You can do a lot in Hanoi in 48 hours. But to see most important sights would take a week or more. With so many other desirable destinations nearby (Ha Long Bay and Sa Pa to mention but a couple), it’s not surprising that many visitors allow only a couple of days to get to grips with Vietnam’s capital city. With such a short time, it’s necessary to trim down our must-see and must-do lists to the bare essentials, but even then if you want to experience a thousand years in two days, you’ll need to get your skates on.
Start the day by walking to Hoan Kiem Lake (if your hotel isn’t too far away) and then walking or jogging round the lake. You’ll find you have plenty of company both on the lakeside path and in shady plots where groups practice t’ai chi or qi gong to prepare the body for the day. Cross over the The Huc Bridge to look around the Ngoc Son Temple, located on a small island in the northeast corner of the lake, before wandering north into the maze of streets that constitutes Hanoi’s Old Quarter. Map in hand, take an improvised stroll around, or for a guided tour, check out Hanoi’s Old Quarter.
You’re spoiled for choice for lunch. For something cheap and cheerful, head for any branch of Gecko, which serves both Vietnamese and Western food, or for a more indulgent experience, check out Green Tangerine, which serves intriguing fusion dishes in a delightful setting. A cheaper choice for international cuisine is the Café de Paris.
After lunch, head down to the Opera House on the western fringe of the French Quarter and admire the classic lines of colonial architecture. There’s more colonial architecture on display at the Hoa Lo Prison Museum, but you’re more likely to be interested in what took place inside in bygone days. Allow at least an hour or two for a leisurely look at the Temple of Literature, but be prepared for crowds as this is probably the city’s most popular attraction. Finish the day with a good old belly-laugh at the Thang Long Water Puppet Theatre.
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The first activity today is unusual—a visit to see a preserved corpse. The Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum is only open in the morning, so join the long lines of emotional Vietnamese paying respects to the national hero. Ho Chi Minh’s House gives an insight into the man himself, while the Hanoi Citadel offers glimpses into the city’s past dynasties, though most of the site was razed during the French occupation.
For lunch, treat yourself to a can’t-miss dining experience at Quan An Ngon on Phan Dinh Phung, housed in a lovely colonial building. After lunch, head for West Lake, where you can burn off a few calories by walking or cycling round the lake’s 17km perimeter path. If you’re feeling lazy, hop on one of the electric cart rides that make tours of the lake, beginning at Tran Quoc Pagoda. If it happens to be a rainy day, don’t despair, as the Museum of Ethnography is by far the most captivating of all the city’s museums. Before heading back to your hotel, sample bia hoi, Vietnam’s light draft beer; you’ll find it at Bia Hoi Corner.