Two Days in Hanoi

tran quoc pagoda two days in hanoi

Two days in Hanoi is just enough to give you a taste of one of the world’s most mesmerising cities. In two days you can explore tiny backstreets and visit pagodas, drink egg coffee and watch a water puppet show. You can ride in a cycle rickshaw and find out more about the culture of Vietnam in the city’s wonderful museums. It’s the ideal way to begin a tour of Vietnam.

As we drive through the streets of Hanoi not long after dawn, the city is waking up. Scooters are piled high with goods to sell in the markets. Chickens are upside down in baskets, their feet sticking in the air. Huge sacks of grain, crates of beer and fresh flowers are crammed on the front, back and sides of every scooter we pass.

Ahead of us the limpid green of Hoan Kiem Lake shimmers in the distance. As we get closer we see crowds of people having a morning T’ai Chi session. Women walk together beside the lake, swinging their arms from side to side. On the grass men are bending their knees up and down.

hon kiem lake hanoiCycle rickshaws weave their way through narrow streets where stalls have been selling candlesticks and food for over a thousand years. Women wearing conical hats made out of palm leaves balance heavy baskets filled with fruit from a pole on their shoulders. Torrential rain and the occasional thunderstorm adds to the heady atmosphere.

Some places don’t live up to your expectations but Hanoi is not one of those places. It’s every bit the exotic city of my dreams. A city with over 600 pagodas. A city where tree-lined boulevards and French colonial villas are steps away from shacks serving vats of noodle soup and tiny alleys where you can buy funeral boxes and Buddhist altars.

And let’s not forget the noise. There are three million scooters in Hanoi all beeping their horns at the same time. Crossing the road is an adventure as you attempt to make your way in-between the scooters, cars and rickshaws that are in constant movement through the streets.

scooters in hanoiIt’s at once both a feast and an assault on the senses but a visit to Hanoi is an adventure worth having. Your experience here will seep under your skin and make you determined to return.

Here are our suggestions for how to get the most out of two days in Hanoi.



Most flights from Europe and America arrive in Hanoi in the very early hours of the morning so it’s a good idea to take it easy on your first day when you’re likely to be feeling tired and even a little overwhelmed. This is the day for new foodie experiences and for exploring the city in the mellowest way possible – on a cycle rickshaw.

Have an egg coffee

egg coffee hanoiAfter a few hours’ sleep, head out to experience coffee the Vietnamese way – with egg yolk and condensed milk. There’s a thriving café culture in Vietnam and in Hanoi there are over 40 different cafés on one street alone. Our first taste of egg coffee caphe trung da was in one of Hanoi’s most hidden cafés.

To find Café Pho Co you have to walk into a silk shop and through a courtyard filled with plants and antiques. A chicken perches on a parrot’s swing and a fat ginger cat sleeps on a cushion. You’ll find the rooftop café and glorious views over Hoan Kiem Lake at the top of a narrow spiral staircase.

It might sound disgusting but egg coffee really is delicious –  beaten egg yolk whisked into an espresso with condensed milk, butter and sugar. It tastes a bit like tiramisu, like pudding in a glass.

Café Pho Co, 4th Floor, 11 P Hang Gai

Try the best pho in Hanoi

pho two days in hanoiFor another classic Hanoi experience that hasn’t changed in decades, make your way to Pho Thin, a ramshackle café famous for serving the best pho in the city. Pho bo (beef noodle soup) is one of the most iconic dishes in Vietnam – the beef bones are boiled for hours in a pot with ginger, shallots, star anise, cassia and cardamom. At Pho Thin you’ll see – and smell – the huge cauldron of soup as soon as you walk in the door. Grab a bowlful and a pair of chopsticks and find a place on a wooden bench around a metal table. It’s delicious and, at around £1.70 a bowl, an absolute bargain.

Pho Thin, 13 P Lo Duc

Ride through the Old Quarter on a cycle rickshaw

cycle rickshaw two days in hanoiThe best way to experience the magical yet manic atmosphere of the Old Quarter of Hanoi is on a cycle rickshaw. You’ll be cycled slowly through the streets at the ideal pace to take it all in without having to negotiate the crowds – especially useful on your first day when you’ll be struggling to take it all in.

The maze of narrow streets here are lined with stalls and shops. Each street specialises in a different trade, from jewellery and red candlesticks to herbal medicine, baskets and lamps. Street food vendors sell snails with chilli, lemongrass and hot fish sauce and women carry baskets piled high with jackfruit and rambutan.

Visit one of the oldest pagodas in Vietnam

tran quoc pagoda hanoiBe sure to make your way over to the edge of West Lake to see the Tran Quoc Pagoda, one of the oldest pagodas in Vietnam.

Have dinner in a traditional restaurant

The perfect foodie day in Hanoi should include dinner in one of the traditional restaurants in the Old Quarter. Our entire family loved our meal at Blue Butterfly, an atmospheric wooden house with hanging lamps and the loveliest serving staff who explain what’s in and how to eat each course.

Choose one of the set meals so that you can try a wide range of dishes. Nem lui (pork on lemongrass skewers wrapped in rice paper and dipped in peanut sauce) and Cha ca (fish with shrimp paste and herbs) were our favourites.

Blue Butterfly, 69 P Ma May


old quarter hanoi

Walk round the Vietnam Museum of Ethnology

After spending your first day immersing yourselves in the food and atmosphere of Hanoi it’s time to explore more of the culture. The Vietnam Museum of Ethnology is a good place to start. There are 54 different ethnic groups living in Vietnam and they all worship their ancestors, believing that they live among us, either as spirits or reincarnated in a different form.

The museum has a fascinating collection of artefacts and everyday objects like the crossbows and bamboo arrows that some tribes still use to hunt their prey with poisoned arrowheads.

Vietnam Museum of Ethnology, D Nguyen Van Huyen

Watch the Changing of the Guard at Ho Chi Minh’s Mausoleum

ho chi minh mausoleum hanoiHo Chi Minh is the founder of modern Vietnam and Ho Chi Minh’s Mausoleum is a place of pilgrimage for many Vietnamese. The complex of gardens and monuments here includes the traditional stilt house where he lived and the marble mausoleum where his body lies. They even have a Changing of the Guard ceremony like the one at Buckingham Palace.

Ba Dinh Square

Visit the One Pillar Pagoda

one pillar pagoda hanoiThe One Pillar Pagoda is a short walk from the mausoleum. This wooden temple was built a thousand years ago to look like a lotus blossom rising out of a sea of sorrow. The original pagoda was rebuilt after being destroyed by the French.

One Pillar Pagoda, P Ong Ich Kiem

Go to the Vietnamese Women’s Museum

At the Vietnamese Women’s Museum you can try balancing baskets hanging on a pole over your shoulders like the women you see in the streets. Here we found out more about the lives of the street sellers of Hanoi. Most of them come from villages in the countryside and live in shared rooms in the city while their husbands work the land. They work here to earn enough money for their children to go to school.

The exhibition covering women’s role during the Vietnam War is especially poignant and there’s an excellent collection of propaganda posters.

Vietnamese Women’s Museum, 36 P Ly Thuong Kiet

Watch a water puppet show

Two days in Hanoi would not be complete without a visit to a water puppet show. Water puppets are unique to Vietnam. The puppeteers stand waist deep in water and control the puppets from behind a bamboo screen. Water puppets were invented a thousand years ago by farmers passing time after planting rice in their paddy fields.

The shows include scenes from local life – a boy riding a buffalo and fishermen on their boat as well as fire-breathing dragons and dancing unicorns.

The Lotus Water Puppet Theatre near Hoan Kiem Lake has performances several times a day. The shows last for 50 minutes.


If your two days in Hanoi is part of a longer exploration of Vietnam it is worth considering using a tour operator to help you get the most out of your trip. We almost always travel independently, booking and researching everything ourselves, but we decided to use a tour operator to help us plan and book our trip to Vietnam. We felt that a 17-night trip with kids that involved stays in seven different areas, guided tours, activities and transport needed this extra support.

There are lots of different tour operators that specialise in putting together an itinerary tailor made to suit your needs and budget. We were very happy with the itinerary suggested by Bamboo Travel.

lan ha bay cruise vietnamTop of most people’s wishlist on a trip to Vietnam is a cruise on Halong Bay. The Gulf of Tonkin is only a two-hour drive from Hanoi and the dreamy landscape of limestone mountains and emerald waters makes an ideal contrast to a city break in Hanoi. We’d recommend a cruise on the much quieter Lan Ha Bay.

If you’d like to find out why I’m posting about Hanoi now, read my explanation here…

Find out more about travelling in Vietnam with and without a family by reading:

Ultimate Guide to Vietnam with Kids

Lan Ha Bay: Vietnam without the Crowds

The Incredible Paradise Cave of Vietnam

Detailed guide to spending two days in Hanoi, Vietnam's most mesmerising city. Suggestions on the best things to do, where to eat and what not to miss. #twodaysinhanoi #thingstodoinhanoi #hanoiitinerary #vietnamtravel #thingstodoinvietnam #hanoiwithkids #vietnamwithkids #placestovisitinhanoi #howmanydaysinhanoi #familytravelvietnam





    • Clare Thomson
      15th June 2021 / 9:51 am

      Thanks so much Tanja, it’s really good to hear from you! Hanoi really was a special city. It feels even more exotic now that we’ve been staying home for so long.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.