If you have only 1 day to visit Hanoi’s attraction, here’s a quick itinerary to follow. I didn’t do all within 1 day but it was split into 2 halves so it still is quite a good guide. Before I begin on the itinerary, here are some points to note before you even land in Vietnam:
1. Stay in a hotel within the Old Quarters.
Mum and I stayed at the Hanoi Pearl Hotel (4 star), which was quite conveniently located to most of the attractions within Hanoi. So, you need not stay in the exact same hotel but do your homework and try to stay somewhere near the Lake so that it becomes your point of reference.
2. Warning about the traffic is true
I’m sure that you’ve read a lot of blogs and forums about how the traffic comes from both directions even in a one-way street. It’s all true. Just be confident and cross the road like you owned it. The traffic moves at a speed of about 30km/h so it’s slow enough for them to dodge you but if you hesitate, they’re not going to be able to judge your speed/direction etc.
3. Save the Google Map on your phone/tablet
Some of the roads don’t seem to scale and some of the junctions don’t look quite right on the paper maps given by hotels. My sense of direction isn’t bad but I still managed to get a bit lost. Doesn’t help at the road names tend to be only at the ends of the roads. Great thing about Google Maps (even on the saved version) is that tiny arrow representing you as you navigate through the narrow lanes.
Now…onto the top things to do/see when in Hanoi and it’s easy to do this in order:
1. Hoan Kiem Lake (Lake of the Restored Sword)
It’s the largest lake and park within the Old Quarters and legend has it that King returned a sword to the Turtle God in this lake, after a victorious battle. If you spot any turtles, it means that you’ll have good luck (time period unknown). Take a short walk around half of it and then walk towards the south-west of the lake. That’s where you’ll see the next attraction.
2. St. Joseph’s Cathedral
Located in Nha Tho Street and built in 1886, this is the oldest church in Vietnam. Built by the French in the neo-Gothic style, it is no wonder that the architecture is similar to Notre Dame in Paris. Although it looks really dirty on the outside, it is very clean and pristine on the inside.
If you’re Catholic like I am, I’d encourage you to go to the mass in Vietnamese. Just to experience it. You will forget all the things to say (except for Amen) but the singing is really quite beautiful and some parts reminded me of chants, although they were just reciting the Lord’s Prayer.
Sunset mass on Sat is at 6pm.
English mass on Sun is at 11am.
The church is surrounded by a lot of cafes so this might be a good time to grab lunch, but again, it does depend on the time. If it’s too early for lunch, this is the time to try a cup of Vietnamese Coffee (ca phe sua = coffee with milk; I prefer their iced coffee). Then, walk east beyond the southern tip of the lake to get to the next attraction.
3. Opera Theatre
We didn’t go in but it does remind you of the French influence that Hanoi/Vietnam has. Does remind me a little of the Opera Theatre in Paris though. Depending on what time you left your hotel, how long you walked around the lake as well as whether you ate at the cafes near the church, you might want to walk north and have lunch at one of the more expensive cafes here.
4. Thang Long Water Puppet Theater
Head West towards the lake again but walk along Dinh Tien Hoang Street till you hit the Thang Long Water Puppet Theater. Their first show of the day starts at 1.45pm and each show is about 45mins. The stage is a small pool of about 4m x 4m. Tickets are cheap at about USD 4/pax. I highly recommend sitting in the front row so that you have an unobstructed view of the performance.
One of the folklores that they’ll perform is the one where the King returns the magical sword into Hoan Kiem Lake! It’s performed in Vietnamese but the action of the puppets is entertaining enough for you to understand what is going on. Grab a pamphlet before going in and read it while waiting for the performance to begin.
5. Old Quarter/ Market
I know that most guidebooks would recommend going to the Night Market (only on Fri-Sun) and honestly, I did and it’s really not that much of a difference between day and night. In fact, it’s more crowded at night (cue pickpocket alert) and with so many tourists, the shop owners jack up the prices a lot more than if you walked 15 min out of the Old Quarter! So, if you’re really into souvenir shopping, I say do it during the day when it’s less crowded and you’re still in the mood to bargain!
6. Treat Yourself To A Fancy Meal
We were recommended to eat at ‘Green Tangerine’, a French-Vietnamese fusion restaurant at 48 Hang Be Street, which is right next to the Night Market and is also known as the area for good Vietnamese food. The concierge at another hotel warned us not to eat the local street food unless we’ve got strong stomachs.
I love the ambience of this restaurant and you can choose to dine al fresco or inside (where it’s air-conditioned). I highly recommend ordering their crab appetizer and the beef main course is really yummy. Mum and I spent about S$50 each so yes, it’s expensive in Vietnamese standards but is about there in Singaporean standards.
So, that concludes the day where you’ll feel tired but satisfied at the end of it all. You’d have covered the more important parts of the Old Quarter and hopefully, you’ve managed to get some souvenirs such as silk, cashew nuts and/or lacquer.
I missed out some sights such as the Ho Chi Minh’s House and the Hoa Lo Prison, both of which you can still add into your itinerary. I chose not to because my mum can’t walk that much plus as mentioned earlier, this was actually split across 2 half days that we spent in Hanoi.
Have fun and happy travelling!