Day One

09:00  Stay at Bamboo Hotel in the Old Quarter  (32 P Hang Be) to be at the centre of the action. A clean, spacious double room with cable TV will set you back just £11pn. Enjoy your free breakfast before heading out into the Old Quarter’s hectic tangle of streets. Take some time to soak up the atmosphere, and ask yourself where on earth all these people could possibly be speeding to on their motorscooters – are they all just driving round and round to look busy, or do they really have somewhere they urgently need to go?

11:00  When you’ve plucked up the courage to cross a street – our top tip is to just keep striding ahead confidently, whatever’s coming at you – pull up a plastic stool at a streetside hole-in-the-wall and savour a Vietnamese coffee at the local tariff. The strong brew, mixed with condensed milk, is quickly addictive.

12:00  After browsing the endless stores filled with tat, find a café that attracts an authentic crowd to try your first pho.Watch how the locals do it, adding lime and chilli to the broth and stirring around slices of beef until the soup has taken on the perfect balance of flavours.

13:00  From the Old Quarter, it’s just a short walk to Hoan Kiem Lake, a placid refuge amid the mayhem. At the lake, wander across the bright red bridge to a little island out on the water, and enjoy the shady peace at Ngoc Son Temple.

14:00  Back by the lakeside, walk the circumference until you reach Fanny ice cream parlour (48 P Le Thai To). Aside from the oh-so-amusing photo op with the big Fanny sign, the ice creams are well worth the effort – a scoop of ginger and a scoop of chili-chocolate is unbeatable.

15:00  The Thang Long Water Puppet theatre ( isn’t far from here, so head over and book tickets for the 6.30pm performance. As far back to the 11th century, villagers used to entertain each other with these puppets on the water when the rice fields flooded. Today’s big stage shows, wherein the puppets perform in a pool, attract huge crowds.

15:30  End your afternoon at the Temple of Literature (P Quoc Tu Giam; admission 15p), about 2km west of the lake. Vietnam’s first university is an assemblage of traditional architecture, and it makes a serene breather from the busy streets. Wander at leisure before heading home for a quick change, and then take your seat at the theatre.

20:00  Dinner at New Day (72 Ma May) back in the Old Quarter’s maze is highly recommended; there’s a great mix of tourists and locals and it’s always packed. You can’t go wrong with any of the restaurant’s takes on pork ribs (think rich, sticky barbecue sauces) and a cold Hanoi beer.

22:00  Swing by Bia Hoi Viet Ha (P Hang Bai) for cold bia hois (Vietnamese, cheap-as-chips draught beer) and a raucous atmosphere. Be warned: snagging a table isn’t easy. End the night at New Century (10 Pho Trang Thi Nha Tho Area), joining a young, local crowd for hip-hop beats and go-go dancers. There are bar areas with karaoke, too.

Day Two

10:00  Rouse yourself with more coffee and then head to the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum Complex (at the corner of P Ngoc Ha and P Doi Can; admission free), where you can peer at the embalmed body of Vietnam’s Marxist-Leninist revolutionary leader – unless it’s October or November, when he’s shipped off to Russia for maintenance. The traffic-free area of monuments, lakes and pagodas is good for a stroll, though is always crowded.

12:30  The next stop is Hoa Lo Prison Museum (1 P Hoa Lo, admission 15p); on the way, find a local spot to try bun cha – a yummy dish of vermicelli rice with slabs of barbecued pork and vegetables. Hoa Lo is a fascinating site, first a prison for Vietnamese revolutionaries set up by French colonists, and later repurposed by the Vietnamese to hold American prisoners of war (POWs). US POWs – including Senator John McCain, who was incarcerated here – would sarcastically refer to it as the Hanoi Hilton.

15:00  The Military History Museum (; admission 30p) houses an edifying collection that showcases Vietnamese resourcefulness during the war with the US; think bamboo spikes and an arsenal of similarly cobbled-together weapons.

19:00  Check out Highway 4 ( for sophisticated riffs on crickets and frogs’ legs and a large selection of rice wine. Don’t arrive too late, as the restaurant often sells out of its more popular dishes. 

21:00  Directly opposite your digs at Bamboo, Le Pub (25 P Hang Be) is a backpacker hotspot with a street-facing terrace, big screens showing sports, and the dubiously named ‘rocket fuel’ cocktail (down it and you’ll earn yourself a T-shirt). There’s not far to stumble home.

Return flights from London Heathrow to Hanoi, via Hong Kong, start at about £530 with Cathay Pacific