If you have limited time to travel, you have to make the most of it! It doesn’t matter if you only have one day somewhere (like Hanoi!), as long as you really make it count.
Hanoi, Vietnam is definitely somewhere you can visit in one day! Just make sure it’s a full day, because you’ll have to come back later if it’s not. I recommend two to see everything in the city, and a handful more for trips around the area. More on that in my Two Day Itinerary for Hanoi, Vietnam.
If you have just one day, I’ve broken down the most important things that you should do!
Food in Hanoi, Vietnam
Vietnamese food is something you absolutely cannot miss! It has similarities to other Southeast Asian cuisines, but is unique in its own way. The food in Hanoi tends to be sweeter (instead of sour), and has a few characteristic herbs that go with everything (think mint and coriander).
Pho for Breakfast
The most iconic Vietnamese dish is probably pho. The dish is rice noodles in a slightly sweet broth, and absolutely delicious! The only thing is that it’s a very hot dish (the soup is typically fresh off the stove!) so it can be a terror if the temperature’s already scorching hot and humid. The way that locals get around it – as pho is one of their favorites too – is by having it for breakfast! Starting at 7 am, you can find them sitting along the streets enjoying a bowl!
Bun Bo Nam Bo for Lunch
The best surprise I had was bun bo nam bo. It’s similar to pho, but the noodles are thinner and there’s no soup. Instead, it’s a cold dish. There is lettuce on the bottom, topped with noodles. The noodles then have fried onions, peanuts, and herbs on top! It goes great with a refreshing cold drink – soda or beer, depending on what you prefer.
Banh Mi for Dinner
Vietnam’s French colonial history heavily inspired banh mi. They are large sandwiches (think Subway subs) with special ingredients. The meats (usually pork or chicken) are combined with lettuce, carrots, and coriander. The whole this is then toasted to give the bread a nice crunchy texture! It’s really delicious, and the only regret I have with my banh mi is that I only ate one, one time.
Stir-Fried Ice Cream for Dessert
Food that you’ve watched come to life just taste better. Objective fact™. The awesome thing about Southeast Asia is that you can find Thai-style ice cream everywhere! This kind of dessert is made right in front of you. The chef puts cream and ingredients for flavor (fruit or things like chocolate powder) and then mashes everything together. It’s all sitting on a supercold plate, so as it mashes, it also freezes. When it’s all ready, the chef rolls the ice cream into rolls and then you can enjoy it! Yum! This is especially great during the hot months, and you can walk anywhere in the late afternoon or at night to find a stand.
[Recommended Read (with my recommendations of where to get these dishes): Two Days of Street Food in Hanoi, Vietnam]
Historical and Cultural Attractions in Hanoi, Vietnam
As the capital of Vietnam, Hanoi also has a lot of interesting history to share. If you have only one day, try to put your time into getting the most out of what you have! You should definitely learn a little bit of Vietnam’s modern history. This is mainly how they became their socialist republic they are today. Hanoi also is known for their water puppet shows!
Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum and Presidential Palace
This is a great thing to do in the morning during the summer, before the weather gets too hot. (If you’re there when the weather is cooler, you can switch these two with the prison!)
The Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum is the place that Ho Chi Minh is buried. He’s regarded as the key to communism in Vietnam. He played a huge role in both the independence movement of Vietnam against colonial France, and in the fight during the Vietnam War between North and South Vietnam. He is displayed at the mausoleum. (Unfortunately it was closed for repairs when I visited.) The Presidential Palace, where he lived and received ambassadors and foreign representatives, is right behind it. You can get through the mausoleum pretty quickly, so the main attraction is the palace.
You are not able to go into the palace itself, but the grounds are open for visitation. If you don’t have a guide yourself, there will be dozens of them explaining the history of the palace in all languages. Just simply listen in if you want to learn it! You can also look through the large picture albums that are outside some major spots in the open area, as they have photos of Minh as he conducted diplomacy for the country.
[Recommended Read: Pictures of Hanoi From Its Streets]
Hoa Lo Prison Museum
Hoa Lo was definitely the most eye-opening place in Hanoi for me. The name translates to “Hell Hole”, and refers to the stoves that the Vietnamese locals sold on the street during colonial times. The French commandeered the space and built a huge prison, where they kept revolutionaries. The prison now only has a small part of the original space, but it tells the story. Half of the museum talks about the poor treatment of the Vietnamese by the French. You can see an example of the largest exhibit in the featured image at the top of the post!
The other half of the museum displays information about how American pilots and other POWs were treated during the Vietnam War. They definitely display everything from the Vietnamese point of view (it skews a bit from the whole truth, to put it lightly). Because of that disparity, I had a new perspective on government-backed information – not just from Vietnam.
Dong Xuan Night Street Market
One of the best ways to get to know a city is to walk through its market! Hanoi is no different, and you can take anywhere from 5 minutes to 2 hours walking through the one in the Old Quarter. Go there in the afternoon or at night to see long streets of people selling all kinds of goods. In addition to the locals sitting in the street to eat, you can see anything from pots and pans to glitter cat ear headbands. Most things aren’t expensive by any means, but don’t expect high quality if you only shell out a few thousand Vietnamese dong.
[Recommended Read: How to Get a Visa on Arrival to Vietnam]
Thang Long Water Puppet Theater
The water puppet theater was by far the most Vietnamese culture I’d ever seen. It’s an art form that comes from Northern Vietnam, and has been there since the 11th century. The most famous (and most accessible) theater is right across from the Hoan Kiem Lake. (Make sure to get tickets early! It’s best to go before noon to guarantee tickets for that night.)
The theater basically showcases both a traditional Vietnamese orchestra and the actual puppets. The orchestra is made of traditional instruments, which have a truly unique sound. They do everything live, including singing!
They accompany the actual puppet show, which is done in what is essentially a small pool. It’s several feet wide and looks at least a couple feet deep. The puppets are all on long sticks, and they “come onto stage” by passing through a curtain, behind which are the puppeteers. The show I saw was about an hour long, and a series of almost 20 different skits. (Some have Vietnamese words, but you can basically understand them and the silent ones just by watching.)
The stories are all from Vietnamese lore, and have characters like water faeries, dragons, fish, fishermen, phoenixes, and even one cat!
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