Vietnam’s Hanoi: what to see on a four-day trip

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Recently, I was lucky enough to spend nine days in Vietnam – a trip full of incredible sights, sounds and smells (as anyone who’s been will tell you, the food is amazing!) – and that allowed us to travel from the north of the country to the south, stopping off in the capital, Hanoi, Hoi An (not far from the coast), and Ho Chi Minh city (formerly Saigon) in the south.  It was a great trip that I’d recommend you take if you are afforded the opportunity.

However, nine days split between three stops meant only a small amount of time in each one.  We chose to spend four nights in Hanoi as we knew that there was a lot to do here, plus things to visit within a few hours of the city – and although it meant squeezing a lot into every day, we found that it was possible to make a four-day trip work for us.

Here’s what we did:

Day 1

Old Hanoi

If you’re coming from Europe or the USA, you’ll have had a long flight and may be arriving early in the morning.  My advice would be to catch up on a few hours’ sleep and then head to the old part of Hanoi for your first taste of the city.  

To reach it, you’ll first have to navigate the area’s narrow streets, picking your way through the local delights.  On every street are stalls selling various different trinkets, women cooking a variety of weird and wonderful food in steel pots, mopeds (lots of them!) zooming here there and everywhere and pedal bikes laden down with flowers, fruit and sometimes even chickens.  

It’s a hotpotch of different experiences – you can never say that your initiation into Vietnam is a slow and sedate one!  

Hoan Kiem Lake and the Ngoc Son Temple

The oldest part of the city buffers the Hoan Kiem Lake and a walk around this is a slightly more relaxing experience which takes you away from the busy traffic.  You’ll pass the Turtle Tower, perched on a little island in the lake, a spot where you’ll want to stop and take photos.

You’ll then reach the Ngoc Son Temple (Temple of the Jade Mountain).   This is the first of several temples you’ll undoubtedly want to visit in Hanoi; for a small fee, you go across the red bridge, (which is beautiful at night as it is lit up), with its colourful gates and you’ll discover a few temples and the pungent aromas of incense burning in pots.

Egg coffee and beer!

If you need some refreshment, you can then head back into the old town and try out one of the numerous cafes here. If you fancy trying the Vietnamese egg coffee (a thick, extremely rich and sweet blend of coffee, egg yolk and condensed milk) there are several cafes selling this (as well as egg with rum, egg with beer and egg with chocolate)!  We went to Café Giang – recommended by the concierge in our hotel – a popular place with a range of different drinks to try.

Or if you fancy a cold beer, wander down “Beer Street” (Ta Hien Street) where there are a scattering of bars, as well as restaurants serving food (there are also loads of other restaurants around the lake and in other areas in the old sector where you can sample the delicacies).

St. Joseph’s cathedral

Around this part of the city, specifically on Nha Chung Street, you’ll also find the 19th century St Joseph’s cathedral – a catholic cathedral, the oldest church in the city and a reminder of Vietnam’s French colonial past.  Also a buzzy area, there are plenty of places for a pitstop here as well.

Day 2

The West Lake and the Tran Quoc Pagoda

Head to the West Lake and the Tran Quoc Pagoda.  This is free to enter and is busy with both tourists and locals that go to pray at the temples. 

Despite this, it’s a really peaceful area to wander around with music playing in the background and more incense wafting in the air. The pagoda is beautiful – when you’re up close, you can see small buddhas sitting in its shelves all the way to top; from further away, you get an excellent view of it back across the lake.  

The Ho Chi Minh complex

Then if you’re up for a walk (around 30 minutes), take the path around the side of the lake towards the Ho Chi Minh complex. When you leave the lake side, you’ll find another temple – Quan Thanh – this is worth the small admission fee to quickly explore.

Depending on time you can then stop off at the Ho Chi Minh complex – a large communist style complex to honour the former President, Ho Chi Minh.  

A visit here is a must – there’s a museum where you can learn about the life of the revered leader and a mausoleum where you can see him lying in state (note, however, that you have to be there for about 10am if you want to do this – the last viewing time is 11am and there are long, although fast-moving, queues to get through; the museum shuts at 12.00, reopening again at 2pm in the afternoon).

We visited both.  I have to say that I hadn’t initially planned to go to see Ho Chi Minh lying in state – it wasn’t something that I thought I’d ever want to do – but once there, I was curious to see how something like this worked.  

And for me, I think I found seeing his actual body of less interest than the sheer reverence and worship that is afforded to one individual – who died almost 50 years ago: there are guards dressed all in white standing outside the mausoleum, guards ushering people into line and yet more guards flanking the coffin.  

When you consider how much money and effort is expended in keeping Ho Chi Minh lying in state (apparently his body has to be flown back to Russia once a year for a protracted period of time to allow him to be re-embalmed), it’s quite incredible.

The museum is also worth stopping off in – this is more about Ho Chi Minh himself than the historical events of the conflicts in Vietnam, but there’s great learning to be had here and some great displays.

Before you leave, you should also wander through the complex – you can see the One Pillar Pagoda and take a look at the well-tended grassy areas in probably one of the only traffic-free areas in Hanoi.  

The Flag Tower and Vietnam Military Museum

You can then walk on to the 19th century Flag Tower (P.Dien Bien) – a striking landmark to look up at – and the Vietnam Military History Museum (this is also closed over lunchtime).  

There are a variety of rooms in the museum with information on the conflicts the Vietnamese fought with the French and the Americans; most, although not all, have English translations.  You can also see some of the equipment (some pretty ruthless) that was used in the Vietnam War.  

Outside, there are aircraft (including the wreckage of planes), tanks, bombs and missiles to wander through and you can walk onto the platform of the Flag Pole and climb to the top.

The Temple of Literature

Another short walk will then take you to the Temple of Literature or Temple of Confucius – thus dedicated to learning and study.  

This is a bigger complex, with temples and courtyards linked by pathways, one of which takes you around a small square lake.  It’s another nice peaceful area to walk around with benches in places where you can take a rest if you need it.

The Hanoi Sofitel Legend Metropole hotel and the Opera House

From here, walk back to the city centre.  After a day of walking, you’ll no doubt be pretty tired, so you could treat yourself to a drink in Sofitel Legend Metropole Hotel. This is a stunning French period building, another reminder of the country’s colonial past.  

Being in the posher part of town (look around the corner and you’ll find the likes of Prada), it’s much more expensive for a drink than other places, but has some outside seating and is a nice place for short stop (the fact that this hotel is more upscale was demonstrated to us when we were there by the fact that it was being prepared for the imminent summit between the US’ President Trump and North Korea’s Kim Jong-Un).

Finish up with a quick look at Hanoi’s opera house – another French colonial building – a few minutes’ walk from the Sofitel Metropole.

Day 3

Ha Long Bay

Our third day was a trip to Ha Long Bay, a few hours’ drive from the capital.  For more information on our day, see my earlier post.  However, for anyone who has not read this, I’ll just say, this is a must: we had a fantastic day out admiring the stunning scenery that the bay is so famous for – it’s beautiful and magical and definitely worth the cost and time spent getting there.

Day 4 

The Hao Lo Prison

Mop up anything you’ve not had the chance to do on your final day.  For us, this was a visit to Hao Lo Prison, or “Maison Centrale” (otherwise dubbed the “Hanoi Hilton” by American prisoners) – the prison that was once used by the French colonists to imprison revolutionary fighters and then again for American soldiers captured during the Vietnam War.  

The prison is pretty horrific to be honest – as you wander through the cells, there are photographs, information and artefacts (including a guillotine) that demonstrate the sheer brutality of the French colonial period; this contrasts with the happy smiling photos of American soldiers that we’re told prove how well they were treated during their imprisonment.  The ways these things are presented give you food for thought after you leave the prison.

Other things you could also do on this last day include a visit to the Ethnology Museum – we didn’t have time for this, but heard consistently good reviews of it – or taking time out to experience a traditional Vietnamese massage in one of the ubiquitous parlours offering these. 

A water puppet show

Finally, you should end your stay by booking to see a performance at one of the water puppet shows in the city.  We went to a show – just under an hour in duration – at the Thang Long theatre.  It’s worth booking in advance as then you can buy a seat towards the front – which is useful as the puppets are quite small and it gives you a much better vantage point.

We loved the show.  It’s an entertaining way to experience another Vietnamese tradition – it dates back to the 11th century and the entertainment that the Vietnamese put together when the paddy fields had flooded.  

And when you consider what goes into these shows (according to my guide book, the puppets each apparently only last for 3-4 months and are operated by skilled performers behind a screen standing in cold water in waders) you realise how much work goes into this tradition.  Another must!

I hope this short run-down of things to do has helped and shows that it is possible to visit Hanoi for just a few days; you will have to cram a lot in and be a bit selective (and you might be a bit tired when you leave!), but you will not be disappointed. We’re already thinking about when we can go back!

We used the Lonely Planet’s guide to Vietnam on our trip which gave a good overview of different areas of the country, including Hanoi. Other guide books to look at in preparation for your trip include the Marco Polo Pocket Guide and the DK Eyewitness Travel Guide Vietnam

We stayed in the Hanoi Emerald Waters Trendy hotel, which we found to be really good value for money given its location in the old town.

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