A weekend in Hanoi isn’t nearly enough time in Vietnam’s atmospheric but chaotic capital, one of our favourite cities in Southeast Asia and our home for a while back in 2012-13 – but a weekend is better than nothing. Here’s how to spend it…
If you only have a weekend in Hanoi you’re going to want to cram as much in as possible so it has to be well planned. This is how to do it but note that it’s a very personal itinerary of Hanoi – these are the things we love to do and places we like to go in Hanoi.
This is not necessarily an itinerary comprised of the latest Hanoi openings that might close in a year – although I do update it after each Vietnam trip and it currently includes a couple of new spots – but some of the restaurants and cafes have been around for decades, the sights for centuries, and the experiences for many years, all tried and tested. But it is a Hanoi itinerary that will give you a taste of this wonderful but at times infuriating city.
Here’s how we like to spend a weekend in Hanoi and how you can make the most of two days.
A Weekend in Hanoi – An Itinerary
With only a weekend in Hanoi you should spoil yourself at the sumptuous Sofitel Legend Metropole Hanoi, the swanky M Gallery Hotel de l’Opera or the InterContinental on West Lake if you fancy a swimming pool. Good mid-range options include quirky Hanoi E Central, the contemporary Eco Hotel Hotel, Hanoi Impressive Hotel overlooking St Joseph’s cathedral, and Mai Charming Hotel with snug light-filled rooms with balconies. Or for something different, experience one of these charming homestays, all artists’ residences. A comfortable hotel is essential in Hoi An, as you’ll need somewhere to periodically escape Hanoi’s endearing craziness and chaotic traffic.
Kick off your weekend in Hanoi with the most quintessential of Hanoian things to do – go for bia hoi (‘fresh beer’). Start in the heart of Hoan Kiem, the Old Quarter, at boisterous Bia Hoi Corner and use our Hanoi Bia Hoi Guide to select more; our regular haunt was Bia Hoi Ha Noi — Cua Hang Ngoc Linh. Keen to sip something more sophisticated? As you’d expect from a beer-loving city Hanoi has an emerging craft beer scene. Start with funky Furbrew at Tay Ho. Up for even more? See this guide to micro-breweries making traditional Czech and German-style beers.
If the spicy peanuts and deep fried tofu at the bia hoi joints don’t sate you, take a taxi to Hai Ba Trung district to our favourite Hanoi restaurant, Chim Sao, for authentic northern countryside cuisine in a 1930s colonial residence. Sit downstairs at antique tables or upstairs to eat with the locals on floor cushions and low ‘tables’. Order the minced pigeon meat with crispy prawn crackers, mountain pork ethnic minorities-style sausage, banana flower salad, caramel pork in the clay pot, mountain sticky rice, and wash it all down with sticky rice wine or chrysanthemum flower wine.
For barrel aged negronis, infused gins, and martinis, hit CAMA ATK, which is one of Hanoi’s best spots for DJs and live music.
Your first breakfast in Hanoi has to be pho (correctly written as phở and pronounced ‘fur’), Vietnam’s famous rice noodle soup. Try one of the legendary spots such as Pho Gia Truyen Bat Dan (49 Bat Dan Street, Hoan Kiem). Go early and be prepared to queue, but it’s worth it.
Sip traditional filtered Vietnamese coffee with condensed milk at a branch of Cong Caphe, which has expanded from one very rustic, retro-style café to a dozen cafes (when we last checked), all filled with vintage furniture and decorated with communist-era paraphernalia. For something more authentic, try endearingly faded Café Lam, dating to 1939, one of Hanoi’s oldest cafés and once an artists’ haunt, or Giang Café, established on a small laneway in 1946 and revered for its ca phe trung or egg coffee. If you find yourself thinking of egg coffee (it’s addictive), head to Ca Phe Pho Co (11P Hang Gai Street, Hoan Kiem), in a dilapidated mansion. It’s not the secret the guidebooks make it out to be and is very much on the tourist trail, but their egg coffee is heavenly and the views from the terrace special too.
Gawk at the grand French colonial-era villas as you wander through the leafy, laidback embassy district of Ba Dinh to the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum. Stroll through the nearby Presidential Palace gardens to see Ho Chi Minh’s Stilt House and One Pillar Pagoda, then make your way through the fascinating streets to the enchanting Temple of Literature.
Enjoy lunch across the road at KOTO on Van Mieu, a non-profit restaurant that trains disadvantage youths for the hospitality industry.
Spend the afternoon soaking up some of the city’s fabulous art, starting with Hanoi’s wonderful Vietnam Fine Arts Museum, nearby, before hitting art galleries such as Nguyen Art Gallery, and Manzi, a café-bar art space. See our Guide to the Hanoi Art Scene for more tips. Or cab it to one of my favourite museums in the world, the vast Vietnam Museum of Ethnology, to learn about Vietnam’s many minorities through the wonderful collections of costumes, textiles, art, and everyday objects. There’s a fantastic museum shop outside selling fair trade crafts and books.
Dine early on exquisite Vietnamese cuisine in an elegant, restored 19th-century colonial villa at Chef Didier Corlu’s Madame Hien restaurant, dedicated to the cooking of his Vietnamese grandmother-in-law. Make sure you’re done by 7.30pm to make it in time for an enchanting performance of traditional Ca Tru at the Ca Tru Thang Long Guild House (Saturday and Thursday 8pm only; 28 Hang Buom Street). (See Terence’s beautiful images here to see what you’re in for.)
After, amble over to admire the handsome 19th century Gothic Revival-style Saint Joseph’s Cathedral, splendidly illuminated at night, and join the local students for late night coffee or cold beers on the buzzy square. Next, mosey across to local eating and drinking street (actually, two lanes), Tong Duy Tan AKA ‘Food Street’, to take in the atmosphere. At this time of night the food of choice is hot pot, but locals will also be nibbling on nuts and downing beers. Pull up a plastic blue stool or, if you’re ready for a proper chair by now, head to quirky retro-chic Bar Betta, one of our favourite Hanoi watering holes.
Bun cha! Feast on our favourite Hanoian breakfast/brunch of bun cha – grilled pork belly and pork meatballs served with rice noodles, nuoc mam (fish sauce) and fragrant fresh greens. Our old haunts were simple footpath set-ups with a woman, a clay charcoal brazier and a few tiny tables (including one woman who plonked herself opposite our favourite bia hoi, above, every morning). But you could try one of Hanoi’s oldest spots, Bun Cha Duy Diem (140 Ngoc Khanh, Ba Dinh).
SUNDAY MORNING COFFEE
Missing your Australian-style coffee? Make a beeline for Hanoi Social Club, which Hanoi coffee aficionados claim does Hanoi’s best flat white. I love the colonial charm and beautiful antique tiles. On some evenings, it transforms into a live music venue.
Gorge yourself on Hanoi’s outstanding local food on a street food tour. Long-time Hanoi resident, American expat chef and cookbook author of Culinary Vietnam, Daniel Hoyer, who owns a restaurant with his Vietnamese wife, hosts in-depth street food tours to off-the-beaten track spots. If you’re prepared to devote a day to eating (9am-3pm), Vietnamese-born Tu and Australian partner Mark of Hanoi Street Food Tours offer even more comprehensive tours focused on the Old Quarter and taking in Dong Xuan market.
Hanoi Cooking Centre offers food tours led by chefs, as well as a hands-on Vietnamese cooking class at the excellent Hanoi Cooking Centre, which begins with a tour of nearby Chau Long Market to introduce you to Vietnamese produce and ingredients and finishes with a meal of the dishes you’ve made. After, work up an appetite with a brisk walk around charming Ngu Xa island and Truc Bach, the small lake and laidback neighbourhood separated by a dyke from the larger West Lake (Ho Tay).
If you saved room for a second lunch, when you’re on Ngu Xa stop at Cua Hang Mau Dich So 37 (the blue sign on the yellow building says: “Cửa hàng ăn uống mậu dịch số 37”) which translates to ‘State-Run Food Shop No. 37’. Tuck into hearty home-style food from military surplus enamel plates on sewing machine tables in a salmon-painted brick-walled room. Decorated with communist-era memorabilia, old transistor radios and television sets, and a Soviet-made clock exactly like the one my baba and papa had on their wall, the vintage décor evokes Thoi Bao Cap, ‘the Subsidy Era’, from 1976 to 1986. A period of hardship (hence the ration stamps and cassava to pad out the rice), locals in recent years have been nostalgic for that simpler time.
Make your way back to atmospheric Hoan Kiem, the Old Quarter of Thirty-Six Streets, to explore this thousand year-old city crammed with historic houses, pagodas, temples, and shrines, once called Thang Long. Named after the compact villages of artisan guilds that practised their crafts here, each street (or ‘pho’), often no more than a block long, is named after the products that they made, so Pho Bat Dan was the street where they crafted wooden bowls (bat dan), Pho Bat Su, where they produced China bowls (bat su), Pho Hang Bo where they wove baskets, Pho Hang But where they made brushes, and so on. ‘Hang’, incidentally, means ‘shop’. There are actually more than 36 streets, and always have been, but 36 had symbolic meaning. As you’ll see, some of the streets still have businesses specialising in the merchandise it was named after. If your stroll inspires some shopping, drop into Tan My Design, a gorgeous, three-storey one-stop-shop on Hang Gai (Silk Shop Street) for everything from silk scarves and lacquer-ware to the family’s own famed Tan My embroidery.
SUNDAY LATE AFTERNOON
One of our favourite things to do on a weekend in Hanoi is to head down to Hoan Kiem Lake and cross the red Huc Bridge to visit pretty Ngoc Son Temple (Temple of the Jade Mountain; closes at 5pm). Sundays are especially fun, when there are lots of locals here. After, take a slow amble around Hoan Kiem Lake, where you’ll see Hanoians jogging, exercising, flirting, and practising tai chi. Savour the sunset near picturesque Thap Rua (Turtle Tower) on an islet on the lake.
Pull up a stool for a cocktail at the elegant bar at Club Opera Novel (17 Trang Tien Street, Hoan Kiem; closes 11pm) near the Opera House. Don’t dine here, just have one drink downstairs to take in the colonial style interior. Then stroll over to the much more atmospheric Tadioto wine bar (24B Tong Dan Street, Hoan Kiem; closes 11.45pm), for one of Hanoi’s better wine lists, plus a good selection of whiskeys, and very good sushi. Don’t be surprised if you’re tempted to order a bottle of wine. Just do it.
Take in some traditional folk culture at the Thang Long Water Puppet Theatre, or see an opera, orchestra or recital at the opulent Hanoi Opera House, modelled on Paris’ Opera Garnier.
After the show, make a beeline for The Hill Station for craft brews, ciders and – as we’re guessing you’ll need a light dinner after all of today’s eating – tapas, including cheese and charcuterie, made from products sourced from their own farm near Sapa.
So how was your weekend in Hanoi? We’d love to hear from you if you tested out this or any of our other ‘weekend in’ itineraries.
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I wasn’t expecting to like Hanoi much (“too loud and noisy… blah blah blah”) – but it definitely was one of my favourite places in SE Asia! It was just so different to anywhere I had ever been before and I absolutely loved it. We ended up spending nearly a week there (due to drama with a Halong Bay trip!), but I still feel like I could have spent longer. It’s an easy city to totally lose yourself in.
Definitely agree with your weekend itinerary. We loved KOTO, such a wonderful place with great food and great people.
We spent a lot of time relaxing by Hoan Kiem Lake, watching local take part in exercise classes and, of course, sitting on little plastic seats drinking Bia Hoi!
Lara Dunston says
Hi Karianne – pleased to learn you loved Hanoi as much as we did and thanks for the kind words on the itinerary. We were there for three months and yet we still left with a long list of things we didn’t get around to doing, so I know the feeling.
We also spent a lot of time on Hoan Kiem Lake, especially Terence, who never tired of taking photos there. Did you get to any of the other lakes? We did a tonne of walking and got to a handful. Bay Mau Lake was also lovely but little Hai Ba Trung was very charming, and I loved the area around it. There were some very lively bia hoi joints near there too!
Thanks for dropping by!
Bob Greene says
I used to work in Hanoi 11 years ago and always have dinner in some Japanese restaurants with my boss. However, lunch and breakfast I would venture on my own and I find the local food very exciting everytime. So many variations of foods that are strange to our western palate like silk worms for example. I never tired of eating pho, I wish I could come back again someday and enjoy strolling around Hoan Kiem Lake. Such a delightful experience.
Lara Dunston says
Hi Bob – what a wonderful memory! Assuming you were working for a Japanese company? I wonder if your Japanese restaurants are still there? You should definitely return. It’s changed so much since then. I can reassure you that strolling around Hoan Kiem is as lovely as ever. Thanks for stopping by to leave a comment!
Katy Beechey says
As you know, we’ve just returned from a weekend in Hanoi and were lucky enough to enjoy many of your above highlights, as well as a few others, which I thought I’d share.
Firstly, if you weren’t already aware (the idea is only 8 weeks old), the roads immediately surrounding Hoan Kiem Lake are now pedestrianised during the weekend, which make it even more enticing! It was a fascinating insight into the human capacity for play, seeing the various forms of entertainment that have sprung up, from tug of war to skipping and zumba-esque dance routines. It was especially bustling on Sunday evening with all ages mingling beneath the fairy lights.
Yesterday we joined Mark and a couple of Australians on his Hanoi Street Food Tour, which is our favourite way to get to know a new place and we weren’t disappointed. Mark took us to local haunts we never would have found or ventured into unaccompanied and introduced us to some delicious dishes as well as answering our endless questions about life in Vietnam. Worth noting was the egg coffee cafe he took us to at the end of the tour. We tried Pho Co the day before (along with everyone else reading Lonely Planet…) and I really wasn’t a fan, but Mark insisted that we try the original version at Cafe Dinh, also overlooking Hoam Kiem Lake (the entrance between an bag shop and a selfie stick store) and it was a completely different experience.
Other recommendations include Home, a relatively new restaurant in the old quarter, that had a magical ambiance, created by endless silk lanterns hanging in the trees and live music (guitarist and violinist), as well as very attentive service and delicious food (highlights being morning glory & crispy pork salad & roasted duck with Chinese 5 spice).
We also loved catching glimpses of the endless mosaic mural that surrounds the city, that was created by various community groups in recognition of Hanoi’s 1,000th anniversary.
Finally, we took part in the complimentary guided history tour at our hotel, the Metropole. Whilst the guide was a little too flamboyant for my taste, he was definitely passionate and really put the hotel and its rich history in context.
Thanks for sharing all your highlights!
Lara Dunston says
So pleased you loved Hanoi! I’m really looking forward to getting back this winter.
Thanks for the heads-up on the pedestrianised road around the lake on weekends – what a great idea!
It was actually Mark’s partner, Tu, who we did their street food tour with in late 2012, who took us to Pho Co the first time, but it wasn’t touristy then. It was mainly young canoodling Vietnamese couples. However, I’m told that Giang Café, one of the first cafes to offer egg coffee, and the most famous amongst the old-timers apparently, is still very authentic. It’s a bit too local for most tourists, I think.
Home is on our list for the trip back, so pleased to hear you enjoyed it.
I loved those mosaics too. They’re amazing, aren’t they?
Thank you so much for dropping by. I’m sure our readers will appreciate these insights.
Brett Atkinson says
Heading back to Hanoi in April to write about the Metropole and Ha Giang province. Will be good to be back in the city without my Lonely Planet hat on. Lots of my own favourites here too. Good stuff.
Lara Dunston says
Hi Brett – great stuff! And pleased to hear we share some faves. I’m hoping to get back during the cool months of December-January, so I’ll let you know if I discover anything I think you’ll like. I’ve heard from a few reliable sources, including Katy above, that Home restaurant, which specialises in more modern Vietnamese cuisine, from what I understand, is fantastic. Thanks for dropping by!