Planning Your Time
If You Have Two Days
If you'll just be passing through, your time would be best spent exploring the Old Quarter and visiting the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum and the adjacent museum. Since your time is limited, do as the Vietnamese do and start at the crack of dawn. Make your way down to the northern shore of Hoan Kiem Lake and look on as the Vietnamese limber up with tai chi routines and other exercises. You’ll need some sustenance for a busy day so head to nearby Pho Thin for a warming bowl of Vietnam’s de facto national dish. After breakfast, take a couple of hours to wander around the narrow streets of the Old Quarter. The sheer volume of traffic can make strolling hazardous, but it is worth the peril to experience the sights and sounds of the area. After grabbing lunch at either a smart, contemporary café such as Joma or Hanoi Social Club, or on the street, make your way to Ba Dinh District for a pilgrimage to Ho Chi Minh’s mausoleum where the body of the venerated former leader of Vietnam remains on display. To find out more about his life and work, head to the nearby Ho Chi Minh Museum, which celebrates both the man and the onward march of revolutionary socialism. For dinner, head to one of West Lake’s many contemporary restaurants before going back to the Old Quarter to end a busy day with some bia hoi, Vietnam’s legendarily cheap beer. After an action-packed first day you can afford to take things slightly easier on day two. After breakfast and some potent Vietnamese coffee, make your way to the French Quarter to stroll the shady tree-lined avenues and admire the lovely colonial architecture. Lunch on Vietnamese street food in a palatial setting at Quan Ngon, then make your way back to Ba Dinh District, this time focusing on ancient relics such as the One Pillar Pagoda and the Temple of Literature. For another quintessentially Hanoian experience, take in an evening show at the water puppet theater before treating yourself to an upscale dinner at the Sofitel Legend Metropole Hotel.
If You Have Five Days
Five days gives you time to spread your wings beyond the obvious sights. After following the two-day itinerary, the remainder of your time can then be devoted to really exploring Hanoi’s myriad nooks and crannies. Those with an interest in architecture will find it both fascinating and educational to take one of the walking tours organized by companies such as Hidden Hanoi. These guided explorations delve deep beyond the surface and can provide invaluable insight to everything from the unique "tube houses" in the Old Quarter to the European (and especially Gallic) influences at play in the French Quarter. Another Hanoi highlight that few short-stay visitors really have the time to get to grips with is the city’s mind-blowing street food culture. For a comprehensive insight try one of the itineraries run by Hanoi Street Food Tours. Cultural sights beyond the big-hitters, meanwhile, include the fascinating Vietnam Museum of Ethnology and a growing number of contemporary art spaces. While taking it easy may seem contrary to the restless spirit of the city, there’s a lot to be said for slowing down to a more leisurely pace. Enjoy the view over Hoan Kiem Lake from an upstairs coffee shop and spend your evening holed up in left-field drinking dens such as Cama ATK or Tadioto. If you have a day left to spare, leave the city and take a trip out to the Perfume Pagoda, a complex of Buddhist temples that is one of Vietnam’s most famous pilgrimage sites.