While the thousand-year-old city holds plenty of history, the most captivating moment in Hanoi is the present. Follow this three-day itinerary to explore the storied past of the capital while experiencing the best of a modern-day Vietnamese metropolis at the same time. Taxis, xe om, and public buses are widely available, but it’s recommended that you walk unless otherwise specified. Traveling by foot allows travelers to get the real feel of Hanoi’s topsy-turvy energy.
Follow the locals and start your day early with breakfast at the hotel or a piping hot bowl of pho on the street. Any good Hanoian adventure begins with a trip to Hoan Kiem Lake, the epicenter of town, followed by nearby Ngoc Son Temple. From the northern edge of the water, you should be able to enlist the services of a cyclo driver, who will ferry you around the narrow, chaotic streets of the Old Quarter in order to witness the city in full swing. If you’re up for it, walking is also an option, though the uninitiated will find downtown Hanoi’s streets hectic. There are ample opportunities for shopping along Hang Gai and around the web of streets north of the lake.
Around lunchtime, you’ll want to head toward St. Joseph’s Cathedral on the western flank of the lake. Swing by the Le Thai To Monument and Nam Huong Temple, overlooking Hoan Kiem on the way, before cutting in toward the church. If you’re feeling peckish, tuck into a savory bowl of chao suon (rice porridge), served daily in the alley near the cathedral, or visit the clutch of chic international restaurants sitting in the shadow of its towers. Nearby, Minh Thuy is another delicious and affordable option, while the Hanoi Social Club offers a tasty, unique alternative. Finish off your midday meal in true Vietnamese form at one of the cafés around St. Joseph’s. Several cheap local street cafés offer plastic stools and affordable coffee and tea, while the cozy Hanoi House provides the same setting with a touch more ambience.
In the afternoon, make your way toward Hoa Lo Prison for a bit of history before turning east toward the top-notch Vietnamese Women’s Museum. As the day winds down, stroll and shop along trendy Trang Tien street or pay a visit to the Opera House nearby. Enjoy a sunset drink from the terrace bar of the Press Club or grab a seat street-side in the artsy front room of Tadioto.
Dinner is left up to you, as you’ll probably want to hop on a xe om or grab a cab to reach one of Hanoi’s more authentic local meals. Ngon makes a great choice, as do the cha ca (pan-fried fish) restaurants a few blocks north of the lake. If you’re up for some live entertainment in the evening, the band at Minh’s Jazz Club puts on a nightly show, as do a rotating list of acts at Swing.
You’ll want to get an early jump on your second day, as the sights west of Hoan Kiem Lake require time and patience. In the morning, hop on a bus from the northern edge of the lake to Ba Dinh Square, where you can queue up for a visit to Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum. Dress respectfully; the rules are strict here. After you’ve made your way through the procession, you can snap photos of the square or head back toward Uncle Ho’s famous stilt house and the One Pillar Pagoda. From here, those interested in learning more about Vietnam’s war-related history should chart a course for the Military History Museum, while travelers who’d rather explore a local neighborhood can wander down the maze of alleys that precede B-52 Lake. This trip allows you to get a closer look at life in the capital.
Around noon, head south toward the Temple of Literature. Just across the street, KOTO is a busy lunchtime destination and great spot for a meal. Once you’ve paid a visit to the temple, you can wander back to the Old Quarter along Nguyen Thai Hoc, shopping as you go, or spend an hour at the Museum of Fine Arts nearby. Take the rest of the afternoon to relax and then set off again in the early evening for any one of Hanoi’s local bia hoi (freshly brewed light beer) shops. The area around bia hoi corner in the Old Quarter offers a host of affordable street-side dining options as well as a collection of lively dance floors and laid-back hangouts.
Spend the morning at the Museum of Ethnology west of downtown. Because it’s a trek and the museum itself is extensive, you’ll want to allow ample time to explore the grounds, which include several outdoor replicas of traditional minority houses. Head back toward West Lake around noon for a roadside bowl of bun cha (grilled meat and rice noodles in fish sauce) on Hang Than street.
After lunch, walk over to Quan Thanh Temple before taking a leisurely stroll along West Lake. If you’re up for it, you can follow the edge of Truc Bach lake or simply head straight to Tran Quoc Pagoda. It’s possible to grab a coffee near here and admire West Lake from this vantage point, or to visit the bar at the Sofitel Plaza Hanoi for a more upscale environment. Grab dinner at bustling Xoi Yen in the Old Quarter before catching a cultural performance in the evening. Both the water puppet theater near Hoan Kiem Lake and a pair of ca tru (ancient chamber music) troupes hold regular shows throughout the week.
Excerpted from the First Edition of Moon Vietnam.