With a history dating back over 1,000 years, Vietnam’s capital is a city of contrasts: Bustling street-food eateries with low plastic chairs nudge up against serene temples, while skyscrapers are reflected in ancient lakes. One day in Hanoi gives you enough time to see the highlights, sample street food, and take in a show. Here’s how.
Start the day right by orienting yourself on the city’s culture and geography. Begin at the ancient Temple of Literature—half-temple, half-university—and be sure to stroll the park where locals take their exercise and practice hobbies. Explore the Old Quarter, the historic district around the Lake of the Restored Sword (Hoan Kiem), on foot, by motorbike, or by “cyclo” rickshaw. Then head farther afield to absorb a little of Vietnam’s more recent history, perhaps following in the footsteps of onetime supreme leader Ho Chi Minh or exploring Vietnam War–era sites such as the notorious Hanoi Hilton (Hoa Lo Prison).
Long before Bourdain brought Obama here, Hanoi was a mecca for street-food aficionados, and no visit to the city is complete without feasting at one of its deceptively simple eateries. Gorge on delights from pho noodle soup to banh mi sandwiches, barbecued pork, and even steamboat (hot pot) as you stroll the 36 Streets of the Old Quarter, or check out the weird and wonderful ingredients on sale at a wet (produce) market such as Dong Xuan. Take a street-food tour to help you break the language barrier, or take a cooking class and bring home a new set of skills.
Hanoi was built on water, particularly the water that floods the scenic rice terraces outside the city, and a sunset stroll around the Lake of the Restored Sword is a great way to appreciate its charms. Cap it off with a show of a uniquely Vietnamese art form: water puppets. Evolved in the rice fields of northern Vietnam, this art form involves colorful puppets submerged in water telling tall tales from Vietnamese folklore, typically accompanied by a live orchestra and spectacular special effects. If you’re not already full to bursting, some water puppet shows include a buffet dinner.