How to spend a week in Vietnam
I love a packed itinerary and I’ve seen plenty for a week in Vietnam but I’d heard and seen so many good things about Vietnam that I was determined not to rush. It decided to limit myself to two places, Hanoi and Hoi An, which was still a pretty hectic week when you could easily enjoy a week in both.
This post covers Hanoi and I’ll discuss Hoi An in a future post.
When to visit Hanoi
I visited in mid January and the weather wasn’t great, it was damp and misty and in the mid to high teens, which sounds decent but it felt really rather chilly. Ultimately you can visit whenever suits you and make it work but Hanoi has four proper seasons so the best weather is in the spring and autumn months (February to April and October to November). During summer (May to September) it can hit the mid 30s C which is never a pleasant temperature for touring a city and I’m sure is pretty gross somewhere with such bad air quality as Hanoi. This is also monsoon season so you’re going to be wet and sweaty. October through February are the driest months.
What to see in Hanoi
There’s a lot to see in Hanoi, both big and small and it’s a tiring place to explore due to the constant barrage of traffic from all sides. People always tell you about the issues with crossing the road in Hanoi and it can be slightly scary, but it wasn’t nearly as bad as I was expecting.
What I hadn’t really counted on was how tiring it was to walk around in the constant beeping of horns and blur of bikes the whole time. For me it made a fairly walkable city into quite a challenge. It’s also a very smoggy city with terrible air quality which wears you down a bit. Although there’s plenty to see 2 and a bit days felt like enough!
However, it had a real character of its own and I loved that it just didn’t seem to cater to tourists. Perhaps during better weather (it was mid January – about 16 degrees and drizzling most of the time) there are more tourists, but we saw few and there didn’t seem to be the same catering to the masses as in the more picturesque town of Hoi An.
One important thing to note is that if you don’t have many days in Hanoi and want to see everything it has to offer, you need to do some careful planning. A lot of the major tourist attractions are closed on Mondays and some on Fridays also, additionally there’s typically a closed period over lunch so you have to schedule your day around that. We were there on a Monday meaning a lot of major sights were closed so I’ve outlined a Monday-friendly day below to save you the trouble of scheduling it yourself!
It’s also worth pointing out the impact Lunar New Year can have on your plans – if you’re heading to Vietnam during January or February make sure you check when the New Year (‘Tet’ in Vietnam) falls before finalising your plans. We were in Hoi An for New Year, which was amazing, but I had purposefully scheduled my trip to leave the next day as everything more or less shuts down for a week during Tet. I found it quite hard before booking my trip to find good information about what would or wouldn’t be open, although I did find a few helpful blog articles. Many tourist sites and restaurants only publish this information 2 or 3 weeks before the event but you can safely assume that everything will close the day before Tet (or 2 days before in less touristy Hanoi) and remain closed for a full week.
2 day Hanoi itinerary
Day 1 (Monday-friendly)
Hoan Kiem Lake
Hoan Kiem Lake makes a great starting point to exploring Hanoi as it’s the real heart of Hanoi and the calm in the middle of the storm. The lake is home to a number of Hanoi’s sights.
Start by crossing the Huc Bridge to the Temple of the Jade Mountain (Den Ngoc Son Temple) (open 7am – 6pm, Mon – Fri and 7am – midnight, Sat & Sun; 30k ₫ entry fee).
The Temple sits in the middle of the lake and was built in the 1800s (but founded in the fourteenth century). One of the rooms contains a preserved specimen of a turtle who used to live in the lake – one very old turtle continues to reside in the lake.
Speaking of turtles, on a walk around the lake you’ll also see the Turtle Tower (Thap Rua) which sits on a tiny island in the lake. It was built in the 19th century but unfortunately is not accessible. It commemorates the legend of the golden turtle after which the lake is named.
Once you’ve reached the bottom of the lake to see Thap Rua it’s just a short walk to Hoa Lo Prison.
Hoa Lo Prison
A gruesome stop on a tour of Hanoi but fascinating nonetheless, Hoa Lo Prison started life in the late 19th century as a prison for political prisoners of the French colonialists in French Indochina and later for American POWs.
Enough of the prison remains to get a sense of the conditions inside, from the tiny solitary holding cells on ‘death row’ to the communal cell with very public squat toilet and even a remaining guillotine.
There are some interesting artefacts on show and helpful information boards in Vietnamese, French and English (although there’s a very definite lens on the narrative!).
Open daily 8am – 5pm.
St Joseph’s Cathedral
A short walk from Hoa Lo Prison on the way back to the Old Quarter you’ll find St Joseph’s Cathedral, at a surprisingly calm and picturesque junction in Hanoi’s madness. I didn’t go inside as I arrived during it’s lunch hours, but the facade is impressive in itself and the many coffee shops and small eateries looking out towards it make a welcome mid-morning stop.
Open 8am – 11am and 2pm – 5pm daily.
The Old Quarter
North of the lake is the Old Quarter, also known as the ’36 streets’ (although there are more) after the guilds that used to operate there. The area is especially bustling at night; markets spring up and restaurants and shops spill out onto the pavements (even more so than during the day!) until there’s no more pavement left. It’s home to plenty of great eateries as well as some of Hanoi’s oldest and most historic sights.
Heritage House is an example of a ‘tube house’ in the Old Quarter which originated, as many similar houses the world over, as a result of tax policies. Taxing the width of the building on the street created tall, thin houses (like those in Amsterdam) which stretch who knows how far into the block behind them.
Heritage House is a restored, traditional example which allows you to explore the shop front and various rooms and courtyards which make up these traditional Hanoi dwellings and places of business.
8:30 – 5pm plus 7:30 – 10pm on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays.
Day 2 (not a Monday!)
Ho Chi Min Mausoleum
I managed to turn up on a Monday (slight break down in my holiday planning process!) but luckily there is plenty to see besides the mausoleum (which you can still see from the outside…just don’t step too near the yellow line or you’ll get a talking to by a guard).
I think you have to be lucky to turn up and actually get in – for chunky parts of the year ‘Uncle Ho’ is off in Russia having a touch up which is impossible to plan for.
Inside the ‘Ho Chi Min Complex’ there are perhaps some even more interesting things to see than Ho Chi Min himself. There is the extremely grand Presidential Palace (Phu Chu tich) built between 1900 and 1906 for the French Governor-General of Indochina, which Ho Chi Min refused to live in.
Instead he opted for the more modest surroundings first of House 54 (1954 – 1958) and then a traditional stilt house (1958 until his death in 1969).
House 54 was the house in the grounds of the Palace previously belonging to the electrician. There you can see Uncle Ho’s collection of cars, mostly gifted by the Soviet Union, and the rooms in which he held political meetings, which are accompanied by a number of photos of these meetings taking place.
The traditional stilt house is even more modest than House 54, which just a few simply furnished rooms. It has been preserved just as he left it and I think this is a far better way to understand a person than seeing their preserved cadaver, but that’s just me!
Surrounding both houses are beautifully tended gardens as well as a carp pond crossed by a small wooden bridge. It’s a stark contrast to the severe granite mausoleum round the corner.
There’s also a Ho Chi Min museum, which we decided to skip and the tiny one pillar pagoda which we glanced at on our way out.
It’s a physically large complex to walk around so it’s probably safe to allow a couple of hours to visit it and possibly more if you want to do the museum as well.
Open 7:30am – 10:30am, closed Mondays and Fridays.
Thang Long Imperial Citadel
A short walk from the Ho Chi Min Mausoleum site is the Thang Long Imperial Citadel, or Hanoi Citadel, which was made a Unesco World Heritage site in 2010. The buildings in this royal enclosure date from way back in the early 11th century and the citadel was in continuous use up until 1810 when Vietnam’s capital moved to Hue.
The site includes buildings from various periods, although most are fairly new with very little remaining from the earlier centuries of its use, although there are some older excavations on display.
The site is scattered with a number of rather informative themed displays showing artefacts from the site which gives you a really good insight to Vietnam’s history and is well worth seeing for these alone.
Some interesting buildings remain, including the dragon stairs to the destroyed (by the French) Kính Thiên Palace and the D67 Tunnel and house which previously served as the HQ of the People’s Army of Vietnam.
Open 8am – 5pm, closed Mondays.
Military History Museum
More or less next door to the Thang Long Citadel is the Military History Museum. For a highly politicised tour of Vietnamese military history, this is the place. I found the displays slightly incoherent but there are some interesting artefacts on display and some interesting dioramas of the tunnel systems used by the Vietnamese during the war with the US.
My favourite parts were being able to climb part of the Hanoi flag tower which was built in 1812 and survived French colonial rule as it was used as a military post. From the flag tower you can see down into the courtyard outside the museum which houses various tanks, aircraft and artillery both US and Vietnamese / Soviet. There’s an interesting sculpture of sorts made from salvaged US aircraft parts shot down over Vietnam.
Open 8:30 – 11:30am and 1 – 4:30pm, closed Mondays and Fridays.
Temple of Literature
About a 10 minute walk through the streets of Hanoi brings you to the Temple of Literature, which was one of my favourite stops on my short tour of Hanoi. It seems at times that there couldn’t possibly be respite from the noise and chaos of the city but the Temple of Literature really is an oasis in the middle of Hanoi.
The Temple is an 11th century Confucian Temple and includes Vietnam’s first university, the Imperial Academy. The Temple is made up of a number of courtyards and gates as you walk through the grounds, some of which are extremely ornate.
You can also visit the Stelae of the of Doctors which depict the names and birthplaces of the graduates of the royal exams throughout the 15th to 18th centuries.
This is such a beautiful place in Hanoi with plenty to explore but also just a pleasant and peaceful place to rest during a hectic day of of sightseeing.
Open 8am – 5pm Tuesday – Sunday.
The Old Quarter
Bach Ma Temple
The oldest place of worship in the Old Quarter, it was founded in the ninth century although the present building largely dates from the 18th.
The temple is tardis-like, appearing squashed into the corner of one of the Old Quarter’s blocks, although it opens up inside to a rather large temple. It’s so crammed into the surrounding buildings that it’s almost impossible to appreciate the beautiful details in the roof – you just can’t get far enough away if it. Sadly a tin roof obscures the rest, but there’s still plenty to see inside, including a couple of furry lodgers.
Open 7:30am – 11:30am and 1:30pm – 6pm, Tue to Sun; free entry.
Đình Kim Ngân Communal House
The Kim Ngan Communal House is believed to have been first built in the 15th century and extended in the 19th century and was home to the silversmiths guild. I stumbled on it by accident and don’t know much more than that it’s very ornate and a nice surprise in the otherwise bustling Old Quarter.
28 Hàng Buồm
Another cute place I stumbled on was what appeared to be another communal hall (but I’m not sure!) at 28 Hàng Buồm, which was also free to enter.
What to eat in Hanoi
Everything! For me, no trip anywhere in the world would be complete without a ‘hit list’ of must eat food items and restaurants. I had initially intended to hit up a number of the places Anthony Bourdain had visited, including the now famous Bun Cha Huong Lien where Bourdain ate bun cha with Barack Obama. Also on the Bourdain list was Cussing Noodles for bun doc mung (pork noodle soup) and Bun Oc Pho Co for snail vermicelli. The logistics of a family trip (there were six of us!) didn’t really allow quite so much traipsing around the city at night it so I looked to TripAdvisor recommendations and Googled around a few blogs.
My key food items for Hanoi were bun cha and banh mi so we tried to find the best of two famous local dishes. I’ve set out below some of the places I ate and enjoyed in Hanoi but I suggest trying to get some suggestions from locals and just getting stuck in – I enjoyed more or less everything I ate but with so little time there I can’t possibly claim to know the very best places in the city!
Our first banh mi was at Banh Mi 25 which came highly recommended. It started as a take out joint but now has two sites – the originally take out place plus a café across the street where you can eat in.
It’s a cute place with a balcony over the intersection below giving you a peaceful place to look down on the chaos of Hanoi. The banh mi itself was disappointing for me; the bread was fairly good but the fillings lacked flavour. It was our first banh mi in Vietnam and despite having different dishes no one was overly impressed. Maybe we were unlucky but I couldn’t personally recommend it.
Just around the corner is Banh My P, which consistently appeared in searches of ‘best Banh Mi in Hanoi’. It looks far ropier than Banh Mi 25 both inside and out, which was how I knew I was onto a good thing if it had decent reviews looking like it did.
I wish I could remember what I ordered because it was delicious. Far more flavour in the fillings than Banh Mi 25 – I totally regret sharing it with my husband!
Bun Cha Ta came up in all my searches for best Bun Cha in Hanoi and was also highly rated in Tripdadvisor. That can add up to a touristy, expensive place, which it was, but it was still very good and it was a nice intro on our first evening in Hanoi when eating off plastic furniture in a gutter might have been a bit too much of a culture shock (plus it was freezing when we arrived!). This place probably served the best deep fried spring rolls I had while in Hanoi (and I think I had them at least once a day).
By far the best Bun Cha I had in Hanoi was a small, busy place on the street which we walked past one afternoon and went back later that evening to try. It’s called Bún chả Nem Rán and you can find it at 41 Cửa Đông.
If you Google it you’ll find plenty of reviews. The grilled pork balls are done over charcoal right on the street and are utterly delicious – I can still taste them. I’m sure there are loads of places like this all over town, and I’m fairly certain we paid over the odds as a big group of tourists, but I would definitely go back!
One night we also took a punt on a small place round the corner from our hotel called Phở Mậu. Unusually I hadn’t researched it before going, we just dropped in as it seemed fairly busy. The bun cha wasn’t my favourite in Hanoi, but still very good and they had a selection of other tasty noodle dishes – all in all a good meal and I’d definitely eat there again. I wish I could remember what I ordered but I ate it all before I took photos!
I actually only ever ate this in my hotel as I had beef pho for breakfast pretty much every morning in Hanoi. It’s not a dish I’d eaten much in the UK but have been looking for decent versions since I got back and I have to say that nowhere I’ve tried comes close to the subtle, delicate flavours of the pho I had in Hanoi. I only wish I had sampled this more widely and had some decent recommendations – do your research and make sure you try a few places!
I had never ever tried egg coffee before and though I would hate it but OMG it’s tasty. I tried it at tiny Cafe Giảng, a Hanoi institution. You can find it down a tiny alley off the street, but it’s well sign posted if you’re paying attention. Not really the insta-friendly kind of cafe but it’s where the flavour is so it should definitely be on your Hanoi list.
We also had a sit down meal one night that wasn’t on plastic stools / benches / the floor – luxury! It was at Hong Hoai’s, which is a restaurant and cooking school. Service was very friendly and we got to try a wider selection of foods than at smaller, specialist stands on the street including Bánh xèo (Vietnamese beansprout pancake) and chả lá lốt (pork in betel leaf)…and tonnes more spring rolls for good measure.
The chả lá lốt was amazing – if I’d been in Hanoi longer I would have gone back for me. I wasn’t a huge fan of the Bánh xèo but that was more to do with not especially liking the dish than this restaurant’s rendition of it.