2 days in Hanoi itinerary. If you only have two days in Hanoi this itinerary is packed with expert tips and all the best things to see and do in Vietnam’s capital city…
Cyclos in Hanoi
Updated June 2020
Our Vietnam itinerary starts Vietnam’s Capital. We’ve got two days in Hanoi and arrive just before dawn. As we drive from Noi Bai airport on the main road to Hanoi, we are surrounded by a stream of vibrating traffic – it’s like being in the middle of a swarm of bees – and it’s where the Hanoi buzz begins.
Scooters and bicycles piled to toppling with wares to sell in town; baskets stuffed to bursting with chickens, exotic fruits and vegetables stacked high. A dead pig lashed to the back of a scooter overtakes us, trotters flailing either side of the number plate. People on push-bikes wearing traditional nón lá hats glide serenely along. All have one destination in mind. Hanoi. Read on for my Hanoi intinerary and how to spend 2 days in Hanoi.
Hanoi Street Scene
2 days in Hanoi Itinerary
Is Hanoi like Saigon? Well sort of the same but different. Saigon (or Ho Chi Minh City) is more built up, commercial, has more tower blocks, more people and, I think, more traffic. Hanoi has a more colonial, leafy, French feel to it. The buildings aren’t so overpowering and there seems to be more space. Hanoi is small and gentler, but still very full-on. Here’s how to spend two days in the city taking in the best sights, attractions and things to do.
Hanoi Itinerary – Day 1
Explore the Old Quarter
To start your 2 days in Hanoi get a feel for the city start in my favourite part, the Old Quarter which you’ll find north of Hoan Kiem Lake. The Old Quarter is an elaborate maze of streets with life, colour and atmosphere spilling out onto the pavements. You’ll get lost but you’ll always find your way out again.
The streets in the Old Quarter are named after the goods that are sold in the shops there; Silk Street, Silver Street and Pickled-Fish Street to name a few. I was surprised to see one shop just selling memorial plaques for headstones. The activity doesn’t stop when it gets dark – it’s just as busy in the evenings.
Visit Ma May House, a late nineteenth century house is a tube house. These very narrow and very long houses were built in an attempt to reduce taxes.People built very narrow houses in an attempt to minimize taxes. Some are only two metres wide but go back up to 70 metres.
Crossing the road in Hanoi
Hanoi is incredibly walkable with each sight within easy walking distance of the next. That said, the pavements are taken up by parked scooters, chickens, dogs, street sellers. We were forced to walk in the road at times as the pavements were such a hive of activity.
But the chaos is fun and vibrant although that first time you cross the road in Hanoi might be a bit hairy. You’ll soon master it… just step into the traffic, walk slowly and don’t stop, change course or step backwards. The traffic will weave its way around you as if you’re encased in an invisible force field.
Scooter Traffic Hanoi
Lunch – Bún chả
Look for one of the city’s charcoal grills – you’ll probably smell the charred pork before you see it. It’s served in broth with white-rice noodles, herbs, nam pla and a dipping sauce. Bun Cha Ta in the Old Quarter is one of the best if you want to sit down for your street food dish.
Or, you could go for pho. Pho stalls (selling noodle snacks) are carried around with the cook and placed on the pavement as and when a customer gives the nod. Gas burner, tiny tables, stools and all – tasty and cheap and worth trying out for the flavour and the fun factor. Food in Vietnam is some of the best I’ve tasted. There’s aren’t so many stalls nowadays as the authorities have recently set up ‘sidewalk bans’ so you might have to go into a cafe for your pho. If you do try the Hanoian egg coffee – out of this world.
The French Quarter
In the afternoon head to the French Quarter – it adjoins the old quarter. Check out the beautiful colonial buildings like Hanoi Opera House and some of the embassy buildings and hotels on the wide leafy streets. The French Quarter feels very European.
Hanoi Opera House
Cho Hom market is fun to explore. The Vietnamese have got banter down to a fine art and love to have a laugh and a joke while you haggle for your shopping. There are also two museums in the French Quarter that are worth visiting. The National Museum of Vietnamese History and the Vietnamese Womens’ Museum will give you an insight into life in Vietnam.
In the evening head back to the lively Old Quarter. I recommend this guided street food tour to sample many of Hanoi’s food institutions. Or you could drop into one of the many restaurants in the old quarter for tasty authentic Vietnamese food. Choose a few small dishes to get a range of flavours. I always start with Vietnamese spring rolls. Be sure to have a Bia Hơi, the local draught beer, with your meal. Bia Hoi beer has to be one of the world’s cheapest beers at around 8,000 VND. It’s a refreshing, light draught beer and we were more than happy to drink it during our 2 days in Hanoi.
To finish the evening find yourself a spot on Beer Corner. You’ll find the famous Beer Corner or Bia Hoi Corner at the crossroads of Pho Ta Hien and Pho Luong Ngoc Quyen. I guarantee you’ll be back to this fabulous little spot more that once on your visit to Hanoi. Full of tourists, locals and fun there’s epic people-watching potention so pull up a plastic chair and drink your fill of atmosphere and Bia Hoi.
- A recent sidewalk ban means that beer corner is now a hazy memory. You’ll have to go find yourself an outdoor bar or beer hall now.
Beer Corner, Hanoi
Hanoi Itinerary – Day 2
Day two of our Hanoi itinerary starts at Ho Chi Minh’s Mausoleum. It can get busy so the earlier you get there the better. The imposing building is watched over by stern guards wearing crisp white uniforms and inscrutable expressions. Inside lies the body of the former leader, encased in glass and protected by guards. Opening days and times vary and the mausoleum is closed two months a year for embalming maintenance and on Fridays. Check the mausoleum website before you go. Dress code is ‘respectful’.
Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum in Hanoi
A short walk from Ho Chi Minh’s mausoleum is Uncle Ho’s stilted house where he worked and lived. The One-Pillar Pagoda is also nearby so there are a few things to see in one small area.
One pillar pagoda, Hanoi
At the Intersection of Van Mieu & Pho Quoc Tu Giam is the Temple of Literature, a tranquil oasis in the midst of the city and said to be the first university in Vietnam. This serene walled garden complex with pagodas and lily ponds is dedicated to the ancient scholar Confucius and makes for a peaceful wander and time out from the city.
From the Temple of Literature head back towards the old quarter, stopping off to see the Hanoi street train. The dwellings sit as near to the the track as you can get. As the train comes trundling through it brushes against laundry handing from the balconies and people and pets stand back to let it roll through.
Hanoi Street Train
Hoan Kiem Lake, just south of the Old Quarter, is popular with locals and visitors alike. Visit in the morning and you’ll see joggers, Tai Chi and ballroom dancing being practised on its banks. Towards the bottom of the lake you can see Thap Rua Tortoise tower. It’s prettier at night when lit up and reflecting on the water. The lake makes a good point of reference for finding your way round the city.
Jade Island is connected by the bright red Húc bridge. Cross it and you’ll arrive at the Temple of the Jade Mountain. Jade Island in the lake is home to Ngoc Son Temple, a good place to escape the frenzy of the city with miniature trees, a shrine and a huge preserved turtle. The turtle is the subject of a Hanoi legend which you can learn about at the temple.
Any Hanoi itinerary should include The Thang Long Water Puppet Theatre. It’s near Hoan Kiem Lake and is a big Hanoi attraction so it’s wise to book in advance. Book premium seats if you need extra leg-room – this theatre was built for little people. The show is all in Vietnamese and the brightly painted wooden puppets depicting folklore scenes with live traditional music is utterly mesmerising.
A nice way to see the puppet theatre is to book a private cyclo tour and water puppet show. This tour will pick you up from your hotel and take you around the sights of the French Quarter followed by the water puppet show and a walk through the old quarter, stopping for chicken noodles en route.
Finish your evening by finding a rooftop bar with a good viewing point overlooking Dong Kinh Nghia Thuc Square. Grab a beer or two and watch as the traffic below weaves within a hair’s breadth of each other on this iconic Hanoi roundabout.
More things to see in Hanoi
There are more things to see and do in Hanoi but I couldn’t squeeze them into just two days. If you have longer you might want to consider visiting:
- Presidential Palace
- St Joseph’s Cathedral
- Vietnam Military History Museum
- Thăng Long Imperial Citadel
- Hoa Lo Prison Memorial
- Hanoi Flag Tower
- Take a cooking class
The colour and vibrancy of Hanoi makes it a truly memorable place to visit with heaps to see, feel and experience. The Hanoi itinerary includes culture, history, architecture, food and everyday Vietnamese city life. Hanoi’s energy is infectious and invigorating. I hope you enjoy my recommendations for 2 days in Hanoi.
Next stop is Halong Bay and a mystical landscape of limestone karsts, traditional junk boats and floating villages.