An easy weekend trip from Hong Kong, Hanoi is chock-full of character. The main draw for most tourists is the Old Quarter, and for good reason: the more than 2,000-year-old neighborhood is home to buzzing streams of scooters, delicious grilled fish, lakeside views and colonial French architecture.
Each street is dedicated to the goods that it sells; find China bowls on Bat Su; roasted fish on Cha Ca; sandals on Hai Tuong; bamboo lattices on Hang Cot and silk dyes on Hang Dao. The winding, notoriously difficult to navigate streets are a visual treat; craftsmen tinker away in the shade and tiny, inconceivably strong old women hawk overflowing carts of fruit, donuts and even ceramics. It’s a somewhat familiar scene in Asian cities, but the incredible French architecture, shady streets and lush foliage set it apart.
It’s one of those places where you’ll find the best damned dinner in a dilapidated centuries-old building, or stumble upon live music down an alleyway up three flights of barely-lit stairs. Though far from experts, having only spent a weekend in Hanoi, we managed to come away with a handful of suggestions worthy of an introductory trip to this lovely city.
If you only have a weekend, you can comfortably walk your way from site to site in the Old Quarter. The city is pretty flat, but the walk can get quite hot in the summertime. Start on the northern end near West Lake, where you’ll find the vibrant Tran Quoc Pagoda, which dates back to the 6th Century.
Before setting off into the Old Quarter, take a peek at the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum, which towers above a sprawling lawn of Ba Dinh Square, where Ho Chi Minh read Vietnam’s Declaration of Independence in 1945. There’s no shade, so definitely smear on some sunscreen before heading here.
Inside, rules are strict; you can sign up to take a morning tour and see the embalmed Ho Chi Minh, but no pictures allowed. Further down the road is the glowing mustard-yellow Presidential Palace, which is built in a French Beaux-Arts style. In contrast, the former leader’s humble stilt house stands small next door.
From here, you can walk for about 15 minutes till you find yourself in the Old Quarter. Within just a few blocks of each other, you’ll find the striking neo-gothic St. Joseph’s Cathedral, which was built in 1886, the Hanoi Opera House, which still hosts symphony performances, and the Ancient Citadel.
While you’re wandering around, you’re sure to pass by the picturesque Hoan Kiem Lake, or the “Lake of the Returned Sword,” where the Turtle Tower and Ngoc Son Temple stand tall amid the waters.
Outside of the Old Quarter, you can catch a glimpse of the Long Bien Bridge, which was finished in 1903 and designed by Gustave Eiffel (guess what else this guy designed!). The bridge is pedestrian-only and riddled with potholes, but it’s worth the trek for some excellent views of the Red River.
Eating in Hanoi boils down to a few key dishes: Bahn Mi, delicious hoagie-like sandwiches that are fair-game any time of day; Pho, obviously the steamy beef noodle soup with lots of spicy add-ons; Cha Ca; the famous fried fish that cooks up in a pan and fresh greens right under your nose; Banh Cuon; rice pancakes that are rolled up with mushrooms and ground pork; and Bun Cha, a vermicelli noodle dish with pork, pickled veggies and a sweet broth.
We ate street food whenever and wherever we saw it, but also decided to spring for a meal at the Sofitel Metropole Legend’s famous Spices restaurant. We had the obligatory spring rolls and pho, but the most expensive dinner was certainly not the best. Our favorite spots were the legendary Cha Ca La Vong, where fried fish is the dish of the day, every day (look for No. 14, as every restaurant on the street goes by the same name), and West Lake Restaurant, where we had a lakeside seat, lightly fried garlic shrimp and frosty Halida beers.
Other notable cafes we frequented include Matilda’s and Hanoi House near St. Joseph’s Cathedral. Both had great service and unique vibes.
By the end of the day we were so tired, that we couldn’t really bring ourselves to venture farther than our hotel. Luckily, The Sofitel Plaza is home to Summit Lounge, one of the best bars in the city. Not because the drinks are so exceptional (they’re good, but way overpriced), but because it’s a rooftop spot with an incredible view of West Lake and the city.
Since we only had time to visit the most landmark spots, next time we hope to poke around a little deeper. The Perfume Pagoda—a Buddhist complex built into terraced limestone cliffs—Bat Trang Ceramics Village, Le Mat Snake Village, Hao Lo Prison and the Temple of Literature are on our radar when it comes time for another hop to Hanoi.
Where to Stay
The Hotel Sofitel Metropole Legend is by far the most notable hotel in Hanoi, but the historical significance comes with a steep price tag. We may be biased since we had a good experience, but you can opt for the Sofitel Plaza instead, which boasts excellent views of West Lake in a more modern environment, or the well-reviewed Essence Hotel Hanoi that’s smack in the middle of the Old Quarter.
When to Go
The best time to visit is autumn (Sept-November, particularly November). Alternatively, you can try March-April, but the chance of rainfall is higher.
US$1 = VND21,276.60 (Vietnamese Dong), which means US$5 is about VND100,000.