Although Hanoi is a fascinating city with some pretty cool things to do, you really don’t need much time here to really experience it. Let’s face it – Hanoi is more of a pass through city than a destination itself. We ended up spending two whole weeks here so we have a pretty good idea of what’s worth doing if you only have 2 days in Hanoi. And also what’s not worth your time.
Vietnam was a country at the top of our list of places to visit in Southeast Asia. Of course, what we had in mind was the lush mountains and golden sand beaches, which we found in Halong Bay. But, you can’t visit such an iconic country and miss out on exploring its capital city. Known for its rich culture and centuries-old architecture, Hanoi is defined by its Chinese and French influences. It’s a fascinating city and one that really took us by surprise.
I’m not going to try and sugar coat it, Hanoi is hectic. Maybe I’m naive, but we had already been to Pattaya in Thailand and spent a month in Kuala Lumpur, and for some reason I thought I knew what I was in for with Hanoi. But, nothing could have prepared me for this bustling city. The traffic is insane, it’s exceptionally busy, and the noise doesn’t seem to stop. Despite this, it’s still absolutely worth visiting. Perhaps two weeks is a bit too long to spend here, but 2 days in Hanoi is perfect.
Sidenote: You will need to do a bit of research about getting a Vietnam e-visa.
Where to stay if you have 2 days in Hanoi
I would highly recommend staying in the Old Quarter if you only have 2 days in Hanoi. In fact, the Old Quarter is probably the best area to stay in no matter how long you’re in Hanoi for. The perfect fusion between the past and modern life, as well as culture and history, this is where it all happens.
We stayed just outside the Old Quarter, about a 10 minute car ride away, but quickly realized that we should have stayed closer to the center. Many of the main attractions are found in or around the Old Quarter and the vibe here is great. There’s so many cute little cafes scattered all across Hanoi, but most of them can be found in this area.
Most of the time we book our accommodation through Airbnb. If you haven’t yet signed up on Airbnb you can follow my link here and get £33 off your first home booking, and £12 to use towards an experience worth £40 or more.
There always seems to be travellers who either use Booking.com or Airbnb 90% of the time. We are the “Airbnb travellers.” We occasionally use Booking.com, usually for short-stays, but Airbnb is our preference. In our experience it’s more affordable and allows for more freedom – we usually book an entire apartment.
If you’re wondering about the best hotels to stay at if you have only 2 days in Hanoi, we’ve heard that Zephyr Hotel is amazing. Au Coeur d’Hanoi Boutique Hotel and Cinnamon Cathedral Hanoi are also good choices. If you’re looking for a budget option, check out Old Quarter View Hanoi Hostel.
What to do with 2 days in Hanoi
If you only have 2 days in Hanoi you’re probably wondering what you absolutely have to do in your short time here. Rather than giving you an itinerary, I will list the must-see attractions. It doesn’t really matter where you fit them into your two days, as long as you do.
Hoan Kiem Lake
Also sometimes known as Lake Hoan, this is the sacred heart of Vietnam. Physically and symbolically, Hoan Kiem Lake is considered to be the centre of Hanoi. According to legend, this is where Le Loi returned his magic sword to the Golden Turtle. As the tale goes, Le Loi King came across a shining metal bar when he visited his friend here. His friend had found the bar while fishing and the King took it home with him and had it moulded into a sword. Then, all of a sudden, two words magically appeared on the sword “Thuan Thien, ” translating to harmonious with heaven.
Le Loi interpreted this to mean that the sword was a gift from heaven and used it in the war against a neighbouring country. When peace prevailed at the start of 1428, the King returned to Thuy Quan (Hoan Kiem) Lake and found a tortoise rising above the water shouting; “Please return the sword to the Dragon King.” Without any hesitation the king threw the sword into the lake. The tortoise grabbed the sword and dove under water with it. From that day forward, Thuy Quan lake has been known as Hoan Kiem lake.
This is the legend of the lake and the reason that it is so popular. But, there are numerous other reasons to visit the lake. It’s a picturesque sight with a relaxing atmosphere. You can also cross the iconic red bridge to the Ngoc Son Temple (Temple of the Jade Mountain), which is worth a quick look. The lake itself is not particularly big, but there is a lot happening around here.
You can also catch a genuine Vietnamese water puppet show here at the water puppet theatre. Through the magical water puppet hands, you will learn all about ancient Vietnam, including the festivals, daily lives, and the legend of the Hoan Kiem Lake.
St Joseph’s Cathedral
This is the main Catholic Cathedral of Hanoi and it’s absolutely beautiful. Situated at the head of Nha Chung Street, one of the city’s most attractive streets, you definitely want to visit here if you only have 2 days in Hanoi. St Joseph’s Cathedral is the oldest Roman Catholic Church in Hanoi, and it’s very close to Hoan Kiem Lake.
We ended up in this area quite a few times during our stay. The street on the right hand side of the church has most of the main tour operation companies. So if you’re looking to do a one day Hanoi tour you can find more information at one of their offices. We took a tour to Ninh Binh with the Crossing Vietnam Tour company, which is highly recommended. If you only have 2 days in Hanoi, you many want to do a city tour of the area.
Thang Long Citadel
We stumbled across this monument on a Sunday afternoon during an event. We are still not sure what event it was – but it was some sort of concert held on the main area in front. It’s a pretty big complex and was still open for tourists to explore.
In 2010, the Imperial Citadel of Thang Long, also known as Hanoi Citadel, was made a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It’s an intriguing relic of Vietnam’s history and signifies it cultural and historical importance. Entrance is only 30,000 VND (just over $1) and it’s a great place to spend a few hours.
There are two main sections to the site; the central axis of the Nguyen Dynasty Citadel of Hanoi and the archaeological site at 18 Hoang Dieu Street. Together these form the integrated heritage complex.
Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum
The Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum is an important historical attraction and not to be missed, even if you only have 2 days in Hanoi. The main interest here? Honoring the national hero: President Ho Chi Minh. Visitors can express their admiration and gratitude towards the Vietnamese leader who led the country to independence and reunification.
There is no fee for visiting the Mausoleum, but there are a set of strictly enforced regulations in place. Make sure that you dress respectfully if you plan on coming here. I was wearing a vest on the day that we originally wanted to visit, so wasn’t allowed in. There are no short skirts or tank tops allowed and be ready for a high level security check upon a arrival.
Also, when inside the mausoleum, no talking, taking photos, or finger pointing is allowed. To be honest, I hadn’t read up anything on this place beforehand so it all came as a bit of a surprise to me. But, if you’re in Hanoi, it is worth visiting due to its historical significance.
Visit West Lake (Tay Ho District)
You will find West Lake on most itineraries, and it’s certainly worth a visit if you have 2 days in Hanoi. While the Hoan Kiem lake is a more picturesque setting, the Tay Ho District is home to one of the most notable points of interest, Tran Quoc Pagoda. This is the oldest temple in Vietnam.
You can find this ancient temple complex on a causeway over West Lake. There are a few shrines and several tall pagodas to check out here. While it’s not the most amazing place, the lakeside setting and peacefulness make for a great escape from the craziness of the city. If you like the sound of that, sunset is said to offer the most stunning view of this attraction.
West Lake is the largest freshwater lake in Hanoi, and has a number of cute cafes situated around it. You can pop into one of them for a refreshment after checking out Tran Quoc Pagoda.
Visit the Temple of literature
Lastly, you shouldn’t leave Hanoi without visiting the temple of literature. This was probably my favourite part of our time in the city. The temple was built in 1070 as a temple to Confucius. Although there is a sanctuary for worship here, it was built as a place of learning rather than religion. Therefore, it’s known as Vietnam’s first national university.
The temple is made up of five different courtyards, each representing the five basic elements; Metal, Wood, Fire, Water, and Earth. The grounds and architecture are stunning and definitely worth your time if you have only two days in Hanoi.
We visited on a Tuesday morning and it wasn’t too busy. Entrance is 30,000 VND and it’s open everyday between 07:30 and 18:00 from April to October. From November to March it’s open from 08:00 to 17:00.
What Not To Do With Only 2 days In Hanoi
I often find myself in a new city and wonder what really isn’t worth my time. Especially if we are only going to be there for a short period. That’s why I decided to put together this list of things to avoid if you only have 2 days in Hanoi. Of course, this is only my suggestion, and you may find something of interest that wasn’t necessarily interesting for me. So use these tips merely as a guideline for your Hanoi itinerary.
Explore the city on foot
If you only have 2 days in Hanoi I wouldn’t recommend walking much. Truthfully, I found walking even 200 metres down the road in this city to be a nightmare. There are scooters and cars everywhere and there’s NO right of way for pedestrians. We used Grabtaxi most of the time, but even trying to walk a few hundred meters between places wasn’t very pleasant.
The scooters are parked all along the sidewalk which means that you have to be stepping on and off the street constantly – and the drivers have got no regard for pedestrians. Even when we did come across a pedestrian crossing (not often), nobody stops. This seems to be the case in most of Southeast Asia, but it’s particularly bad in Hanoi. We easily spent 5 to 10 minutes trying to cross the street each time. That’s a waste of some valuable time if your time is already limited.
Obviously, there will be times when you need to walk around a little. I’m not saying not to walk at all, but use a taxi service or scooter where possible. Trying to navigate this city on foot is really not worth it.
Dong Xuan Market
Dong Xuan market is the largest indoor market in Hanoi and can be found in the Old Quarter. However, if you only have 2 days in Hanoi, I really wouldn’t recommend spending your time here. It’s extremely busy and may even be difficult to walk through at times.
You also shouldn’t expect shop vendors to be welcoming or give you a smile. They’re not there to entertain tourists, it’s all about business (very understandable). It’s more of a wholesale market where local wholesalers go to buy goods for reselling. But, if you do want to buy something, I doubt they would reject your business.
If you are in Hanoi for longer, it might be worth checking out – if you want to get a feel for local business – but Xuan market is not the best place for shopping. There are loads of shops in and around the French Quarter, and you can pick up plenty of well-priced items here.
Go inside the Opera House
You can view the Hanoi Opera House from the outside while strolling around the French Quarter. The building is beautiful and it’s definitely worth viewing from the outside if you’re in the area. But, if you want to go inside you need to purchase a ticket for one of the operas, symphonies or ballets that are regularly performed. In my opinion, it’s not worth it if you only have 2 days in Hanoi.
There’s so many other main attractions to see in Hanoi, and attending a show here will take up quite a lot of your time. Of course, if opera houses are your kind of thing, that changes everything. But as a regular tourist, with no particular interest in the opera house, I would suggest first doing all of the other thing that I’ve mentioned above.
Hoa La prison
This is another one of those things that will really depend on your preference. If you’re a history enthusiast, then the Hoa La prison may be of particular interest to you. But for others, I wouldn’t suggest going out of your way to stop by here.
It’s all that remains of the Hoa Lo Prison, used to capture American and Vietnamese political prisoners during the colonial period and the Vietnam war respectively. So there’s no denying that there’s a lot to be learnt here. The thought of what took place inside here is deeply disturbing and could even play on your emotions, but it’s an important part of history. However, with only 2 days in Hanoi, I would recommend avoiding this one, unless it’s something that is especially important to you.
The Best Of Hanoi
Even if you only have 2 days in Hanoi, you can certainly see most of the main attractions. It’s a fascinating city, but I wouldn’t suggest spending more than four days here. There is so much more to Vietnam and the city probably isn’t what you have in mind when you envision this beautiful country.
Having said that, Hanoi is definitely worth a quick visit and it’s a great place to get your first taste of Vietnam. My personal favourite was our trip to the Literature Temple. I also really loved the Old Quarter. If you have more time in Hanoi, there are some great day trips that you could do. Our trip to Ninh Binh was incredible. There are also trips down to Halong Bay – even day tours. However, I would recommend spending at least 3 days in Halong Bay. But if your time is limited, there are tour companies that offer day trips to Halong Bay.
Halong Bay is one of the most beautiful places that we’ve been to. We spent two weeks there and loved every minute of it. If you’re heading to Vietnam I would highly recommend spending at least a few days here.
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