There’s a plethora of cool things to do in Hanoi, but if – like us – you’re keen to use your 24-hours to explore a slightly more quirky side to Vietnam’s vibrant capital city, get your walking shoes on with our one-day off the beaten path Hanoi itinerary.
1. Start The Day By Hoan Kiem Lake
By 6am, the hustle is already gathering pace on the roads around Hoan Kiem Lake in Hanoi’s Old Quarter.
Make it across the busy street to the wide lakeside promenade though, and the activity takes on a decidedly more tranquil pace.
This is where Hanoi folk start their day, with exercise and meditation by the calm waters of their legendary lake. Everywhere you turn, people are walking, jogging, stretching their limbs.
Right around the oval-shaped lagoon, large groups of (mostly) middle aged ladies slowly work hands, fans, flags and bamboo balls through the air, in the ancient practice of Tai Chi.
You can join one of these group if you feel so inclined, find your own zen by the water, or settle in and watch the morning activity unfold. Dawn by Hoan Kiem Lake is one of Hanoi’s best people watching experiences.
2. Drink Egg Coffee At Giang Café
Vietnamese Coffee – that deliciously rich opus of Vietnamese-grown beans and thick condensed milk – is available just about everywhere in Hanoi. But there’s another more unconventional, even more luscious caffeine hit awaiting the intrepid coffee drinker in Hanoi.
Conjured back in the 50s, when milk was hard to come by, egg coffee is an inventive blend of whisked egg yolk, coffee, condensed milk and, in the case of Giang Café, butter and sometimes cheese. This is, essentially, dessert in a cup.
And it is seriously delicious.
Giang Café is open from 7am at 39 Nyugen Huu Huan, a 5-minute walk from the famous Red Bridge on Hoan Kiem Lake.
3. Visit The Trompe L’oeil Murals
A 15-minute wander northwest from Giang Café is an unusual series of murals, painted into the stone archways of the train line, starting at 27 Phung Hung Street.
The 19 murals are a collaboration between Vietnamese and Korean artists, commemorating more than two decades of good relations between the two countries.
Many of the artworks, which portray Hanoi street scenes, have been painted in a three-dimensional style called trompe l’oeil.
The quirky 3D illusions created by the paintings make for some interesting photos, but we were most fascinated by the locals the murals attracted – many of them dressed in beautiful, traditional silk outfits – for interactive photo shoots with the paintings.
4. Visit The Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum
From the Trompe L’oeil murals, it’s a 2km walk, or a short xe om (motorbike taxi) ride to the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum.
This is the tomb of Chairman Ho Chi Minh, the revered revolutionary leader and founding father of modern-day Vietnam.
Ho Chi Minh’s imposing Soviet-style resting place is actually one of Hanoi’s most visited attractions, for Vietnamese people and tourists alike.
But the limited opening hours, popularity, security and highly structured process for viewing ‘Uncle Ho’ means if you only have one day in Hanoi, you’ll need to plan this visit in advance.
5. Refuel With Bun Cha For Lunch
You’ll find dedicated Bun Cha restaurants all over the city, and everyone you meet – local or tourist – will have their own recommendation.
You can also eat Bun Cha at any time of day, but we were told that it’s considered more of a lunchtime meal. Our own experience, at a small restaurant back in the Old Quarter called Bun Cha Ta, completely refueled us – we didn’t need to eat again until late that night.
So what is Bun Cha? Basically, it’s a bowl of delicious broth with divinely barbecued pork patties and pork slices. It comes with a pile of vermicelli rice noodles, garlic and chilli, a heaped plate of greens like lettuce and Vietnamese mint and, if you like, a batch of crispy fried spring rolls. It’s an epic feast and it tastes sensational.
Bun Cha is our new favourite dish in Vietnam. It should be on every itinerary for Hanoi. We guarantee you’ll want to eat it more than once.
6. Take A Moment In Hoa Lo Prison Museum – The ‘Hanoi Hilton’
Our delayed train encounter means we’re a little tight on time for our next stop, which closes at 5pm. We’re headed to the notorious Hoa Lo Prison, a 15-minute walk from train street, or a couple of minutes by motorbike.
Nicknamed the ‘Hanoi Hilton’ by the US prisoners held captive here during the Vietnam War, this small compound is all that remains of a once much larger prison complex built by the French in the late 19th-century.
The displays in the museum largely deal with the prison’s use during the French occupation and the Vietnamese wars for independence.
Look out for the small rooms towards the end of the complex that describe the experience of the American POWs held at the prison. This is one entry on our Hanoi trip itinerary that will give you plenty to contemplate.
7. Chill With Gin & Views Of Hanoi Cathedral
All this exploring is thirsty work so we’re winding up our Hanoi itinerary with a drink and a view.
Just 650-metres north of Hoa Lo Prison Museum is St Joseph’s Cathedral, the religious centrepoint for Vietnam’s four million Catholics.
Pop inside for a peek, then head across the road to the Mad Botanist Gin Bar; it’s up several flights of stairs at 45 Ly Quoc Su.
The rooftop bar offers a huge selection of gins and delicious gin cocktails, as well as fantastic views over the cathedral, which lights up at night.
8. Try Phenomenal Pho for dinner
Unless you’re visiting other parts of Vietnam and have the opportunity to start your day with a steaming bowl of Pho, then don’t leave Hanoi without eating it at least once.
Pho is Vietnam’s legendary noodle soup, and pho stalls are everywhere in Hanoi. Some specialise in beef pho (Pho Bo), some in chicken pho (Pho Ga), and some do both. Find a place packed with locals, pull up a tiny plastic stool and slurp away gleefully.
If you’re after somewhere you can find on a map though, then just 2 minutes’ walk north of the cathedral on Ly Quoc Su Street, you’ll find restaurant Pho 10. These guys only do pho and they do it damned well.
9. Finish Your Day Back By Hoan Kiem Lake
After dinner, we wander 5 minutes’ west, to finish up our Hanoi itinerary back where we started, by Hoan Kiem Lake.
As the social heartland of Hanoi’s Old Quarter, Hoan Kiem isn’t strictly Hanoi off the beaten track, but with the temps marginally cooler than during the day, the lakeside fires up with with a lively, almost carnival-like atmosphere in the evenings.