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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Good one day itinerary for Hanoi. You did a lot. We spent 5 days there and still didn’t do everything we wanted to.
What a frenetic 24 hours, Hanoi sounds marvellous. Vietnam is moving up my list
You have described Hanoi so vividly and laid out a great itinerary to follow if you only have a short amount of time! Thank you. Tucked away for when I finally get there!
It’s been almost exactly 10 years since I’ve been to Hanoi. I need to go back. I thought the food there was the best of anywhere in Vietnam.
I really liked Hanoi, but it is an intense experience. We periodically stopped into cafes to escape the heat, noise and smells and to regroup. We decided that the safest way to cross the street was to find an senior citizen who was crossing and walk parallel to her. If she’s been crossing safely for that long she must know the tricks!
I’m so please you recognised the specifically Vietnamese atmosphere in my writing Lisa. We didn’t get to Nha Trang this time though I used to go quite often 20 years ago!!
Wow, thanks Erin for your lovely words! I think you’re right that in this case it’s good you can’t smell the photos but I often wish you could!!! (Actually it would be good to smell some bun cha grilling right now!)
Oh my gosh Phoebe – this post is visceral, evocative, inspiring and informative. I felt like I was on the whirlwind right with you – maybe glad that the interwebs don’t have smell ability yet for the market part, but I would have gone there too! Love a good market. Love the mix of history, culture and architecture here. Would love to visit Hanoi! Cheers and thanks for linking with #FarawayFiles, Erin
You have captured the fun atmosphere and craziness of Hanoi perfectly here Lou! I also would be petrified attempting to cross the road. I have only visited Nha Trang and Danang but I would love to return to Vietnam to explore more as you have with your family. Thanks for linking to #MondayEscapes
Thanks Corinne, we really did!
Total favourite place of mine too Keri
Still one of my favourites short city stops, love this place (and beers on little plastic chairs – so many memories!) #MondayEscapes
Phoebe, Everything you describe about Hanoi is exactly why I love it. I love the noise, the chaos. I even love dodging the bikes! Great article. So glad you had a wonderful trip to Vietnam.
Funny that you loved kebabs in Hanoi! I think I remember seeing one place selling them but they certainly weren’t on my radar!!! Now pho….that’s another story!
Thanks David :p
Absolutely Rhonda, we didn’t actually squash this into one day either, I’m all for spending longer in a place, this is just a guide to hat can be done if time is of the essence.
I loved Hanoi! It is one of my favourite places in South-east Asia. If I had 24 hours in Hanoi I’d try to find my favourite Kebab stall guy (ridiculous, I know) and drink some fresh beers sitten near the crossing. And eat pho, so much pho.
Hanoi was one of my favourite places in Vietnam despite the in-your-face aspects. Just a fantastic city to explore and so much to eat and drink. Would happily go back! You’ve covered it all really well 🙂 #wkendtravelinspiration
I’m sure it is busier than 2006, and it’s certainly waaaaaay busier than 1996 when I was last there! I’m amazed to hear about the rice paddies outside the mausoleum, that’s bizarre and I can imagine that it looked “priceless” as you say.
Quite an active 24 hours in Hanoi. I think I could use your activities as a guide for spending a bit more time than a day in Hanoi.
I’m glad I transported you to lovely Hanoi Clare!
Thanks for your kind words Cathy.
Thanks for your lovely words Nell.
Thanks Oncle Ho!!!
The thing about crossing the road now Catherine is that there are loads of cars and buses and many more motorbikes, so it’s not just mainly bicycles like in 1993, so yes it’s pretty alarming, but somehow it just works.
Feel exhausted just reading about your 24 hours. Well done you. I shall never forget crossing the road in Hanoi in 1993. Now it is no doubt much more terrifying. I’m glad your sentimental journey was such a success.
Brilliant it was to go back and brilliant post, hope you’ll win!!
I love the schedule of eating and drinking later on, and pounding the pavements in the cooler morning! This is a wonderful post – so nicely written, and the pace of your agenda makes 24 hours even in a city as hectic as Hanoi, seem completely do-able. Good luck with the competition! xx #Citytripping and #FarawayFiles
This is such a fantastic introduction to the city – I feel swept there, all the bustle and noise and excitement and colour… all the reasons I’d love to visit Vietnam and Hanoi. The thought of crossing the street still mildly terrifies me. Such a great post, I feel like I was rushing alongside you, drinking it all in. Thanks for linking up with #citytripping
What a busy, sense-exploding time you had! I have to visit Hanoi one day. You’ve really captured the fun, crazy, noisy, exotic feel of the city. I love the way you mix up your culture with foodie and drink experiences – definitely a traveller after my own heart! Thanks for linking this to #FarawayFiles – you’ve made me feel very faraway today, in the best possible way.
Absolutely loved Hanoi as much as you did Phoebe. It looks a lot busier than when I was there in 2006 but still retains its charm. The Uncle Ho experience is very interesting. When we were there the front lawn was rice paddies with people tending to them wearing the iconic hats. The imagery was priceless. Thanks for sharing Hanoi with us on #farawayfiles
Yes, that would be a very busy 24 hours (though totally do-able), luckily for us we did this and more over about 5 days! 🙂
Rosie, we did all this and more, but over about 5 days in total, not just 24 hours!! This is just what one COULD do if pressed for time. I’m glad we weren’t so rushed and could take it at a more leisurely pace. Rome is definitely another city that deserves more than 24 hours, but sometimes that’s all we have. I hope you get back there one day.
Ruth, we did pretty much all this and A LOT more but over 5 days, not squashed into one day! I bet Shanghai is crazy too, I haven’t been there.
Thanks for your lovely words Lisa! You must try and get there one day it’s such a fabulous place.
I hope you have more than 24 hours in Hanoi as it’s so worth spending longer…this is only an idea of what you can do if pressed for time. You’ll love it for sure!
I’m so glad this brought back good memories, you’re right the food is amazing, and the hecticness becomes weirdly appealling!
You must go then EE! You’ll love it.
Ive never been but I would love to go. Looks like a busy 24 hours
Oh I so want to go and visit and you have just whetted my appetite even further.
Great article. Some of the descriptions took me right back to being stood on that crowded street in the old quarter. I loved Hanoi. It was one of my favourite places in Vietnam. The food was incredible!! It’s definitely a hectic city though, but kind of enjoyable once you’re used to it.
Looking forward to visiting Hanoi next July and this has given me a great idea of what to do and see when we are there! Looks like we are going to love it!! #wanderfulwednesday
Wow! Fantastic post! It made me feel as though I was visiting the city myself. I have to go there one day.
Nice account of your time in Hanoi. You guys did a lot in a short period of time. Your descriptions made me think about Shanghai. I remember the sea of scouters and motorbikes every time I took a peek thru the window. #citytripping
I am exhausted just reading all that you fitted in to your 24 hours in what sounds like a fabulously frenetic city. We did Rome in 24 hours and whilst I loved it, my feet didn’t and actually I would love to go back to do it at a more leisurely pace!