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Hanoi, the capital of Vietnam. It’s just as vibrant, historied, and chaotic as Ho Chi Minh City, its southern counterpart. Yet, it is decidedly different.
In Hanoi, you feel more of the thousands of years of history that have defined Vietnam and its people. You find its roots. Its southern sibling reflects more of the traumas of the past century, the more recent changes. Both, of course, cannot escape the legacy of influences from its past tributary and colonial overlords.
Here are the best things to do in Hanoi in 2 days to really get a feel of the history that has shaped Vietnam — and the country that it is today.
How to get from the airport to Hanoi city center
When you land at Hanoi’s Noi Bai airport, there are a number of options to getting into town.
Obviously, you can arrange for your hotel to send a private car to pick you up. Or you can grab a taxi — or grab a Grab, Southeast Asia’s Uber. (Quick note: you’ll be responsible for the airport exit fee on top of your fare.)
If you’re more budget-conscious, there are numerous bus options that will take you to and from the city center.
The major airlines in the area — Jetstar, Vietnam Airlines, and Vietjet — all have their own shuttles. The cost is minimal, around 40,000 Vietnamese Dong, or around $1.75 USD. But these shuttles are pretty limited in their service times.
Public buses are even cheaper and run more frequently. I took Bus 86, which is the express route and costs 30,000 VND (~$1.25). Bus 17 is even cheaper at 9000 VND (40 cents), though it takes slightly longer.
Pro tip: If you take a public option back to the airport on your way out, make sure you get off at the right stop. The domestic and international terminals at Noi Bai are pretty far apart!
Where to stay in Hanoi
Once I got to Hanoi city center, I found it pretty easy to walk to most of the places in this itinerary. And whenever something was further away, there was always Grab.
Day 1 in Hanoi
For your first day in Hanoi, take in bits and pieces of the millennia of history and culture that has shaped the place. Consider it a one-day history lesson.
So fill up on breakfast — my favorite is to find a random street vendor that locals are buying from and get that, whatever it may be — and lace up your shoes. (Like most of my guides, this 2-day itinerary for Hanoi is very much 100% walkable!)
Get educated at the Temple of Literature
Start your education of Hanoi and its Confucian roots at the Temple of Literature.
This Confucian temple is home to Vietnam’s first university. The imperial academy had enough room for 300 students and was the site of imperial scholarly exams for nearly a millennium.
Here, you’ll find stone steles of ancient scholars and see where the country’s foremost intellectuals studied during its centuries of dynastic rule. If you happen to be around during certain times of the year, you’ll also find many soon-to-be graduates taking their graduation photos at this historic complex.
Budget roughly 90 minutes for your visit, and make sure to get the audio guide. It’s a must if you’re interested in more than just pretty photos. Otherwise, the Temple of Literature is just a pretty set of gardens and altars.
Admission is 30,000 VND and the audio guide is 50,000 VND.
Stroll around Hoan Kiem Lake
Then stop by one of the hundreds (thousands??) of coffee shops in Hanoi and get some morning buzz.
Try a ca phe sua da, or Vietnamese iced coffee — or get a delicious, dessert-like egg coffee — and take it to-go as you stroll around Hoan Kiem Lake. It’s a popular hangout spot in Hanoi.
This small but famous lake houses the Turtle Tower on a small island in the middle. Its nickname is Lake of the Returned Sword. King Arthuresque, huh?
The names of the lake and the tower reflect a Vietnamese legend about a magical sword that Emperor Le Loi returned to the Golden Turtle God. (For the full story, ask a local tour guide or the staff at your accommodations!)
Check out St. Joseph’s Cathedral
Continue walking to St. Joseph’s Cathedral, one of the most obvious legacies of French colonialism in Vietnam.
This Gothic revival church has been around for more than a hundred years, and the sharp architectural eye may see its resemblance to the famous Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris.
Fun fact: this Hanoi cathedral was named after Saint Joseph while its counterpart in Ho Chi Minh City was named after Saint Mary the Virgin.
Less fun fact: the cathedral was built on the grounds of a sacred Buddhist temple, which was torn down to accommodate the church. Ah yes, good ol’ colonialism.
Enjoy a steaming hot bowl of pho
For lunch, find a pho stand that has locals and get yourself a steaming hot bowl! I visited Hanoi in dreary, rainy January, which made the appeal of pho even greater.
While pho may be the most familiar Vietnamese dish to many people, you may find yourself a little surprised at the pho in Hanoi.
Pho is originally a northern Vietnamese dish. (It is, after all, the much colder end of the country, so soup makes sense!) Over time, different regions adapted it to their own tastes and local ingredients.
Since more of the Vietnamese diaspora to western countries come from southern Vietnam, most of the pho we have in western countries is actually southern-style pho. (Personally, I’d only had northern-style pho once before going to Hanoi.)
The bean sprouts and herbs that we’re so accustomed to getting on the side? Not so in Hanoi. Northern-style pho tends to be simpler, often with green onions being the only topping.
The hoisin sauce and sriracha? Nope. Fish sauce and chili sauce instead.
Try a bowl of northern-style pho and see if you can taste the difference!
Celebrate Vietnamese women
In the afternoon, we continue through the decades of history at arguably the best museum in Hanoi: the Vietnamese Women’s Museum.
While it may sound oddly niche, the Vietnamese Women’s Museum truly is one of the most interesting museums in Vietnam — and this is coming from someone who loves museums.
The museum covers everything from marriage, pregnancy, and childbirth customs of the various ethnic groups in Vietnam to fashion, jewelry, and beauty evolutions throughout the years.
There are also exhibits on women’s roles in fighting the French and Americans for much of the 20th century, along with exhibits on many other aspects of Vietnamese life, culture, and history.
Make sure to pay for the audio guide. It adds a lot of additional information and stories, though it will extend your time at the museum.
Admission is 60,000 VND with the audio guide or 30,000 VND without. It takes about 2.5 hours to get through the entire audio guide. Without it, you could probably get through all the exhibits in an hour or so.
They say women run the world, and I definitely learned more about Vietnam and Vietnamese culture as a whole at the Vietnamese Women’s Museum than anywhere else during my travels in the country.
Plus, why wouldn’t you want to visit a museum that’s 100% about women?
Feast at Grandma’s
Extend this exaltation of women to dinner at Grandma’s.
This traditional, homestyle cooking spot is beautiful in every way. The restaurant itself is gorgeous, the food pleasing to the eyes and taste buds, the service impeccable — even the menus were presented as classy scrolls.
Day 2 in Hanoi
If day 1 was a quick one-day history of Vietnam, day 2 is solidly more focused. Specifically, it’s focused on Ho Chi Minh and the revolution he brought that makes Vietnam the communist country it is today.
It’s definitely a history buff sort of day. But don’t worry, I’ve added in other things for the non-history fanatic as well.
See Ho Chi Minh
Yep, you can see Ho Chi Minh himself.
Despite the fact that he wanted to be cremated, the poor man has laid in state, embalmed and on display, since 1975. (He died in 1969.)
So if you’re inclined, you can pay respects to the man yourself.
For the smoothest visit, get up bright and early and get to the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum around its opening time at 8 a.m.
Don’t despair when you see the line; it does move fairly quickly. I arrived around 8:15 a.m., by which time the line was already snaking around several blocks. It took me 18 minutes just to get to the end of the line. But I was through security by 8:55 a.m.
Once you’re through security, there are pretty strict rules while you wait to enter the mausoleum. No cellphone usage, no talking, no hands in pockets. (There’s also a dress code — make sure shoulders and legs are covered. Technically only short skirts and shorts are not allowed, but you’re safer with pants or a long skirt.)
I finally got into the mausoleum around 9:35 a.m. After a little more than an hour of waiting, I got about 15 seconds in the room with Ho Chi Minh as visitors slowly walked around his guarded glass casket in a single-file line.
Won’t lie, it did feel a little creepy. He was just laying there with hands on his body as if he was sleeping. It was so eerie, it almost felt fake. (Also, how long do embalmed bodies last???)
Access to the mausoleum is free. All you need to provide is the time.
Explore the Presidential Palace
Once you exit the mausoleum, the walkways will lead you to the Presidential Palace.
This brightly-colored palace surrounded by lush greenery is in stark contrast to the austerity of the adjacent mausoleum.
You can’t actually go into the palace itself, but you can see the small stilt house where Ho Chi Minh actually lived, renouncing the magnificent colonial-era palace on principle. You can also see his cars and other belongings and roam the beautifully curated gardens on the grounds.
Admission is free for the Vietnamese and 40,000 VND for others. (I know this acutely because they thought I was Vietnamese until I opened my mouth…)
Rest at the One Pillar Pagoda
After the Presidential Palace, swing by over to one of Vietnam’s most iconic temples.
The One Pillar Pagoda was built as a temple of gratitude by Emperor Ly Thai Tong in 1049. Unfortunately, like many other things, it was destroyed by the French at the end of the First Indochina War. What we see today was rebuilt later on.
The pagoda is a popular photo spot, but the area can be quite serene when it’s not overcrowded. So think of it as a brief break from all the Ho Chi Minh experiences.
Dig deep with Ho Chi Minh
You’ve seen him and his former residence. Now it’s time to really learn about Ho Chi Minh himself.
Around the corner from the previous three sites is the Ho Chi Minh Museum.
This massive building houses a comprehensive history of the man, from his childhood and initial political flirtings to his founding of the Vietnamese Communist party and declaration of the country’s independence. It’s like reading a biography of Ho Chi Minh but with way more visual accompaniments and artifacts.
If I’ve lost you, I can understand. I too was a little hesitant at first about visiting a museum dedicated to one man — even as a history buff. But it was fascinating.
I especially loved learning about how early influences shaped this leader’s beliefs and how those beliefs then turned into actions that have had a reverberating impact in Vietnam and beyond. (Like many of Asia’s 20th-century revolutionaries, Ho Chi Minh had a western education and had traveled and lived abroad in his youth.)
I have to admit though that the main exhibit was a bit incohesive. The special exhibits on the side were the real stars.
When I visited, there was a moving exhibit on wounded veterans and what they’ve done with their lives despite their gruesome injuries. There was also an artistic exhibit visualizing the impact of the industrial revolution on Ho Chi Minh’s philosophies and another one deconstructing Picasso’s Guernica to symbolize the fight against fascism.
The museum is definitely best for those who have a good amount of preexisting knowledge of the world’s 19th- and 20th-century wars and major events, but it’s worth a visit for anyone who has the time. Admission is 40,000 VND.
In total, my visit to the entire Ho Chi Minh complex took roughly 4.5 hours. I’d budget up to 6 hours for it, especially if you’re in Hanoi during busier times.
Eat with Obama and Bourdain*
By this point, you probably think I’ve forgotten about lunch. I promise that’s not the case.
Once you’re done at the Ho Chi Minh complex, grab a late lunch at Bun Cha Huong Lien. It’s the spot that was made super popular after President Obama and the late Anthony Bourdain ate there in 2016.
You have to try to house specialty, bun cha. It’s grilled pork in a dipping broth, served with rice noodles and herbs. (If you’re feeling unsure, just ask for the “Obama set,” which is a bowl of bun cha, a fried seafood roll, and a beer.)
(*Okay, fine, you’re not eating with Obama or Bourdain, but there are tons of photos of them eating there. Plus, you’re sitting on the same types of plastic stools and communal tables. So same same but different.)
Explore Hanoi’s markets
After all the Ho Chi Minh and communism-related action in the morning, do a 180 in the afternoon. Get your capitalism on at Hanoi’s many markets.
Dong Xuan market, Quang Ba flower market, Hoa Binh flea market, Old Quarter Night Market. That’s just a sampling of Hanoi’s many markets on top of the constant shopping that can be done on almost every major street.
Matching banana-print outfits? Check.
Traditional lacquerware? Check.
Sweets and treats you’ve never heard of? Check.
My favorite thing is just to roam these markets without any specific item in mind. It’s a dangerous proposition, of course, but it’s easier when you’re traveling long-term with only a carry-on. Most of what I buy tends to be food that can be consumed or items I can use during my travels.
Enjoy an aperitif
Wind down your day with a classy cocktail at the swank Polite and Co. Peak yuppie capitalism, complete with Magritte-esque art and hipster bartenders.
Drinks were on point though, can’t complain.
Indulge in Hanoi’s international offerings
Continue on this western trend with dinner at Pizza 4P’s.
This Tokyo-founded pizza chain is one of the many international cuisine offerings in Hanoi, and it’s quite popular with local young adults. The cheese is made in-house, the ingredients are farm-to-table, the restaurant design is sleek, and the service is 5-star.
If local cuisine is more your cup of tea, my suggestion would be Banh Cuon Ky Dong. This tiny outdoors stall serves up delicious rice rolls and soups for what converts to a few dollars.
Head out to Halong Bay
If your trip allows you the time, Hanoi is the most common jumping-off point for a visit to the famous UNESCO World Heritage Site of Halong Bay.
More on Halong Bay to come!
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