If you couldn’t tell by my first impressions, I fell in love with Hanoi from the moment I arrived. It’s vibrant, energetic, colourful, and so, so cultured. I met a really nice Brit in the airport from Bangkok a few hours before and we and our Gluttunous Selves decided to take on the town together for most of the time.
5 days in Hanoi (and surrounding areas) is enough to gather a great impression, but I wish I was able to stay so, so much longer. It’s one of the very few places where I’ve thought about it every single day, wishing I can go back ASAP. I hope that through this post, you’ll make your way there and your 5 days in Hanoi will make you fall in love with Vietnam as much as I did.
Hanoi is one of the few places which hits you like a bunch of bricks; Hanoi lets you know who it is the moment you step out of the taxi. From the chaos of its motorbikes, to its coffee culture, to its street food, to its rich, tumultuous history, Hanoi is a city dripping in culture that allows you have a peek into the lively Vietnamese lifestyle.
Day 1: Old Quarter
The Old Quarter is the hip, central part of Hanoi where coffee shops and cafes galore. A funny thing about here, in particular, is how every street is unofficially named after the items they sell. There are streets known as “fabric street.” “metalwork street” and “electronic street,” because they seem to exclusively sell whatever they’re named after.
- Hoàn Kiếm Lake – Filled with street performers, food vendors, and fountains, you can also reach Ngoc Son Temple by the famous red bridge.
- Thang Long Water Puppet Theatre – Get these tickets in advance! Explore Vietnam’s history and culture through the traditional theatricality of water puppets
- St. Joseph Cathedral – The oldest church in Hanoi, French Colonialism rears its head in this 1886 cathedral, which is located on the central Nha Tho Street
- Đồng Xuân Market – A big, bustling market which sells everything from fake iPhones to frogs to snack on. If it’s not here, you won’t find it anywhere!
- Eat and Drink your Heart Out – The best thing about Vietnam is that you can get quality food for dirt-cheap. My friend and I got a full meal, including beers, for just $4 total. Yes, really. Old Quarter is where you can get the best of the best of it too. If you’re interested in the unique Vietnamese Coffee, check out my guide to it where you can find some of the best shops in this area!
Day 2: Day trip to Halong Bay
For just $35, you’ll get a bus to pick you up at your hotel to drive 3.5 hours to one of the 7th Natural Wonders of the World: Ha Long Bay. This unreal site consists of thousands of limestone isles dotted along Ha Long (which translates to Descending Dragon) and magnificently ornate caves on the side. I went with GoAsiaDayTrip and they provided transport, delicious local food, a cave tour and even kayaking on the bay! It was an unbelievable experience being able to kayak on what seemed like another planet. The water was tranquil, save for a few fluttering ripples. I feel like the overwhelming sense of peace and silence in the Bay matched with my heartbeat and conscious at the time, as we were perfectly in sync.
Day 3: Hanoi Centre
I spent this day doing nothing but exploring, eating the incredible (and incredibly cheap food), and sipping its sweet yet powerful coffee. Just a quick word of advice: don’t drink five Vietnamese coffees in two hours. I had the jitters for hours and I’m sure I saw my soul leave my body.
- French Quarter – see the extent of French colonialism in Vietnam through its architecture. If you’re tired of sitting on 6-inch/15cm plastic chairs when eating, they have restaurants here with proper seating. No longer will your legs be packed in like sardines!
- Thành Phố Hà Nội – Stick with the street food and you get one of the best meals in Hanoi. For just $1 you get a massive, decadent bowl of Pho Bo, or beef soup.
- Hoa Lo Prison – which was a famous prison for American soldiers during the Vietnam War (or as they call it, the American War). Hoa Lo is especially known for hosting the famous POW and Republican Senator, John McCain. The American soldiers were apparently treated really well by the Vietnamese; Hoa Lo was commonly referred to as the Hanoi Hilton. The same can’t be said for its previous prisoners; Vietnamese Communist rebels against the French colonialists were continually tortured but managed to remain resilient.
- The strange feeling of visiting a country on the opposite end of history textbook education never settles. From Cuba to Vietnam, hearing the other side’s perspective is such a unique privilege to have, but it’s so important to know both sides before taking a position. Hearing of the daily struggle of the Hanoians was far more heart-wrenching than I expected.
- Hồ Quốc Tử Giám – Hanoi has many lakes, but this was my favourite, due to it being Lunar New Year. Filled with Chinese markets ranking from calligraphy to dumplings, walk around the whole lake and view the Temple of Literature, in the centre of the lake, from all angles.
- Ho Chi Minh Museum – A museum dedicated to Ho Chi Minh, a prominent North Vietnamese figure in fighting against the US during the Vietnam War. The Vietnamese capital of Saigon was renamed to Ho Chi Minh City in his honour
Day 4: Tam Coc
This very last-minute day-trip was a major highlight of my trip. For just $25 with my hostel, Backy Poshtel ($2 a night!), a bus will pick you up from your hotel. You’ll then go about an hour south to take a boat along the river and bike alone the rice paddies. It was a dark, gloomy, and dramatic day, which made it perfect for photos. There aren’t a list of things to do, per se; just these two things will satisfy you for the day since they’re also exhausting.
Day 5: Last Bits of Hanoi
So today’s your flight and you’re feeling a bit glum. Before you take an Uber motorcycle to the airport (yes, really), be sure to tick off those last few must-sees of Hanoi.
- Cua Bac Church – A stunning, vibrant yellow Catholic Church in North Hanoi. They have mass in Vietnamese every Sunday.
- Trấn Quốc Pagoda – The oldest Buddhist temple in Hanoi, coming out at around 1450 years old! You can burn an incense, or bring gifts such as food or small amounts of money to give to Buddha. Despite these temples being popular with tourists, real Buddhists visit these just as often to worship.
- Quán Hủ tiếu Nem Cuốn – The best meal of my entire trip was my last one in Vietnam. It was a noodle dish with peanuts, pork, noodles, and herbs…and this sauce. I have no idea what the sauce was but it was a rich, umami, yet lemony heaven. If someone recognises the dish in the last pic below, can you let me know what it was? I’m dying to have it again.
Hanoi was one of few where I became somewhat emotional on my last night; it was such a beautiful place and I was so incredibly grateful to have been able to experience it. I always knew I’d love Vietnam, I never knew what it was that drew me to it. Now I know; it’s the good-hearted people, the immense backpacker community, the food, the coffee, the sights, and the history.
5 days in Hanoi is far too short for a place as electric as this. Vietnam is a truly magnificent country that made me fall in love with it more and more each second. I wish you guys were able to see the stupid smile I had on my face the whole time. Even writing this is making me terribly nostalgic, and hungry. If you’re ever in Asia, Vietnam is absolutely a must-see, I hope you love it as much as I do.