Though I spent well over two weeks in the wonderful city of Hanoi, many use it as a jumping off point to neighboring destinations like Sapa and Halong Bay. I did too, but I broke up each jaunt with at least five or six days in this home away from home before grabbing my pack and jetting off again.
So what do you do if you only have 24 hours in Hanoi? Extend your trip! Can’t? Fear not, it’s possible to see some of the major sites without missing your next connection. Here’s what I would do:
Pho for breakfast (or really any meal of the day*)
I can’t recommend any single location in Hanoi for pho because every place I tried on the street was amazing. Just do yourself a favor and avoid purchasing the nation’s speciality at a restaurant. The cost is much higher (45,000-50,000 versus 30,000) and the flavor is much weaker.
*Note: you’ll be hard pressed to find a diversity of street vendors during the hours of 11am and 2pm. This is siesta time for the Vietnamese.
Get your coconut smoothie coffee and revel in its deliciousness— a real treat to be enjoyed amongst the retro communist relics that adorn the cafe.
Ho Chi Minh Museum
Although it’s best to have at least a basic knowledge of Vietnam’s most historic figure, the second floor of this museum will bring you up to date on Ho Chi Minh’s tireless fight to free and unify the nation. My favorite part, however, was admiring the modern art pieces on the third floor— quirky and well worth the visit.
Bun Bo Nam Bo
Hands down my favorite dish in all of Vietnam, I can’t recommend this food (particularly this restaurant) enough. It’s a bit pricey at 60,000 dong, but worth every penny.
Hoa Lo Prison Museum
Built by the French in 1896, the prison remained operational until 1985. It was originally used by the French colonialists to house and kill political prisoners (there is a replica guillotine showcased in one of the rooms), then by the Northern Vietnamese to incarcerate prisoners of war. John McCain spent parts of his POW years here; his flight suit (with parachute) is even on display in one of the rooms.
Native only to this city, do as the locals do and sip on your glass of cà phê trứng (egg coffee) while relaxing at a low table on the second floor. Contrary to how it sounds, the drink is delicious— you don’t taste even a smidgen of egg. It really is like a liquified form of tiramisu. Yum.
Thang Long Water Puppet Theater
A little hokey, I still found the water puppet show depicting the story of Le Loi returning the sword positively riveting. Music performances are live, the entire show is in Vietnamese and puppeteers actually wade in waste deep water behind a curtain controlling the wires and bamboo rods. I found this traditional form of entertainment a breath of fresh air from today’s fascination with high-tech effects and imagery. Tickets range from 60,000 – 100,000 dong. Check the theater for accurate show times.
Known as “the center of the city,” Hoan Kiem Lake is the dominating body of water in the Old Quarter. Walking its entire circumference takes approximately fifteen minutes and as a reward for all your exercise, you can purchase an ice cream for 6,500 dong at either of the outposts on the north western side of the lake.
The French Quarter
Starting at the Opera House, veer right and enjoy roaming the tree-lined boulevards and wide streets as you pass cute little cafes and restaurants. Much of the french colonialist architecture is still in place and well preserved; I actually felt I was strolling the streets of Paris on more than one occasion.
La Cle Bistro
I love this place— so much so that each time I returned to the city, I went at least once (sometimes twice!). My personal favorite dish is the pasta carbonara (60,000 dong,) but if you’re going for dinner, I would suggest the ostrich steak. The portion is huge, the price is unbeatable (165,000 dong) and the flavor is heavenly. La Cle Bistro is also the only restaurant in Hanoi to serve this dish so it’s worth trying out. If, somehow, you’re still not full, indulge in the churros with chocolate for dessert. As a native Southern Californian, I can attest to their authencity.
Binh Minh Jazz Club 9-11pm
Live music isn’t very popular in Hanoi (unless you count Karaoke, which I don’t), so this club is quite the treat. Mr. Minh can be found performing nightly alongside some of his friends and fellow jazz aficionados . There’s no cover charge, but please be advised drink prices are tripled started at 8pm (performance is from 9-11pm, seven days a week.)