Exploring Hanoi in a day: History, culture & food

Hanoi, being the capital of Vietnam, has so many things for you to see, do and eat; but often travelers don’t spend beyond a day here, as they use the city as a base for exploring the rest of northern Vietnam. So, if you’ve got just 24 hours here, then you will find this perfectly optimized one-day itinerary enjoyable. 

Kick-start your morning with breakfast

While pho is the must-eat while in Hanoi (hello, birthplace!), we suggest you keep this bowl of heaven for lunch time. Instead, indulge in a simple xoi xeo for breakfast – sweet sticky rice with various toppings such as mung bean paste, crispy shallots and pate. Most places that serve this dish also include some kind of meat such as boiled chicken or pork belly, and even boiled or fried quail eggs. 

While xoi can be found served in mobile carts set up around the city’s sidewalks (these often only open for breakfast hours), the absolute best is found at Xoi Yen. Your simple menu here is separated into three parts – the type of rice you want, a variety of toppings, and of course, a drink to go with it. We suggest you order yourself a ca phe sua da to go with it and together, these will give you the right kick to wake you up. 

A Hanoi-style history lesson

Spend the rest of your morning ticking off the famous historical spots of Hanoi

First, the Temple of Literature, a temple built in 1070 to honor Confucius, among other scholars, and respected teachers. It also served as Vietnam’s first national university. As you walk through the courtyards, try to picture yourself way back in time, walking alongside scholars carrying scrolls and having important conversations. You may even come across students coming to pray, seeking luck for their upcoming exams. 

Opening hours: Mon – Sun | 8:00 AM – 6:00 PM

Next – Ba Dinh Square and One Pillar Pagoda, located a brisk 10-minute walk from the Temple of Literature. Ba Dinh Square is where you will find the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum, where the embalmed body of beloved Uncle Ho rests. Ho Chi Minh served as President of Vietnam from 1945-1969 and was a key figure during (relatively) recent war times.

It was under his leadership that Vietnam finally gained independence, after over a 1,000 years of continuously being invaded by foreigners. He holds a special place in the hearts of many Vietnamese and locals come here as early as 5:00 AM to pay their respects.

Opening hours: Mon – Sun | 5:00 AM – 10:00 PM

After that, head to the neighboring One Pillar Pagoda, a small Buddhist temple built between 1028 and 1054 under the reign of Emperor Ly Thai Tong, It was made to resemble a lotus blossom which is why it is supported by a single beam, or the stem, growing out of the pond.

Opening hours: Mon – Sun | 8:00 AM – 6:00 PM

If you look at your watch by the end of this morning tour, it should be around 11:00 AM. Dedicate the next few hours or so to the Imperial Citadel of Thang Long, which served as the seat of power for 13 consecutive centuries following the Le Dynasty. You will find many structures still intact as you step over stones and finger the cracks, picturing what it may have been like to be among the royals back then. 

Opening hours: Tue – Sun | 8:00 AM – 5:00 PM

Time to pho (pun intended)

While you will be able to find pho, or some version of it, served almost at every restaurant, it is widely known that Pho Gia Tryuen serves the best in the land. From the Imperial Citadel, hop on a xe om (motorbike taxi) or whichever transport method you wish, and head to 49 Bat Dan Street.

You may be expecting something fancy due to the popularity, but really it’s just a small, tired looking place. A simple mom and pop shop. And then you will see half of Hanoi queueing up outside for their share of the pho fun. You’re at the right place. 

A bowl of pho has three components – soft and silky rice noodles, a complex yet flavorful broth made with a handful of herbs and vegetables, and a type of meat, typically chicken or beef. You can also opt for a vegetarian version – just repeat after me: Pho chay (fuh chai). Remember to add in any condiments you need to alter the taste and have at it! 

Something a little hard to digest

After lunch, it’s time to head to Hoa Lo Prison. This prison was built during French colonial times and was intended to lock up Vietnamese political prisoners. A guillotine seen within the premises serves as a reminder of the harsh punishment imposed for breaking the rules of the French government.

During the Vietnam War, Hoa Lo housed hundreds of American prisoners of war, who sarcastically nicknamed the place the Hanoi Hilton. Mannequins depict scenes of what life was like inside the prison walls and it was certainly no five star hotel. As you walk through the exhibitions, you can see artifacts collected from these prisoners and read some of their stories. US Presidential Candidate, Senator John McCain, was once a prisoner here as well.

Opening hours: Mon – Sun | 8:00 AM – 5:00 PM

An afternoon walk around the lake

A calming walk around Hoan Kiem Lake will soothe your mind after the haunting visit to Hoa Lo. Hoan Kiem is located by the Old Quarter of Hanoi and surrounding it are plenty of restaurants, bars and shops. Despite the crowd it attracts, the lake is still a place of peace and calm in this otherwise hectic city. 

In the middle of the lake is Ngoc Son Temple, a small Confucian temple that can be reached by a walk through a beautiful scarlet bridge. The scene is so stunning that you may bump into a couple or two posing for their wedding photos with this as their backdrop. The lake also has turtles inside – try spotting one. It’s thought to bring you good luck if you do!

Opening hours: Mon – Sun | 8:00 AM – 6:00 PM

A centuries old tradition

A great way to ease into Hanoi’s nightlife is to watch a Water Puppet show at the Thang Long Water Puppet Theater. Water puppetry plays a significant part in Vietnamese culture and this form of art has been around for 1000s of years. The story goes that it originated in the paddy fields as a way of entertainment when the fields got flooded during monsoon season.  

All kinds of puppets are used – string, hand and shadow to enact stories from Vietnamese folklore pertaining to countryside life. Traditional music accompanies the puppets that dance across the water, skillfully controlled by production crew behind the scenes. 

Opening hours: Mon – Sun | 8:00 AM – 6:00 PM

Get to know the Old Quarter

End the night by exploring Hanoi’s Old Quarter. It is made up of 36 streets which are named after the goods or services the street is popular for. Try and guess what the streets are as you walk through them – you will come across silk street, paper street and silver street to name a few.  

For dinner, let’s have some cha ca. Cha ca is essentially a white fish patty that is seasoned perfectly with dill, turmeric, garlic and ginger. The fish is presented in a sizzling pan (careful, don’t touch!) along with a plate of rice noodles. You are also given peanuts, onions and chilli to mix. This is a favorite among Hanoians and travelers. And in the Old Quarter, there is a whole street dedicated to serving this dish called Cha Ca Street. 

Once you’re full, it’s time for a night out in the Old Quarter. Hanoi has a handful of great bars and clubs, from simple sidewalk establishments serving only beer to fancy cocktail gardens and expensive rooftop clubs. While you can save those for another time, we suggest keep your experience as authentic as possible and join the countless locals at the Bia Hoi Junction at the crossroads of Ta Hien and Pho Luong Ngoc Quyen. 

Many stalls have set up their own makeshift bars with folding tables and child-sized stools. You can munch on a few snacks as you enjoy a cold beer and “mot ha ba dzo!” with the locals. This means “one, two, three, cheers!” and it’s all you need to say to impress one and be invited over to their table. 

So that’s your day in Hanoi. You’ll be pretty tired at the end of it, with all the walking and information you take in. Which is why it would be great if you can extend your time and spread these activities over multiple days. Plus, you’ll undoubtedly make friends at that Bia Hoi Junction that you’ll want to meet again. 

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