Hanoi, the buzzing capital of Vietnam, is a city with frenetic streets, delicious street foods, and rich culture, just waiting to be explored. While you could spend months (probably a lifetime!) exploring the nooks and crannies of this sprawling city, home to some 8 million residents, many visitors either have a limited amount of time in the city or may instead be using Hanoi as a springboard for outdoor adventures around this gorgeous country, like the nearby Ha Long Bay, Sa Pa, or Ning Binh.
So if you have just four days in Hanoi, how do you make the most of it? Lucky for you, my husband, Justin, and I did all the legwork for you. Below are my recommendations of how to see all the best Hanoi has to offer in just 96 hours.
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Table of Contents
- How to Get to Hanoi
- Where to Stay in Hanoi
- What to Do in Hanoi
- Where to Go From Hanoi
How to Get to Hanoi
Many travelers will arrive from the Noi Bai International Airport, which is located about 40 minutes’ drive from the Old Quarter, where a lot of tourist attractions and accommodations are located.
If you’re arriving in Vietnam for the first time, visitors from most countries will require a visa, which you should apply for online at least 8 business days before your trip (note- you CANNOT apply for it when you actually land in Vietnam). I used VietnamImmigration.org (they charge around $6 UDS for a “processing fee” per visa) and it took about one business day to receive our approval letters through email.
For your arrival to Vietnam, you will need to print out your official approval letter and bring along two passport sized photos (4×6 cm) and $25 USD to give to immigration. When we entered Vietnam through Ho Chi Minh City (read about our recommendations for HCMC here and here), the immigration office didn’t make change for our two $20 bills for this fee, so make sure to bring exact change!
Before landing in Vietnam, I strongly recommend downloading Grab, a rideshare app to help you get to your accommodations and around Hanoi. Grab offers really affordable, pre-determined fares so that you don’t have to worry about whether your driver is ripping you off (note that, unless you have a Vietnamese bank account, you’ll have to pay your driver in cash, but at least you’ll know the exact amount before booking the ride).
Alternatively, if you’re flying into the airport with JetStar or Vietnam Airlines, the Hanoi Airport Shuttle will take you to two locations in the Old Quarter for just $2. Another option is to take the #86 bus for about $1.30- while it takes a bit longer than the shuttle, it stops at many locations around the Old Quarter. The Old Quarter is somewhat lacking when it comes to other public transit, so if you’re arriving via bus or train, your best option may be a Grab. If you’re staying elsewhere in Hanoi, the public transit system is fairly robust and should have you covered with a cheap (if not speedy) way to get to your accommodations.
Where to Stay in Hanoi
When you think of Hanoi, do you picture crumbling colonial buildings, street hawkers dishing up tasty grilled bananas wrapped in leaves, and about a zillion scooters? Yeah, you’re picturing the Old Quarter of Hanoi or Hoan Kiem, a dizzying maze of narrow streets, filled with French-influenced colonial architecture. If you envision your time in Hanoi indulging in 50 cent beers, pho dished out of giant buckets from the streets, and carved pineapples from the back of a push bike (all for under $1 USD), this should definitely be your home base.
It’s a breeze to backpack in Vietnam on a budget and Hanoi is no exception. For example, you can snag a bed in a hostel dorm for as little as $5 or a private Airbnb for about $20. If really want to splash out, you can go absolutely crazy, shell out around $80, and you can get a room in an upscale, luxurious hotel.
If 50-cent beers coupled with EDM music until the wee hours of the night isn’t really your scene, consider instead staying in Ba Dinh, a central neighborhood, long considered the political center of Vietnam and home to many of the city’s most popular attractions (including, strangely enough, the body of the leader, Ho Chi Minh, which we’ll chat about later).
The accommodations here tend to skew more towards the mid-range side and while there’s still a smattering of bars and food stalls to explore, this neighborhood is definitely quieter and more laid back than the Old Quarter.
What to Do in Hanoi
While I certainly could have spent longer in Hanoi, I feel like we hit a lot of the highlights in our four day stay here. If you have any less than four days in Hanoi, I would probably recommend cutting out the trip to Cat Ba and Lan Ha Bay- otherwise, you’re going to be doing more manic running around rather than enjoying beautiful Hanoi.
Day 1- Explore the Old Quarter of Hanoi
Is there a better place to get acquainted with Hanoi than the Old Quarter? Survey says, nope!
10:30: Get caffeinated. If you’re like us and had a super early morning flight, I’d recommend slowly easing your way into the chaos of Hanoi and starting your day off like how a lot of locals do- sitting on those iconic tiny plastic stools lining Hanoi’s sidewalks, drinking some eye-poppingly strong coffee, and watching scooters zoom by.
While Hanoi is famous for its egg coffee (a sweetened coffee drink topped by a meringue-like foam made of, you guessed it, egg yolks), Justin and I opted to instead get coconut coffee (a dreamy coffee/coconut smoothie concoction that we got hooked on during our time in Hoi An) from Cộng Cà Phê (there’s locations all over the city, but I’d check out the location at 35a Nguyễn Hữu Huân). This shop has a cheeky Communist-chic décor (think vintage Zorki cameras and war propaganda) and, given its central Old Quarter location, a killer spot to watch the morning commuters whiz by.
Note- If you sit pretty much anywhere on the sidewalk in the Old Quarter, peddlers are likely to come up to selling sunglasses, donuts out of baskets… pretty much anything that you can fit on the back of a bicycle or hang on a sheet of plywood. I’ve read horror stories about visitors getting duped by these sellers (i.e., a seller giving you a “free sample” and then demanding $10 USD from you), so I’d advise just politely saying không cám ơn (or no thank you) and they’ll generally leave you alone.
On that note, I recommend downloading the Google Translate app and the Vietnamese extension before you go to Hanoi to help you with pronunciation and other language barrier issues- while English is widely spoken here, the more off the beaten path you go, the more likely this little tool can be super helpful.
12:00: Get pho’d up. You’ve been in Hanoi for at least a couple of hours and haven’t had pho yet- BLASPHEMY! While there’s tons of options around the Old Quarter, Justin and I grabbed pho and some Vietnamese coffee from Minh Chay (30 Phố Mã Mây, Hàng Buồm, Hoàn Kiếm, Hà Nội, Vietnam), a place dishing up healthy, plant-based versions of traditional Vietnamese cuisine. Our food was the perfect pick-me-up, but note that prices here are quite high as compared to most Hanoi eateries (think 80k-120k per dish).
13:30: Get your gram on at Train Street. Time to get exploring! Take about a half hour walk past buzzing shops and food stalls to the infamous Train Street, an incredibly narrow residential alleyway laid with train tracks. When we visited (here’s the Google map location, as there seems to be some confusion about it online), the street was bustling with al fresco cafes, local kids playing games on the tracks, and vendors peddling their wares. When the train rumbles through the street a couple of times a day with mere inches of clearance on either side of the tracks in certain sections, the residents and tourists alike have to quickly tuck into doorways and alleyways to get out of the way.
When Justin and I visited, the area was a swarming free-for-all of would-be selfie takers, but apparently, one too many tourists were cutting it too close escaping from the train and the street was restricted to tourists in late 2019. However, from recent reviews on TripAdvisor, you can still visit this super unique spot, so long as you’re waved into the street by a guard and get a coffee or beer from one of the cafes lining and overlooking the street- I highly recommend getting the Choo Choo beer from the The Railway Hanoi (26, 10 Dien Bien Phu | Cua Nam, Ba Dinh, Hanoi 100000).
While it’s plenty fun to people watch the locals on the street, if you’re wanting to see the train, it comes by (give or take 15 minutes, we’re on Vietnam time here, people):
- Mon – Friday- 7 pm; 7.45 pm; 8.30 pm; 10 pm
- Weekend- 6 am; 9 am ; 11.20 am; 3.20 pm; 5.30 pm; 6 pm; 7 pm; 7.45 pm; 8.30 pm; 9 pm; 11 pm
The cafes on Train Street have the schedule of the train posted, so make sure you double check on your visit.
It should go without saying (and given the recent crackdown on tourism, I find it unlikely this will even be much of an issue), but please don’t take any unnecessary risks when it comes to getting photos of the train. Your safety is more important than the gram!
15:00: Shopping time! A stop to Hanoi would be incomplete without dropping into Dong Xuan Market (15 Cầu Đông, Đồng Xuân), the largest indoor market in Hanoi. The imposing Soviet-era building has four stories of everything you could think of under the sun- from a wet market on the first floor to knock-off sunglasses and wholesale fabric on the third floor.
I like this market because it seemed more like a place frequented by locals and not specifically targeting tourists (although vendors were nothing but polite to me here). That being said, it seems like a lot of other visitors on TripAdvisor wanted something a bit more tourist-friendly. If you’re instead looking for a place to pick up souvenirs, consider checking out Hang Da Market (1 Hang Da Street; 05:00 – 21:00 every day) in the center of the Old Quarter.
16:00: Check out Ngoc Son Temple and Hoan Kiem Lake. The beating heart of the Old Quarter is Hoan Kiem Lake, located in the southern part of the district. You’ll find couples dolled up in traditional Vietnamese outfits to take wedding photos, old men playing Chinese checkers, and of course, street food vendors (we’re still in Hanoi, y’all). Mosey around the lake; if you don’t mind being wired, perhaps grab a coffee from Hapro Coffee Kiosk on Pho Le Thai To; and take in this little bit of natural serenity in the middle of the chaos that is Hanoi.
The lake, which means Lake of the Returned Sword, is the stuff of some interesting legends- local lore holds that Emperor Lê Lợi of the 15th century was given a magical sword that later helped him defeat the Chinese Ming Dynasty. When he was boating one day, a Golden Turtle God surfaced and asked for the sword back. Lợi returned the sword and, as an homage, renamed the lake its current moniker. While I didn’t witness any talking turtles in my time on the lake, you can sneak a peek at a preserved version of one of the enormous species of turtles that used to inhabit the lake until 2016 in the Ngoc Son Temple, built on an islet in the lake in 1841.
To enter the temple, pay about 30,000 VND and cross over the very picturesque red bridge. Admire the traditional Vietnamese architecture, intricate carvings, and of course, the shockingly enormous turtle. Word of warning, the temple closes at 17:00, so while an hour should be plenty of time to explore the small temple, if you’re a fan of taking it slow, you may want to arrive here a bit earlier.
17:30: Fuel up with an early banh mi dinner. Justin and I picked up a nasty banh mi addiction during our time in Hoi An (see more about our trip there here and here), so we wanted to see Hanoi’s take on this classic sandwich. We ventured to the Vegan Banh Mi food cart (66B Tran Hung Dao; open daily from 8:00-19:00), a little stall tucked away in an alley and based out of a family’s downstairs living room. The stall dishes up some excellent banh mi, banh goi (a Vietnamese take on a samosa), and che (sweet desserts which can be made of different types of bean, lotus seed, agar jelly, and coconut milk). The owners’ daughters were SO sweet, excellent little waitresses, and arguably spoke better English than me!
18:30: Dessert time 2.0. Be sure to save a little bit of room because traveling in Vietnam, and especially Hanoi, is all about trying the ever-delicious street food. One of the best kinds I tried was chuoi nong, which literally means “barbecued bananas”. I don’t know about you, but bananas grilled over hot coals aren’t a thing here in the United States- and this is a TRAVESTY. Get some hot chuoi nuong, smothered in thick coconut cream and crunchy peanuts, as your Dessert Round 2 (1 Hang Duong Street, Hanoi Vietnam; 19:00-23:00 daily).
19:15: Watch the sunset from Skyline Hanoi. Since the best place to watch the sunset in Hanoi is Hoan Kiem Lake, what could be better than watching the sun sink past the horizon while overlooking the lake 11 floors up and cold drink in hand? I will forever be a big proponent of rooftop bars and with its 360-degree panoramic views of the Old Quarter and Hanoi’s more modern skyscrapers and with an extensive menu of thoughtfully-crafted cocktails, Skyline Hanoi (38 Phố Gia Ngư, Hàng Bạc, Hoàn Kiếm, Hà Nội 110201, Vietnam), is the perfect spot to do so.
20:00: Thang Long Water Puppet Show. Water puppetry is an art form unique to Vietnam, believed to have originated in the 11th century when farmers adapted conventional puppetry over their flooded fields. Thang Long is said to be the preeminent spot for this unusual art form, with puppeteers training for at least three years to perform at the theater. They will stand behind a screen in waist deep water and operate the puppets on a long rod so that it appears the puppets are floating across the water.
The hour-long show is a series of short vignettes about traditional Vietnamese life, performed entirely in Viatnamese (seemingly much to the chagrin of many TripAdvisor reviewers). The performance is accompanied by traditional Vietnamese folk music played on percussion, horns, bamboo flutes, and a single stringed guitar. The music is an integral part of the show, with the instrumentalists often shouting words of encouragement or singing along with the puppets. For a little less than $10 for “VIP tickets” (i.e., those close to the stage), it’s definitely a reasonably inexpensive and unique way to cap off your first night in Hanoi.
21:00: End the night… or not. Tomorrow is going to be a long and tiring day, so I’d recommend retiring early. If you’re still itching to explore, though, there are endless bars in the Old Quarter to grab a beer from for a dollar or less. If you’re looking for something a little more upscale, check out Kumquat Tree Speakeasy (01 Nguyen Khac Can, Hanoi, Vietnam 10000), a hidden-in-plain-sight speakeasy with fabulous cocktails. You can’t get in without the passcode though, so make sure you reserve one here.
Day 2- Head to Cat Ba Island to discover Lan Ha Bay
Ha Long Bay, with its stunning turquoise water and majestic limestone islands rising out of the sea, is what captivated my heart and convinced me to travel to Vietnam in the first place. Located just a couple of hours from Hanoi, I knew that I absolutely had to visit this spot during my time in Hanoi.
But imagine my disappointment when I read countless reviews complaining about how crowded the bay was and, more dishearteningly, how dirty and polluted the water was. Beyond heartbreaking. When I kept on researching, though, I found out there was a largely untouched by tourism (okay, more like, less touched) identical twin to Ha Long Bay- Lan Ha Bay! It’s just to the southwest of Ha Long Bay, off Cat Ba Island, with the same geography and adventure options (i.e., kayaking, swimming, etc.)- just with less tourists, less trash, and somehow cheaper? Count me in!
After doing about a thousand hours of research, I booked a 1 night, 2 day cruise tour through Cat Ba Sisters cruise. I’m planning on writing a separate post about this but, despite my infinite amount of research and the stunning out-of-this-world gorgeousness of Lan Ha Bay, I would not recommend booking a Ha Long Bay cruise with Cat Ba Sisters… or to be honest, any cruise operator. From doing a ton of research, I’m confident that the majority of the cruises have a lot of the same issues- the tour activities are SUPER rushed (I still have flashbacks of my desperate, panicked paddling trying to keep up with their manic kayaking pace during our time on the cruise- and I’m reasonably athletic!); you wind up spending one of your precious nights in Vietnam in the middle of an ocean (maybe ideal for some, but turns out to be not my jam at all); and you don’t have any control over the activities your cruise decides to schedule, which will often result in lackluster stops (i.e., on my cruise, it was pretty clear there were some stops on the itinerary only because the cruise was getting some kind of kickback from the stop in question).
To be clear, I’m 100% happy I chose to go to Lan Ha Bay instead of Ha Long- I just REALLY disliked the overnight cruise aspect of it. So instead, this itinerary is going to outline what I wish I had done- a two day, one night trip to Cat Ba Island, staying overnight on the island and taking excursions to visit the bay. Keep in mind that I did not do the itinerary below- but I sure wish I did!
7:30: Find your way to Cat Ba Island. There’s a ton of different ways you can get from Hanoi to Cat Ba and if you book a tour or cruise, your trip likely includes this transfer. If you’re skipping the tour portion, though, I’d recommend booking a “luxury” bus ticket (i.e., with air conditioning, cushy seats, and a smaller amount of passengers) through Cat Ba Express. If you’re staying in the Old Quarter, the buses will pick you up from your accommodations or if not, you’ll have to meet at their offices, a quick 10 minute walk from the Old Quarter (37B Nguyễn Hữu Huân, Lý Thái Tổ, Hoàn Kiếm, Hà Nội), departing every day for Cat Ba at 7:30, 10:45, and 14:15.
The cost of a one way trip is 360,000 VND ($15.35) and includes the price of the initial two-hour drive to Cat Hai, a 10-minute speedboat to Cat Ba Island, and then a 45-minute shuttle from the port to Cat Ba town. I’d actually recommend booking your tickets for the roundtrip back to Hanoi (~$26 for roundtrip) as tickets can sell out for certain departures (our bus on the way from Cat Ba back to Hanoi was completely sold out). You can book your tickets here.
There are slightly cheaper options (I’m talking like $4 cheaper), like taking the train and then a speedboat ferry to Cat Ba Island. However, you’ll have to lug all your luggage for about a 25 minute walk between the train and the departing ferry boat location, so the bus is the way to go, in my opinion.
Protip- While the bus should only take about 3.5 hours, I’ve learned that transportation in Vietnam can often take way longer than originally anticipated. Make sure to pick up breakfast before you go- we got an early morning banh mi from Banh Mi 25 (25 Hàng Cá, P, Hoàn Kiếm, Hà Nội, Vietnam) and given the long bus ride, I really wish we would’ve picked one up from a pre-lunchtime snack as well!
11:00: Check into your accommodations. I’d recommend trying to find accommodations located by Bến tàu Cát Bà (the Cat Ba Ferry Station), where most tours and excursions leave from as well as close to the “downtown” area, so that you can explore the town by foot at night. For a mid-range stay, the Cat Ba Oasis Bungalows (254, 1/4 Street, Cat Ba 180000 Vietnam) has good reviews and an awesome location. For a cheaper option, Catba Tropicana Homestay is also centrally located and has rave reviews on TripAdvisor.
Even if you don’t go with these suggestions, I’d strongly recommend Googling the location of your accommodations prior to booking- some of hotels or hostels are on the opposite side of the island from Cat Ba town, and it may be way more challenging to explore the island during your downtime.
11:45: Lunchtime. You’re in Vietnam and you haven’t eaten for four hours?! What’s your deal, man! Snag a quick lunch at Buddha Belly Restaurant (245 Nui Ngoc, Cat Hai, Hai Phong, Cat Ba, Vietnam, 180000) to fuel up before your afternoon tour.
13:00: Head out to explore gorgeous Lan Ha Bay. Most Lan Ha Bay tours are all day events and leave in the morning, but given that there are approximately a zillion tour operators on Cat Ba, you should have no trouble finding an afternoon tour to pre-book before reaching the island. I’d recommend identifying what you want to do in Lan Ha Bay and selecting your tour operator based off that- for example, the number one thing I wanted to do in Lan Ha Bay was to kayak (big side eye to my Lan Ha Bay tour operator).
If your interests align with mine, Cat Ba Ventures, which has great reviews, has a kayaking tour leaving at 13:00 every day. If you’re more interested in the stunning hiking available on Cat Ba, check out Cat Ba Greentrail Travel’s afternoon tour through Cat Ba National Park.
When booking your tour, I’d also recommend asking the tour operator for a more detailed itinerary of what the tour includes (i.e., will we go kayaking one time? Two times? Will we be so rushed in kayaking that I have a mild panic attack?), so you at least have a better ballpark of an idea of what to expect, rather than the descriptions on their websites.
Prices of tours will vary depending on what kind of activity you’re doing- cruising through Lan Ha Bay will be cheaper than rock-climbing in the national park, but I’d conservatively budget $25-35 for a half-day tour and between $40-60 for a full-day tour. Pricing can really be all over the map here, but as always, you get what you pay for.
18:30: Spend your night relaxing in Cat Ba. Cat Ba is GORGEOUS, but, since it’s largely based on an overnight cruise tourism system, it isn’t really a bustling hub of nightlife. I am NOT a chill person and every time I’m traveling somewhere, I feel the need to constantly be out and DOING something- going to a bit quieter of places, like Cat Ba, is a great reminder that it’s okay to be a bit slower every once in a while.
Have a leisurely dinner at Vietnamese Soul Food (131 Tung Dinh, Cat Ba, Vietnam)- the food is fabulous and inexpensive, but be prepared to wait a bit for it (we’re taking it slow tonight, remember?). Hop over to Mona Restaurant for sunset (So 180 Duong 1/4, Cat Ba, Vietnam, 180000)- I hear the food is rather lackluster but a Tiger beer paired with the sunset view from its rooftop is unparalleled.
Afterward, stroll along the harborfront and check out the bia hoi stalls. Bia hoi is SUPER light draft beer brewed on a daily basis in Hanoi and served for less than $1 at cozy lil’ stalls, with those tiny plastic tables and stools sprawling out in every direction. You’ll typically wind up hanging out at these places for a couple of hours and, after a few bia hoi, all your neighbors will often get really chummy (best part of traveling is the people, amirite?). Once you’ve made at least one local friend, it’s time to turn in for the night.
Day 3- Morning in Cat Ba and then back to Hanoi
7:00: Double fist some coconut coffee. You’re going to head out on an early morning tour, so first things first, coconut coffee! I’d recommend Start Up Coffee (10 Núi Ngọc, Cat Ba, Vietnam, 187380), which has LEGIT banana pancakes and plenty of some much needed caffeine.
7:30: Spend your morning on another half-day tour. Try to schedule a tour based on whatever your interests in Lan Ha Bay weren’t fulfilled yesterday (Lily’s Travel Agency and Cat Ba Package Tour are a few other operators who offer half-day packages)- most will pick you up from your accommodations (or would probably even be willing to pick you up from Start Up!) around 7:30 and will drop you back off around noon or so. As a side note, I was laser-focused on the sea-based activities while we were in Cat Ba, but totally blown away by how gorgeous Cat Ba National Park is- if you’re generally interested in hiking, I’d probably recommend splitting my two days in Cat Ba between sea and land based activities.
If you’re a budget-minded traveler, many accommodations provide kayaks for free or as a really cheap rental (like less than $5 USD for a day). However, you’re not permitted to launch a kayak from the main pier in Cat Ba and unless you’re a REALLY strong sea kayaker, I wouldn’t attempt to kayak from your accommodations to anywhere close to the limestone islands themselves (the currents can be surprisingly strong around them). For about $15, some companies, like Cat Ba Victor Tours, will transport you into the middle of the bay and provide you with a kayak rental there for a self-guided tour, a great option for those who are decent at kayaking and also looking to save some cash.
13:00: One last lunch in Cat Ba. For your last lunch in Cat Ba, head to Casa Bonita (82 Nui Ngoc, Cat Ba 180000 Vietnam), which, despite its Spanish-sounding name, dishes up inexpensive pan-Asian cuisine, with a few Western dishes mixed in (I’d recommend sticking to the pan-Asian options). Between the restaurant’s open-air seating with tons of hanging leafy green plants and affordable menu, this is the perfect tranquil spot for you to soak in the last of those Cat Ba Island vibes.
15:30: Back to Hanoi we go. Assuming you already bought roundtrip ticket on the Cat Ba Express, it’s time to head on back to Hanoi. The bus will pick you up from your accommodations on Cat Ba, departing daily at 9:00, 12:25, 15:30, and 16:15 (this last one is $15 extra for some reason). It’ll take about three and a half to four hours to get back to Hanoi. On the Cat Ba Express, they pass out water bottles and snacks, but since it’s a bit of a drive, we’d recommend bringing your own snacks and drinks along (bus rides are especially unfun while hangry).
19:30: Sunsets and beer. Once you’ve been able to put your stuff away in your accommodations and freshened up a bit, it’s time to check out Hanoi’s craft brewing scene- and one of the best places in the city to see the sunset! Turtle Lake Brewing Company (105 Quang Khanh, Hanoi, Vietnam) is a bit off the beaten tourist path, located right on the banks of West Lake (it’ll cost about 60,000 VND for a Grab there from the Old Quarter). The service and food here are nothing to write home about, but fortunately, the 15+ beers on tap and brewed onsite and the view more than make up for this deficit. Order beers directly from the bartender and snag a table right by the lake- you’ll have a front-row, lakefront view of the sun sinking behind Hanoi’s glittering skyline.
20:45: Late dinner in the Old Quarter. Call a Grab back to the Old Quarter and grab dinner at Ưu Đàm Chay (34 Phố Hàng Bài, Hàng Bài, Hoàn Kiếm, Hà Nội, Vietnam), a restaurant whose sleek interior feels decidedly more upscale than most of the neighboring restaurants. While certainly more expensive than a street stall, the food here looks like pieces of art, and the taste does not disappoint either. At times, it can feel like a bit of a challenge to find restaurants that do not 100% cater to Western tourists in the Old Quarter (especially if you, like my husband and me, have certain dietary restrictions), but this spot feels like a solid mix of locals and tourists alike.
21:45: Dessert and a nightcap. Be sure to save room for dessert- we may have went slightly bougie for dinner, but dessert is coming straight from the streets. Che Ba Thin (1 Bat Dan Quan Hoan Kiem, Hanoi Vietnam) has been serving up xoi che (a sweet “soup” served as a traditional Vietnamese dessert) from this street stall since 1930. Order yourself some sweet mung bean and black sesame dumplings in ginger sugar soup, with coconut and peanut shavings or mung bean paste with the coconut and grass jelly.
The menu here is completely in Vietnamese and most (if not all) of the patrons were locals when we visited- so unless you’re fluent in Vietnamese, I’d recommend watching others order, see what looks good to you, and copy them. The cashier didn’t treat me like an idiot for wildly pantomiming out what kind of desserts I was ordering (only 32000 VND for 2!), so I assume he’ll extend you the same courtesy. Nothing says “I’m in Hanoi” like plopping down onto a teeny plastic stool and happily scooping sweet mung bean paste into your mouth.
Afterwards, head to Ta Hien or “Beer Street”, a MUCH more intense version of the line of bia hoa stalls in Cat Ba town. Ta Hien, Hanoi’s answer to Khao San Road, the backpacker hub of Thailand, is a narrow street that gets extremely crowded at night with hundreds of tourists and locals every night, in search of draft of bia hoa and cheap bottles of Tiger beer for 5000 to 8000 VND . Tiny plastic stools spill onto the street in every which direction from these stalls, such as Bia Hai Xom, made famous by none other than my main man, Anthony Bourdain (22 Tang Bat Ho).
Learn from our experience and either try to be seated at a table not directly by the street or better yet, head up to a bar with a second-story balcony, like Lều Coffee & Bar (Số 1 Tạ Hiện, Tầng 2, Quận Hoàn Kiếm, Hà Nội, Việt Nam), so you get a birds eye view of the insane amount of people getting very drunk on 4% beer below. Whatever you do, do not sit at a table right next to the swarming street- your 50-cent beer will 100% get knocked over. There’s enough dimly-lit tiny bars to keep you entertained here until you’re ready to make your way back to your room.
Day 4- Getting cozy with Ba Dinh, the heart of Vietnam’s Politics
Assuming you’re leaving Hanoi in the afternoon, we still have the whole morning to explore- this time, we’re moving to Ba Dinh, the political nucleus of Vietnam since the French occupation and where Ho Chi Minh, Vietnam’s beloved leader, declared independence in 1945.
7:15: Visiting Uncle Ho. Grab an early morning banh mi and coconut coffee and hire a Grab to the Ba Dihn neighborhood. Ho Chi Minh, the founder of the Communist party in Vietnam, is revered in a way that I’m largely unfamiliar with as a United States citizen, seemingly universally adored by the Vietnamese people and affectionately called “Uncle Ho”. Ho Chi Minh’s body was preserved and has been on public display in the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum (2 Hùng Vương, Điện Bàn, Ba Đình, Hà Nội 100000, Vietnam; Tuesday – Thursday 07:30 – 10:30, Saturday & Sunday 07:30 – 11:00) since 1975 and many Vietnamese citizens make a pilgrimage to Hanoi just to stand in the leader’s presence.
Given the importance of Ho Chi Minh in Vietnamese history, the free admission, and the unique, slightly “dark tourism”-esque nature of visiting the mausoleum, this is one the top tourist attractions in the city. Even if the thought of seeing a dead body squeeks you out, the complex itself is an interesting reflection of the beginnings of Communism in Vietnam- the architecture here gives off some strong Stalin vibes. That being said, if you’re interested in Vietnam’s political history, I’d definitely recommend going, but go EARLY- it was Justin’s and my intent to visit the mausoleum, but when we showed up about an hour after the complex opened, the line snaked around the mausoleum’s complex for seemingly MILES. I can’t stress enough the importance of getting here early if this is one of the “must-see” items on your Hanoi list.
Some other things to note about visiting the mausoleum- you’ll need to leave your camera, cell phone, and backpack before entering the complex as any kind of photography of the body is strictly forbidden. Furthermore, this place is incredibly important to many Vietnamese and as such, more formal attire (i.e., no shorts, tank tops, or mini-skirts) are allowed in the complex.
If you decide to hit this spot, make sure to make a quick stop at the Ho Chi Minh Museum right behind the mausoleum to get a bit of a better peak behind the seemingly ordinary man who went on to do the extraordinary accomplishment of securing independence for Vietnam. The museum lacks clear signage and is more of an art gallery than an informative museum, but with an admission price of ~$1, it’s certainly worth a half hour of your time.
9:30: Temple of Literature. If you’re not about that “waking up at 6 AM on vacation” life, skip Ho Chi Minh’s mausoleum and start your morning off at the Temple of Literature (58 Quốc Tử Giám, Văn Miếu, Đống Đa, Hà Nội 100000, Vietnam), which, as a book lover, is one of my favorite temples I’ve ever seen! If you’re coming from the Old Quarter, I’d recommend taking a Grab here or, if you’re coming from the Ho Chi Minh mausoleum complex, it’s a quick 20 minute walk through the streets of Hanoi.
The temple was originally built in 1070 and used as a university dedicated to Confucius, scholars, and sages. With its landscaped gardens, turtle statutes, and open-aired passageways, it’s a perfect example of traditional Vietnamese architecture and oh so photogenic.
Rather than serving as a religious spot, this spot is reserved as a place of study and is an excellent place to people watch Vietnamese locals study or celebrate educational milestones. When we visited in March, there were a ton of people walking around and taking graduation pictures (do Vietnamese students graduate in March?) and, even more fun, there were several groups of elementary school students that will excitedly walk up and politely ask to “interview” you as a means of practicing your English.
10:45: Get Cultural. Located just a block from the Temple of Literature is the Vietnam Fine Arts Museum (66 Phố Nguyễn Thái Học, Điện Bàn, Ba Đình, Hà Nội, Vietnam), which displays a vast variety of art from primarily Vietnamese artists and offers a deeper insight into the country’s political and cultural past. A lot of the signage is provided in both Vietnamese and English and for only 40,000 VND, it’s the perfect way to immerse yourself in Vietnamese culture for a few hours.
Alternatively, I was dying to check out the Vietnamese Women’s Museum (36 Lý Thường Kiệt, Hàng Bài, Hoàn Kiếm, Hà Nội, Vietnam; 8:00-17:00 daily), which highlights the role women have played in Vietnamese society, from childbirth to marriage customs and the role the women played in the Vietnam War. The informative signage is provided in both French and English and the museum’s narrative is communicated in a vast array of media, from clothing to Communist propaganda and tribal weavings.
If you’re at all interested in women’s place in society (*insert my emphatic hand waving here*), I’d skip the Art Museum and come here instead.
12:45: One last lunch and we’re off. Assuming your flight leaves in the afternoon, you’ll need to head back to your accommodations and pick up your things before leaving for the airport. For lunch, make one last stop at Ta Hien to try your hand at some more Vietnamese mom-and-pop street stalls. Be on the hunt for hoeori gamja, a street food transplant from Korea, which is potato cut into a tornado-looking contraption, seasoned with onion and chili and deep-fried to perfection.
Take a Grab back to the airport and be off on your next adventure!
Places to Go From Hanoi
Vietnam is an excellent springboard for a lot of Southeast Asia- Justin and I left Hanoi and went on to Siem Reap, Cambodia and, had we had more time, I would’ve loved to explore Vietnam’s beautiful neighbor to the west, Laos.
Alternatively, if you’ve got more time in Vietnam, other popular side trips from Hanoi include Ninh Binh (about a 2-3 hour journey south of Hanoi and an excellent stopping point if you’re making your way south through the country), affectionately referred to as “Ha Long Bay on land”, for the limestone monoliths scattered across the lush green landscape or Sa Pa (about 5 hours west of Hanoi), a mountainous region famous for its stunning rice terraces and endless trekking opportunities.
That sums up my recommendations of how to spend four days eating, drinking, and seeing all the things Hanoi and its neighboring landscape has to offer. Have you been to Hanoi? Are there any spots or recommendations of street stalls I should’ve tried in my time there? And I’d love to hear an opinion from someone who LOVED their time aboard a Lan Ha Bay cruise- sound off in the comments below!
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