When you first arrive to Vietnam, it can be overwhelming – with getting your visa upon arrival (which is super easy to get), to playing real life Frogger as you cross the busy streets. The last thing you want to worry about is coming up with an itinerary to sight-see across the capital city. Luckily, there are pre-planned tours that will let you see all highlights of Hanoi.
Urban Adventures, a division of Intrepid Travel, provides hundreds of tours that are led by knowledgeable English speaking local guides. Group sizes are small to make it a more personal experience and to really connect with the culture. The tours include transportation, entrance fees, and lunch. Read on to get a glimpse of what you can do and see in beautiful Hanoi – especially if you only have a couple days.
Temple of Literature
Wander through the well-kept grounds of the temple that was once home to Vietnam’s first national university. Many scholars come to this temple and rub the statues for good luck during their studies. The cranes atop the tortoises symbolize longevity and is said to bring thousands of years of prosperity.
Traditional Tea House
Take a tea break at Truong Xuon, which means Forever Young in Vietnamese. This traditional tea house is located off a quieter street, just a short walk away from the Temple of Literature. You will get to meet the ‘Tea Master’ and listen to stories as you sip tea and eat Vietnam’s popular green bean cake. Although super delicious, the green bean cake is very delicate when you open the package (i.e. prepare for lots of crumbs).
Hoa Lo Prison
Almost everyone knows the history behind the famous prison, which was coined the ‘Hanoi Hilton’ by Americans during the Vietnam War. Previous to it housing inmates such as US Senator John McCain, it was used by French colonists to detain people who rebelled against the political norms. Although the prison is painted a bright yellow on the outside, it’s far from a pleasant on the inside. It can feel quite eerie to walk through the complex and see where prisoners were chained up held against their will. Some prisoners were kept in cells with barely any ventilation or dungeons with the poorest of living conditions.
St. Joseph’s Cathedral
Built in 1886, St. Joseph’s Cathedral is Vietnam’s oldest and largest church. The Cathedral was not open at the time of visiting, but if possible, feel free to make your way inside to see beautiful stained glass windows and the gothic-style stone arches. Don’t forget to take pictures outside like many of the locals do!
Hoan Kiem Lake & Ngoc Son Temple
Enjoy the scenery and go for a stroll around this beautiful lake that rests in the middle of the French Old Quarter. In the early mornings you can find people doing their daily exercises, and on weekend nights the area is blocked off for pedestrians only. At the Northern end of Hoan Kiem Lake is Ngoc Son Temple, which can be accessed by passing over the iconic red-painted Huc Bridge.
Pho Thin Bo Ho
End the tour off in the best way possible – by eating delicious pho! The group stopped at Pho Thin Bo Ho, a local eatery tucked away within the bustling Old Quarter. You could easily pass this eatery that’s very popular among locals, because it doesn’t look like a typical restaurant. It’s literally in a small alley way! You’ll probably see a motorbike or two pass through to park in the back. If you do want to hit up this place for Vietnam’s signature food, make sure you go before 1:00pm as this is when it closes for the day.
Impressions of the Tour
The tour started at 8:00am, where we were promptly picked up by our lovely tour guide, Lucky. The group was very small – only four people – which makes it easy to listen to the tour guide and ask questions along the way. Lucky had so many stories, both from his personal life and that have been passed down within Vietnamese culture, which he told in his comical style. It’s clear that Lucky has such a love for his country and wants to share his culture with the rest of the world. I recommend going with guided tours as it will allow you to learn much more about the history rather than looking at buildings and wandering solo. You never know when it’ll come in handy when playing trivia!
If you only have a couple days in a city, booking a tour with Urban Adventures is a good way to see all of the main tourist locales. Check out their website and see what’s available in your next travel destination.
This blog post was written in exchange for a complimentary tour with Urban Adventures. As always, opinions are my own.