Let’s get straight to the point, you only need to spend 2 days in Hanoi. We wished we’d known that before we booked 5 whole days in Vietnam’s capital city.
Our experience allows us to offer you one simple piece of advice. Do not squander vital days that are relentlessly ticking down on your 15 or 30 day tourist visa. You have a lot to see in Vietnam and not a lot of time.
Hanoi does not offer enough value to justify consuming any more than 2 of your precious days. There’s not a whole lot to do in truth. Plus, you will be ready to leave after a few days anyway (we’ll get into that later).
The bottom line is your time will be better spent in more relaxing, beautiful or exciting parts of Vietnam.
“How could I possibly fit all that into 2 days, I’ve read there are so many great things to do in Hanoi?”
Read our extensive 2 Day Hanoi Itinerary. This guide features 21 of the best things to do in Hanoi and we have tabulated those into an extremely achievable 2 days of touring.
We must state concretely that we did not HATE Hanoi. But we did not LOVE Hanoi either. One man’s meat is another man’s poison. A simple fact of traveling the world is that you will not enjoy every place you go. We all have different tastes.
So, with experience would we still recommend Hanoi to friends and family?
Yes, definitely yes. We recommend you visit Hanoi. And that’s the point here, we still beat the drum for Hanoi, it’s a fantastic place to experience. But for no longer than 2 days.
The city will drive you mad by the time you reach day 3 anyway!
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Our Hanoi Expectations
Hanoi was battling for the top spot of our big cities wish list before our South East Asia adventure. We read stories and articles waxing poetic about a magically wonderful city with tons of attractions.
A month into the trip and we’re sat in a coffee shop in Kaohsiung, Taiwan working on the early development of this website.
“Damn, we need a good chunk of time to build up some momentum. Hanoi is coming up soon and we can’t wait to see it, but let’s use it as the place we fudge in some blog days”.
We found ourselves feeling more excited than usual on the flight from Kaohsiung to Hanoi. We couldn’t wait to land at Noi Bai airport and get stuck into Vietnam for the first time.
Hanoi would be home for the first 5 days we had available on our 30 day tourist visas. We wanted plenty of time to do all of these amazing things we’d been led to believe through literature. But also spend some time chilling in coffee shops working on the website.
It turned out we had been duped into a false sense of expectation.
We’d been in Asia for 4 weeks and felt acclimatized to weather, culture, smells, sounds and the way of life. Then we arrived in Hanoi, Vietnam.
We’ve explored across 4 continents and pride ourselves on being adaptable, laid back travelers. It takes a lot to faze us. Hanoi did its best to test that. And it succeeded at times.
Part of it was our own fault. Our expectations were too high for the ancient capital. Almost unfairly so.
But the other part was Hanoi’s fault. And we will explain why you only need to spend 2 days in Hanoi after a little background about Vietnam’s capital.
Hanoi has had one hell of a rough time over the years. In modern history, Hanoi was occupied by the French from the late 1800’s until WWII when Japanese forces took control of Hanoi in an attempt to block China importing fuel and weapons.
Following the end of WWII, the French re-assumed power in Hanoi and so began the French Indochina war lasting 9 years, ultimately ending in the demise of French rule. Unfortunately, war was very quickly upon Hanoi once more just a year later and would last 20 years until 1975.
Hanoi has retained much of its French influence, particularly its colonial-era architecture. So much so, it has been dubbed ‘Paris of the East’.
Hanoi is not your typical modern, skyscraper heavy, state of the art shopping mall type of city. Far from it. It’s more like a rat run of thousands of narrow alleyways and passages all intertwined, creating a labyrinthine network perfect for motorbikes. And there are just a few of those in Hanoi.
Tired looking two, three and four story buildings filled with restaurants, tour agencies, massage parlors and cafe’s spill out into these alleyways. Hanoi has a unique atmosphere and we mean that as both a positive and a negative.
Tourism in Hanoi
Did you know Vietnam’s 2019 tourism statistics show an increase of 16.2% against 2018. This growth made Vietnam the 7th fastest growing tourist destination in the world for the year.
There is certainly a buzz going around in Vietnam. Huge things were expected for 2020.
Tripadvisor also included Hanoi in the top destinations to visit in 2019. This is a place turning heads and receiving accolades.
The popularity of tourism in Hanoi plays a major role in Vietnam’s economy. The city received 28 million visitors in 2018. Include a part of the 16.2% increase for Vietnam in 2019 and you’re looking at around 30 million tourists visiting Hanoi in 2019.
So, why all these statistics?
We wanted you to feel good about where Vietnam is going. Seeing positive statistics automatically feeds back success and optimism, right?
Well, we’ve saved the most important statistic for last. Although this data is a few years old now, the point remains true and it is thought provoking:
As little as 6% of visitors to Vietnam will return to visit again.
Compare that to Thailand’s 60-70% return tourist rate and you find yourself in trouble. Now, that number represents Vietnam on the whole and not just Hanoi. However, if you’ve been to Vietnam you will know that other parts of the country are more worthy of a second visit when compared with Hanoi.
In addition, while the 30 million visitors figure is huge, it’s important to note that just 5.5 million of those were international tourists. The majority of tourists come from China with a smaller number from Europe and North America.
Just some food for thought.
Why Only 2 Days in Hanoi?
Hanoi is a culture shock. Plain and simple.
If it’s your first time visiting Vietnam and you just landed in Hanoi, there may be a slight adjusting period required. It could be mild or extreme but you will be taken aback in one way or another.
A lot of people complain about Hanoi. We can fully understand their complaints. As much as we enjoyed the buzz at first, we ultimately found it to be an exhausting city by the end.
As we mentioned earlier, not everyone will agree with what we are saying. That’s life, people have different opinions. We can only tell you our opinions based off our own real life experiences.
Overall, we loved traveling through Vietnam and we met some truly amazing Vietnamese people. From our time here, we have many incredible memories. However, there were definitely some negative experiences too.
This post is about Hanoi in particular and the reasons we believe you will only need 2 days for your visit. We will also discuss the common tourists complaints in depth.
But these are not the primary reasons we believe 2 days in Hanoi is long enough.
Our primary reason is time, or more to the point – lack thereof.
Effective Time Management
Time is the major problem for every traveler going on any trip.
When you visit Vietnam you might be on a one week holiday or a backpacker with either 15 or 30 days available, 15 if you don’t buy a visa and 30 if you do. We recommend you do get a visa and use all 30 days if you can.
Either way, when the clock is ticking, you need to think carefully about your time management. Underestimating the sheer size of Vietnam can be an easy thing to do.
The point we are trying to drive home is that spending more than 2 days in Hanoi is not a good use of your time.
Because you can see everything Hanoi has to offer within 2 days and not feel like you’ve missed anything.
Well, we don’t have time for that, do you?
Your time would be better spent in more beautiful parts of the country. Vietnam is not a country to visit the big city. It’s a country to get in touch with nature and see unique landscapes.
“So where should I allocate my days instead?” All of the places listed below:
Now, there are problems with every place in the world. Nowhere is perfect. But there are some common tourist issues with Hanoi that we experienced personally.
The following are not reasons to stay away from Hanoi, they are individually minor issues that combine to create an overpowering sense of frustration.
There is an electric atmosphere in Hanoi. The city is an assault on your senses. At first, we remember the chaos to be exciting.
But it gets old. Fast.
Thousands of scooters honking all day every day breaks you down very quickly. The inescapable cacophony is SO loud and irritating.
You know how you would use the horn to warn someone they’re backing into you or maybe a quick pip to say hello to your friend on the street?
In Vietnam they honk as they turn corners, they honk as they overtake, they honk if they are overtaken, they honk at pedestrians, they honk at the sun and they honk at their own reflections in wing mirrors. They probably honk the second they get on before they even start the damn things just to check it’s working.
Going to grab a quick coffee in the morning? Honking. Walking to the next museum on the itinerary? Honking. Eating in a restaurant? Honking. Asleep at 3am? Nope. Honk honk.
By day 3 our ears were bleeding and by day 5 we would have given the remainder of our travel budget to fund a new technology to white noise the pitch of a honking scooter horn.
You know how much you hate the sound of your alarm on a morning? Imagine that times 100 but all day every day. We had nightmares for weeks consisting of nothing more than shrill shrieks of scooter horns.
Nightmares that didn’t exactly make us put Hanoi in our ‘we will definitely be back’ pile.
We couldn’t decide which adjective best describes Hanoi’s traffic. Our shortlist consisted of ludicrous, farcical, preposterous and absurd. We went with ridiculous. But it is all of those things.
People might say something like ‘it’s all part of the fun’ or ‘you just have to be confident, walk slowly and they will go round you’. They are both correct statements but nothing can prepare you for the bedlam.
And it’s fine for a few days, until even those with the patience of a saint will find themselves with irrational feelings of hostility!
The best way to tell if a tourist is new to Hanoi or if they have been in town a few days is watching to see how they cross roads:
Exhibit Newbie – A newbie will nervously but excitedly attempt to put the first foot forward but then pull back as there’s another motorbike coming 10 feet away. Head turning on a swivel to take note of every incoming scooter and calculating the exact moment to strike – then stopping half way across and panicking!
Exhibit Hanoi Veteran (3 days in) – The experienced tourist will walk up to the road and simply begin to cross without even looking, knowing that all motorbikes will maneuver around said tourist.
Jokes aside, traffic in Hanoi is annoying, frustrating and induces anxiety.
“Fancy a quick coffee?”
“If it involves crossing roads and dealing with asshole motorbikes, it’s a no from me.”
For the locals, this is their way of life. We wouldn’t expect them to change. But the truth is it can be overwhelming. Constantly weaving through motorbikes becomes tiresome very quickly.
Is it too much to ask for just a little order and organization? Would a few safe road crossings help with that 6% of returning visitor statistic?
Being Ripped Off As A Tourist
We had read Northern Vietnam could be hostile at times for tourists. While this was true on occasions, most people were great. Sometimes all it takes is one to have a bad taste in your mouth.
We met tourists who told us that locals in Hanoi had blatantly ripped them off at markets and laughed at them as they did so. Taiwan had fantastic markets so we didn’t bother in Hanoi, fortunately.
We were sat on a bench near West Lake in Hanoi when two women appeared behind us and just plonked a wooden bar with hanging fruit baskets on our shoulders. They then demanded we pay them for a photo opportunity and started kicking off at us in the street. Um, not happening!
For some locals in Hanoi, there is still an attitude or cultural agenda that needs to be addressed. Do they expect people to go back after they are ripped off, scammed or laughed at?
Would they receive the same treatment in our home country? No, of course not.
Imagine being at home in a shopping mall buying a new pair of shoes. The cashier employee looks at the price tag of US$ 50 and you both can see the figure. Then the cashier says US$ 70. Would you pay the money? Heck no! That’s what it can be like being a tourist in Hanoi.
You begin to feel like a walking dollar sign. They will give you one price and then a local will buy the same thing for a fifth of the price. It’s not a lot of money but it’s about principles.
We must reiterate that did not apply to everyone. Just a small minority. But enough to notice it many times every single day.
Hanoi The Walking City? Hmmm.
As lovers of fitness and health, we are a walk the city couple every single time we visit a new place and we despair at having to get public transport. We prefer to discover a city by walking because it offers perspective and allows us to build up our own internal map of the area. It also gives an insight into the vibe of a city.
Hanoi is a supposed ‘walking city’ and while it IS walkable, walking isn’t much fun. In fact, it is a complete pain in the ass to discover Hanoi on foot. We don’t just mean the old quarter, we mean exploring the whole city, taking in all of the top things to do.
There’s a constant juggling act of concentrating hard on not being run over, trying but failing to block out the incessant honking, sweating in humidity and avoiding scams. We walked around 15 miles over 2 days to see all the city had on offer.
We knew Hanoi was a busy city and had read that walking was ‘interesting’ but it didn’t prepare us fully for when we arrived in person. Reading about these things can’t. It’s impossible to appreciate the onslaught your sense of hearing takes and how exhausting it is being constantly on alert.
We would still recommend walking instead of hiring a bicycle or motorbike as it’s the best of a bad bunch in terms of safety!
Where Is The Money?
Infrastructure in Vietnam needs to be improved for the country to continue growing at this rate.
Yes it has been a poorer country until fairly recently and we don’t expect it to have state of the art facilities or freshly tarmacked road networks just yet. However, Hanoi’s infrastructure certainly does not correlate with the positive financial impact on their economy from dramatically increased tourism.
It would be a safe bet to assume Hanoi is allocated more money than almost all other parts of Vietnam to invest back into the city. So where is the money?
Vietnam is no longer viewed as a ‘developing country’ by the US and its economy has been growing at an astonishing rate. Hanoi is receiving huge tourism numbers but still doesn’t appear to making any obvious improvements in waste, cleanliness, tourist safety or transport.
Demand in the tourism sector has been increasing year on year but are the right building blocks being put into place to support that demand?
Continued growth requires stability.
What Could Be Improved?
Even Hoam Kiem lake which is the focal point of tourism in Hanoi – splitting the old quarter and French quarter as the gravitational heart of Vietnam’s capital city – is dull. It is bleak and underwhelming. But it’s the only place you can remotely escape the traffic so there are regularly masses of people congregated.
The area has an enormous amount of potential and wouldn’t require a huge investment to clean it up. A stunning, safe, pedestrian friendly, clean, central point of convergence would go a long way to entice tourists to return to Hanoi.
Roads are constant chaos, trying to cross at bigger junctions can be beyond a joke and sidewalks are effectively parking lots for motorbikes. The labyrinthine alleys of the old quarter are very narrow, but still multiple motorbikes will honk at you from behind and in front almost in synchrony as they whiz by centimeters from each other and your legs.
We weren’t expecting manicured aesthetics and tourist hand holding like Singapore but we did not expect getting around the city to be as anti-tourist friendly as it was. Maybe our hopes were just too high for the city?
Consider the prestige Hanoi holds as a tourist hot spot and their attempts to advertise the city to the world. Again, we’re not suggesting Hanoi changes its culture or way of life. But just a few small improvements in certain areas could make a world of difference.
An Opportunity Under Terrible Circumstances?
We’re writing this article at an unprecedented time in the world during the COVID-19 global pandemic.
This is a tragic period in our history and there are many more pressing matters than travel. However, this time will be used wisely by many to press a reset button. There will be monumental changes once the world has Coronavirus under control.
One thing is for sure. Hanoi and Vietnam should use this time to strongly consider improving their facilities and infrastructure. Vietnam’s tourism is taking a huge hit right now, just like most parts of the world.
But if Vietnam don’t use this time wisely, the 6% will not improve any time soon.
Perspective With Experience & Time
It’s much easier to write articles about destinations when you are actually there. Everything is fresh – feelings, smells, sounds. Sometimes this is useful, but the major downside to working that way is you can lose perspective.
It would have been easy to write this article while sat in a coffee shop in Hanoi (preferably with soundproof walls), complaining about everything but with nothing to compare it to in Vietnam or the rest of the world.
However, writing about Hanoi now with much more of the world under our belts, we have the required perspective. And our opinion has not changed. We still think 2 days is enough time to spend in Hanoi.
The bottom line is that Hanoi is definitely worth seeing. We enjoyed certain aspects: Coffee shops are great, French colonial architecture is stunning, the old quarter is eye opening, train street will amaze you and even Hanoi’s energy is fascinating at first.
But the only reason you would need more than 2 days in Hanoi is if you have flown from afar internationally and need a day to get over jet lag. Otherwise, you’re squandering important days and money you could spend elsewhere.
Not Intended To Offend
Our intention is not to offend here. It is simply to state the reasons we believe that tourists with limited time should choose to spend their days in more beautiful parts of Vietnam.
We have discussed our opinion on typical causes of complaints and what could be done in attempt to resolving some of them. We are not politicians or economists. But it doesn’t require specialist training to know there are straightforward fixes that could help with the taboo around that magic number: 6%.
Hanoi is a city that we had high hopes for and for us personally, it failed to deliver. We enjoyed certain aspects but not enough to counterbalance the negatives.
That doesn’t mean everyone else will feel the same! There are always circumstances that change the perception people have on a place.
Let us know what you think. Do you agree or think that more time is necessary? Don’t forget to check out our Hanoi itinerary. This guide walks you through everything to see in Hanoi comfortably in 2 days.
Trivia: Hanoi traffic accidents killed how many people Jan - Jun 2019?
A fairly high number of deaths over 6 months. 265 / 6 = 44 people per month or 1.5 per day. Perhaps an investment in public transport would help to reduce the number?
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