Vietnam’s capital of Hanoi was established more than 1,000 years ago, with the venerable name Thang Long, or “soaring dragon”. Today’s Hanoi is an energetic city with a proud past that’s visible in its temples, French colonial buildings and monuments. Here you’ll find incredible street-side meals for under US$2, access to fascinating historic sites for less than that and the city’s world-famous bia hoi (Vietnamese draft beer) for no more than 50 cents a glass. Are you game?
*US$; hotels, airfare and spontaneous brunching not included
Day 1: Eat your way through the Old Quarter
Most trips to Hanoi begin in the Old Quarter, the densely packed commercial district, where vendors have traded everything from silver and silk to tombstones and festival décor items since the 13th century. The area is home to the city’s most interesting street life and street food, making it a great place to explore on foot.
Start your day with a plate of comforting banh cuon (steamed rice flour pancakes with minced pork and mushrooms) at Banh Cuon Gia Truyen (US$1.50). Old Quarter streets resemble a dense thicket, so give yourself time to wander without looking at a map (or your smartphone). Points of interest include the free-to-enter Bach Ma Temple, dating back to the 11th century, and Ma May Ancient House, one of the few Old Quarter homes that have been restored to offer a glimpse of life in the 1800s (US$0.40).
By lunch time, the Old Quarter is full of sidewalk joints grilling up Hanoi’s beloved bun cha (barbecue pork patties served with vermicelli noodles and herbs). But it’s rude to linger when table space is at a premium, so if you’re looking for a more leisurely lunch, head to Chopsticks. When the restaurant opened at the end of 2017, its pricier-than-usual bun cha (US$6) triggered a minor local outcry, but the place has won fans with its labor-intensive pork belly and even a vegetarian version of the dish. For a post-lunch pick-me-up, Giang Cafe’s classic egg coffee (US$1) is a Hanoi tradition.
In the afternoon, walk or take a cab south (US$1.50) to the Hoa Lo Prison Museum. Though it’s most famous as the site of the “Hanoi Hilton” — where American politician John McCain was imprisoned from 1967 to 1973 — the museum also tells the story of the brutal treatment of colonial-era Vietnamese revolutionaries at the hands of the French (US$1.30). Grab dinner at any of the local street-side joints, or get a table at Cha Ca Thang Long, where there’s just one thing on the menu: cha ca, a Hanoi favorite made with stir-fried fish, turmeric and dill, and served with cold vermicelli rice noodles and fresh herbs (US$7).
If you’re not worn out from a day of walking and dodging motorbikes (don’t worry, they dodge you too), stroll south to see the streets around Hoan Kiem Lake, closed to traffic for the weekend and transformed into a stage for musicians, dance troupes and kids driving tiny electric cars. Near the Hanoi Opera House, Kumquat Tree is a speakeasy that makes some of the city’s most interesting cocktails, with ingredients like red dragon fruit juice and names like Farewell My Concubine (US$8). Call ahead of time for the password.
- Day 1 costs: Local eats and coffee US$15.5; Entry feesUS$1.70; TransportUS$1.5; Cocktail US$8; Total: US$26.7
Day 2: Dive into the local history
Begin your morning by checking out a new art installation combining virtual reality with Hanoi landmarks, to add a new layer to the city’s bustling streets. Into Thin Air 2, a permanent feature launched in October by local gallery and café Manzi Art Space, consists of 10 site-specific contemporary artworks scattered around the city. To view them, download the Into Thin Air 2 app and pull out your phone when you reach the right spots — then explore the art on your screen. If you’re staying in the Old Quarter, take a cab to Lenin Park (US$2) to view A Way to Preserve, which plays with the shadow cast by the park’s five-meter statue of Lenin. Keep the app handy as you move through the city to see more art.
Just north of Lenin Park is Ba Dinh Square, where President Ho Chi Minh declared Vietnamese independence in 1945. Today, his body is embalmed and displayed in the imposing Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum (against his wishes, as he wanted to be cremated after he passed away). Lines to enter can be long and President Ho spends part of the year receiving touch-ups in Russia, so instead of going inside, take a short walk to the Presidential Palace (US$1). There, you can tour the humble but lovely stilt house in which the man chose to reside — instead of the Beaux-Arts French colonial mansion in the same complex. The Ho Chi Minh Museum (US$1.70) is also worth the price of admission. It tells the life story of President Ho and offers avant-garde takes on 20th century history — one exhibit is a dimly lit maze intended to evoke the disorientation of modernity.
The immediate area around Ba Dinh Square is a bit lacking in dining options. For more choice, walk north to reach Thanh Nien road, the charming street separating Tay Ho (West Lake) from the smaller Truc Bach Lake. Originally built as a dam, the tree-lined road is regarded as Hanoi’s most romantic. Don’t miss Tran Quoc Pagoda, the oldest in the city. Turning east once you reach the end of the road will take you toward Truc Bach Island, a serene spot with village vibes and great restaurants. Pho cuon (rice noodles wrapped around fresh lettuce and stir-fried beef) is a hyper-local specialty; try the dish at any of the shops on Ngu Xa street (US$3).
In the afternoon, explore Truc Bach’s narrow streets or relax in a café. Local chain Cong Caphe, famous for its guerilla-themed décor and coconut coffee, has a Truc Bach branch with a nice lake view (a coconut coffee is about US$2). Continue your journey into Hanoi’s past with dinner at Cua Hang An Uong Mau Dich So 37 (or “State-Run Food Shop 37”), also on Truc Bach Island. The restaurant was designed to inspire nostalgia for Vietnam’s subsidized economy period (1975 to 1986), with plastic sandals, an old radio and other odds and ends from the era decorating the walls. The family-style Vietnamese food, happily, is anachronistically abundant — try the stir-fried morning glory, spring rolls and stewed beef (US$12).
- Day 2 costs: Transport US$13; Entry fees US$2.7; Food and drink US$17; Total: US$31.70
Day 3: Find an urban oasis
One of the joys of Hanoi is the feeling that you never know what you might find innf you turn down that alley or climb the staircase toward that café. On your last day, leave the tourist must-sees behind and focus on exploring some of the city’s calmer pockets.
From the Old Quarter, take bus 1 or 9 south into Dong Da District ($0.30). Get off on Kham Thien street and walk a few minutes to Hanoi 60S (Sixty Square), a newly opened collection of cafés, independent shops and galleries housed in a complex of French colonial buildings and banyan trees. Though it’s becoming a go-to spot for hip Hanoians, exploring the space still offers plenty of surprises; find the terrace looking over a jade-green pond you can’t see from the outside. Stop by Quan Cam café to see local art, lounge on vintage furniture and try the refreshing lemonade coffee (US$1.50).
Take bus 41 north beyond the Old Quarter (US$0.30) on Yen Phu street. Grab lunch at any crowded street food joint — bun rieu cua (freshwater crab noodle soup) is one Hanoi dish you should try before you leave (US$2). Then make your way toward the lake, stopping at the bike rental shop at 96 Yen Hoa. Daily rental will run less than US$8.50. From the lakefront shop, start pedaling along the road in either direction. A leisurely circuit can easily fill an afternoon, as you cycle past pagodas, playgrounds and lotus groves. Buy a chilled coconut (US$1.30) to drink, while gazing out over the legendary lake, formed, according to lore, when the Dragon King Lac Long Quan killed an evil nine-tailed fox — now, part of the lakeside road is named for the king.
After returning your bicycle, take a cab from the bike shop to El Loco Tapas Bar (US$2) in the expat-friendly neighborhood West Lake. The Spanish restaurant, which opened in 2017, serves up classics like ham croquetas, blue mussels and potato tortillas. Order a few to make a reasonably priced meal with a view of the lake (US$20).
You’re now in the perfect place to check out West Lake’s nightlife scene, which plays host to live music and DJ acts every weekend. One of the newcomers on fast-growing Dang Thai Mai street is Whiskey Mystics and Men, opened in summer 2018. The Cowboys Band — a group of middle-aged Hanoians who declare themselves the oldest rockers in the capital — perform covers of The Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Lynyrd Skynyrd and much more every weekend. There’s no cover charge and a beer costs US$2.15. Or, see who’s playing at music scene stalwart Hanoi Rock City, where local bands have been winning new fans since 2010.
- Day 3 costs: Transport US$2.60; Food and drinkUS$26.95; Bicycle rental US$8:50; Total: US$38.05
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Getting around. Ride-hailing apps are among the most convenient ways to get around the city. If you buy a SIM card at the airport (US$12), download Grab or Go-Viet (pictured) to hail a cab or motorbike taxi — helmets may be provided. You’ll rarely pay more than US$5 for rides in the city center.
The bus is the cheapest and best option if you’re not pressed for time. Use the app Tim Buyt or website (timbus.vn) to plan your route. Buy a ticket after you board. Most routes cost US$0.30, but some are more expensive — the bus attendant will let you know what to pay. Bus 86 (US$1.50) is a great way to get to and from Noi Bai International Airport.
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3 Hanoi restaurants for a worthy splurge
- The Clover at Ngoc Thuy. This elegant French restaurant, housed in a colonial-era mansion with fantastic views of Long Bien Bridge, offers a set lunch menu starting at US$24. 14 Alley 53 Ngoc Thuy
- Cau Go Vietnamese Restaurant. Refined takes on classic Vietnamese dishes paired with the city’s best view of Hoan Kiem Lake. A meal for two with wine will come in at around US$50. 7 Dinh Tien Hoang
- High Tea at the Metropole. Hanoi’s most historic hotel has housed everyone from Graham Greene to Jane Fonda. Afternoon high tea, served at Le Club Bar for US$21, is a more affordable indulgence than a room here. 15 Pho Ngo Quyen
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3 Hanoi hotspots for bia hoi
- Bia Hoi 19C Ngoc Ha. This comfortable spot for the unpasteurized and ultra-light beers , near Ba Dinh Square, boasts a garden-like dining space. It’s also nicknamed “Government Bia Hoi” for the bureaucratic after-work crowd it attracts. 19C Ngoc Ha
- Bia Hoi Thien Nga. Odds are that if you walk past this place, proprietor Mrs Nga will flag you down and have you perched on a small blue chair before you know what’s happening. Lucky for you, the beer’s cold and the food’s great. 86B Tran Hung Dao
- Bia Hoi Corner. It’s loud, crowded and a favorite of backpackers and locals alike. You’ll probably end up here at some point anyway, but try to go early, before the bia hoi runs out. Ta Hien cor Luong Ngoc Quyen
This article first appeared in the January 2019 issue of Smile magazine.