. If you are hungry, try La Place (6 Au Trieu)– their balcony comes out onto the Cathedral, and we thought they had reasonable prices and delicious bacon and eggs crepe.
Ok – at this point I had allocated an hour or two in my itinerary to exploring Women’s Museum over at 36 Ly Thuong Kiet , which I had full intentions of doing. It is supposed to be amazing. But, I also make it a habit not to be too rigid in sticking to schedules. After all, you are supposed to enjoy yourself. And on this particular day, it was just way too hot, and we were exhausted. I have full intentions of making it over to women’s museum next time I am in Hanoi. All of this is to say, that we haven’t been, but geographically this makes sense as your next destination.
Women are pretty central to everyday life and culture of Vietnam — that much we’ve gleaned from our 6+ weeks in the country. Vendors in Hanoi, Vietnam.
Temple of Literature
So at some point you should rest – see above – before heading over to the intersection of Van Mieu and Dong Da to visit the Temple of Literature, aka Vietnam’s first University. The Confucian institution was built over 1,000 (!) years ago, and if I do say so myself, is actually very enjoyable space with vast green gardens, and fascinating buildings, temples, and statues (of Confucius himself, no less). Oh, and there are lots of doorways leading to passages into more gardens, all of which reminded me of the “Secret Garden.”
Temple of Literature, Hanoi, Vietnam.
Finish off the day at Bar Betta (34C-Cao Ba Quat) with pre dinner drinks – their happy hour includes buy one, get one free beer from 3-7 pm! And for dinner head to KOTO (Know One, Teach One) restaurant at 59 Van Mieu. KOTO is one of a host of dining establishments in Hanoi with a feel good / do good angle. The restaurant provides training and employment for former street children – preparing them for careers in the food industry. From a purely consumer angle, I must say: they do a pretty good job there!
Hanoi: Day 3
Ho Chi minh masoleum & ba dinh square
Rise and Shine! Time to head to Ba Dinh Square for an early morning visit to the most scared place in all of Vietnam – Uncle Ho’s mausoleum. You should definitely plan on visiting around 7 am – first of all, lines will be very long anytime after that, and second of all, if you manage to get to the mausoleum before most Western tourists have even begun to think about breakfast, you will be surrounded by Vietnamese who’ve come to pay their respects to the founding father of modern Vietnam. And that, in itself, is as much of an experience as seeing the embalmed body of Ho Chi Minh. Bonus tip: Mausoleum is the best air conditioned building in all of Vietnam, so dress accordingly.
In about half an hour after we breezed through security, a line had formed snaking around the block, waiting to pay their respects at the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum. Hanoi, Vietnam.
After you are set with the one and only visit that counts, you might as well check out the Ho Chi Minh tourist complex which includes the House on Stilts that Ho Chi Minh had built in order to replicate the more simple life that he had during his childhood and a museum venerating all things Ho. It’s complimentary to the mausoleum and by no means necessary. You do get an even deeper impression and understanding of just how much Vietnamese revere Ho Chi Minh. Oh and don’t miss the tour of the Presidential Palace, originally built by the French as the residence for the Governor General of Indochina.
Presidential Palace and grounds, and a peak at the minimalist House to Stilts. Hanoi, Vietnam.
At this point you should be more than ready for your next fix of caffeine. We stopped in at Cong Caphe on Dien Bien Phu. Upstairs there is a bar area with excellent view of the busy street down below.
Caphe at Cong Caphe. Hanoi, Vietnam.
West Lake & Tran Quoc PAgoda
Final attraction for the day: West Lake and Tran Quoc Pagoda. This area is a little bit out of the way from the Old Quarter but totally walkable from the Ba Dinh Square. If you do end up walking, you might need some ice cream for reinforcement once you arrive.
Tran Quoc is the oldest Buddhist temple in the city – built in 6th century.
After checking out Tran Quoc grab a xe om taxi to Commune at 201 Trich Sai. Proceed to enjoy the best Bloody Mary in Asia as a reward for all of your exploration efforts.
Commune has a small balcony upstairs with excellent views of West Lake. Hanoi, Vietnam.
Street food for dinner! We didn’t take very careful notes on this score, for several reasons — everything we tried was delicious, our palates probably aren’t developed enough to note the subtle difference between great Bun Cha and out of this world Bun Cha, and finally trying to locate a specific street food vendor probably takes more nerves and efforts than it’s worth. So just walk around, find something that looks good, point, smile, and tuck in!
Curbside dining in Hanoi, Vietnam.
Hanoi: Day 4
It’s your last morning in this magical city! Don’t leave without checking out Cafe Kinh Do (252 Hang Bong), a favorite of Catherine Denevue’s during filming of Indochine. You will see photographs to document precisely this fact. And while Deneuve might have put the Cafe Kinh Doh on the map, the real reason to come here is the homemade yogurt. It’s on par with the best in the world. We also has quiche – pretty good, but I was disappointed in croissant – maybe it was an off batch? Anyway, no matter all of that because yogurt is off the charts! Tangy, thick, delicious.
fork spoon in it, yogurt at Cafe Kinh Doh. Hanoi, Vietnam.
Have you been to Hanoi? What was your favorite bit? What should we see when we are back (besides the Women’s museum)?