While you’re in Hanoi, why not spice up your stay with some delicious local specialties, street food, and Vietnamese coffee? After all, eating local food is the only way to really get to know a place!
Small alleys crammed with food stalls, delicious smells filling the air of the quaint Old Town streets and imposing monuments honoring Vietnam’s rich and turbulent history— all that and more is Hanoi. If you are planning a short trip here and want to see all the main attractions, this two-day itinerary of the capital is perfect for you. And while you’re here, why not spice up your stay with some delicious local specialties, street food, and Vietnamese coffee? After all, eating local food is the only way to really get to know a place!
Let’s get started!
A trip to Hanoi would be incomplete without a leisurely stroll around the city’s famed Old Quarter. This is the historical and commercial center of the city and dates back to when it was originally founded around 1,000 years ago.
It’s also a great place to stay if you want to be close to all the awesome sights, restaurants, and coffee shops we’re highlighting here. For more ideas on where to stay in Hanoi, check out our article that lists the 10 Ten Choices for Accommodation or see Christina’s newly launched apartments in Hanoi’s modern and convenient Lancaster building.
Rise early (around six or seven) to get a glimpse of locals going about their daily morning chores, like their parents and maybe even grandparents did before them. When you’re there in the early morning hours, you’ll witness street food vendors setting up their stalls and preparing for the day, as well as people on their way to work stopping for a quick breakfast or a cup of the strong, aromatic Vietnamese coffee. Maybe you need one of those yourself if you actually made it out of the hotel by 6:00 AM.
While officially the Old Quarter is only made up of 16 streets, the endless number of tiny lanes and alleyways adds countless nooks and crannies to this place. Streets are named after the goods or services on offer there, so after a few steps, try and guess what it is.
The best way to explore all these little streets? Wander around, get lost, and take in the endless flow of sights and sounds, beautiful colonial architecture, tiny mom and pop stores and quaint Buddhist pagodas that make this area so unmistakable.
While strolling around the labyrinth that is the Old Quarter, you will most likely be overwhelmed with the choices of delicious foods. The best thing to do is try a little bit of everything to make sure you experience the full variety of Hanoi’s street food.
Are you a newbie to street food? Here’s what to watch out for:
Read more: A Beginner’s Guide to Street Food in Hanoi
But now, back to today’s breakfast… A true specialty in Hanoi is Xoi Xeo. This staple is made of sweet sticky rice served with a variety of toppings such as green mung bean paste, fried crispy shallots, and soy sauce. If you’re really hungry, you can add pâté, boiled chicken, pork belly or eggs to make it more savory and filling.
Head to Xoi Yen at 35B Nguyen Huu Huan st. for your morning serving of Xoi Xeo and wash it down with some Tra Da (homemade iced tea) or a cup of strong Vietnamese coffee. Where to get coffee? You’re in luck, there’s a great place called Cong Cafe right next door at 35A Nguyen Huu Huan st.
While Xoi Xeo is absolutely delicious, try not to fill up on it because there are so many other things to try. Banh Goi for example. This fried dumpling is made of light rice paper stuffed with a mix of vermicelli noodles, minced pork, mushrooms, and a blend of spices. Banh Goi is served with a sweet and sour dipping sauce that’s often a homemade concoction of fish sauce, garlic, chili, sugar, and lime juice. It tastes great just with this sauce or even wrapped in a lettuce leaf and fresh coriander for extra flavor.
There are several great places to get Banh Goi in the Old Quarter, for example at Xoi Yen and especially at 52 Ly Quoc Su for the best. It opens around 10 AM so you’ll have plenty of time to work up an appetite before you go there.
On the northern edge of the Old Quarter, you will come across Dong Xuan Market. Here you can find pretty much everything you never knew you wanted and probably even a bit more. Spread out over four floors, vendors sell everything from fresh colorful produce, exotic spices, meats, and cooked dishes to knock-off t-shirts, cheap sunglasses, luggage, school uniforms, tourist trinkets, and household goods. Looking for a souvenir? You have good chances of finding it here.
While the building itself is not particularly impressive and some visitors might even describe the market as dirty or unappealing, going there is an experience in itself. If you get there early enough, you can observe entertaining scenes of merchants setting up their stands, haggling about prices or simply catching up with each other over a bowl of steaming pho or a cup of freshly brewed coffee. Even if you don’t want to buy anything, the bustling, colorful atmosphere of Dong Xuan Market makes it worth a visit.
Location: Dong Xuan Street, Hoan Kiem District
Opening Hours: Daily 06:00 AM – 07:00 PM
Now that you’ve eaten well, it’s time to go explore some more. Leaving the tiny streets and endless rows of shops behind you, head over to Hoan Kiem Lake. While Hanoi’s streets and restaurants are bustling from the early morning, this area is a place of peace and calm in the midst of this frenetic city. If you get there early enough, you will see people go for runs or gather for a class of Tai Chi to start the day. It’s worth it to take your time here (and walk off that breakfast) to experience this very different side of Hanoi.
After a short walk, you will come across Ngoc Son Pagoda, an ancient building set in the middle of the lake and built to honor the military leader Tran Hung Dao. It also commemorates the legend of a Vietnamese emperor who is said to have used an enchanted sword to beat the Chinese Ming Dynasty, which he then returned to Hoan Kiem Lake (Lake of the Returned Sword) and the Golden Turtle God.
The pagoda can be reached via an ornamental, red wooden bridge with a small entrance fee. It’s worth it, as inside the temple you’ll see some interesting historical artifacts, as well as a giant turtle (it weighs over 250kg) that was found in the lake. Even today there are turtles living in the lake, so try to spot one as it’s considered a sign of good luck!
Opening Hours of Ngoc Son Pagoda: Daily 07:30 AM – 5:30 PM
Fee: 20,000 VND to enter the temple
After enjoying the peace and tranquility of Hoan Kiem Lake, head past St. Joseph’s Cathedral, a beautiful church built during French colonial times, to Hoa Lo Prison. It was built during French rule and was originally intended to lock up Vietnamese revolutionaries. A guillotine from this time is a silent reminder of the harsh punishments prisoners suffered for breaking the rules of the French colonial government.
Today Hoa Lo prison is more well-known for housing hundreds of American prisoners of war after the Vietnam War. Visitors can see artifacts collected from these prisoners and read some of their stories. If you’re interested in learning more about the war, the Hanoi Hilton as it was nicknamed by the American prisoners, is a great sight to see. It will bring the story of well-known war veterans such as former presidential candidate John McCain to life in a whole new way.
Location: 1 Hoa Lo Street, Tran Hung Dao, Hoàn Kiếm District
Opening Hours: Daily 08:00 AM – 5:00 PM
Fee: 30,000 VND
After all this walking, it’s time for lunch. You will probably have worked up quite an appetite by now, so pay careful attention to the great dishes we outline below.
Start off with Banh Cuon, a cake made of minced meat rolled in a steamed rice flower sheet. It has a very mild taste and can be eaten with a flavorful dipping sauce to give it a stronger taste. A great place to find Banh Cuon is at Banh Cuon Gia Truyen at 14 Hang Ga Street in the Old Quarter or at countless other stalls around the city.
Walk a few more steps to 67 Duong Thanh Street to find Bun Cha Nem Cua Be Dac Kim, a great place to have Nem Cua Be, fried crab rolls. These rice paper pockets are stuffed chock-full of minced crab, pork, mushroom, and spices, making for an unforgettable combination of flavors. Generally, it’s served with fresh lettuce leaves and herbs as well as with nuoc chamdipping sauce.
Now that you’ve had your starters, find yourself a stall that sells Bun Thang, a rice vermicelli noodle dish with chicken, egg, pork, and around 20 (yes, 20!) other ingredients including dried shrimp, squid, spring onion, coriander, ginger, mushrooms, beets, fish sauce, sugar, and vinegar. Be sure to have your camera ready as this dish is usually prepared quite beautifully.
After this long leisurely lunch break, make your way to Thang Long Water Puppet Theater. This is something you don’t want to miss as it plays a significant part in Vietnamese heritage and culture. That being said, you can imagine this show being very popular among both international guests and locals. This means that performances often sell out several days in advance so try either booking ahead or as soon as you get to Hanoi.
Once you’re at the Theater, lean back and enjoy watching the delicate puppets dance across the water enacting tales of Vietnamese history and mythology. The show is one hour long and is made up of 17 short skits that are accompanied by traditional musical instruments such as drums, wooden bells, horns, bamboo flutes, and cymbals.
Show Timings: Daily 3:00 PM, 4:10 PM, 5:20 PM, 6:30 PM and 8:00 PM
Location: 57B, Dinh Tien Hoang Street, Hoan Kiem District
Tel: +84 43 824 9494
Ticket Price: 100,000 VND
Hopefully, you’re hungry after the water puppet show because there are two more things you should absolutely try today. The first dish is Cha Ca, Hanoi’s most famous delicacy that you absolutely cannot miss. Cha Ca is white fish patty, seasoned with fresh dill, turmeric, garlic, and ginger and presented in a sizzling pan. Along with that, you will be served rice noodles, peanuts, onions, chili, and nuoc cham sauce. Mix everything together for the real Cha Caexperience!
Finding this dish in Hanoi is easy. In the Old Quarter, there is an entire street named after it and as you can imagine, it’s full of restaurants serving this dish. Another good restaurant for Cha Ca is Cha Ca Thang Long in Duong Thanh Street, also in the Old Quarter. They are famous for masterfully preparing this delicacy and will only leave you wanting more of it.
If you still have room for one more yummy thing to try, the Mien Xao Luon at Dong Thinh Nha Hang Mien Luon in 87 Hang Dieu is the dish to get. This food’s main ingredient is eel which is used to make a flavorful broth as well as crispy toppings for the stir-fried glass noodles it comes with. Other condiments include bean sprouts, egg, fried shallots, cucumber slices, and the obligatory shaved banana blossom and fresh herbs. Never had eel before? Then it’s about time!
Chill Out at Legend Beer Hanoi
The Vietnamese love their beer and the country’s vibrant craft beer scene proves it. If you want a great place to enjoy a couple of cold ones after your long day of eating and walking, Legend Beer is the obvious choice. They brew their own beer and, since they’re on a 2nd-floor rooftop terrace, they offer awesome views of the busy roads around Hoan Kiem Lake. While beer is a bit more expensive here than in most other places in the Old Quarter, you will probably find some unique varieties that make it worthwhile to check out. And don’t forget the serious people (and crazy traffic) watching you can do from the terrace… it’s priceless.
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