Hanoi, unlike many other Southeast Asian capitals, “goes to bed early” – most restaurants and bars, with notable exceptions, close their doors well before midnight, so surviving 24 hours here requires stamina, imagination and a few million dong! What do you do when you have just one day in Hanoi? Here’s our guide to getting to know the city in the fast lane.
Wake Up Early!
5:00 a.m.-6:00 a.m.: Walk down to Hoan Kiem Lake just after dawn to watch (and perhaps join in) the tai chi, calisthenics, samba or line-dancing activities of mainly older people who choose this cool hour of the morning for their daily routine.
6:00 a.m. - 7:30 a.m.: After such exercise , it’s time for a typical Vietnamese breakfast – this has to be bun cha, available in a multitude of larger cafes or ‘holes in the wall’ where you sit on plastic kindergarten chairs. The dish contains pieces of grilled pork in a soup with rice noodles and herbs – just delicious!
Check Out the Old Quarter
7:30 a.m.-8:30 a.m.: You can walk or take a pedicycle to slowly cruise around the Old Quarter. As its name implies, it’s the oldest part of the city – a rabbit warren of narrow streets crammed with shops selling all manner of goods, which often spill out onto the pavement. Sidewalks here are also used as a motorcycle parks, so you will have to walk down the roads themselves.
Negotiate the traffic, a seemingly disorderly and chaotic mess of motorcycles, bicycles and the occasional car. But don’t worry – think of it as wading through a flowing stream. Just walk to wherever you want and traffic will flow around you.
The many shops here are ideal to buy curios for friends back home. There are also a few local temples – interesting havens of peace and all well worth visiting.
8:30 a.m.-10:00 a.m.: Keeping to the historical theme, walk through the courtyards and see the ancient stone stelae at the Temple of Literature, established in 1076 as the country’s first university. Just up the road is the World Heritage-listed Citadel, the reconstructed remains of the ancient imperial city of Thang Long dating back 1,300 years.
Get to the Sky
10:00 a.m.-11:00 a.m.: Want to get a bird’s eye view of the city? Head down to the Observation Deck at the Lotte Center Hanoi. The deck offers 360º of unrestricted, stunning views of the capital with state-of-the-art technology such as interactive touchscreen street maps to locate places of interest and a photo counter if you really like taking pictures.
Grab a Motorcycle !
11:00 a.m.-12:00 p.m.: To put the history of Hanoi in context, it is interesting to cross the Red River. The river and its immediate floodplain is really, really wide but distinctly brown in colour! The most exciting way to do this is on the back of a motorcycle. You can either bargain with one of the motorbike taxi drivers (xe om) who sit on street corners waiting for customers or book one through Grab or Uber.
Not game enough to take a motorcycle? There are many small green and metered Mai Linh cabs, so the ability to speak Vietnamese isn’t critical. Just make sure you know where you are going!
Quan An Ngon for Lunch
12:00 p.m.-1:00 p.m.: Time for lunch! This is your perfect chance to check out Quan An Ngon restaurant – not hard since there are four in the city to choose from (Vincom Royal City, Hoang Dao Thuy, Phan Boi Cham and on Phan Dinh Phung across the road from the Army Hotel). All locations serve Vietnamese specialities catering to every taste. Quan An Ngon’s popularity is evident from the mix of local and international patrons who pass through their doors most hours of the day and night – a sure sign of a quality product!
Go to Prison!
1:00 p.m.-2:00 p.m.: The visit is not complete until you visit the Hanoi Hilton – officially called Ho Loa prison. Start a sobering afternoon at this infamous French colonial prison, complete with an operational guillotine. It’s where many Vietnamese nationalists were incarcerated in what would today be considered horrendous conditions. It achieved its hotel moniker when it was used to house American airmen shot down during the American War, famously including former presidential hopeful John McCain.
A chunk of the original prison disappeared when the Hanoi Towers complex was constructed, but what is left has been sympathetically curated. For a very modest entrance fee, Ho Loa provides an insight into the horrors of imprisonment and war.
2:00 p.m.-3:00 p.m.: A regular stop on all package tours is the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum – where the embalmed father of the nation can be seen. Even if you do not have time to queue up for this view, this part of the city is home to embassies and government offices.
Coffee with a Bomber
3:00 p.m.-4:00 p.m.: Land for an afternoon coffee at the B52 Café, located next to a small lake, the centrepiece of which are the remains of an American bomber shot down over Hanoi during hostilities. The local filter-style coffee drips into your cup, either hot or cold. Asking for a white coffee means that some condensed milk is placed in the cup under the filter – when stirred, the colour changes from black to very dark brown. This is strong stuff indeed!
4:00 p.m.-5:00 p.m.: Take a motorcycle, taxi, pedicycle or go on foot for a last tour around the Old Quarter before nightfall, taking in architectural icons such as the French-inspired neo-gothic Hanoi Opera House and the classic Catholicism of St Joseph’s Cathedral. If you have a moment, there is a swag of museums like the Vietnamese Women’s Museum and the National Museum of History to visit too!
Where Hanoi Goes Out to Play
5:00 p.m.-6:00 p.m.: As the sun sets, the place for a preprandial stroll is Hoan Kiem Lake, especially during weekends when the surrounding streets are barricaded. The lack of bikes and cars during these blessed moments creates a huge pedestrian precinct around this iconic lake. It is the place to see and be seen. Families take the kids and experience a lot of simple pleasures – balloons, clowns, driving electric cars, listening to street singers and dancers or perhaps having an artist draw your portrait. It is a place to promenade and have your photo taken in an ao dai, Vietnam’s traditional dress. Do join the crowd for a quick circumnavigation of the lake.
6:00 p.m.-7:00 p.m.: For an evening meal in a pleasant, unpretentious surrounding, grab a taxi to Andochin Restaurant. Occupying a historic colonial mansion on Nguyen Binh Khiem Street, Andochin serves delicious Vietnamese dishes, all consisting of local and organic ingredients.
7:15 p.m.-9:30 p.m.: For a taste of modern Vietnamese culture, catch the free shuttle bus that leaves at 7:15 p.m. from 3B Le Thai To Street and takes you to the Star Galaxy Theatre, returning at 9:30 p.m.
The current productions in the 300-seat theatre are the Ionah Show - a mixture of dance, theatre, circus and music that tells the story of a young girl’s journey inside her soul to face the struggle between good and evil taking place every Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday and A O Show by Lune Productions that skillfully combines circus and dance.
Both shows feature some of the best acrobats and circus performers in Vietnam, accompanied by a blend of Western electronic and Vietnamese traditional music with theatrical effects that have been likened to the famous Cirque Du Soleil. The shows will appeal to audiences of all ages and no prior knowledge of the Vietnamese language is required. Depending on which day you’re in Hanoi, feel free to catch either of these shows.
Drink in the Views!
9:30 p.m.-10:30 p.m.: Back to the Old Quarter and it’s time to find a quiet place with suitable refreshments and a great view. Head for a rooftop bar – there are a few to choose from. There’s always the Summit Lounge at the rejuvenated Pan Pacific Hotel: select a speciality cocktail and take in serene and picturesque views over the oldest Buddhist temple in Hanoi (the Trấn Quốc Pagoda, perched on a small island in the middle of the West Lake).
Alternatively, The Rooftop on Ly Thuong Kiet Street offers stunning views paired with stylish decor. The interior resembles a Big Apple lounge whilst the outdoor terrace has comfy white cushions and a relaxing view over the city centre. You can also try the Top of Hanoi – 65 floors up on top of the lavish Lotte Hotel, featuring neon colours, music and a sleek design. The menu may be overpriced but with a breathtaking view, it’s worth the splurge at least once.
Night Owl Haunts
11:00 p.m.-1:00 a.m.: Inclined to find a late night bar? There are plenty in the Old Quarter allowed to stay open until 2:00 a.m. from Friday to Sunday, whereas for most nights the curfew is midnight. For something different, visit Savage in the West Lake area, which doesn’t usually close until 2:30 a.m. during weekends.
1:00 a.m. until ‘whenever’: Last stop has to be Puku Café & Sports Bar at 16 - 18 Tong Duy Tan, Hoan Kiem. It’s an establishment that seems to buck all the regulations and stay open 24 hours a day – more importantly, it’s also renowned for its breakfast!