Before we went to Vietnam, Hanoi was arguably the place I was least excited about on our itinerary. I’m not totally sure why… Maybe because it was the place I knew the least about. Or maybe it was the fact that I thought Hanoi was just a big, overwhelming city.
And I wasn’t wrong about that. Hanoi is a VERY big, VERY overwhelming city. But what surprised me most was that it was arguably my favourite stop on our Vietnam trip.
Why? Well, that’s a loaded question. And one that a blog post like this one could never totally answer. It’s a place you have to experience to understand. And should be treated as much more than an entry or exit point to Vietnam. In my opinion, you should spend at least three days in Hanoi (but if you ask me, the more the better).
okay, now that i have your attention...
read about how to spend three days in hanoi with this hanoi city guide.
THINGS TO DO IN HANOI
visit the temple of literature
I absolutely loved The Temple of Literature. The sprawling grounds are scattered with beautiful gardens, lakes and pagodas. The temple was built in 1070 and was home to Vietnam’s first national university. We visited before Tet (The Vietnamese Lunar New Year) and it was so cool to see the holiday decorations and preparations being made for the biggest Vietnamese holiday of the year.
Ticket price: 30,000 VND or just over $1 USD a person.
walk around hoan kiam lake
Hoan Kiem is a cultural landmark of Hanoi and a major city attraction. The best time to visit Hoan Kiam Lake in the early morning before fellow tourists are out, and you can observe the locals enjoying the scenery and partaking in their morning exercise routines. We loved witnessing how the locals treasured this lake.
If you’re visiting early, pay a visit to Ngoc Son Temple, located across the bright red bridge in the centre of the lake. When we were there during midday, we didn’t dare to visit because the red bridge was piled with tourists. However, during our 8am lake walk one morning, we noticed it was quiet and decided to visit. The ticket price was cheap (30,000 VND or just over $1 USD a person). And we felt like we had the whole little island to ourselves.
wander around hanoi old quarter
The Old Quarter of Hanoi is like nothing I have ever seen before. It is buzzing with people – and scooters. People are everywhere, and the sidewalks are covered with scooters and makeshift street food joints, so you can forget walking on the sidewalk. It is easy to get lost for hours in the streets of the Old Quarter… and it was absolutely a highlight of my time in Hanoi.
Fun Fact: There are 79 streets in the Old Quarter and each corresponds with a specific type of merchandize or service, and most shops on the street correspond. For example, you can find the shoe street, the textiles street, the silver street, the coffee street, or an entire street dedicated to fixing scooters.
We loved wandering around the Old Quarter and eating ALL the street food. Many tourists are too afraid to eat the Hanoi street food, and too be honest, I don’t blame them – it looks like a food poisoning disaster waiting to happen. If you’re too scared to dabble in the street food scene, or don’t know where to start, check out my next suggestion…
On the note of scooters, you've probably heard about the madness of trying to cross the street in Hanoi. I promise, it isn't as scary as it seems to cross. Just walk across the street at a steady pace. Don't increase or decrease speed, and definitely don't stop. The scooters will gauge your pace and go around you. However, this is not the case for cars and busses. So, if you see a car or bus, stop on the side of the street and wait to cross.
take a food tour
I am a huge fan of the company With Locals that pairs you with a local who guides you on a private tour throughout the city. You can take one of their standard tours, or request a custom tour (which we did because Sebastian is allergic to nuts). On our first day in Vietnam, we took a tour with Hoa from With Locals who navigated us through Hanoi’s street food scene. We tried all kinds of local foods (often while sitting on tiny step stools on the side of the street). I couldn’t recommend this tour enough! You can a Street Food tour with With Locals here (look for Hoa N).
As a side note, did you know that that the reason everyone sit street-side on buckets and step stools in Vietnam eating street food is because eating on the street is technically illegal? So, locals buy cheap “chairs and tables” and scatter the streets with them. If the authorities come and take them away, it’s a minor loss (although it doesn’t seem like this happens very often). Also, these tiny pieces of furniture are easy to gather and quickly bring inside if authorities are close by.
enjoy the vietnamese coffee scene
Hanoi has one of my favourite coffee scenes of any city I have ever been to. I loved it so much that I wrote a detailed post about all my favourite coffee shops in Hanoi, and what you need to try at each.
If you’re a coffee lover like me, I highly recommend Backstreet Academy’s “Coffee Lovers Walking Tour.” We did this tour in Hanoi and it was an easy highlight of my time there. You can find out more or book the tour here.
visit hanoi's famous train street
Okay, I know what you’re thinking… Isn’t the train street closed to the public? The simple is yes. However, the restaurants that line the tracks are still open. Here’s a bit of backstory if you haven’t heard about this popular Hanoi landmark.
Hanoi’s train street is a set of tracks that goes right through central Hanoi. Over the years, many coffee shops and restaurants have opened up shops along the tracks, serving mainly tourists. Visitors would walk up and down the tracks and visit the restaurants. The catch – the train is still operating. So, as this tourist spot became more and more popular, it became a safety concern with thousands of tourists standing alongside the tight tracks as the train passed by. So, the government of Hanoi stepped in and has barricaded entrances to the tracks, closing it to tourists.
While this is a necessary move for safety reasons, many local businesses have been massively affected since last October by this closure. Therefore, the owners often stand along the entrance to the tracks and ask you to come to their restaurant. If you go with a restaurant owner, with the purpose of buying something from the restaurant, the guards will let you in. This initiative has cut back on crowds in a massive way. When we visited the landmark, there were very few others there.
We unfortunately were not able to visit when the train went by because we were only in Hanoi on weekdays (the train only operates in the evening on weekdays and it was too dark by then during the winter months… so if you’re spending three days in Hanoi in the winter, try to make sure one of the days you visit is a Saturday or Sunday). The restaurants lining the tracks will be able to provide you with a schedule in case these change, but this is the Hanoi train schedule currently:
- Monday to Friday: 7 pm, 7:45 pm, 8:30 pm, 10 pm
- Saturday and Sunday: 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
If you’re looking for the best location to enter the train street, I have marked it on the map below.
visit a spa
There are spas on every corner in Hanoi, but many of them are not paying fair wages and may be using unethical practices, so do your research before blindly wandering into one. If it is insanely cheap, it is probably a red flag. While moderate in price, I loved the spa at La ÉnMay Spa in the La Sinfonia Del Rey Hotel and Spa. And if you book between 10-12 am, you receive 30% off services. You can find out more here.
see a water puppet show
I’ll admit, I was skeptical to visit this. I thought it would be touristy and just not my thing. But, I went because everyone says it is something you’re “supposed” to do in Hanoi. And I am so glad I went.
The show was beautiful and so impressive. The whole play is done in Vietnamese, but it doesn’t matter. Can you pretty easily follow along with the simple storyline. And even without understanding every detail it is such a cool cultural experience.
I recommend visiting the most popular water puppet show in Hanoi at Thang Long Water Puppet Theatre. If you’re interested in skip the line tickets, you can find them here. Alternatively, you can visit the onsite kiosk to grab tickets, but I have been told that during peak season, tickets can sell out well in advance, so this is an easy online way to secure your seats.
Tickets start as low as 100,000 VND per person (or about $4.30 USD) and the price increases depending on how close to the stage you are. We opted for the tickets priced at 150,000 VND and found it was close enough to the stage, but it might be difficult to see the details of the show if you were seated near the back.
take a cooking class
I didn’t personally have time to take a cooking class during my three days in Hanoi, but I am really disappointed I didn’t. We did a cooking class in Hoi An and it was a highlight of our time in Vietnam. If I could go back, I would have made it a priority.
If you’re interested in cooking, this is a must do. I’ve heard VERY GOOD things about this particular cooking class where you get a hands-on cooking experience in the home of a local!
have more than three days in hanoi? here's some other things you can do.
visit the west lake (the biggest lake in hanoi)
visit hoa lo prison (this is another thing I really wish we made time for)
walk across long bien bridge
visit the museum of ethnology
visit the ho chi minh mausoleum (best to visit at end of day before it closes to avoid morning crowds)
Where to stay in Hanoi
luxury: la sinfonia del rey hotel & spa
Because we were in-and-out of Hanoi as a “home base” for our trip, we decided to “splurge” one night at La Sinfonia del Rey Hotel & Spa. A big splurge at this hotel will set you back about 1,700,000 VND or $75 USD per night, and I can confirm that this brand new hotel was easily one of the nicest hotels I have ever stayed in. The entire hotel was covered in black marble, the rooms were premium comfort, the bathrooms luxurious, and the breakfast was just WOW. Not to mention the location could not be better, located right across the street from Hoan Kiem Lake.
Mid-range: centraltique downtown
Looking for a mid-range hotel Old Quarter Hanoi hotel? Centraltique was beautiful. It is located in a historic French Colonial building in the middle of the hustle-and-bustle. The rooms were large and clean, and we had a front street-facing balcony with great views. Keep in mind, it is located in the middle of all the chaos and therefore can be loud all hours of the night. For me, this was part of the charm. But if you’re looking for a quiet nights sleep during your three days in Hanoi, I would look outside of the Old Quarter.
Where to Eat in Hanoi
Where do I even start? Hanoi was home to easily the best food I had in Vietnam, and has officially positioned itself as one of my top favourite food cities in the world. I ate at so many places I loved, including some amazing street food gems. And I wrote a Hanoi food guide all about my favourite spots!
MUST TRY dishes IN HANOI:
Bún Thang (local vietnamese noodle soup)
Bún chả (grilled fatty pork and noodles + dipping dauce)
Bánh Cuốn (vietnamese steamed rice rolls with pork)
Cháo sườn (porridge with pork ribs that is said to cure you if you have a cold)
Nem Nướng (grilled pork sausage)
phở bò (beef noodle soup)
coffee: traditional vietnamese drip coffee, coconut coffee, egg coffee
Iced lime tea with sunflower seeds