An army of decrepit buildings with yellowing facades and elegant French shutters, a stream of red flags with yellow stars, a sea of conical hats. Motos whiz by with towering boxes strapped precariously to the back, defying the rules of gravity. Masks protect faces from the fumes of other motorbikes. Groups of men sit on low plastic stools on the side of the road sipping their Vietnamese cà phê sữa đá. The sky hangs overhead grey and glum, threatening rain—the humidity a constant throughout the country’s various political iterations.
Welcome to Hanoi, Vietnam.
Hanoi, in the north of Vietnam, is the country’s capital, more elegant and reserved compared to its counterparts in the south. An underlying current of sophistication permeates the characterful streets of the Old Quarter; however, there is no shortage of chaos that is definitive of South-East Asia.
Twice, I have visited Hanoi as a gateway to Ha Long Bay, which is a 3.5 hour drive from the city. On our first visit, we had to turn back after the long drive to Ha Long Bay because the weather was too foggy and no boats were allowed out on the bay. The second time around, we decided to visit Bai Tu Long Bay, Ha Long Bay’s neighbour without as many tourist boats, and prayed that the weather gods would be on our side this time—thankfully, they were. Both trips necessitated spending a night in Hanoi on either side of our tour, which is the case for most people. I have to admit that I wasn’t taken with Hanoi on my first visit; however, I definitely came around to its charm the second time around.
Twenty-four hours isn’t long enough to feel the pulse of this city, but if you’re short on time and you have a Ha Long Bay tour to catch in the morning, then here is your guide on what to do with 24 hours in Hanoi.
Things to do in Hanoi
Hanoi’s centre is lively, frenetic and wholly alluring. Leave all apprehensions behind when crossing the roads and you’ll miraculously find yourself on the other side, safe and sound. This is the essence of the city: it’s chaotic but it works—there is a method to the madness. If you only have a day in the city, I would suggest soaking in the atmosphere of the city rather than trying to hit all of the sights.
Explore Hanoi’s Old Quarter The Old Quarter has retained its Vietnamese-French colonial charm, perhaps in a less Disneyfied manner than Hoi An, which makes it feel as though you’re stepping back in history as you weave through the maze of streets. The 36 streets in the Old Quarter are named after different goods and crafts that were sold on that particular street—Silk street, Paper Street, Silver Street—and many still sell their traditional products.
Find Hanoi Train Street Fast becoming a must-see sight in Hanoi is the narrow street that has a train track running right down the middle. And yes it is operational. A train passes by twice a day, at 3.30 pm and 7 pm, at which time locals are forced inside their homes. This unique street is a must for the photographers out there but just make sure you’re not on the tracks when the train comes zooming past. You can find directions here.
Eat to your heart’s content Well, this is a given anywhere in Vietnam, but make sure to try Hanoi’s culinary specialities including cha ca la vong, bánh cuốn and egg coffee (which is tastier than it sounds). Alternatively get taken to all of the must-eat places on a Hanoi street food tour with Urban Adventures.
Admire the lake Any visit to Hanoi is not complete without a stopover at Hoàn Kiếm Lake, undoubtedly the jewel of Hanoi’s crown. Even on an overcast day, the lake is impressive under the haze of fog, and particularly at sunset when the glowing red sun dips moodily in the sky. There are many activities that happen around the lake, so it is also a great place to sit and people watch.
Other things to do in Hanoi if you have extra time
Brush up on your history There are plenty of museums for history buffs to get their geek on in including the Hoa Lo Prison aka Hanoi Hilton where American POWs were held; Vietnam Military History Museum; Vietnamese Women’s Museum; Vietnam Museum of Ethnology; and many more.
Refine your photography skills I stumbled upon this photography tour with Vietnam in Focus, which involves learning about the art of travel photography while photographing the stretch of railway that runs between Hanoi and Long Bien stations. Unfortunately, I didn’t have enough time to do it, but it seems like it would be a really unique experience. The company also offers other photography tours on their website.
Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum It is a rather sombre affair lining up upside the bleak building that is the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum to wait to be let into the room where the embalmed body of ‘Uncle Ho’ lies. Rules are quite strict and the guards won’t be the friendliest that you’ve encountered. Dress appropriately and don’t point or cross your arms when you head inside. It’s probably best not to smile either.
Four words: La Siesta Hotel Trendy. Stay there if you can. La Siesta Hotel Trendy is a boutique hotel located in the heart of the Old Quarter. It is more expensive but still affordable and well worth it, believe me. It’s probably one of the best places I’ve stayed in, not in the sense that it’s super fancy, but the attention to detail is superb and the staff and service are impeccable. You can thank me later.
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