3 days in Hanoi is just enough to take in the highlights of this buzzing, fascinating city. Over a thousand years old, Hanoi’s history had it’s beginnings as a fishing village. It has served as the capital city of modern day Vietnam since 1902 and is Vietnam’s second largest city, filled with colour, culture and energy.
Day 1: Around Hoan Kiem Lake
Start the introduction to your 3 days in Hanoi gently, with serene, peaceful Hoan Kiem Lake, surrounded by weeping willows and shaded paths. Hanoi locals flock to the lake in the cool hours near dawn and sunset. Groups of older folk practice tai chi, lovers meander through the greenery and children play under the trees. In the middle of Hoan Kiem Lake, (Lake of the Restored Sword) is Turtle Tower, built to commemorate the legend of the lake, when a Vietnamese emperor was asked by the Golden Turtle God to return his sword, given to him earlier during the successful revolt against the Chinese.
Further north, linked to the lake’s shore by a beautiful red bridge, is Ngoc Son temple, which is worth a visit if only to see the giant, embalmed turtle that is displayed within – this is supposedly one of the Turtle God’s descendants.
When you’re ready head to the north end of the lake and cross into the 36 Streets, or Hanoi’s famed Old Quarter. A warren of streets filled to the brim with shops selling everything from paper to household goods to jewelry to clothes, the Old Quarter is Hanoi’s beating heart. Old trees line the grid of streets, goods spill out on the pavement, roadside stalls offer all sorts of Vietnamese street food, mothers feed babies, barbers cut and shave lines of customers, and everywhere you look are motorcycles going in every direction. Street names indicate what used to be sold here – Hang Ma still sells paper offerings, Hang Dong is where you’d have gone to get bells and gongs, Hang Gai the street of silks, etc.
In the evening, make a beeline for the Hilton Hanoi Opera, one of Hanoi’s grandest hotels and the perfect spot for a drink before going for a show at the Hanoi Opera House, just across the road. A little incongruous, this centuries-old French colonial building is a Hanoi landmark and hosts regular performances of operas and musicals by Vietnamese composers. Alternatively, if opera isn’t your cup of tea, a water puppet theatre performance is entertaining for both young and old, and is uniquely Vietnamese. The best troupe within Hanoi is the Thang Long water puppet troupe, which plays in a theatre near the north of the lake.
Day 2: Historical Hanoi
One your second day in Hanoi, immerse yourself in the city’s history and architecture. Start at the Temple of Literature, an oasis of manicured hedges and tranquil inner courtyards. This is Vietnam’s older university, founded in 1076 for students of Confucianism, classical literature and poetry. Within the grounds, 82 stelae sitting on giant turtles and carved out of stone commemorate the names and accomplishments of the Temple’s most exceptional students. In the innermost pagoda is a stern statue of Confucius, sitting flanked by his four disciples.
After a morning spent at the Temple, stop for a lunch of bun cha at a roadside stall – there are plenty around the Temple serving the locals. Bun cha is a delicious dish of grilled pork and vermicelli noodles, served with herbs and a sweet sauce. The traditional accompaniment to bun cha is nem, or deep fried spring rolls. Pick a busy restaurant packed with lots of local customers, avoid drinking tap water and you should be okay. Hanoi’s street food is so delicious it would be a shame to miss out!
In the afternoon, visit Maison Centrale which is located in the French Quarter. The prison, also called Hoa Lo Prison, is more infamously known as the Hilton Hanoi. A former French prison, this building was used during the Vietnam War to imprison American fighter pilots. John McCain is one of its more famous inmates. The displays here have more than a little flavour of propaganda, emphasising how well the prisoners were treated; however, its reputation with former inmates isn’t consistent with this message. Still, the prison offers a glimpse into what it was like, not just for the American POWs but also the Vietnamese who were jailed here by the French prior to the war.
If your three days in Hanoi fall on a Friday, Saturday or Sunday, visit the night markets in the Old Quarter, located around Hang Ngang, Hang Dao and Hang Duong. There are the usual suspects – clothing, knick knacks, food – but the streets feel a lot calmer. Indulge in some Hanoi street food, choosing busy stalls frequented by locals. Many of the shops open until late so if you haven’t gotten your fill of shopping yet you can still stock up. While there, quench your thirst at a bia hoi, a local bar which serves draught beer, usually for about VND5,000. It’s a great way to witness the local life – to fit in, simply offer a toast of “mot, hai, ba, yo!” – the Vietnamese version of “Cheers!”
Day 3: Hanoi’s Uncle Ho
If you’re in Hanoi, you should pay your respects to the father of Vietnam, Ho Chi Minh. His body lies embalmed in an imposing mausoleum in Ba Dinh Square. Visitors are only allowed in during the morning and the mausoleum is closed on Mondays and Fridays. There are strict rules relating to dress and behaviour while within the building – any infractions are sharply corrected by the military guard who stands watch over Uncle Ho. For many Vietnamese, a visit to the mausoleum is a sombre, touching affair, almost a pilgrimage to the man who many credit with winning freedom for Vietnam from colonial powers.
Nearby is the beautiful Presidential Palace which was gifted to Ho Chi Minh as living quarters when he became President; however he never lived in it. Instead, he chose to set up shop in the groundskeeper’s hut, a far more modest affair. Tours are offered round the grounds of the site and are worth it if you are interested in Vietnam’s revolution – most of the plotting by Ho and his leadership was done here.
Finally, end your 3 days in Hanoi the way you began it – recharge your spirit with a visit to the tranquil Tran Quoc Pagoda, a Buddhist temple sitting serenely on Hanoi’s West Lake. This is the oldest pagoda in the city, originally built in the 6th century. The pagoda is prettiest at sunset. Be aware that as it’s a religious site, a modest dress code should be adhered to.
Hanoi is a fascinating city, from its streams of mopeds in the streets, the throngs of people and goods in the Old Quarter, to the natural beauty of its lakes and its colonial history and interesting past. The food is delicious and cheap, and with lots of smiles and a little Vietnamese, the people are friendly. With just three days in Hanoi, these highlights will give you a taste for what the city has to offer and although you may be pressed for time, you’ll never be bored.
If you have more than 3 days to spare, there’s plenty to do around Hanoi, including a Ha Long Bay cruise, an UNESCO heritage site, as well as a few days visit to the mountain town of Sapa for hiking and homestays with the locals.