Most travelers to the capital of Vietnam with a booked package tour, but some only book flights and accommodations in advance while others prefer to go with the flow. It doesn’t matter which plan they have, my clients often ask me seriously how should they maximize their day in Hanoi, which I am very much happy to answer. If you happen to have the same kind of question in mind, here are my 10 tips to maximize a day in this exciting city.
1. Be an Early Bird to See Flag Raising Ceremony
It’s always interesting to see a city from dawn, flag raising ceremony is a great way to say good morning Hanoi. If the sunrise is what you would love to see when you are on the beach, then the flag raising ceremony in the heart of one of the last five communist countries in the world, should be something you want to rise early for.
Vietnam’s flag raising is performed every day at 6.00am in front of the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum on Ba Dinh Square. Walking to the melody of the song “Move under the military flag” from behind the mausoleum are 34 soldiers, representing the first 34 soldiers of the Vietnam People’s Army. After the signal, Vietnam’s flag flies up during the melody of the National Anthem. From the square, you can walk north to see the West Lake and Truc Bach Lake, here you will see more local people jogging or practicing tai chi.
2. Eat The Famous Pho Bo (beef noodle soup)
Pho Bo, or beef noodle soup, is considered Vietnam’s most famous noodle dish, which is served in almost every hotel during breakfast. You are probably happy with a bowl of Pho you got at your hotel before, but having Pho at a traditional Pho restaurant in the Old Quarter on Hanoi is totally a different experience.
Even the Vietnamese say that Hanoi is the best place to try the best Vietnamese Pho, because traditional Pho restaurants in Hanoi have their know-hows to make their broth rich for many years. You will see that people are lining up outside of the famous Pho Bo place, which serves only one dish – Pho Bo.
3. Sip on an Egg Coffee
One of the huge agriculture export in Vietnam is coffee, the country is actually the world’s second largest coffee exporter. Beside special weasel coffee, Vietnamese often surprise world travelers with the balance of sweetened condensed milk and the bitterness of their Robusta coffee. Hanoian even takes Vietnamese coffee to a higher level, and the specific type of local coffee here you must try is egg coffee.
Hidden behind what the family calls “Egg Coffee Lane”, Café Giang is a favorite coffee place for both foreigners and local people. It’s also where Mr. Giang and his family have been serving their authentic egg coffee made of the unchanged combination of well-whisked chicken egg yolk, Vietnamese coffee, sweetened condensed milk, butter, and cheese. I would say that you will be surprise with how good it’s is, think of a liquid tiramisu, like a good desert after a bowl of Pho Bo, right?
4. Tour the Temple of Literature
Temple of Literature is one of the most popular tourist attractions and the most revered temple complex in Hanoi, so you may feel a bit touristy here. But the temple itself is a tranquil and sprawling place, it consists of the Confucius worshipping place and Vietnam’s first imperial school (which is now known as the country’s first university). The construction of those two places date back to 1070, and 1076.
The temple is one of the few remnants of the 11th century in the country, retaining a strong sense of harmony despite reconstruction and embellishment over the 9 hundred years. A visit to the Temple of Literature offers you a rich history and culture appreciation for the city, you will also meet many students praying for their exams or taking graduation photos.
5. Visit Hoa Lo Prison
Don’t be scare with the name, it’s a museum now. Yes, it was a prison used by the French colonists in Vietnam for political prisoners from 1899 to 1954 and later by North Vietnam for American prisoners of war from 1964 to 1973.
It now becomes the museum chronicling the use of the site by both the French and North Vietnamese, although some authorities have suggested that some of the information in the museum is not terribly reliable. But this historical site is an interesting place to learn about what happened to the prisoners, and how it would be like to be kept in the former colonial prison.
6. Lunch at Bun Cha Obama (barbecued pork noodle soup)
Bun Cha is a delicious noodle dish, in which rice noodle is served on the side of a bowl of diluted fish sauce with charcoal grilled pork bellies and meat balls. In Hanoi, if Pho is the popular choice for breakfast, then Bun Cha is what local people would normally take for lunch.
After Barack Obama and Anthony Bourdain having Bun Cha together at Bun Cha Huong Lien, the dish is now known as Bun Cha Obama. Bun Cha Huong Lien has become one of the busiest restaurant in the city. You can follow their footsteps to Bun Cha Huong Lien at 24 Le Van Huu Street and order the Obama Combo, which includes a serving of bun cha, seafood spring rolls and a bottle of Hanoi Beer Premium for a princely $4.
7. Walk Around Hoan Kiem Lake
Located in the center of any city’s tourist map you get from your hotel, Hoan Kiem Lake faces the Old Quarter to the north and the French Quarter to the south. There are café, restaurants and shopping malls on both north and southern parts of the lake, but Ho Hoan Kiem (Hoan Kiem Lake) is the main focal point of the city.
A walk around the lake will expose you to different perspective on lives in this changing city, it’s where you will see vendors, shops, playing kids, jogging locals, government buildings as well as temples. The red bridge leading to a temple and turtle tower in the middle of the lake are unique spots for a photo, walk across the red bridge to visit Ngoc Son temple to see how locals pay respect to their national heroes.
8. See The Water Puppets Show
Water Puppet is called “Múa rối nước” in Vietnam, meaning "Making the puppets dance on the water". The art of making the puppets dance on the water dates back to the 11th century, when it originated in the rice farming villages in Northern Vietnam. Vietnamese water puppet shows are unique, because they use the water surface as a stage, and puppeteers stand behind a split bamboo screen in the same water to control the puppets through a system of bamboo rods and rope hidden beneath the water surface.
There are two different water puppet theaters locating in the north and western of Hoan Kiem Lake, each have several shows during the day. I recommend to see the show at 2h00pm or 3h00pm at Thang Long Water Puppets Theartre, as it wouldn’t be two busy that times.
9. Take an afternoon Street Food Tour
The best way to get to know about what the Old Quarter of Hanoi has to offer is to be part of a street food tour led by a Vietnamese food blogger, with explanations on the go you will not only enjoy the food but also the streets you walk through. As the rickshaw or car drivers won’t be able to take you off the streets and show you what stay behind the shops, the food tour takes you to hidden lanes and brings you the real deal of Hanoi.
Soldier to the food section and the Dong Xuan market, take in the sights, the sounds, and the aromas of foods on offer at every direction. Which Vietnamese food do you want to try? Nom Bo Kho (green papaya salad with dried beef), Thit Xien Nuong (street grilled skewered pork), Banh Mi (Vietnamese sandwich), Banh Cuon (steamed rice pancake) or drink some local bia hoi (hanoi draught beer)? Well, you can eat them all on my street food tour.
10. Enjoy a Cocktail on a Rooftop Bar
After a long day of deeply exploring Hanoi and experiencing its street foods, now I want you to go for a good vantage point. You know, a great way to discover a new city is to be at somewhere high up with panoramic views, where you can get a visual grip on your new surroundings. What is a better way to enjoy a sundowner than looking down on the busy streets of Hanoi?
If you know what I mean, below are two rooftop bars to enjoy the city’s vibrant nightlife after a long day.
- Summit Lounge at Pan Pacific Hanoi, 1 Thanh Nien Road: This 20th floor lounge offers unrivalled views of the city and the Red River. Enjoy a nice cocktail while looking out over Tay Ho (West Lake).
- Rooftop Bar at Pacific Place, 83B Ly Thuong Kiet Street: This 19th floor bar offers breathtaking views over the city, it is one of the city’s most sophisticated spots to raise a glass.
I hope you enjoy those tips. Let me know if you have any question, I love to hear from you.