Hanoi Itinerary: 2 Days in the City of the Rising Dragon

by | Mar 21, 2021 | Itinerary, Vietnam

Looking for the best things to do in Hanoi in 2 or 3 days? This jam-packed Hanoi itinerary guides you step-by-step to the city’s best historical and cultural sights. You’ll also find loads of practical information like what to eat, what to do at night, and how to get around the city.

Hanoi is the perfect destination to try northern Vietnamese cuisine with a food tour, experience Vietnamese culture with a visit to a water puppet show, learn about Vietnamese history with a tour of the world-class Vietnamese Women’s Museum, the Ho Chi Minh mausoleum, and the Temple of Literature, and discover the traditional life and architecture with an exploration of Hanoi’s Old Quarter.

Since Vietnam is still not open to international travel, check out my list of the 25 best books to read on Vietnam.

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Map of Hanoi itinerary
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Traveler’s Guide to the History of Hanoi

To make the most of your Hanoi itinerary, here is a bit of history of the city

For history lovers, Hanoi is the perfect place to explore Vietnam’s struggle for freedom and independence. All throughout its history, the city has played a central role in this struggle whether it was from China, France, or the United States.

China and Hanoi

Hanoi has been the administration and political center of the Vietnamese people throughout most of its history. It was the capital when northern Vietnam was a province of China for 1,000 years until 1010.

At that time, the Vietnamese people lived mainly in the northern area around the Red River Valley. Few Vietnamese actually lived in Central (around Hoi An and Hue) and Southern Vietnam (Ho Chi Minh City). Central Vietnam was settled mostly by Chams and ruled by the Champa Kingdom and South Vietnam by Khmers.

So much of Vietnamese culture has been influenced by Chinese culture. Probably, the clearest indication of that influence is in Hanoi’s Temple of Literature, which you can tour on Day 1 of this itinerary. Vietnam copied the essence of China’s Confucian merit-based bureaucracy. To get a position in the government, you had to pass a set of exams. The Temple of Literature was where the best of the studied for these exams.

exterior of Chinese temple in Hanoi

Imperial Vietnam and Hanoi

When the Vietnamese finally kicked China out and ruled their land themselves (at least the northern part around the Red River Valley and Hanoi) in 1010, the new Ly Emperor declared Hanoi the capital of the Dai Viet and named it Thang Long, meaning Rising Dragon.

Hanoi remained the capital until 1802 when after years of civil war the Vietnamese were able to finally unite the North, Central, and South into one country. The capital moved to Hue and the Emperor changed the former capital’s name to the less grand and more neutral-sounding Hanoi, meaning between two rivers.

Unfortunately, for travelers, there aren’t that many buildings still standing from Hanoi’s days as the imperial capital. The former home of the emperor, the Thang Long Citadel, suffered from neglect and intentional destruction by the French (Day 1). Besides the Temple of Literature that I’ve already mentioned, there are a few temples throughout the city that were built during this time (Day 2).

The one area of the city that can give you a sense of how the average Vietnamese lived and how merchants did business in the past is the Old Quarter.

puppets at the Temple of Literature in Hanoi

Colonial Vietnam and Hanoi

When the French took over all of Vietnam in 1887, they made Hanoi the capital of Indochina (Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos). The capital’s relocation had to do with the original purpose France had in colonizing Vietnam. They did so in order to be as close as possible to their real aim: China. Hanoi, of course, was closer to the Middle Kingdom than Hue was.

France left its mark on Hanoi with a number of villas and administrative buildings that you’ll get to explore on this itinerary. Three streets where you can find many of these buildings are the treelined boulevards of Phan Dinh Phing Street, Hoang Dieu Street, and Tran Phu Street.

The two most stunning examples of colonial architecture are the Presidential Palace (Day 1) and the Opera House (Day 2). The Vietnam Military Museum (Day 1), the Hoa Lao prison (Day 2), and the Women’s History Museum (Day 2) are three places that can tell you more about the Vietnamese struggle for independence from the French.

Post-WWII and Hanoi

During World War II, Vietnam was under the rule of Japan. When Japan was defeated, the communists under Ho Chi Minh grabbed control of Hanoi in August 1945 and declared it the capital of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam. France was able to regain control of the city from 1946 to May 7, 1954, until its defeat at the Battle of Dien Bien Phu.

During the war with the United States, Hanoi was bombed several times, causing massive damage to many of the buildings. The Military Museum (Day 1) and the Hoa Lo Prison Museum (Day 2) will give you some information on this part of Vietnam’s history.

Book Tips for Bookworms and History Nerds: My favorite books on the history of Vietnam are Vietnam: A New History, The Best and the Brightest, and A Bright Shining Lie. You can also check out a list of more books on Vietnam.

old building in Hanoi
Street in Old Quarter of Hanoi

Hanoi Itinerary 2 – 3 Days

Technically, you can complete this Hanoi itinerary in 2 days. But Hanoi is such a great place to chill out and eat in that you might want to spread this itinerary out over 3 days. Sprinkle this itinerary with stops at coffee shops or adding an additional 2 or 3 meals to the usual breakfast, lunch, and dinner ones.

You might also need an extra day in order to book transport and tours to Sapa or Ha Giang Pass or arrange your Ha Long Bay cruise.

No matter how long you stay in the city, here is my itinerary for the best things to do in Hanoi.  

elegant exterior of yellow building in Hanoi

Hanoi Itinerary: Day 1

Day 1 is all about imperial and post-WWII history. You’ll get a chance to see an ancient college, the imperial citadel, and Ho Chi Minh, himself (although, some people say it’s not really his body).

I did the majority of this day’s itinerary on foot. I’ll indicate how to get around to each sight on the itinerary.

Stop #1: Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum

  • OPEN: Tu-Th – 7:30 – 10:30 AM; Sa-Su: 7:30-11:00 AM (It’s closed from October – November)
  • COST: Free
  • HOW TO GET THERE: I walked from the Old Quarter to the mausoleum. BUT I actually recommend taking a taxi instead in order to get there before 7:30 AM. Since the itinerary for day 1 is jam-packed, you’ll want to start out early.
  • LOCATION: Google Maps

Day 1 of this Hanoi itinerary is super jam-packed, so you want to start out early. Leave your accommodations at 7:00 AM so you can get to the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum by 7:30 AM, when it opens. To make the most of this day, you want to do the mausoleum the first thing in the morning as it closes at 10:30 (Tu-Th) and 11:00 AM (Sa-Su).

The mausoleum is where you can view Ho Chi Minh’s embalmed body. Supposedly, Ho Chi Minh did not even want his body to be displayed like the Soviet Union did with Lenin and China with Mao Ze Dong. But after he died on September 2, 1969, no one listened to his wishes.

Ho Chi Minh is probably the most important figure in the history of Vietnam and for Americans, he played such an important place in their own history.

When I visited, the line to get in was long but it moved fast. I couldn’t enter with my purse, backpack, or water bottle, and there were no photos and no talking. Everyone needed to be quiet and respectful.

We entered the mausoleum and passed quickly by his body. The viewing was all said and done in about 30 seconds. I don’t remember much about what he looked like. What I do remember more than anything is the solemn and reverential way the Vietnamese treated the experience.

But be aware that the mausoleum is closed from October to November when Ho Chi Minh’s body is sent to Russia to do maintenance on his embalmed body.

Stop #2: Presidential Palace

  • OPEN: You can’t enter the Palace
  • COST: Not Applicable
  • BUILT: 1906
  • HOW TO GET THERE: Walk for 5 minutes
  • LOCATION: Google Maps

The next stop on your itinerary is to see where the head of the French colonial government lived and worked.

The story is that Ho Chi Minh didn’t want to live in the palace as it was too ostentatious compared to what his people had to endure during the war.

It’s too bad that we can’t enter the palace to see such a historic building. Just stop and take a photo of the exterior of this striking palace.

What’s with all the yellow buildings in Vietnam? The reasons are partly symbolic, partly practical, and partly aesthetic. First, yellow is the color of royalty, which represents power and superiority. Second, since Vietnam is located near the equator, it’s hot and humid for most of the year. Painting a building yellow prevents heat absorption, which cools the building. Finally, moss is known to grow on the exterior of buildings and the green moss looks more aesthetically pleasing against the yellow building.

Stop #3: Ho Chi Minh Stilt House

  • OPEN: 7:30 – 11:00 AM; 1:30 – 4:00 PM
  • COST: 40,000 VND
  • BUILT: 1958
  • HOW TO GET THERE: Walk for 6 minutes
  • LOCATION: Google Maps
Ho Chi Minh Stilt House on Hanoi itinerary

Ho Chi Minh’s Stilt House is where the leader supposedly lived from 1958 to 1969. Honestly, though, don’t you think of him living here would have made him an easy target for the American bombs they dropped on Hanoi during the war?

The bottom floor is where Ho worked and held meetings. You can go to the top floor and walk around the outside looking through windows at the rooms where he slept and relaxed.

Stop #4: Ho Chi Minh Museum

  • OPEN: 8:00 AM – 12:00 PM; 2:00 – 4:30 PM (closed on Fridays)
  • COST: 40,000 VND
  • BUILT: Unknown
  • HOW TO GET THERE: Walk for 20 minutes
  • LOCATION: Google Maps

This museum tells the story of Ho Chi Minh’s life from his birth in 1890 to his death in 1969. Even though the museum is pure government propaganda, it’s still an easy and memorable way to learn about his life.

Stop #5: One Pillar Pagoda

  • OPEN: 7:00 AM – 6:00 PM
  • COST: Free
  • BUILT: 1049
  • HOW TO GET THERE:  3-minute walk from the Ho Chi Minh Museum
  • LOCATION: Google Maps
One Pillar Pagoda on Hanoi itinerary

Make sure not to miss the One Pillar Pagoda. Luckily, it’s a short walk from the Ho Chi Minh Museum.

Built in 1049 and then rebuilt later over the years, this simple but elegant pagoda is a symbol of Hanoi. It was destroyed by the French in 1954 and then later restored by the Vietnamese in 1955.

The legend goes that the Emperor had a dream of a Boddhisattva sitting on a lotus blossom. The Boddhisattva told the Emperor that he would soon have a child (up to that time he had no son). After his son was born, he built this pagoda resembling the lotus blossom from his dream, in honor of Kuan Yin, the Goddess of Mercy.

Stop #6: Thang Long Imperial Citadel

  • OPEN: 8:00 AM – 5:00 PM (closed on M and F)
  • COST: 30,000 VND
  • BUILT: 1011
  • HOW TO GET THERE:  11-minute walk from the One Pillar Pagoda
  • LOCATION: Google Maps
Imperial citadel of Thang Long

After visiting all the must-see sights of the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum Complex travel back in time to imperial Vietnam. The Imperial Citadel, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, was the fortress and palace of the Dai Viet Emperors before the government moved to Hue in 1810.

Unfortunately, there isn’t much to see here anymore. After the court moved to Hue, the buildings fell into disrepair and then the French came and tore down most of the remaining buildings. The Japanese used the citadel as a prison when they occupied the country. Then during the war against the United States, it became the headquarters of the army and perhaps the true residence of Ho Chi Minh.

You can see the following structures:

  • Doan Mon (South Gate) –This gate is the central gate. Only the royal family was allowed to pass through this gate. You might want to pass by here at night when it’s all lit up.
  • Bac Mon (North Gate) – This is now a place to honor two former leaders of Hanoi who dared to stand up to the French during the colonial period.
  • Kinh Thien Palace – Built in 1428, this structure is where major ceremonies were held
  • Hu Lau (Princess Pagoda) – This structure was used by princesses and queens.
  • D67 House and Tunnel – Built in 1967, this was the headquarters of the army and perhaps the residence of Ho Chi Minh during the war with America.
  • Flag Tower – You’ll find a picture of this symbol of Hanoi on the 10 Dong bill.

Stop #7: Vietnam Military Museum

  • OPEN: 8:00 – 11:30 am and 1:00 – 4:30 pm (closed M and F)
  • COST: 30,000 VND + 20,000 VND camera fee
  • HOW TO GET THERE:  A 5-minute walk from the Citadel
  • LOCATION: Google Maps
The People's Army Museum and Imperial Citadel as seen from Flag Tower

Next to the Citadel is the Vietnam Military Museum, a great stop for history buffs. The museum is filled with artefacts from the war with France and the United States.

For me, the best part of the museum was looking at the photos and documents depicting the war through the eyes of common soldiers during the French and American wars.

Stop #8: Flag Tower

  • OPEN: 9:00 AM – 5:00 PM (closed on Mondays)
  • COST: It’s included in the Military Museum ticket
  • BUILT: 1812
  • HOW TO GET THERE:  The Flag Tower is right next to the Military Museum. You can walk up the steps to the Flag Tower from the museum courtyard.
  • LOCATION:  Google Maps

Considered a symbol of Hanoi, the Flag Tower was once part of the Citadel. Now it’s part of the Military Museum and it’s accessed via the Military Museum courtyard.

In imperial times, it was used as an observational post.

Stop #9: Lunch

By now you’ll probably be starving. You can find some restaurants near the next stop on this itinerary—the Fine Arts Museum. I stopped at Café Van Mieu and had some delicious shrimp noodle soup from Haiphong.

Stop #10: Fine Arts Museum of Vietnam

  • OPEN: 8:30 – 5:00 pm Tu – Su
  • COST: 40,000 VND; 150,000 VND for a tour guide
  • HOW TO GET THERE:  It’s a 10-minute walk from the Flag Tower
  • LOCATION: Google Maps

Next, spend a couple of hours out of the heat and humidity in the cool and comfortable Fine Arts Museum of Vietnam, another must-stop for history buffs.

You can find sculptures, painting, sketches, and folk art from prehistory to present day. The museum consists of five sections.

  • Pre-history: ceramics and pottery pieces
  • 19th Century: Buddhist art and paintin, sculpture, wood carvings, ceramincs
  • 20th Century – Present day: oil paintings
  • Traditional Applied Art: furniture and clothing
  • Folk Art: paper

Stop #11: The Temple of Literature

  • OPEN: 8:00 am – 4:30 pm
  • COST: 40,000 VND
  • BUILT: 1070
  • HOW TO GET THERE:  A 5-minute walk from the Fine Arts museum
  • LOCATION: Google Maps

The last stop on today’s Hanoi itinerary is also my favorite place in Hanoi—the Temple of Literature. The name is a bit deceptive. While there is a temple on the grounds, the Temple of Literature was actually Vietnam’s imperial academy from 1076 to 1779. In other words, its first university.

This was where scholars went to live and study for the imperial examinations that would ensure them a place in the imperial civil service. A job in the bureaucracy was a mark of distinction in Vietnam society.

Imperial exams were held every three years. To prevent cheating, they took place in a different location every year and these places were often in wide open spaces. Those who received the highest scores received prizes and got their names carved onto a stele at the Temple of Literature. You can still see the names of past exam winners on these steles.

The imperial academy moved out of Hanoi when the Vietnamese court moved to Hue. When the French came, they tore down part of the academy’s grounds to make room for a hospital.

The complex consists of several courtyards, pagodas, pavilions, and gardens as well as a pond. People come here now not to study but to pray for a good score on their university entrance exams and take graduation photos.

Hanoi Itinerary: Day 2

Day 2 is my favorite day of this Hanoi itinerary. I love architecture and street photography and on this day, you get to spend it just wandering around the evocative Old Quarter and French Quarter looking at all the old buildings and taking in the atmosphere of this traditional part of the city.

The afternoon is for the best museum in Vietnam, the Vietnamese Women’s Museum—a great place to learn about Vietnamese culture.

Finally, I highly recommend completing this day with a Water Puppet performance.

Stop #1: Old Quarter

Going all the way back to the founding of Hanoi 1000 years ago, the Old Quarter is where you can immerse yourself in traditional Vietnamese culture.

Like in many parts of Asia, you’ll find each street dedicated to selling a specific product. For example, one street specializes in gravestones, another for medicinal herbs, and still one for wedding attire. The name of the street reflects what is being sold on that street. It might seem counter-intuitive to have all of your competitors next door to you. But for the consumer, it’s great not having to trapes across town to different stores.

thin vertical building on Hanoi itinerary
tall thin building in Hanoi Old Quarter

The architecture is another fascinating aspect of the Old Quarter. In imperial times, no structure could be taller than the imperial citadel. Since there are no longer any Vietnamese emperors, there are no restrictions on how tall you can construct your building. Plus, real estate prices in Hanoi have skyrocketed in the last several years. What the Vietnamese have done is to expand vertically. You can now see these thin buildings going up to five, seven and even nine stories.

The other great thing about the Old Quarter is all the restaurants and food stalls selling street food and Vietnamese snacks. Hopefully, you’ve done the food tour the night before, and you know where to look, what to eat, and how to order. I remember going back to one of the restaurants I went to from the previous night’s food tour and trying more snacks.  

Lonely Planet Vietnam (Amazon | Bookshop.org) has a walking tour map that you can follow. Another option is to join one of the walking tours with Friends of Vietnam Heritage.

Here are some interesting sights in the Old Quarter where you can learn more about the culture and history of Hanoi.

1.1 Dong Xuan Market

  • OPEN: 6:00 AM – 6:00 PM
  • COST: FREE
  • BUILT: 1889
  • LOCATION: Google Maps
Various type of cereal grains (seeds, rice, buckwheat, oats, lentils,chickpeas, beans) on sale at Dong Xuan market
HANOI VIETNAM – AUGUST 2017: Various type of cereal grains (seeds, rice, buckwheat, oats, lentils,chickpeas, beans) on sale at Dong Xuan market

To get a feel for what a typical market is like in Vietnam, take a stroll through the four-story Dong Xuan Market. You can find everything from food to souvenirs here.

I find the markets in Vietnam to be quite fascinating—there are so many fruits and vegetables that I never see in my home country. Also, compared to all of the other countries I’ve visited in Southeast Asia, the produce in Vietnam seems to be of higher quality and more diversity. I recommend trying the sapodilla—a fruit that tastes like apples and honey.

1.2 Bach Ma Temple (White Horse Temple)

  • OPEN: 9:00 AM – 5:30 PM
  • COST: FREE
  • BUILT: 11th century, 18th century
  • LOCATION: Google Maps
Bach Ma Temple in Hanoi

One of the more active and popular temples in Hanoi is also the oldest temple in Hanoi–the Bach Ma Temple. It was originally built in the Long Do Mountains in the eleventh century before moving to Hanoi in the eighteenth century.

The name of the temple means White Horse. It gets its name from when the temple was being constructed in Hanoi. The walls of the temple would not stay up. One day a white horse indicated with his hooves where the walls should be built. The Emperor ordered that the walls built at that location. Miraculously, they finally stopped collapsing. To honor the horse that helped build the temple, it was named White Horse Temple. Look for the statue of a white horse.

Make sure to look up at the beautiful carvings and woodwork on the ceiling of the temple.

1.3 Heritage House

  • OPEN: 8:30 AM – 5:00 PM
  • COST: 10,000 VND
  • BUILT: 11th century, 18th century
  • LOCATION: Google Maps
interior of Heritage House in Hanoi

Constructed in the 1800s, this beautiful heritage house is where you can get a glimpse of a typical residence of a wealthy Vietnamese family in the nineteenth.

1.4 Hanoi Train Street

  • OPEN: 24/7 (train passes by at 3:00 and 7:00 PM)
  • COST: FREE
  • LOCATION: Google Maps
Hanoi Train Street

This street has become really popular in Hanoi in the past couple of years. Tourists flock to it to take photos of this unique train track that runs between two rows of buildings. Twice a day at 3:00 PM and 7:00 PM a speeding train passes by almost touching the buildings in this narrow lane.

Restaurants and cafes put tables and chairs out on the sidewalk alongside the tracks for tourists. But in 2019, the government closed down the cafes, as the street had attracted too many selfie-obsessed tourists and it was getting rather dangerous. 

You can still wander down this narrow street and observe the daily life of the average Vietnamese.

1.4 St. Joseph Church

  • OPEN: Mass weekdays at 5:30 AM and 6:15 PM; Saturday at 6:00 PM and several times on Sunday
  • COST: FREE
  • BUILT: 1886
  • LOCATION: Google Maps
St. Joseph Cathedral in Hanoi
Saint Joseph Cathedral, a Roman Catholic cathedral in Hanoi Vietnam

The other religious structure to visit in the Old Quarter is St. Joseph Church. You can only visit it to attend mass, though. Luckily, mass is held every day with several times on Sunday.

This Gothic church was originally built on the site of a pagoda that the French ordered to be destroyed to make room for the church. During the colonial era, the church was the center of Catholicism in Vietnam. When the communists took over, the church was closed. It didn’t open until 1990 on Christmas Eve.

If the bell towers look familiar, you’re not mistaken. They were built to resemble the ones of Notre Dame’s.

Stop #2: Hoan Kiem Lake

Next to the Old Quarter is the legendary Hoan Kiem Lake, also known as Lake of the Restored Sword. Legend has it that in 1428, heaven sent the Vietnamese emperor a sword to defeat the Chinese who had come to reclaim Vietnam. After China was defeated, a turtle grabbed the sword and disappeared with it into the bottom of the lake. A tower was built in the middle of the lake to commemorate the legend.

Hoan Kiem Lake in Hanoi

There used to be loads of turtles in the lake, but most of them have died off. Today there are supposedly only three turtles left.

The lake is especially interesting in the morning when the locals come out to do their morning aerobic and dance routines.

2.1 Temple of the Jade Mountain

  • OPEN: 8:00 AM – 6:00 PM
  • COST: 30,000 VND
  • BUILT: 18th Century
  • LOCATION: Google Maps

There is a temple on the side of the lake called the Temple of the Jade Mountain. The temple is located on an island that is connected to the shore by a red bridge.

The temple is dedicated to a military hero, Tran Hung Dao, who saved Hanoi from a Mongol invasion in the thirteenth century and a scholar and writer, Van Xuong, who helped repair the temple.

Stop #3: French Quarter

On the southeastern end of Hoan Kiem Lake is the old French Quarter. To be honest, this area isn’t as interesting and evocative as the Old Quarter is. The main reasons to visit the French Quarter is to visit the Hoa Lo Prison Musuem (Hanoi Hilton), the Vietnam Women’s Museum, and the Opera House.

3.1 Hoa Lo Prison Museum

  • OPEN: 8:00 AM – 5:00 PM
  • COST: 30,000 VND
  • BUILT: 1896
  • HOW TO GET THERE:  It’s located in the French Quarter, you can easily walk from the lake to the prison
  • LOCATION: Google Maps
Hoa Lo Prison in Hanoi
Vietnam, Hanoi: Hoa Lo prison

Americans know this prison as the infamous Hanoi Hilton, the prison that held American POWs who were shot while bombing Hanoi. The most famous prisoner was John McCain, who ran for president in 2008. A former ambassador to Vietnam, Pete Peterson, spent time in the prison as well.

It’s no longer used as a prison and unfortunately, for history lovers, most of the prison has been torn down so you can’t really see where John McCain actually stayed. Even if you could, it probably would have been whitewashed in propaganda. The Vietnamese claim that the prisoners were treated humanely. You can read John McCain’s memoir to get another side of the story.

You can see photos of McCain being rescued from a lake after his plane was shot down.

The only thing that really remains is the guard house, where you can find some exhibits dedicated mostly to the French colonial era and to a replica of the interrogation room known as the Blue Room.

Before it became a site for American POWs, it was used by the French to hold Vietnamese political prisoners. The name Hoa Lo actually means “Hells’ Hole.” The prison was notorious for overcrowding. It was supposed to only hold a maximum of 600 prisoners, but in 1954, it held 2,000 prisoners.

Vietnamese prisoners also experienced torture, interrogations, executions, and unsanitary conditions.

3.2. Vietnamese Women’s Museum

  • OPEN: 8:00 AM – 5:00 PM
  • COST: 40,000 VND
  • HOW TO GET THERE:  It’s located in the French Quarter, you can easily walk from the lake to the prison
  • LOCATION: Google Maps

The last place on this Hanoi itinerary is no indication of its priority. Don’t skip it. If you need to cut short something else on this itinerary to squeeze in this museum, do it. The Vietnamese Women’s Museum is a fabulous museum. I’ve seen lots of crappy museums in the world. This is either because the museum lacks funding or lacks competent museum staff. The Vietnamese Women’s Museum got funding from the Ford Foundation and the Vietnamese government to renovate and hire competent staff. And it shows. This is a world-class museum. The exhibits are interactive, informative, and educational. If you’re worried that the subject matter, women, is too narrow, don’t be. By looking at women’s role in Vietnam’s history and culture, the museum is able to give you a broader view of Vietnam than most museums do.

The permanent exhibits are organized around three themes: history, family, and fashion. The purpose of the museum is to show women’s role in these three areas: history, family, and fashion.

In the first exhibit, you’ll learn about wedding rituals, births and child rearing, and the work of women. In the second exhibit on history, you’ll see the role women played during the resistance. The final exhibit on fashion presents the clothing of the 54 ethnic groups that make up Vietnamese society.

Expect to spend about 2 hours in the museum. Make sure to do the audio tour. It’s worth it!

3.3 Opera House

Hanoi Opera House

The main reason to visit the Opera House is to take a photo of this gorgeous neoclassical very French building. The only way to get inside is if you buy tickets for an opera performance.

MORE Things to Do in Hanoi

Cooking Class – If you’re going to stay a third day, you might want to try your hand at learning how to cook Vietnamese food. There are plenty of classes in the city.

Walking Tour of Hanoi – I hear there’s a really good walking tour with the Friends of Vietnam Heritage. I didn’t have a chance to go on one when I was there, but since I’m such a history nerd, I’ve always loved walking tours in other cities that I’ve been to.

Vietnam Museum of Ethnology – You’ll need to take a taxi or a local bus to get to this museum featuring exhibits on the 53 different ethnic minorities of Vietnam.

Hai Ba Trung Temple – Built in 1142, this temple is dedicated to two of the most interesting figures in Vietnam’s history, Trung sisters. Vietnam was a province of China for over 1000 years from around the second century BCE to 983 CE. Around 40 CE, the two Trung sisters led a rebellion against China. One of the sisters was able to capture 65 strongholds and even declared herself queen before the sisters were eventually defeated. They chose to commit suicide rather than be captured.

Day trip to Ninh Binh If you’re doing a 3-day itinerary, take a day trip to Ninh Binh to see the gorgeous Vietnamese countryside. You’ve got magical views of a river winding its way between green and gold rice paddies and limestone mountains. It’s a bit like Ha Long Bay but on land. Ninh Binh is 2-hours by train or bus from Hanoi. Rent a bike or a motorcycle and travel out to Trang An for a boat ride to caves and temples or a boat ride at Tom Coc. Another great idea is to climb (they’re freakily scary stairs, actually) Hang Mua Peak for stunning (and I really mean stunning!) panoramic views of the countryside.

view from Hang Mua Peak of Tam Coc
Day trip to Ninh Binh

Things to Do in the evening in Hanoi

Food Tour: Before you get to Vietnam, sign up for a food tour in Hanoi for your first night in the city. They can be popular (they’re inexpensive), so they can fill up fast. You don’t want to miss out on the tour.

dessert on food tour in Hanoi

THIS was the best thing I did in Vietnam. Here’s why? The Vietnamese food that you’re used to eating is limited to the South. But there is so much more to Vietnamese food than pho, spring rolls, and banh mi. But discovering these unknown dishes is a challenge if you don’t speak Vietnamese because a lot of the foods are street foods that aren’t advertised to foreign tourists. And the food is some of the best food you’ll ever eat in your life.

You’ll also want to do this on your first night in Hanoi so that you can go back on subsequent days and eat the food again. That’s what I did!

Water Puppet Show: Perhaps the best puppet show I’ve ever seen is at the Thang Long Water Puppet Theater. In Vietnam, the puppets perform on a stage of water.

water puppet show at Thang Long Theater in Hanoi

Dating back to the eleventh century, the puppet shows were performed in rice paddies. Nowadays they’re performed in pools of water waist-level deep. The mechanisms for moving the puppets are hidden under the water. The puppeteers stand in the water but are hidden behind curtains. In the past, a pagoda was built over the rice paddies and the puppeteers hid behind it.

The shows include an orchestra playing Vietnamese traditional music and singing. The stories are usually based on village folklore.

This is a cool experience. The water adds something to the show that can impress even the most seasoned traveler.

How to buy tickets: You can buy online through Klook, purchase through your hotel, or visit the theater to buy in person.

What to Eat in Hanoi

Make sure to spend time on your itinerary eating as much Vietnamese food as you can while in Hanoi. Here are some of the must-eat dishes that you should add to your Hanoi itinerary:

bun cha

Bun Cha Hanoi – This was the first dish I ate when I was in Hanoi. I was completely blown away. Still to this day I dream about eating bun cha again. So what is it? It’s rice noodles with chargrilled pork, fresh herbs, and some kind of dipping broth. The dish usually comes with a side of spring rolls. Watch the other diners to figure out how to eat the dish. Bun cha is was what President Obama ate when he and Anthony Bourdain ate together in Hanoi (Bun Cha Huong Lien). Bun cha is also not a dish you can easily find in Vietnamese restaurants outside of Vietnam.

Cha Ca – Another Hanoi dish that you cannot leave Hanoi without trying. This is a DYI grilled fish dish cooked in shrimp paste and dill. The most famous restaurant for eating this dish is at the unfriendly Cha Ca Thang Long.

Pho – Graham Holliday’s book, Eating Vietnam, goes into great detail on the difference between northern and southern pho. First of all, pho originated in the north. There are two kinds of pho: pho bo (beef) and pho ga (chicken). Northern pho uses wider rice noodles and clearer broth than southern pho. Also, southerners like to top their pho with herbs and bean sprouts, while the north prefers green onions.

Banh Cuon – This dish originated in Hanoi but you can find it all over Vietnam. It’s made of thin rice sheets rolled and filled with ground pork sprinkled with fried shallots and herbs. Finding a place that serves this dish is not too hard to find since you’ll usually see a woman making them on a hot griddle outside restaurants.

What to read when traveling in Hanoi? Eating Vietnam by Graham Holliday is about the author’s love affair with Vietnamese food. Holliday spent 9 years living, working, and especially eating in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City.

Where to Stay in Hanoi

I wanted to recommend my favorite hotel in Vietnam, Meracus 2 Hotel, but unfortunately, it’s permanently closed due to COVID.

The only thing I can recommend is to stay in the Old Quarter. There are generally lots of high-quality and reasonably-priced places to stay there. Just be aware that some rooms don’t have windows. This is because of how narrow and long the buildings are here. When you’re booking your hotel, check to see if “window” is included!

How to Get to Hanoi

You can use the Baolau website to look up transportation schedules and buy tickets for Vietnam.

Here are some prices and durations for typical destinations in Vietnam in 2021.

From Hue to Hanoi

  • Plane: 1 hour 15 minutes (US$50)
  • Bus: 13 hours (US$14)
  • Train: 13 hours (US$17 – $40)

From Sapa to Hanoi

  • Bus: 5.5 to 6 hours (US$11 – $16)

From Ho Chi Minh City to Hanoi

  • Plane: 2 hours (US$26 – $121)
  • Bus: 38 hours (US$34)
  • Train: 36 – 38 hours (US$43 – $65)

How to Get Around Hanoi

street full of motorcycles in Hanoi

Hanoi is a great place to get around by foot. Most of the top attractions are located within walking distance of each other.

That being said, crossing the street can be scary. There aren’t a lot of traffic lights. Pedestrians don’t have the right of way. My best advice for crossing the street is to cross with other people and make sure their bodies are between you and the oncoming car. Walk when they walk and stop when they stop.

If it’s too far to walk, take a Grab, this is the Uber-like ride-share service found all over Southeast Asia.

When to Visit Hanoi

The best time to visit Hanoi is in the winter months (November to March). That’s when the weather is the least hot and humid and the driest.

  • May – September: hot, humid, and rainy
  • November – March: dry and cool to warm (59-70 degrees F/ 15-20 degrees C)
  • April and October: hot and dry (shoulder season)

Solo Travel in Hanoi

There are so many reasons why Vietnam is such as a great place for solo travelers, especially female travelers. Hanoi is even more so.

  • Sexual harassment: I’m not saying that sexual harassment won’t ever happen, but in general, the likelihood is quite low in Hanoi. You can walk down the street and not worry about catcalls or someone grabbing your ass.
  • Theft: This is a different story here. You’ll want to be more careful with your valuables here than say in a country like Japan or South Korea or Singapore.
  • Meeting other travelers: There’s something about Vietnam that makes it a great place to meet other travelers. I’m not completely sure why, but I had the best luck meeting other travelers. I was rarely alone because I was constantly meeting other travelers in the country. Sometimes I’d meet someone in Hanoi and then run into them again in Hoi An.
  • Costs for Solo Travelers: Another great thing about Hanoi is the fact that there are lots of affordable tours out there that don’t require single supplements (Halong Bay Tours usually do have single supplements). Hotels are the most affordable in the world as well, making it a great place for solo budget travelers to afford to stay in a hotel rather than a hostel dorm.

So that’s my suggested itinerary of Hanoi. Now if you’re not keen on following my itinerary exactly, here is a list of my absolute favorite things to do in Hanoi.  

Food Tour

Water Puppet Show

Wandering aimlessly around the Old Quarter

Temple of Literature

Vietnam’s Women’s Museum

If you have any questions and suggestions, please feel free to leave a comment below! Thanks for visiting The Bamboo Traveler.


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Hanoi itinerary pin collage - One Pillar Pagoda and Temple of Literature
Hanoi itinerary pin of a collage of photos - incense, a red door and temple of literature

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About the Bamboo Traveler

Welcome to The Bamboo Traveler, a travel & digital nomad blog, dedicated to helping women over 40 travel the world safely, cheaply, and comfortably. Whether you’re going for a one, two- or three-week vacation, exploring the world as a digital nomad, or staying home and discovering the world from the comfort and safety of your home, you’ll find loads of information to help inspire and inform you in your wanderings.

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