Hanoi is one great place to kick off your journey in Vietnam, whether you’re headed to Halong Bay or northwards to Sapa, or down south to Hue, Danang or Ho Chi Minh City.
If you’ve only got 48 hours in Hanoi to see the city, here’s what you should do.
In the morning, head out to the Ho Chi Minh mausoleum to pay your respects to Vietnam’s most revered man. It’s a 20min walk from the old quarter, and I passed by Lenin Park and his statue along the way. There can be a bit of a queue at the mausoleum, but it moves quickly and you will find yourself in this stadium-like area, where soldiers will eyeball you as you are marched past Ho’s body. No photos are allowed and you are kept quite far away from the actual body. Pro tip: don’t carry a big bag if you don’t want to check it in, and no water bottles either.
Exiting the stifling mausoleum, you can explore the rest of the grounds known as the Ho Chi Minh Vestige in the Presidential Palace area, which includes the humble tree house where Ho once lived, the other buildings he held court in, as well as a display of the cars he once owned.
Also on the grounds is the large white lotus-inspired Ho Chi Minh museum which is a 3 storey building with an oddly curated mix of Ho Chi Minh memorabilia as well as Vietnam’s checkered history. And for those who like their temples there is the one-pillar pagoda, popular with couples as it’s believed to bless its believers with fertility.
About 10mins away is Van Mieu, also known as the Temple of Literature, which is a pretty big temple compound which was once a school itself. It is particularly popular among Vietnamese students who go there to pray for good results, and if you are there at the same time I was, you will see lots of graduating students in Ao Dai and traditional garb with giant bunches of flowers taking photos on the grounds and giving thanks to the gods for their good results! There is a large park surrounding the temple, so you can spend a fair bit of time appreciating the architecture and culture here.
If you’re interested in museums and history, there are a couple in Hanoi; in between the Ho Chi Minh Museum and Van Mieu lie the Army Museum and the Fine Arts Museum which you can drop in on between your visits. Other names that stand out in most of the reviews I’ve read are the Museum of Ethnology (which is about half an hour outside of the Old Quarter, you can take a bus there though) as well the small but well curated Women’s Museum. I didn’t visit these on this trip – I spent most of my time sitting around and just chillaxing.
Back at the old quarter, check out Dong Xuan Market, Hanoi’s largest wholesale market which is 4 floors of all sort of goods. If it’s a weekend, check out the Dong Xuan Night Market in the evening, where the entire road is blocked off and lined with stalls selling everything and anything you can think of. There is also a whole array of food stalls as well so you can have your dinner there as well.
Take a morning stroll around the green waters of Hoan Kiem Lake with the many morning exercisers. It’s a nice peaceful spot amidst this jam-packed city and where the Vietnamese like to hang out, so it is a great place to people-watch. I saw a million couples taking their wedding pictures when I was there! Look out for the rare giant turtles in the lake, one surfaced in 2010 and caused quite a stir.
Still at the lake, the iconic red Huc Bridge connects you to Ngoc Son Temple, where you can also see a mummified version of the giant turtle (these are BIG turtles), and you can also see also the turtle tower Thap Rua in the Northern part of the lake.
You can do your souvenir shopping at the shops at the many little shops around Hoan Kiem lake. Also in the vicinity is the dark tall St Joseph’s Cathedral, one of the oldest churches in Vietnam.
The Thang Long Water Puppet Theatre is also right next to the lake, where bus loads of tourists check out the traditional water puppet show in the afternoons and evenings. Buy your tickets early, they tend to sell out, though if you are on your own you could luck out with a last minute ticket like I did. The puppet show itself is a bit of an acquired taste and has mixed reviews, here’s my review on this bit of tradition.
You can take a walk around the Old Quarter and the French Quarter just to get a feel of Hanoi’s vibrancy. Take your time to explore Hanoi’s 36 streets, each named for the wares they used to sell on those streets. While it is not strictly followed these days, you do get the sense of that there are distinct lanes for specific items. Intersperse your walk with little stopovers at cafes and coffee shops to enjoy a cup of traditional Vietnamese drip coffee, and to cap off your busy weekend, grab a cheap beer at your nearest bia hoi and people-watch with the locals as night falls.
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