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.
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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