Who says you can’t do a city in a day?
Ok, so you won’t be able to see everything and may only scratch the surface, but there are times when you’re only in a city for a single day or on a short stop over before you have to leave again and that doesn’t mean you can’t at least try to experience a flavour of what it has to offer.
When I flopped into Hanoi after a killer 32-hour, cross border bus trip from Luang Prabang, I had just 24 hours to get to grips with this seething metropolis. Thus began my 12-hour, whistle-stop tour of the city, starting in the old town, looping around the lake and finishing back near my hostel, beer Bai Hanoi in hand.
There is a kind of electricity to Hanoi, the people have a sort of frenetic energy that’s undeniably contagious. They’re up at dawn practising Tai Chi by Hoam Kiem Lake, jogging through the congested streets or zipping around like heat-seeking missiles on their motorbikes. Or you’ll see them haggling with steely determination at the street markets or sitting, drinking endless cups of coffee and green tea outside minuscule cafés on miniature plastic stools. The buzz here is electric so get drunk on it and devour the city.
A-C: The Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum and One Pillar Pagoda
Everywhere in central and Old Town Hanoi is walk-able, just do as the locals do, head down, hands behind back and shuffle into the stream of oncoming traffic.
Head to the resting place of Vietnam’s ex-chairman of the communist party and gawp a his preserved remains at the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum in the centre of Ba Dinh Square. The mausoleum is open from 9am-12pm daily but is shut occasionally to allow workers to, ahem, re-embalm the body and if you’re wearing shorts you won’t be let inside the complex.
Attached to the mausoleum and well a visit, if only to marvel at some rather unsubtle propaganda, is the Ho Chi Minh museum, a weird confusion of history and shamelessly anti-capitalist artwork. Expect to be left shrugging at obtuse symbolism, like the installation depicting a Cadillac crashing through a wall to symbolise the decline of the American car industry and a maniacal clown painting. Yep, me neither.
Once you’ve had your fill of deceased dictators, then wander across the gardens to the One Pillar Pagoda, one of Vietnam’s most iconic pagodas. This historic Buddhist temple’s name literally translates as ‘long lasting happiness and good luck.’ According to legend it was constructed in the shape of a lotus flower in 1049 by Emperor Ly Thai Tong to celebrate the birth of his only son and heir and subsequently destroyed in 1954 by French Union forces during the Indochina War. The rebuilt version is open from 8am-5pm and is free to visit.
D-E: Temple of Literature and KOTO restaurant
This ancient temple is dedicated to Confucius, sages and scholars and home to Vietnam’s first national university, the Imperial Academy. Built around an intertwining network of courtyards and pavilions the temple is a feast of calligraphy topiary, red pillars and stone statues and stelae depicting the work of great philosophers and scholars.
After a feast for the brain you need some real food. I recommend KOTO on the perimeter of the Temple of Literature. This cool little place stretches over four floors with the best seats in the house found on the roof terrace. The food ranges from delicious Vietnamese specials like Cau Lau and Bahn Xeo to western dishes such as fish and chips and pitta wraps and the staff members are all part of KOTO’s charitable endeavours to help disadvantaged children by providing jobs and training.
F-G: Cafe Kinh Doh to Ngoc Son Temple via Kem Fanny
Work off lunch with the long trek back towards Hoam Kiem Lake stopping at Kem Fanny (stop laughing) for ice cream along the way. I couldn’t decide on what flavour to have to went for the monstrous 14-scoop tasting platter…obviously.
Cut through the sugar overload with a strong cup of excellent coffee from Café Kinh Doh, Catherine Deneuve’s favourite yoghurt and pastry shop to hang out in while she was filming Indochine. You can even sip your coffee while sitting under her signed movie poster.
After a coffee pit stop head towards the lake and walk around it, taking time to cross the Rising Sun bridge to the Ngoc Son Temple, Hanoi’s most visited temple.
Image: David Jones
H-I-J: Đồng Xuân to St Joseph’s Cathedral for a beer at Quán Bia Hơi
No day trip around Hanoi would be complete without braving the markets of Đồng Xuân. Dodge the scooters and marvel at the streets organised and separated by items for sale. Take a trip down stuffed animal alley or pots and pans promenade before heading back down to the Gothic St Joseph’s Cathedral, which towers above the streets in its own mini plaza.
Finish your day with a stop at beer corner, Quán Bia Hơi, for a cold Bia Hanoi and a bag of sunflower seeds. Crouch with locals on tiny plastic stools in the shadow of the cathedral and watch the night draw in.
Click on the maps to enlarge routes and markers.