Wondering how to put together the perfect Hanoi itinerary? Vietnam’s capital seduces through the narrow lanes of its Old Quarter, poignant Ho Chi Minh mausoleum and leafy, well-heeled French Quarter.
Here’s how to spend 3 days in Hanoi, Vietnam’s atmospheric capital city.
PLANNING YOUR HANOI ITINERARY
How to get around Hanoi
Most visitors stay in either the French Quarter or the Old Quarter and it’s perfectly reasonable to walk around and between the two if you’re in good health. Streets in the Old Quarter are particularly narrow and it makes sense to venture here by foot, savouring the views, the scents and the sounds.
You need to have your wits about you, though, and negotiate crossing incredibly busy roads without coordinated traffic signals. Watch and follow the crowd and keep walking at a steady pace; traffic will swerve around you.
Paperwork for Hanoi
Don’t forget that you may need to arrange a visa in advance for your trip to Vietnam. Happily, this no longer requires a visit to the embassy in most cases. You can also find services, like Byevisa.com, to help you arrange your Vietnam visa online in advance.
And don't forget our ultimate international travel checklist to make sure you are ready to go.
To reach some of the other points of interest on this Hanoi itinerary, you may prefer to grab a taxi or hire a bike.
Motorbikes and motorbike taxis are extremely popular in Hanoi, and across Vietnam, but I would always urge caution and insist that you wear a helmet!
Buses are plentiful but you should not need them for most spots on this itinerary.
Taxis are also generally easy to come by, just ask your hotel to help with bookings and transfers and to provide the names of reputable companies.
Where to stay in Hanoi
The most captivating and well-located areas in Hanoi for visitors are the leafy French Quarter and crammed and chaotic Old Quarter.
Personally, I’d recommend a stay in the French Quarter, although the Old Quarter also oozes plenty of atmosphere. However, the streets are incredibly narrow in the Old Quarter and taxi transfers can be difficult from the airport with luggage, whereas in the French Quarter, they are easy.
- A stay in the luxurious Sofitel Hotel Hanoi allows you to visit the bomb shelter from the Vietnam/American war and see the typewriter that Graham Greene used to write The Quiet American.
The Best Time to Visit Hanoi
Hanoi is further north than many imagine, and that gives it four seasons instead of simply a tropical monsoon.
Summers are hot and sticky in July and August and December brings with it a certain chill. It stands to reason, therefore, that spring and autumn offer the best weather for making the most of your Hanoi itinerary, however it also means that there isn’t really a bad time of year to visit.
THE PERFECT HANOI ITINERARY: HOW TO SPEND 3 DAYS IN HANOI
If you only have 72 hours in Hanoi, spend the first two days in the heart of the city. After that, either slow down and see the unusual sides of the city or break out into the neighbouring countryside, pierced with stunning karst landscapes and UNESCO World Heritage Sites.
Wondering where to eat in Hanoi? Check out this guide to my favourite restaurants in Hanoi.
DAY ONE HANOI ITINERARY
Lace up your walking shoes and cover your shoulders and knees for the temples. It’s time to start your three day Hanoi itinerary in and around some of the city’s most evocative areas. We’re going to walk you past Hoan Kiem lake and into the Old Quarter.
Ho Hoan Kiem lake
Hoan Kiem Lake forms one of the major landmarks of the city and the perfect place to start your 3 day Hanoi itinerary. Its cool, green waters ripple out from the Turtle Tower (Thap Rua) over 12 hectares in the heart of the historic quarter.
Translated, Ho Hoan Kiem means the lake of the returned sword and it’s one of my favourite legend, in part because you’ll find plenty of cute turtles all around with swords on their backs.
Temple of Literature
Oh, how my heart rejoiced as a writer to see the name of this temple! The Temple of Literature, or Văn Miếu to give it its proper name, sits in a secluded, balmy green garden right in the heart of the city.
Built in 1070 during the reign of Lý Thánh Tông, this soothing complex is also home to the Imperial Academy, Vietnam’s first university.
When the Vietnamese New Year (Tet) rolls around, calligraphers gather here to write good luck wishes as gifts or home decorations.
The rest of the time, it’s a beautiful place to visit and cool down from the more frenetic parts of the city. And if you have a 100 000 dong banknote, look on the back. That’s the Temple of Literature you’re looking at.
Hanoi Old Quarter
Walking through Hanoi’s Old Quarter swaps the serenity of the lake for a non-stop pulsation of scents, sights and sounds.
This square kilometre of street food and street business used to stand behind wooden gates until as late as the 19th century. Previously, the area was divided between 36 artisanal guilds, with each gathered around a temple or communal dinh dedicated to the guild’s patron spirit.
Tinsel and plastic may have joined the red lacquerware and lanterns but you’ll still find streets more or less organised according to their original trade.
Thus Hang Buom mainly sells imported food and alcohol, Han Dau specialises in shoes and Hang Hom stocks its streets with wooden chests, glue, paint and varnish.
Check out Hang Quat for ceremonial fans and religious accessories and Hang Vai for fabric and bamboo ladders.
So when should you visit? Well, for this 3 day in Hanoi itinerary, we’ve suggested you walk around by day. But depending on your jet lag, you may also want to visit the night market in the Old Quarter too.
Hoa Lo Prison – The Hanoi Hilton
If you’re making good time, then consider a slight detour to the Hoa Lo Prison. Nicknamed the “Hanoi Hilton” by American prisoners of war, the complex was originally built by French colonists for political prisoners and the grim history progressed from there.
Much of the original prison has been demolished but the gatehouse remains as a museum and a memorial stands there also.
Several prominent Americans spent time here as POWs, with presidential nominee Senator John McCain likely the most well known. He spent parts of his five and a half year sentence here.
Hanoi Train Street
This is a curious diversion, buried in the Old Quarter. In essence, pictures speak louder than words. Every night at around 7pm, families bring in laundry and children as a train passes through this narrow residential area, only inches from the windows.
Please don’t add to the sense of danger by getting in the way, but it’s a curious place to wander through in the day time. Google maps may want to see the words Ngo 224 Le Duan to help you find it, but sometimes “train street” works just as well.
The French Quarter
In contrast to the Old Quarter, Hanoi’s French Quarter breathes space, leafy boulevards and well-heeled places to eat. This is the zone for government buildings, luxury hotels, ambassadors and affluent residents.
Located at the south east end of Hoan Kiem Lake, the main road Trang Tien is a busy shopping street with galleries, boutiques and bookshops.
It’s a beautiful place to spend an evening and an even more beautiful place to stay.
DAY 2 IN HANOI ITINERARY
We’ll travel a little further today on your 3 day Hanoi itinerary. Still cover ankles and knees, however, as temples and perhaps the most famous mausoleum on earth await.
Tran Quoc Pagoda
Your first stop takes you to the shores of the expansive West Lake and the Tran Quoc Pagoda. Built in the 6th century during the reign of Emperor Ly Nam De Dynasty (544 - 548) this place has seen a lot. Not only a change of name but also location (the original was relocated from the Red River in 1615.)
The main pagoda reaches up 11 storeys to a height of 15 metres, with surrounding gardens and smaller buildings burning incense and offering shade.
Entrance is free.
Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum
For an experience unlike any other, pay a visit to the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum and Museum in the Ba Dinh District.
Open to the public to pay their respects, the embalmed body of President Ho Chi Minh lies preserved in the chilled air of the central hall, protected by the military. The body lies in a glass case, surrounded by a procession of visitors and an air of silence.
If you’re not too sure about going inside, it’s still worth visiting the block-like building and outer complex: the place where Ho Chi Minh read the Declaration of Independence in 1945, establishing the Democratic Republic of Vietnam.
Queues can be long and you will need to deposit cameras in the designated cloakroom.
One Pillar Pagoda
Close to the Ho Chi Minh Memorial, you can change track completely and visit one of Vietnam’s iconic temples, the One Pillar Pagoda. The postcard pretty view is of Liên Hoa Đài, the Lotus station, originally built in 1049.
Hanoi Botanical Garden
Walk just a little further to reach the Hanoi Botanical Gardens, a beautiful release from city traffic and chilled museums.
Vuon Bach Thao, the Hanoi Botanical Gardens, cover 11 hectares in a mix of orchids, coconuts and banyan trees. If your three days in Hanoi form part of a wider trip through Vietnam, you may find this is one attraction to skip if the queues at the Ho Chi Minh museum took some time. But if 72 hours in Hanoi is all you have to see of the country, then spend time here to at least soak up some of the local flora.
Huu Tiep Lake
This small lake in a residential quarter stands out for one obvious feature: the B52 bomber wreckage jutting out of the water.
It’s a sobering reminder of the conflict known as the Vietnam War in America, and the American War on the ground in Hanoi.
Vietnam Military History Museum
Back towards the Mausoleum, stands the Vietnam Military History Museum, a collection of military artefacts and a patchwork of explanation.
It helps to read up on the history before you visit, but some signposts are in English. Don’t expect a neutral commentary, though, itself a thought-provoking experience.
Thăng Long Imperial Citadel – UNESCO World Heritage Site
Take a taxi across town to the Thăng Long Imperial Citadel, a complex of historic buildings that began life over 1000 years ago in 1011.The area served as a royal palace for centuries before the capital moved to Hué in 1810. By the 20th century, the Japanese army used it to house thousands of captured French soldiers.
Today, most of the contents have gone but highlights include the Hanoi Flag Tower and D67 Tunnela and House.
Evening: Dong Kinh Nghia Thuc Square
Head to the famous Dong Kinh Nghia Thuc Square and explore its accessible eateries and Vietnamese street food, while traffic swirls around.
You can also grab tickets to the famous water puppet theatre that depicts the creation of Vietnam through colourful dance and music.
DAY 3 HANOI ITINERARY
The capital still has plenty to offer if you’re lucky enough to have 72 hours in Hanoi or more.
However, many people dream of dashing through the karst landscapes on a day trip (although I’d always recommend an overnight stay if you can.)
I’ve listed some of the most popular options to add to your Hanoi itinerary below. There’s no way that you’ll be able to complete them all with only 3 days in Hanoi, so just pick the one that appeals to you the most.
If you are short on time, then I’d also recommend joining a tour or hiring a travel guide to help you get there and back without the stress of missed connections or wrong turns.
Spend More Time in Hanoi
Try to catch a performance and the lemon-yellow Hanoi Opera House for the evening, and spend the day between lounging by the pool and exploring the flavours of the Dong Xuan Market.
Consider taking a food tour as one of the best ways to meet people who live here during your three days in Hanoi.
Day Trip to Halong Bay
Ah, Halong Bay. This watery UNESCO World Heritage Site is possibly one of the most beautiful natural landscapes in the world – as long as you can escape the crowds. The port where visitors clamber onto boats is fast and frenetic.
And so, while it is just about possible to get out to Halong Bay and back as part of your Hanoi itinerary, if you possibly can, I would advise you plan for an overnight stay on the water. Here’s what you can expect from a luxury Halong Bay cruise.
Another beautiful karst landscape and UNESCO World Heritage Site, this time on land. Take a trip to Trang An to try the scenic boat cave tours.
Trang An contains both the Tam Coc caves and the Bich Dong mountain pagodas.
Hang Mua Peak
Also, in Ninh Binh Province, if you’re up to climbing 500 stairs then you’ll be rewarded with a stunning view across the Tam Coc landscape.
Bai Dinh Pagoda
As southeast Asia’s largest Buddhist complex, Bai Dinh Pagoda draws quite a crowd. Resident monks move between the 500 or so carved statues of Buddha, including one that’s over 10 metres high.
Hoa Lu’s two surviving temples stand out against the Yen Ngua Mountain, with blood red lacquered pillars. It’s a good spot to mix hiking and the outdoors with a spot of culture, so wear sturdy walking shoes if this is part of your plan.