Hanoi, the capital of Vietnam, is a common first stop on most itineraries. At first glance, Hanoi is pure chaos. Frenetic streets, zooming scooters, and blaring horns can overwhelm even the most seasoned traveler. But upon closer inspection, the true pace and the richness of this cultural capital becomes evident all around – from coffee drinking rituals to serene lakes and courtyards.
There is never a dull moment when exploring Hanoi. French colonial architecture, religious sites, historical landmarks, and numerous museums showcase over 1000 years of history. And the Old Quarter of Hanoi, which dates back to the 14th century, is a cat’s cradle of invigorating hidden treasures.
Vietnam opened its borders to the world not that long ago, and eager tourists have been flocking to reveal its secrets ever since. And there is a lot of ground to cover! So, if you have limited time as we did, this 4 day Hanoi itinerary will help you make the most of your time, ensuring you experience all the fascinating cultural, historical, and culinary gems sprinkled all over the city.
Take a Street Food Walking Tour
Start your journey through Hanoi by discovering the city’s unique flavors. Vietnam is one of those places that is very adventurous for your taste buds. Given the language barrier and new ingredients, we recommend taking a food tour and letting an expert guide you through the best of Vietnamese cuisine. Take the tour on day one and keep tabs on any advice and venues your local foodie gives you so you have a list of amazing places to eat in Hanoi for the rest of your stay.
We booked our Hanoi, Vietnam food tour through Get Your Guide and discovered the intoxicating Old Quarter with our noses and stomachs. The Old Quarter is a maze with food stalls and carts lining the streets. Having an expert in our corner helped us understand the flavor combinations and what to order from the vendors guarding their simmering pots. We couldn’t get enough of steaming bowls of pho, sizzling fermented pork, and bahn mi – a Vietnamese French inspired sandwich stuffed with pickled vegetables, French ham, and pork pate.
It seems the best food in Hanoi is often the cheapest, found at one-dish street stalls with plastic squat chairs or hidden in hole-in-the-wall restaurants. One such restaurant impressed Anthony Bourdain so much that he took Barack Obama to dine there in 2016. After the tour, pop into Bun Cha Huong Lien to see where they sat and try the same dish – grilled pork noodles.
Visit a Vietnamese Coffee House
Along with popular Vietnamese fare, you will also get to try Vietnamese coffee on your food tour. We guarantee love at first sip with this beautiful ritual. Add it as the first priority to every day of your Vietnam itinerary.
The true rhythm of Hanoi reveals itself through the leisurely coffee culture, which you can discover by visiting traditional coffee houses and cool modern joints. Vietnamese people whip up a bunch of varieties of delicious brews, but the two you should try are a Vietnamese drip coffee with condensed milk and a Vietnamese cappuccino with whisked egg yolks called ca phe trung. The latter is actually quite challenging to find, so head directly to Café Giang where the concept was conceived in 1946 while experimenting with milk replacements.
The Vietnamese drip coffee is an entire process. A single-serving phin is placed over your cup, and you watch the brew collect and swirl with condensed milk at the bottom. It’s the perfect antidote to a hectic day of sightseeing or a meditative start as you visualize the adventure ahead and become more alert with every inhale of the fragrant wisps coming from your cup.
Explore the Hanoi Old Quarter
Work your way past the merchants around the oldest neighborhood, the Hanoi Old Quarter, which dates back to the 13th century. You should already be familiar with its culinary side after the food tour, but this time you’ll explore the other attractions of this unique place where east meets west in architecture and culture.
Visit the oldest traditional market in Hanoi called Dong Xuan Market and practice your bargaining, which proves to be more effective if you have some Vietnamese phrases under your belt. Pass by the St. Joseph’s Cathedral, which was built during the French occupation and resembles the Notre Dame in Paris. Learn about the past Hanoian lifestyle at the Ma May Ancient House, where you can admire the traditional Vietnamese architecture and house layout.
Another unique attraction is the train that passes the narrow streets of the Hanoi Old Quarter at around 3 pm and 7pm every day. The residents of these streets all scurry at once to clear their bikes and buckets from the railroad tracks that take up almost the entire street. All to free up an extra couple of feet on each side for it to zoom obstacle-free. As soon as the train turns the corner, life resumes on the passage again.
Unwind at the Temple of Literature
The Temple of Literature is a historical monument with five tranquil courtyards amidst a hectic city. Originally built to honor Confucius, the temple became a prestigious university. The grounds are sprinkled with historic remains like traces of student names who graduated from the university, turtle statues, and altars. The courtyards flow one into the other, each holding its special relics. The third courtyard is probably the most impressive containing a massive pond called the Well of Heavenly Brilliance. Stroll around the gardens and take a few moments of quiet introspection by the water beautifully decorated with lily pads, making the most of your time in this sanctuary before heading back into the busy streets of Hanoi.
Marvel at the Tran Quoc Pagoda
It is estimated that there are about 2000 temples and pagodas in Hanoi, but the most impressive, the oldest, and the most sacred is the Tran Quoc Pagoda. Originally constructed in the sixth century, the pagoda is an important place that has seen Hanoi develop in its lifespan. The pagoda majestically stands on an island between two of Hanoi’s most beautiful lakes.
Wander around Ba Dinh Square
The Ba Dinh Square spreads out in front of the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum and is one of the most visited Hanoi tourist attractions. It is the place where president Ho Chi Minh read the Declaration of Independence in 1945 and is home to the Parliament House and the Presidential Palace. You can enter the resting place of Ho Chi Minh and shuffle your way past his embalmed body since the crowd must keep moving and no cameras are permitted inside.
Learn about the Hoa Lo Prison Museum
A visit to the Hoa Lo Prison Museum, probably better known as the Hanoi Hilton during the Vietnam War, is an emotional experience. The museum portrays the events that took place during the French occupation and the Vietnam War. And displays how the French treated Vietnamese prisoners of war and the conditions experienced by the US pilots. Senator John McCain was one of them, and his flight suit can be found on display at the museum.
Traditional Vietnamese Arts
The traditional Vietnamese art form of water puppetry was created by rice farmers over a thousand years ago. Now, it is well known all over Vietnam and highly sought after by visitors. And the ultimate best place to watch a performance is Thang Long Municipal theater. It’s a spectacular show where puppets glide over the water to the rhythm of folk music as a team of puppeteers stand behind a divider so the audience can’t see them maneuver the dolls while standing waist-deep in the water. The combination of music, floating dolls, and water splashes is very impressive. Make sure to book your tickets in advance because water puppetry is one of the most popular Hanoi tourist attractions.
Stroll around the Hoan Kiem Lake
In the mornings and the evenings, the life observed around the circumference of the Hoan Kiem lake is another nod to the leisurely pace of Hanoi. It is where locals gather to do tai chi and seek respite from the crowded city. A stroll around the lake and perhaps a takeaway bahn mi picnic and people watching is one of the best cheap activities in Hanoi. The lake is especially peaceful in the evenings over the weekend since nearby traffic is banned from 7pm until midnight. As you farewell your last day in Hanoi with a beautiful sunset overlooking an old pagoda in the middle of the lake, we hope your 4 day introduction to Hanoi was a wholesome one.