Travelling to Hanoi and looking for a great 4 day itinerary? From visiting picturesque Hoàn Kiếm Lake, to the best markets and street food to try, to taking an excursion to Halong Bay, it’s all in here. Whilst Saigon in the south is larger and gets more attention, Hanoi is actually the capital of Vietnam and definitely deserves a few days. Keep reading to check out a great 4 day travel itinerary of Hanoi!
Take time on your first morning to explore the Old Town of Hanoi and it’s narrow streets. The Old Town is the heart and soul of Hanoi, and whilst during the weekdays the streets are really hectic and full of motorbikes everywhere, at the weekends the whole of the Old Town is closed off to traffic and is a lot calmer. Therefor try and time your trip so you will be here during the weekend if possible!
The best way to explore the Old Town is on foot. You can explore alone, or there are many walking tours available that you can go on to get your bearings for the city – several of which are free! There are traditionally 36 streets of the Old Quarter, each one named after which craft was practiced here years ago, for example: Medicine Street, Silk Street (Hang Gai), Tin Street etc.
The streets of Hanoi’s Old Town are packed with small eateries and you’ll see lots of portable street food stalls on the back of bicycles in the mornings. Stop and join the locals at one of the stalls. As with anywhere in Asia, it is easy to tell where the good places are for food: look where the locals go and follow! Sit on the low plastic stools, enjoy your food and just watch the locals go about their everyday life!
The two most famous Vietnamese dishes are bánh mì sandwiches and phở noodles, both of which are delicious and great value. You also need to try egg coffee. Yes, a coffee made from egg. Sounds awful right, but it actually tastes pretty good! It is a specialty from Hanoi so definitely try one when you are here!
Hoan Kiem Lake
Hoan Kiem Lake (Sword Lake) is one of the most popular places in Hanoi to visit. Stroll around the lake and enjoy the beautiful view – there are lots of beautiful trees here that make for some fantastic pictures.
Like the Old Quarter, if you visit the lake at the weekend the streets will also be pedestrianised and free from traffic. There is the most incredible atmosphere at this time, especially in the evenings, with locals flooding the streets, people playing games and playing instruments amongst many other things. Normally the traffic around here is pretty crazy, so enjoy it!
Take the bridge across the lake to the Temple of the Jade Mountain and stroll round the small island in the middle of the lake. During the evening the bridge is lit up red and looks really beautiful.
Head to Legend Beer, right on the banks of Hoan Kiem Lake (click here to see the Google maps location). This place is always busy but make your way to the balcony on the top floor – hopefully there will be a spare table! Enjoy food and drinks with a view here and experience the best view in Hanoi!! The views overlooking the lake are so stunning.
Hanoi Old Quarter Night Market
As mentioned above, the weekends are the best time to explore Hanoi’s Old Town, when the streets are pedestrianised and no vehicles can enter. On Friday – Sunday evenings the streets of Old Hanoi get transformed into one giant Night Market, full of street food, souvenirs, clothing, you name it, it’s here! The atmosphere here is really special, and you can even buy locally brewed beer (‘bia‘) and watch street performers here!
*If you want to go on a day trip to Halong Bay on your last day, try to book it today or on day 2 at one of the many tour companies! Read below to find out more.*
Dong Xuan Market
Along with Hanoi’s touristy Night Market in the Old Town on the weekend evenings, Hanoi has another famous market: the local’s daily morning market at Dong Xuan. This is a local’s market, where hundreds of Vietnamese people come to buy their groceries every morning. There are also sections of the market where people can buy everyday products, and there is a street food section too!
This is a great place to observe and experience the everyday life of the local people here. As it is a local market and not a touristy market, the vendors won’t be bothering you trying to get you to buy products, they will just leave you to it. Not many people will speak English here either so just go with the flow and enjoy the experience! Open 6am until 7pm daily. Click here to see the Google maps location.
Hỏa Lò Prison
Visit Hoa Lo Prison, also nicknamed locally as the ‘Hanoi Hilton’ to learn about the sufferings the Vietnamese endured here during the French rule, as well as the American prisoners of war (POWs). It is a gruesome insight into the inhumane conditions prisoners were subjected to, and is told from the point of view of the Vietnamese. Not for the faint hearted.
You only visit a small section of the prison that remains, as the rest was later demolished. Inside the prison you’ll see life size models of Vietnamese prisoners. Life here was awful: prisoners lay side by side on concrete platforms with their ankles chained to a barre, and they were only allowed to be free of their chains for 15 minutes a day. You can even see the death-row dungeons and guillotines here, as well as the sewer several death-row inmates escaped from.
Above the entrance to the prison are the French words ‘maison centrale’ meaning central house – a term French often used to describe city prisons. Entrance is 30,000VND (£1) and it is open every day from 8am to 5pm. Click here to view the location on Google maps.
Saint Joseph’s Cathedral
Located in the heart of Hanoi is Saint Joseph’s Cathedral, a beautiful Neo-Gothic style Cathedral built in 1886 that is easily one of the most beautiful Cathedrals in Asia. You can instantly see the French Colonial style architecture present here: evidence of the influence the French had over this city (they colonised it in the 1850’s). Similar to Saigon’s Cathedral, this Cathedral was modelled on Paris’ Notre Dame Cathedral. Sadly, when the French retreated from Vietnam in 1954, this Cathedral became controlled by the Vietnamese Nationalists and remained closed until Christmas Eve in 1990.
Personally, after having seen the Cathedral both during the day and during the evening, I prefer it at the evening when it is lit up. The exterior walls have become stained by pollution and so appear dark and dirty during daylight. We managed to visit inside when Mass was on which was really interesting. With over 4 million Catholics in Vietnam, the majority of the people are predominately Catholic (due to the French colonists) and so this Cathedral is really important to the people of Hanoi.
You can visit the outside of the Cathedral at any time, but if you wish to go inside be aware that it isn’t open all day. Usually it is only open when a mass takes place, which is at 6pm in the evenings (and 05.30 in the mornings!). On Sundays there are roughly 7 Masses that happen throughout the day, so you’ll have a much better chance of being able to go inside if you visit on a Sunday (except between 12 and 4pm when there are no Masses).
Click here to see the Google maps location of Saint Joseph’s Church.
Ba Dinh Square
Ho Chi Minh was the Nationalist revolutionary leader and President of North Vietnam from 1954 until his death in 1969. Ba Dinh Square is the large square where he declared Vietnam’s independence on September 2nd 1945, and consequently became the site of his mausoleum, which was actually based on Lenin’s Mausoleum in Moscow. It is free to visit his mausoleum and you can even see his embalmed body (photos and videos are prohibited). It is closed on Mondays and Fridays, but the rest of the days it is open from 7.30am to 10.30am. Bear in mind it can get extremely busy here so visit early in the morning if you wish to escape the crowds and the huge lines.
Coming off Ba Dinh Square are several other notable points of interest, including The Presidential Palace, Ho Chi Minh’s stilt house, the War Memorial and the One Pillar Pagoda.
Military History Museum
Just a few minutes walk from Ba Dinh Square is the Military History Museum. This is a must visit museum, dedicated to the Vietnamese Army and the work they did to keep Vietnam’s independence and fight against the French and later the Americans in the Vietnam War.
Vietnam’s history cannot be ignored: there are reminders of it almost everywhere you go in the country, especially in Hanoi and Saigon. Take time before, or when you are here, to learn about the 20 year long Vietnam War (in Vietnam it is known as The Resistance War against America, or The American War).
The Hanoi Flagtower is located inside the museum and you are able to climb to the top and enjoy the panoramic view over Hanoi from here. This 200 year old World Heritage Site was one of the only ancient monuments that wasn’t destroyed by the French Colonists.
*Like Ho Chi Minh’s Mausoleum, the Military Museum is closed on Mondays and Fridays. The remaining days of the week it is open from 8am – 11.30am and again from 1pm until 4.30pm.*
Hanoi Train Street
About half a kilometre from the Military History Museum lies Hanoi Train Street, located in a residential neighbourhood. The single track train line runs through a street of houses and cafes, dividing it into two (similar to the train market in Bangkok). Over recent years this became incredibly well-known thanks to social media and it is one of the most Instagrammable places in Hanoi. Twice a day (3pm and 7pm) a train passes almost inches away from the resident’s houses. During the rest of the time, tourists can walk along the tracks and stop off in the many cafes along the side of the tracks.
** October 2019 – Hanoi Train Street Closed Down**
However, since October 2019 police have blocked off the train street due to tourist activity here. There were simply too many tourists on the tracks that they felt it was a hazard, and even one train had to make an emergency stop and be rerouted as tourists were in the tracks when it was due to pass. The police ordered the cafe’s to close, and signs have been put up telling tourists not to enter.
Day Trip from Hanoi to Halong Bay
You’ll see adverts all over the Old Quarter for trips to Halong Bay from Hanoi. Ha Long Bay is a must visit when you are in Vietnam – it is so beautiful. But before you book on the first tour you see, shop around and decide which kind of trip you would like as there’s several different types of trip you can do. You will often only need to book a trip just one or two days in advance, so during the first day when you are strolling around the Old Town you can book it.
Organised day trip (boat trip)
You can go to Halong Bay and back in one day from Hanoi if you wish (or if that’s all the time you have). You’ll be away from your hotel/hostel for about 12 hours probably – usually from 8am to 8pm (it takes around 3 hours to reach Halong Bay from Hanoi). The price for these day trips is actually very reasonable and prices are very competitive as many companies offer them. It is actually better to go into the travel agencies and book the tour there as opposed to booking it online as you more often than not will get a better deal in the shop than online. However, if you would like the reassurance of buying online, click here to see my favourite tour.
Check the itineraries of the boat trips: see where they stop off as there are many different tours and routes. Try and make sure the boat stops at Ti Top Mountain – from here you can climb to the top and get some beautiful aerial views of Halong Bay and the limestone karst islands.
Independent trip (Boat trip and Bai Tho Mountain)
If you aren’t a fan of group tours you can visit Halong Bay by yourself. I have done this before – it was easy to organise and I had a really enjoyable time. You can take a bus from Hanoi to Halong City and then take a boat trip from there. This is a popular bus route in Vietnam so there are many buses that run. Click here for the timetable and to book tickets.
Tuan Chau marina or Bay Chai harbour is the pickup point for boat tours, and you can expect to pay around 700,000 dong for a 4 hour excursion. There are many boats and you don’t need to book beforehand. However if you do want to book a trip, I recommend two tours by Origin Vietnam: click here for the full day tour and here for the half day tour.
It will be slightly more expensive to plan an independent trip as opposed to going on an organised day trip from Hanoi, but the main reason I did this was because I wanted to climb Bai Tho Mountain, also known as Poem Mountain. I had seen pictures of the views from here and it looked incredible. It is a hard climb up but is definitely worth the effort in my opinion! The view is absolutely incredible and it is one of the most famous and highest peaks in the bay to climb up.
What’s great is that Bai Tho is located right in the centre of Halong City on the mainland; you don’t have to take a boat to get to this mountain, so you can even skip out the boat ride if you wish! It can be a little hard to find Bai Tho Mountain – to read more about Bai Tho Mountain, click here.
Castaways Trip (if you have longer than 4 days in Hanoi)
If you have longer in Hanoi, you can do the 3 day Castaways trip to Halong Bay. I did this trip back in 2017, which is organised through Vietnam Backpacker Hostel (which is an awesome party hostel in the centre of the Old Quarter with free beer, crazy parties and an epic atmosphere!). It is aimed specifically at young backpackers and is basically one giant epic piss up. If that’s what you’re after (and that was exactly what I needed right then), you’ll have a great time! I had a fantastic time and met some amazing people on the trip!
What’s great about this trip is that you actually get to stay for 2 nights on one of the islands in Halong Bay – how many people can say they’ve done that?!! It does take a while to reach the island though: you all take a 2 hour bus from Hanoi to get to Cat Ba (one of the main gateways to Halong Bay). Then you take a boat, then a bus for 30 minutes across Cat Ba island, then another boat to our island in Halong Bay.
I’m not going to lie, the journey is tedious, especially when you are all hungover from last nights partying in Hanoi. BUT it was a great group of people – around 40 of us altogether, and we kept ourselves entertained and laughing the whole time. It was honestly such a memorable trip! We did watersports when we were there, went on a booze cruise, partied and stayed in the most amazing open-air cabins when we were there! Definitely recommend it fo young backpackers who want to let their hair down, socialise and party.
Where to stay in Hanoi?
Stay in Hanoi’s Old Quarter so you will be close to all the attractions and amenities of Hanoi (bus station, travel agents etc).
When is the best time to visit Hanoi?
Try and time your stay in Hanoi so that it falls at the weekend. In terms of which month, February to April, and October to November are the best times to visit as the rain levels are lowland the temperatures aren’t too high. Fortunately this is also the best time to visit Halong Bay.
Vietnamese exchange rate
Vietnam uses the Vietnamese dong. £1 is roughly 30,000 dong and $1USD is roughly 23,000 dong (VND). There are money exchange places everywhere, but some places such as travel agencies and restaurants will accept USD. However, they will give you a poor exchange rate (20,000 VND to 1USD as opposed to 23,000 VND), so exchange your money to dong wherever possible before you make any purchases.
Like the rest of Vietnam, Hanoi is pretty inexpensive. For sure nowadays Vietnam is cheaper than Thailand.
What are the Vietnamese people like?
One thing I love about Vietnam more than any other South-East Asian country is that the Vietnamese people have no pretences. What you see is what you get. In so many countries, the locals really want to only showcase the best parts of their country to tourists. But the Vietnamese are far too busy getting on with their lives to be thinking about this!
Some tourists think Vietnamese people can be a little rude, when they have come from countries like Cambodia where the locals are almost too polite to you. But personally, I love the no-frills attitude the Vietnamese have, and find them an absolutely fascinating nation to observe. And in my opinion they are absolutely not rude. Hop next door to China, then you’ll see the definition of rude.
Is Hanoi safe?
Hanoi, and Vietnam on the whole, are very safe. As long as you exercise caution like you would do anywhere else, you should be fine.
The thing most people worry about in Vietnam is the motorbikes! There are so many, it is literally unbelievable. Crossing the road can be very daunting for some people as it seems like the scooters don’t even slow down. But just be confident – once you start crossing the road keep going. Don’t run, just walk at a constant slow-ish pace so they can manoeuvre around you. If you stand at the side of the road and wait for the traffic to stop, you’ll be waiting there for a lifetime, so you just have to make the plunge and go for it!
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