Hanoi, the capital of Vietnam, is also its second largest city.  Unlike its larger cousin, Ho Chi Minh City, Hanoi seems to be more in touch with its roots and exhibits a more intimate appeal.  Amidst its cultural and historic background, Hanoi seems to be slowly and grudgingly modernizing.  The streets hum, with drones of motorcycles whizzing through, while between them the buildings still show the historic past of colonization; a charming blend of East and West.

flag tower imperial city hanoi vietnam
Flag tower in the Imperial City

              Hanoi’s city center, known as Hoan Kiem District, is the focus of tourism in this fascinating city.  It is here that the majority of hotels and hostels, tour agencies, and night life happen.  The area is easily referenced by the lake it draws its name from, Hoan Kiem Lake; which lies between the endlessly diverting streets of the Old Quarter to its north, and the fig tree lined streets of the French Quarter to its south.  To the west, just over the railroad tracks, are the imposing monuments and temples that make up the area around the old Imperial City. 

What to Do

dong xuan market old quarter hanoi vietnam
Dong Xuan Market in the Old Quarter

              Planning for your first day in Hanoi can be challenging.  Hanoi is best known for its Old Quarter, with its bustling streets and night life, but you also have the museums of the French Quarter and all of the monuments, temples, and museums coupled around Ba Dinh Square to the west.  Add all of this together and it’s easy to see how tricky your planning can be.  Out side of all of this there are also the many day trips and excursions you can take out of Hanoi.  

badminton hanoi vietnam
A couple of guys playing badminton on the sidewalk of Hanoi

              Hanoi is one of my favorite cities in Vietnam, so I recommend spending a day or two there at least.  That being said, you can easily see most of everything in a day (albeit a busy day).  Here is my itinerary for one day of sightseeing in Hanoi.

Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum

ho chi minh mausoleum hanoi vietnam
Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum

              Sightseeing on your first day in Hanoi should start with a visit to see Ho Chi Minh himself.  After his death, and apparently against his wishes for a simple burial, he was preserved and entombed in an imposing mausoleum.  Once you make it through the line it is a quick walk through the mausoleum, past his body, and out the other side.  There are no pictures allowed inside so you will be asked to check any camera gear at the guard house.  There is also no talking, stopping, wearing of hats, or putting your hands in your pockets while inside.  The mausoleum has guards who strictly enforce the rules.  The Mausoleum is open only in the mornings, from 7:30 to 10:30 in the Summer and 8:00 to 11:00 in the Winter. There is often a large crowd and the line can seem endless (we had to walk around the block till we found the end of the line), so arrive early.  There is no entry fee for this.  

presidents palace hanoi vietnam
President's Palace

              You will exit into Ba Dinh Square where you see, but cannot enter, the Presidential Palace.  You can also enter to see Ho Chi Minh’s house behind the Palace (this is 40,000 VND/1.77 USD).   

One Pillar Pagoda

one pilar pagoda hanoi vietnam
One Pillar Pagoda

              Behind the Mausoleum, or near the exit from Ho Chi Minh’s house, is the One Pillar Pagoda.  Known as one of Vietnam’s most Iconic temples, it stands upon one stone pillar and was built to look like a lotus flower blooming from a square pond.  It was first built in 1049 by Emperor Ly Thai Tong.  It was later destroyed during the retreat of the French in 1954 and rebuilt by the new government.

Imperial City

imperial city hanoi vietnam
Southern gate of the Imperial City

              Just 1.5 blocks from Ba Dinh Square is the Imperial City.  Once the home of the king’s palace, it now rests as a view into part of Vietnam’s ancient and modern history.  Now saved as a UNESCO World Heritage site, visitors can tour the grounds for only 30,000 VND/1.32 USD.  While inside you can tour the flag tower, southern gate, princess’ palace, a museum exhibiting artifacts from an ongoing archeological dig on the premises, and a museum within the Vietnam War Era command center and tunnels. 

Hoa Lo Prison Museum

hoa lo prison hanoi vietnam
Hoa Lo Prison

              From the Imperial City it is only about a 20-minute walk to the French Quarter where you can visit the Hoa Lo Museum.  The prison was used first used by the French to house Vietnamese political prisoners.  These prisoners would later become future leading figures in the Vietnamese Communist Party.  During the Vietnam War, the prison was used to house American prisoners of war; most notably, John McCain.  The entrance fee to the prison is 30,000 VND/1.32 USD.

Old Quarter Tour

rice beer vietnamese food old quarter hanoi vietnam
One of the many restaurants in the Old Quarter that have rice beer

              Once you have finished with the Prison Museum, it is now time to make your way back to the Old Quarter just a few blocks away.  Once there you can either make your way through the different streets yourself our follow the path laid out below.  In olden days each street in this quarter sold a different type of item (i.e. silk, jewelry, flowers, ext.) as attested by the current street names.  Today, many of these same streets have not changed much in their merchandise and you can easily walk down each of them and view their wares.  While you are at it, there are some great sites to view along the way, like St. Joseph’s Cathedral, the eastern gateway, and Đồng Xuân Market (where you can find some great food and some of the best rice beer in town). 

Water Puppet Show

water puppet show hanoi vietnam
Water Puppet Show

Ending your tour of the Old Quarter drops you off at Hoan Kiem Lake; right where you need to be for the next stop on this Hanoi tour.  At the northeastern end of the lake you can find the theater for the Water Puppet Show.  The entrance fee is only 100,000 VND/4.38 USD and it’s worth seeing once.  Although I can’t say that it is an amazing show, it is worth seeing to take in a little bit of the culture. 

Blind Massage

After a long day of walking around town and seeing the sights there is nothing better than getting a massage to loosen the strain of the day.  For this I can think of no better place in Hanoi than the blind massages at Omamori Spa.  Located at the northern edge of the Old Quarter, about 20 minutes north of Hoan Kiem Lake, it well worth the time to get there.  Omamori provides employment and training for the blind and visually impaired in the area.  The masseuse there know what they are doing and find all of those spots you didn’t even know were hurting, leaving you a renewed person.  They offer a few different options, but I recommend the Omamori massage (250,000 VND/10.96 USD).

Night Life in the Old Quarter

beef pho hanoi vietnam
Beef Pho on the streets of the Old Quarter

              Now that you have relaxed your muscles from the days travels, it’s time to take a load off back in the Old Quarter.  The Old Quarter is the hub for hotels and hostels in Hanoi and there is no other place in town with a nightlife scene like it.  As night falls over the quarter, stalls pop up along the streets sides selling both food and drink.  It is here that you can also try Vietnam’s infamous rice beer.  Many of the vendors, hotels, and hostels along these windy roads sell this cold brew for a ridiculously low price.

How to Get Around

street old quarter hanoi vietnam
Streets of the Old Quarter

              Hanoi is a fairly compact town and the sights above can easily be walked between with no more than a 20-minute walk at the longest.  If walking isn’t your thing, or you don’t have the time for it, you can always take a taxi, motorcycle taxi, rent a motorcycle, or take the public bus.  

my dinh bus station hanoi vietnam
My Dinh bus station

              The first two of course can be found on the street.  There is also Grab in Hanoi (the cheaper version of Uber) so you can always download their app and take one of them.  It should be noted that, unlike Uber, Grab service is usually paid for with cash.  If you are brave enough to rent a moto for the crazy streets of Hanoi, then your hotel/hostel should be able to set that up for you.  The best and by far the cheapest of these options is the public bus.  The bus system is fast and very reliable in Hanoi.  I suggest downloading the Tim Buýt App for the public bus system.  It’s a great App and also allows you to track how far your bus is from you (note: it only works for buses in the Hanoi Provence). 

How to Get There

              Hanoi remains less popular than Ho Chi Minh City as a starting point for touring Vietnam, even though the north has a lot of great tourist sites to offer travelers.  If you decide to make Hanoi your starting point or are flying in domestically, I suggest using the Skyscanner widget below to book yourself a cheap ticket.

              If you are like the majority of tourists that start in the south and work your way up, then there are many other options available to you.  The buses are by far the cheapest option.  You could book a ticket with one of the many sleeper bus companies that make this route.  The sleeper bus is basically a bus with bunk-bed chairs that lay down into beds for you to sleep.  They are very comfortable and usually also have wifi.  There is also a hop on hop off bus that you can book, which allows you to book a bus for the number of stops you want to make along the way (the price varies according to the number of stops).  Or if you are like me, you can easily peace together your trip with local and sleeper buses as you make your way across the country.

sleeper bus hanoi vietnam
Inside of a sleeper bus

              Another option is to take the train.  Although sometimes referred to as the Reunification Express, there is nothing express about it.  The whole trip from Ho Chi Minh to Hanoi takes approximately 38 hours.  You have the option of reserving a bunk-bed sleeper car (which you share with 3 – 5 other people), a soft seat (a normal bus seat that reclines), or a hard seat (just a spot on a wooden bench) and attendants come by regularly with carts of food and drinks for you to buy at a reasonable cost.  Something to note: all of the seats in each car face the center, so if you start the trip traveling backwards, at some point the train switches tracks and you will then be traveling forwards. 

reunification express train hanoi vietnam
'Reunification Express' train

Are you planning a trip to Hanoi?  Did you find this post helpful?  Let me know what you think and what you did in the comment section below.  

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