It’s 4 pm and you’ve arrived in Hanoi for a 24 hour visit. You’re staying in the middle of the Old Town, in the midst of the chaotic, noisy, vibrant heart of the city and you’ve just checked into your hotel. You’ve only got 24 hours here, so it’s time to hit the streets, no time to waste. Make sure you’ve got comfortable shoes, the address of your hotel, a map and a fully charged battery in your camera because you’re going to cover some miles, undoubtedly get lost, and certainly take hundreds of photos.
Your senses will be on heightened alert, this is not a subtle city, everything is out there, in your face. Street hawkers approach you to buy their fruit, shoeshine boys grab your shoes, it doesn’t matter that they aren’t leather and don’t need polishing, they can be resoled and before you know it, you have new “4 wheel drive” soles attached to your sandals and are bargaining about the price. Girls offer you doughnuts, cyclos cruise past suggesting a ride, knock-off shops lure you in for a bargain North Face backpack and you’ve only been in the street for 5 minutes! Now you’ve got to cross the road….a road with seemingly no rules and at least 8, no 9, lanes of unruly traffic, it’s one-way isn’t it? Why are there scooters coming from the other direction….? Aaaagh!
OK, calm down, take a deep breath and watch how the locals do it. There’s a trick to it, and that’s just to go for it, walk out confidently, don’t make any sudden moves, keep going and the traffic will swarm around you, opening and passing like a school of fish. Surprisingly you arrive at the other side of the road unharmed and high on the buzz…this city is incredible, you’ve caught the Hanoi bug, it’s the most amazing city and you’re in love, and you’ve only been here for 15 minutes!
For your first hour in Hanoi, you just need to wander the streets of the Ancient Quarter, the historic commercial heart of the city, to get a feel for how it beats. Traditionally this area was made up of 36 trades, each with its own street, though this number may be considered symbolic nowadays, it’s true to say that different streets still specialise in different products. Wander around, get lost, peak into alleyways, you may find yourself in pagoda decoration street, or herbal medicine street, or silk street or kitchen utensils street. Whichever you’re in you’ll notice that everything spills out onto the street itself: life is lived in full view here, shop fronts are open the width of the building with wears displayed out to the pavement and then what pavement is left is used as a scooter park. You’ll find yourself walking in the actual street as there’s no room left on the pavement. The noise of those scooters that aren’t parked but are swarming around you is quite something; everyone is on their horns, permanently. Toot, toot, bimp, bimp and then a mournful cry of a street-seller hawking his or her wares, suddenly drowned out by karaoke and an announcement over the public address system. This isn’t the place for sensitive ears, this is one very noisy city!
Before it gets dark, head out of the Old Town to Hoan Kiem lake and visit Ngoc Son pagoda, over the famous red arched bridge. If you’re too late to go in, never mind, just enjoy a slightly calmer stroll around this central lake. You’ll see all sorts of Hanoi life out enjoying the public space: lovers romantically embracing, old men playing board games, groups of friends playing badminton, children kicking balls, girls in elegant ao dais (the traditional tunic dress) being professionally photographed, friends sharing a joke, teenagers taking selfies – this is another beating heart of the city that cannot be missed, it just pumps a little slower than in the Old Town. If you’re here on the weekend the roads around the lake are closed to traffic making it a genuine sanctuary from the noise and even more lively for people watching.
By now you’re thirsty which means it’s time for a glass (or 3) of bia hoi, a light, fresh draught beer with no preservatives/additives brewed daily in Hanoi. It’s served in green glasses at street-side cafés, sometimes with snacks, sometimes only beer and it’s absurdly cheap. You’re never far from a bia hoi place, they are on practically every street, just look for the sign and the crowd of (mainly) men perched on tiny stools, having a good time. Bia hoi shops are sociable places; you may find yourself chatting to your neighbours and clinking glasses to “mot, hai, ba, zo, hai, ba, zo, ba uong!” (1,2,3, zo! 2,3, zo! 3, drink!)
Hanoi is not a late night city so start looking for a restaurant by 7 pm. With only one evening here I’d say go up high and enjoy the view: eat on the roof terrace of one of the restaurants on Dinh Tien Hoang street overlooking Hoan Kiem lake, such as Cau Go (for delicious Vietnamese food). After dinner relax over a night cap at the classically elegant Sofitel Legend Metropole Hotel for a blast of French colonial history. This hotel is a historical landmark in Hanoi, having hosted Graham Green while writing The Quiet American, Catherine Deneuve while filming Indochine, Jane Fonda, Charlie Chaplin, Mitterrand and Somerset Maugham at important times, among others. It’s one of Asia’s legendary romantic old hotels and the oldest 5 star hotel in the city. Even if you’re on a budget, for the (European) price of a coffee or digestif, you get to soak up the atmosphere of this mythical establishment and enjoy the luxurious beauty of its French colonial architecture.
Take a cyclo back to your hotel for a shortish night, you have to get up early in the morning to make the most of your 24 hours….
Hanoi is so loud, so busy, so hot and steamy (at most times of the year) that to see another side of the city I recommend rising early, for dawn, to appreciate its early morning calm. Wander around Hoan Kiem lake or any other public space/park at 6 am and you’ll see people of all ages taking exercise outside; particularly impressive are the groups of elderly women doing tai chi silently in the morning calm. The city is just waking up and it’s already amazingly busy, but it’s quiet, the scooter horns haven’t started yet! Grab a delicious bowl of pho bo (beef noodle soup) for a typical local early breakfast – served all over the place at street stalls and cafés. This is not the time to have the ubiquitous backpacker-in-Asia breakfast of banana pancake…leave that for another day, elsewhere!
Today you’re going to walk a great deal, you’ve only got about 9 hours left in this most enchanting of cities and there’s plenty to see.
Make the most of the morning cool to pound the pavements and explore some of the vestiges of the French colonial period. Plan a route taking in the Opera House, a beautiful building modelled on the Palais Garnier Paris Opera and the Neo-Gothic St Joseph’s Cathedral, designed to emulate Notre Dame of Paris. The cathedral serves the Catholic minority in Hanoi, and holds mass several times a week at which times you can go inside. At other times it is closed to visitors.
Pho is delicious but with all this walking you’ll probably be hungry again, so continuing on with the French theme head to café Kinh Do at 252 Hang Bong street for croissants, yogurt and coffee. This unimposing local café, decorated with photos of the owner’s family and Catherine Deneuve (from when she was in Hanoi to film Indochine in the early 1990s), has been open for ever (well at least 25 years) serving homemade fresh yogurt and French pastries. If you speak French and you’re lucky, you may get to chat to the proprietor Mr Chi who at age 99 (in 2016) has lived through a century of Vietnam’s turbulent history and likes to talk about it.
Refreshed and ready to hit the tracks, literally, now is the time to see the crazy sight of the main North-South Express train line squeezing through central Hanoi, with houses built right up to the tracks, and people living almost on the railway line. But time is of the essence, so once you’ve stood on the rails and taken your photo, you need to hail a cab to take you to Ho Chi Minh’s mausoleum.
I’d say it should be about 9 am now and depending on your interests, the length of the queue (and the time of year for Uncle Ho goes on holiday once a year to Russia to be re-embalmed around October time) either get in line to shuffle past the embalmed body of Vietnam’s most revered leader or just take some photos outside. You may be lucky and see a changing of the guard. Once done here walk past the grand yellow Presidential Palace to the causeway between Truc Bach lake and West lake. You won’t have time to go around the whole of Ho Tay (West lake) but I suggest going as far as Tran Quoc pagoda in the middle of the causeway to get a great view of this enormous lake. If the pagoda is open, you may want to pop inside, otherwise it’s very photogenic from outside.
Next up, take a taxi to the Temple of Literature, the site of Vietnam’s first university, founded in 1076. This well-preserved complex of pagodas, ponds, gateways and statues, despite getting very crowded as the day goes on, has a lovely calm atmosphere, with its high brick walls muffling some of Hanoi’s crazy bimping horns. Having seen French colonial architecture and the imposing Soviet structure that is Ho Chi Minh’s mausoleum, it’s time to appreciate this important and serene traditional Vietnamese space.
And now it must be time for lunch! My recommendation would be to find a street café serving Bun Cha, scrumptious grilled pork balls, served with rice vermicelli noodles and deep-fried nems, in a vinegary sauce with fresh chopped herbs. It’s a typically Hanoian dish easily spotted on the street by the wafts of fragrant smoke coming off the grills and barbecues set up on the pavements to cook the meat. It was what President Obama ate with Anthony Bourdain in a café opposite my old flat – my go-to lunchtime canteen 20 years ago. For the café to have survived that long and be chosen to serve a President I reckon it’s got to be a pretty damn tasty place to try it! If you too want to eat like a President then take a taxi to Bun Cha Huong Lien, Le Van Huu street, otherwise just follow your nostrils till you find a nearby stall.
After lunch, around 1 pm indulge your poor sore feet with a cyclo ride to Dong Xuan market. Make the most of the relatively relaxing ride because the market is going to be an assault on all your senses…get ready for noises and smells like nothing you’ve experienced before….
Dong Xuan is the biggest market in Hanoi, it’s a wholesale place, selling just about everything and anything, but don’t expect typical tourist souvenirs. While there are a few it’s not the best place for them (streets like Hang Gai in the Old Town are the place for gifts to take back home), what you will see here is manic commerce between wholesellers and shopkeepers. It’s not a particularly friendly place as it’s so busy, expect to be pushed and shoved and be ready to jump out of the way of motorbikes laden with deliveries. Be sensibly aware of your belongings and dive right in. I love a good local market to get the feel of a place and you’ll really see it all here. Exploring the different sections your nose will go into overdrive with the pungent smells of dried fish, fermenting shrimp, traditional medicinal herbs, dried mushrooms, weirdly shaped roots, exotic spices and lots and lots of live fish, turtles, frogs and other creatures. For a less stinky experience find the fruit and veg sections which are colourful and beautifully displayed.
Once you’ve had your dose of this hectic marketplace and while your adrenaline is still in overdrive grab a motorbike taxi, “xe om” for a nerve-wracking ride along the Song Hong dyke road back to your hotel. (If you’re travelling with young kids you’ll probably have to take a regular 4 wheeled taxi as I doubt you’d want your kids all spread out on the back of different scooters). For 4 kms along this road Hanoi has the world’s longest ceramic mosaic, created to celebrate the city’s 1000th birthday in 2010. It depicts different periods in Hanoi’s history in a wonderful, vibrant, colourful and unique (enormously long) piece of public art. (You can see a tiny bit of it at the back right of the photo below).
Having survived that particularly crazy bit of Hanoi traffic you’ll need a drink in a pavement café near your hotel before leaving the city at 4 pm. Depending on your nerves, I suggest nuoc chanh, a delicious freshly squeezed lime juice with sugar, or local coffee, either served with condensed milk or a raw egg, or an icy cold Hanoi beer.
24 hours is nothing in a city like Hanoi, a city with a dramatic history and thousands of years of culture – you can spend weeks or even years exploring it. This is simply a taster of what you can do if limited in time based on my own experiences. I lived in Hanoi for 4.5 years 20 years ago and recently went back for about 5 days reacquainting myself with the city I lost my heart to.
This is my entry for the 24 Hours in…. blogger competition being run by Accor Hotels. This post is in association with Accor Hotels @AccorHotels #AccorHotels24hrs but all suggestions are simply personal suggestions and in no way sponsored.
If you only had 24 hours in your favourite city what would you do?
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