Hanoi is often, sadly, just somewhere visitors stop off for a night or two en route to Ha Long Bay, mountainous Sapa or a dash down the coast to Ho Chi Minh City. But for those who do want to take a look around, however fleeting, Hanoi can be a fascinating destination in its own right. So, if you just have one day in Hanoi, how do you make the most of it?
Before you jump in with an "everyone's different" comment — yes, I know, and if you like I'll write a dozen of these, but just for fun, here's how I would spend just one, very long, day in Hanoi... on something of a budget.
On an ideal day I'd be full of energy and would jump up out of bed before 6am to go and watch the early morning exercisers around Hoan Kiem Lake. Not to participate you understand, just to observe.
The early start would certainly deserve a fine breakfast reward and for that I'd wander to Puku — just because I love Eggs Benedict and they do a decent one. It's a 10 - 15 minute walk from the lake, but as good a time as any to experience the atmosphere of Old Quarter and "Food Street", where Puku is now located, is usually quite lively.
After breakfast I'd take a slow walk along Phung Hung — where there's a small market — and down Bat Dan into the heart of Old Quarter to pick up a cyclo. Walking around Old Quarter is a good way to explore but if I just want to look around and take photos a cyclo makes life easier — even if I do look a package holiday tourist. So I'd get a cyclo to take me around Old Quarter for a bit and then on to Tran Quoc Pagoda on West Lake.
The temple itself is worth a wander and the walk along Thanh Nien street between the two lakes always fills me with pleasure. Quan Thanh Temple, at the southern end of the street, has been refurbished recently, so I'd pop in there for a look around and then walk across to the small park opposite and find somewhere to sit and enjoy an iced or hot tea — weather dependent — and watch the world go by.
Fluids restored I'd take a five minute walk to the Botanical Gardens and walk through to the back entrance of the Ho Chi Minh Museum. I really like the area around the Museum and Mausoleum, it has a completely different feel to it to the rest of Hanoi. Maybe it's just the open spaces or the neatness of it all. If I were in the mood I'd visit the museum and I'd certainly go to see the stilt house where Ho Chi Minh lived for a while — it provides an interesting insight to his life and is set in calming surroundings, a world away from the streets of Hanoi.
Then I'd jump on a xe om or in a taxi and head to the Temple of Literature. To be honest, it's a bit of a tourist trap and tends to be too busy to be able to really absorb its beauty and atmosphere, but it's still one of the most interesting places in Hanoi.
Koto — a restaurant that trains disadvantaged youth — is next to the Temple of Literature and is a good lunch spot, although I'd be tempted to find a Bun Cha stall instead as it's a must try in Hanoi.
After lunch I'd head back to Hoan Kiem and wander from the Opera House, past the Sofitel Metropole Legend and along Ngo Quyen to absorb the beautiful architecture of that part of the French Quarter. Then round the bottom of the lake and onto Le Thai To for dessert: Fanny's ice cream is to die for, but on a hot day I'd be tempted to sit at Hapro Bon Mua opposite for outdoor seating and a view of the lake.
By now it must be time for a bit of shopping and it's easy enough to walk from the lake to Hang Trong, Hang Gai, Hang Manh and Hang Hom where there are a high concentration of souvenir, clothes and art shops. Tan My Design, at 61 Hang Gai, is a particularly lovely shop to wander around, though it's a bit pricey for my budget.
After all that walking a massage is in order. Depending upon where I end up with my shopping I might go down to St Josephs Cathedral and try one of the places there, or will head to Dinh Liet to Emperor Foot Massage or Placencare for something a bit fancier.
After freshening up for the evening I'd aim to be at Avalon for sundowners — the view's great and although it's not cheap it's worth it for one. But if money were tight I'd join the tourist hoards at International Bia Hoi corner for 4,000VND glasses of beer and a more down to earth — literally — view of life.
Dinner is where it gets tricky. There are so many options. I'm a big fan of griddled beef and so if I'm in the mood for that I'd head to 47 Ma May, but sitting on a plastic stool isn't always my bag so I'd either go to Gecko, on Luong Ngoc Quyen, for convenience, Little Hanoi on Ta Hien for cheapy Vietnamese or Green Tangerine if I wanted to splash out a bit.
For after dinner drinks, if I'm not out for a late one, Nolas on Ma May is a pleasant place to enjoy a cocktail or glass of wine and have a good natter. If I want a bit more atmosphere then I like Le Pub on Hang Be — certainly not classy but usually busy and the outside area's great if you can get a seat. Then it's home in a taxi. Tired, a little bit inebriated and ready to head to Ha Long Bay.
Now I open wide my arms and welcome the opposers ...
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