I was worried about my trip to Hanoi because it would be one of the quickest trips I have ever had. I just recently got a full-time job, and finally had some time off! The beginning of October is the Chinese National Holiday, and I had 6 days off. Going anywhere in China during this time (any national holiday) is a nightmare. The sheer volume of people everywhere is terrifying! I wanted to go abroad to avoid that. Vietnam is one of the lesser-visited countries in Southeast Asia, so that’s where I went. Because of the way that plane tickets were priced, I had just two full days in Hanoi – and needed to make it work!
I arrived to Hanoi on a Tuesday night, and my return flight was scheduled for Friday morning. That meant I had two full days to explore the city – which I think was just perfect.
Notes About Hanoi
Hanoi is not a large city. You can see everything in two days. The only thing is that it is a great home base for several day trips in the area. The biggest attractions are Sapa (with rice fields) and Ha Long Bay (a large bay that you can kayak on). There are tour agencies everywhere that will take you to each of these places and more! You definitely should go to these places, and the next time I’m in Hanoi I will be heading to both of them. They have many different lengths of tours, from a day trip to 3+ days, so you can pick the one that is best for you.
However, I thought it would be better for me to just explore the city, and save the day trips for next time! I stayed only in the city for these two days. If you have more time, I would definitely choose one or both of these trips.
Another thing to note is the weather in Hanoi. It is a humid scorch from about May to October. I was dying from how hot it was! Bring lots of water, or try to visit during the winter months for cooler temperatures.
Getting from the Airport to Town
As long as you get to Noi Bai Airport within regular hours, you can take the bus downtown! I was confused about how to do it, but it’s simple. Go out the terminal across a couple of lanes, and on the left you should see the stop for bus 86. This will take you to the Old Quarter and several others stops along the way! The bus travels on the right side of town. It costs 30,000 VND, but the bus staff will always have enough change. You can also bring up your destination and ask him which stop is the closest!
Bus 86 will also take you back to the airport. You can get on it at the same stop that you got off! Even if you don’t know any Vietnamese (like me!) you can still figure out where to go because the bus has English translations. The stops are also on most map apps, including Google and Apple Maps. Use them to direct yourself! Find out more info about the bus 86 here.
Money in Vietnam
Because of how little the Vietnamese Dong is worth, you can’t exchange it out of Vietnam. You will have to withdraw it from an ATM in the country or change for it with cash. At the time when I visited, the exchange rate was 22,730 VND to $1 USD.
If you are staying for a short time and want to change cash, do it at the airport. I got a 22,600 exchange rate there, and needed to change just $5 more before I left. I had to walk to about 5 different currency exchange/tour vendors to get even 22,000!
Also, don’t change too much money. You should definitely have USD on you if you plan to spend larger amounts of money, such as on any tour. You don’t have to use VND, and the tour operators – and even store owners who sell higher-priced goods – will take your USD and give USD for change.
Day 1: The Lake and The Prison of Hanoi
Hanoi has two sides: the Old Quarter and everything else. Most of what you will visit will be in the Old Quarter. I stayed here because it was closest to all the other points of interest. However, public transportation in the city is pretty solid.
Lake Hoan Kiem and the Ngoc Son Temple in Hanoi
I started out with a trip to Lake Hoan Kiem. It unfortunately is not breathtaking or gorgeous in itself. Luckily, it has the Ngoc Son Temple towards its northern side! You can get on the red bridge that connects the temple with the shore of the lake for free. It has a nice view of the rest of the lake, unencumbered by trees and other vegetation.
The temple itself costs money. You also need to cover yourself to their satisfaction, and can rent a coverall with your picture ID at the ticket booth.
It does not cost much to enter, but there also isn’t much to do at the temple. You can go there and see their shrine, as well as read a little about the lake itself. If you plan to go to the water puppet theater (see below), I definitely recommend that you read about the lake. The name Hoan Kiem translates roughly to “Lake of the Restored Sword”, because the legendary King Le returned his sword to the turtle in this lake. Other than that, you could spend about 30 minutes maximum to walk around, read the descriptions, and take a breather.
Coffee (or a smoothie) from J’Adore Cafe
There are plenty of restaurants and cafes around Lake Hoan Kiem. I was dying from the heat and humidity, so I walked into the closest cafe I could find – located at the northeast corner of the lake. I was planning on having coffee later, so I ordered a raspberry yogurt smoothie from J’Adore Cafe. It was great to sit inside with a nice cold drink. I enjoyed it, but it was a bit expensive (in comparison to coffee, but not to other cafes) for Hanoi. I stopped here for the air conditioning and rest, and if it weren’t for that I would probably look for another place.
Pho from Pho Thin
My favorite Vietnamese food is pho – clear, refreshing noodles in slightly sweet beef soup! I received this recommendation from a tour company (“the best noodles in Hanoi”) and decided to check it out. This restaurant was tiny and marked only by a small sign outside, but those noodles were delicious! This mini food stand was a definite hit! The only thing they were missing was air conditioning on the ridiculously hot day.
[Recommended Read: Two Days of Street Food in Hanoi, Vietnam]
St. Joseph’s Church in Hanoi
The unfortunate thing about Hanoi is that many things are closed at noon. The exact hours of the midday rest vary, but you shouldn’t expect to go to museums or other attractions between about 12 and 1 pm – sometimes longer. That’s what happened when I arrived at St. Joseph’s Church. It’s a pretty, very European-style church in the middle of town. They no longer have English mass, and you should be able to go in. However, it was closed when I got there, and I could only take pictures of the outside. If I didn’t have the time I would say this is a major miss! There is no real reason to come here, unless you happen to have the time and are passing by.
Hoa Lo Prison in Hanoi
This is a definite must-see in Hanoi. Hoa Lo (aka “Hell’s Hole”) is a prison built in during French colonial rule to suppress Vietnamese rebellion. Anyone who was opposed to French ideas was thrown in Hoa Lo and, as a result, treated very poorly. However, this prison was also the birthplace of the Vietnamese revolution. All the leaders of their independence movement were imprisoned there at one time or another. It was also where they were radicalized, so the Vietnamese government glorifies their role a lot.
The other half of the prison is all about how well American pilots were treated in the Vietnam War. It is a really interesting place to see how a propaganda narrative can differ so much from first-hand accounts here.
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Hoi An Chicken Rice + Vietnamese Coffee from the Comga Restaurant
I was pretty tired by this time, and wanted to look for somewhere to stay. I stumbled upon the Comga Restaurant while I was walking. It seemed to have air conditioning (most places, unfortunately, do not!) so I went in. I ordered chicken rice native to Hoi An and Vietnamese coffee. I wasn’t blown away by either one, but it was a nice place to rest for a while in the afternoon. They serve a variety of foods (Western included) and drinks (local beers!) but I wanted something more local.
Overall, I would neither recommend nor tell you to avoid this place. The rice was average and I didn’t think the coffee was as sweet as it should be, but those were just my tastes. Note that, overall, the cups of Vietnamese coffee that I had were all more bitter than I expected! However, I tend to love coffee that is about 70% milk and sugar, with a dash of coffee.
Hanoi’s Old Quarter Street Night Market (Dong Xuan)
On holidays (the Mid-Autumn Festival was going on!) and weekends, the entire Old Quarter comes alive at night. It is always bustling with activity, but the extra activity makes it buzzing with energy. I had no idea what I was doing when I walked through the streets; both sides were lined with weird hairbands with cat ears, lights, and other related things. It was there from about 6 pm before the sun went down to after 10 pm when I came back from the water puppet show. You can get trinkets and all types of street food here! When I came back from the show, I even saw people performing dragon dances a la Chinese culture, and got a serving of fried ice cream!
I have definitely been to better night markets – namely the ones in Taipei, Taiwan. They have amazing deals and mouthwatering food! I definitely prefer those, or the ones in Seoul, Korea; Malacca, Malaysia; or Bangkok, Thailand. This one is nothing special compared to those. However, if you are looking for a local activity, take a stroll through these streets!
Thang Long Water Puppet Theater in Hanoi
This is another must-see! A traditional Vietnamese art form, the water puppet theater is absolutely awesome. The most famous theater is at the northeast corner of Lake Hoan Kiem, right next to the Pho Thin stall. I got my tickets at around 11:30 am, and only the 8 pm show was available. However, you should be able to get earlier tickets if you go to the box office earlier, or get them the day before.
I absolutely loved the show! The entire show (about 1.5 hours) is in Vietnamese so I didn’t understand a lick of it, but the stories aren’t that difficult to understand. You have a variety of puppets, including dragons, phoenixes, golden fish, and blessed turtles that go through a series of short skits. I would highly recommend seeing a show! It cost 100,000 VND (about $4.50), which is a little expensive for Vietnamese activities but cheap as dirt in comparison to most forms of entertainment. If you do nothing else, you have to see this show!
Day 2: The Political Background of Vietnam
The second day in Hanoi, I sort of grouped together the places that would give me a more thorough understanding of Vietnam’s current political situation. They have a socialist government, which consists of a single party. They remind me of China’s government, just to a lesser extent because of the difference in resources – both natural and human.
Ho Chi Minh founded the current system of government, essentially. He was a major leader in the struggle for independence against colonial France, and then again when North Vietnam was fighting against South Vietnam for communist control of the country during the Cold War. He is the founding father of Vietnam, so the capital, Hanoi, has his mausoleum, royal palace, and an entire museum dedicated to his behalf. They are all located in the same place, so it only makes sense to visit all of them together.
The UNESCO Imperial Citadel of Thăng Long in Hanoi
Centuries ago, when Vietnam still used Chinese characters for their language, they had a citadel. It stood all around and protected the city. While most of the walls have been torn down, you can still see pieces of it all around the Old Quarter. Most of the pieces are just walls, but there was one piece of the Central Sector that I happened by. I stopped to take pictures, but there weren’t any other people there. Everyone around me was just minding their own business on their way somewhere else. I would not make a special trip out to this Central Sector, since you can see parts of the citadel all around the Old Quarter, but it is a cool piece of history if you happen by it. You can’t climb it or anything, unfortunately.
The Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum in Hanoi
Ho Chi Minh rests in a large mausoleum. It has a big meadow area in front of it and several guards preventing you from getting through to the actual building. This isn’t all that exciting, and I only stopped by because it’s free, and you have to go through it to get to the Presidential Palace. You can walk by in about 10 minutes (the courtyard is huge!) straight to the Presidential Palace.
The Ho Chi Minh Presidential Palace
This is The Presidential Palace was built between 1900 and 1906 originally for the French governor, as Vietnam was a French colony. When Ho Chi Minh led Vietnam, he lived in the area – but not the palace itself. That’s a grand golden structure that we could not tour. Instead, he was said to live in the servant’s quarters as a symbol of his minimalism and humility. He built a house on stilts (a traditional Vietnamese style) around the carp pond, which includes little “Buddha stumps”, plants that resemble Buddha statues.
It was interesting because the plaques and the local tour guides (hired by other people, but there are so many languages you can just sort of listen in) claimed that Minh was extremely humble and frugal. However, on one side of the palace were his three imported cars (all in good condition) and in the nearby museum were hundreds of the highest-quality china from communist governments all around the world.
I wish there was more information about his lifestyle in plaques around the palace grounds. As it is, you can walk around and see some photo albums about Minh’s role as president of Vietnam during the 1950s and 1960s. However, they are all of formal meetings and events – none of everyday life, his background, his family, etc.
The Ho Chi Minh Museum in Hanoi
The museum is right next to both the HCM mausoleum and Presidential Palace – they even have signs that direct you to it after you exit. It is worth a visit only if you are really interested in cooling down indoors and learning the official narrative of Vietnamese history. All the exhibits are filled with socialist propaganda about modern Vietnamese history, especially Ho Chi Minh’s greatness and the support of his colleagues.
I can’t say this was a hit or a miss, but it certainly was enlightening. It rounded out my understanding of how an official portrait is painted – with hand-picked facts. My skepticism is not to say that Vietnam or socialist governments are the only ones that do this, but it is easier to understand when you grow up learning one side of the story and a whole other one is presented in a museum like this one.
Beef Noodle Salad at Bun Bo Nam Bo
Bun bo nam bo is the name of a traditional beef noodle salad from Vietnam, and this (more than pho!) was my favorite meal! The dish is basically cold/room temperature noodles, topped with beef, peanuts, bean sprouts, fried onions, and some vegetables. It has the slight sweetness that is characteristic of pho, and is similar to pho without the soup.
This place was two stories and completely packed at lunch time! I knew it was well known, but it was definitely filled with more people than I expected. The nice thing is that they only have one option for food, so they can prepare it quickly. They serve different sodas and local beers to pair with your meal as well. I would highly, highly recommend stopping here if you’re not allergic to peanuts! It’s as cheap as it is good!
Cheesecake Bubble Tea at Royal Tea
The weird thing about Hanoi weather is that it changes every 15 minutes. I stopped at Royal Tea (a Vietnamese chain) because it started raining and I didn’t have a poncho. They had this weird cheesecake bubble tea option on the menu, amongst other more normal-sounding teas. I love cheesecake (mmmmmmm!!) and bubble tea, so I decided to order it! I swear; it was the BEST drink I’ve ever had in my entire life! It tasted actually like liquid cheesecake, with soft and chewy pearls in it. I cannot recommend anything more than this, seriously! Out of everything, I would die to have another one of these teas.
Temple of Literature and National University
The Temple of Literature was also where the first university in Vietnam was located. They studied Confucius philosophy, and graduated the first doctors and scholars in the country.
It’s a nice place to visit, but it isn’t all that special. It is relatively small and isn’t as grand as some of the other temples across Southeast Asia. The nice thing is that different parts of the Temple are labeled and there are some plaques about the history of the Imperial Academy and the Temple of Literature. You can get a basic feel for early life there.
I spent maybe 90 minutes there, but a lot of it I spent lounging on the benches in the courtyard since I was tired. If you want to just stop by, a visit could take as little as 20 minutes, but definitely no more than 2 hours. This is somewhere I would recommend for education nerds or if you have extra time, but not so much if you’re just mildly interested in these things.
Banh Mi with Mixed Meat at Hanoi’s Banh Mi 25
The last night I was there, I returned to the market in the Hanoi Old Quarter. This little sandwich shop is highly recommended on Trip Advisor, and with good reason! It is pretty tiny, but the banh mi (traditional Vietnamese sandwiches) are dirt cheap as very tasty. They are really simply with several types of meat and some basic veggies, but mine was really delicious!
I decided to sit at their little cafe to have my sandwich. It was just a couple steps from the sandwich stall, and I ordered one of their fresh juices – apple. They legitimately blended real apples, and the sweet juice along with the crunchy, warm sandwich was a perfect end to my day! The only thing I would say is that the sandwiches are pretty small – definitely less filling than a Subway 6″ sandwich – so if you are particularly hungry I would recommend getting at least two. They cost only 15,000-25,000 (about $0.75-$1.25 USD) each, so you won’t have to worry about breaking the bank!
[Recommended Read: Pictures of Hanoi From Its Streets]
Overall Hits of Two Days in Hanoi
This trip was the first time that I really paid attention to what I was eating. I have never put an emphasis on trying local foods before, but I’m glad that I did! Vietnamese food has a really distinctive minty sweet taste that I have liked since my first bowl of pho as a wee, tiny human.
The Ancient Culture and History
Like all countries in Southeast Asia, Vietnam has a really rich background. The parts of their history that have been preserved through and modified by colonialism are fascinating and definitely worth a visit. Hanoi has a lot of places that show you the path that the country has taken from then until now.
Overall Misses of Two Days in Hanoi
I was surprised to have a lot of down time during the day. I expected to have less, especially because I basically packed everything that I could do in Hanoi into my itinerary.
The Modern, Political History
Vietnam is distinct from other countries in that it still has the scars of the Vietnam War. The narrative around this history in the country is vastly different from what is said outside of it. Nowhere is this more true than the Hoa Lo Prison Museum and the Ho Chi Minh Museum. Especially at the prison, it seems to exist in a parallel universe of “alternative facts”. I didn’t know enough before I visited to understand the magnitude of the differences in portrayals, and I would highly recommend that you read up on the real history of the Vietnam War – from all sides – before you see the official claims from the Vietnamese government.
No Time for Day Trips! Or, not enough time for them
If I made an itinerary for someone else, I would have planned one day in the city and one day on a day trip – either to Ha Long Bay or to Sapa. I didn’t because I wasn’t sure if I would be happy spending only one day at either of those places, as all the tour companies have up to 3-day trips. At the same time, I think it is worth spending at least one day in the city. The prison and the Ho Chi Minh complex trifecta are really worth seeing. It might have been possible to combine all those into the same day; it would just have been rushed.
I chose to skip the day trips because I knew I could always come back to Hanoi and do them at another time, when I would be able to take a 2- or 3-day trip. But now I think it would give my future self more flexibility if I had left more things to do in the city. If plane ticket prices were the same, I would choose to spend 3 days in Hanoi, one in the city and two on an overnight trip.
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