Many Vietnamese journeys begin here, in Hanoi, a city of lakes and distinct districts that reflect the diverse influences that have shaped the city over the centuries. Admire the faded glory of the architecture and wide boulevards of the French Quarter, or delve into the cafes, markets, trinket shops and art galleries of the narrow Old Quarter lanes. At first glance the never-ending flow of motorbike traffic can feel intimidating, but you’ll soon realise that happy-go-lucky Hanoians are not in a rush, so grab an iced coffee from a streetside stall and watch Vietnamese life unfold around you.
Hanoi is home to many of the country’s most iconic sites, including the complex that houses the Stalinist mausoleum to Ho Chi Minh, father of the modern Vietnamese state, the Presidential Palace and Ho Chi Minh’s more humble private residence. The Temple of Literature, Vietnam’s first university constructed in 1070, boasts lovely gardens and well-preserved architecture. You may also like to stop in at one of the city’s excellent museums – the recently-opened Ethnology Museum, where Vietnam’s diverse minority cultures are explained in a thoughtful and hands-on manner, and the Women’s Museum are both highly recommended.
Nestled along wooded boulevards among the city’s two dozen lakes you will find architectural souvenirs left by all who conquered this great valley, from the Chinese who first came in the last millennium to the French, booted out in our own century.
Getting into Hanoi
The trip into the city from Noi Bai Airport takes about an hour and offers some poignant glimpses of modern Vietnamese life: farmers tending their fields, great rivers, modern highways that abruptly become bumpy roads. The drive is especially breathtaking at dusk when the roads fill with bicycles, and everything takes on the same deep colors as the modern paintings you see in Hanoi’s galleries. Somehow the setting sun seems enormous here as it dips into the cornfields on the horizon.
On the edge of the city the road dissolves into a maze of winding, narrow, wooded lanes. You are surrounded by roadside artisans, shops and taverns, then by graceful villas and commuters on bicycles, cyclos and motorbikes. Modern buildings appear from nowhere, looking so out of place that you have to wonder if they were dropped from the sky and just left where they came to rest. While you tell yourself that nothing as preposterous as Hanoi can be so beautiful, you cannot help but be dazzled.
Meter taxis and hired cars are easy to find in Hanoi. If you plan an extended visit you might consider renting a bicycle or motorbike.
The north end of Hoan Kiem Lake is Hanoi’s “ground zero.” Practically all the city’s economical hotels, tourist shops, and cafés catering to visitors are located here. Not only is it the oldest part of the city, it is the busiest and most interesting. Every street is winding, intimate, and shady. At night the lights of storefronts keep the streets lit and animated.
Depending on which guide book you read, this district of Hanoi is variously called the “Old Quarter,” the “Ancient Quarter,” and “36 streets.” It is wedged between the northern shore of Hoan Kiem Lake, the walls of the ancient Citadel, and the levies that protect the city from the Red River. The 36 little streets in the quarter are each named for a commodity once sold by all the businesses on that street. Streets here are named for the medicine, jewelry, fans, copper, horse hair, chicken, and even coffins once sold on them. This explains why the names of some of the longer streets inexplicably change after one or two blocks. As you explore, you will still happen upon entire blocks of tinsmiths, tailors, paper goods merchants, and lacquerware makers.
In the Ancient Quarter the most appealing mode of transportation for those who do not care to enjoy the “36 Streets” on foot is the cyclo. Often they are driven by men wearing pea-green pith helmets that make them look like soldiers. Settle on the fare in advance (a dollar or less one way). Most drivers will also quote you an hourly rate and will take you to all the obligatory cultural and historical spots.
Hanoi is very compact, and the city’s most interesting places for tourists are all relatively close to each other, which makes it easy to enjoy the best parts of the city on foot or by cyclo. You could probably explore the Ancient Quarter and visit all the places below in a single day, but why rush?
Sightseeing on your very first morning in Hanoi should begin with a visit to Ho Chi Minh’s Mausoleum, without a doubt the city’s single most visited site, and one of Vietnam’s most revered places. The cyclo ride from Hoan Kiem Lake takes only about five minutes. The Mausoleum is open only in the mornings, from 7:30 to 10:30 in the Summer and from 8:00 to 11:00 in the Winter. There are often large crowds, so arrive early.
This imposing shrine was built on the edge of Ba Dinh Square, the place where Ho Chi Minh delivered the Declaration of Independence of the Republic of Viet Nam to half a million of his countrymen in 1945, following the surrender of the Japanese. The angular gray granite edifice stands stern and alone against the skyline. The street and square are usually so abandoned that the whole scene is enormously stately, like a miniature version of Tiananmen Square.
As you exit on the side of the building, look for the ornate yellow former Governor’s Palace, which also faces Ba Dinh Square. Although not open to the public, it is a poignant contrast to Ho Chi Minh’s House on Stilts, which sits along a tiny lake in the wooded park behind. He lived and worked here in incredible simplicity from 1958 to 1969. Built of teak, the little house is an architectural gem, and many of his personal things remain on display.
The One Pillar Pagoda is about 50 meters away. This little architectural curiosity gets its name because the shrine sits atop a single massive pedestal. The original was built by Emperor Ly Thai To, who was inspired by a dream.
The Ho Chi Minh Museum is probably Vietnam’s most important contemporary architectural achievement. Opened to the public in 1990 to commemorate Ho’s centenary, the exhibits are like a huge scrap book which chronicles his rather transient early years. Guides are available.
You can not help being overwhelmed by the serenity of Van Mieu (Temple of Literature) and Quoc Tu Giam (National University) from the moment you pass through its towering gates. Together, they make one of Asia’s loveliest spots. Hidden from the humming metropolis behind high stone walls and ancient Frangipani trees are some of Vietnam’s most magnificent religious structures and historical treasures. Great pools filled with blooming Lotus bear names like “Well of Heavenly Clarity”. Dating from 1076, this was this part of Asia’s most prestigious center of learning for aristocrats and the children of the Mandarins. The focal point of the site is the Sanctuary dedicated to Confucius, which is filled with elaborate Chinese reliquary. Live performances of traditional folk music by costumed women are ongoing during public hours.
One can visit Hanoi’s attractions by discovering them himself or herself (read our suggested itinerary for walking tour) or with a prebooked guided Hanoi city tour.
Hoan Kiem Lake
Although not at its geographical center, after the expansion of Hanoi into a major metropolitan area in 2009, little Hoan Kiem Lake remains the very heart of life in Hanoi. According to a 15th Century legend, a giant turtle presented Emperor Le Loi with a magic sword with which to defeat Chinese invadors. In accordance with their pact, the Emperor returned the sword to the turtle after a glorious victory in battle. Thus, the lake was named Hoan Kiem, or “restored sword.”
The lake itself is like a living thing with a personality that changes continuously with the hour and the season. Some of your most vivid memories of Hanoi might come from the 45 minute walks you take around Hoan Kiem at sunrise, at midday, and again after dark.
Shortly after dawn, hundreds of people take their daily exercise on the footpath that circles the lake. If you arrive around six you will see a dozen badminton games, scores of old people practicing Tai Chi, and many shirtless young men jogging or stretching.
During the day the lake belongs to tourists and to workers from surrounding government offices. Tour busses and taxis park at the North end of the lake, near the gates and foot bridge which lead to the Ngoc Son Pagoda. Scores of young people sell post cards, maps, and paperback books here. Others shine shoes or offer to memorialize your visit with photos taken with must surely be war-era 35mm cameras. Although persistent, they are seldom rude. Many speak wonderful English and are well worth having a conversation with.
Ngoc Son Temple
Ngoc Son Pagoda sits on an islet at the North end of the lake. The oldest structures in the complex dated back to 1225, though most of what you see was either built or reconstructed in the 19th century. In addition to the two beautifully ornate Confucianist sanctuaries dedicated to various long-dead humans, a huge stuffed turtle (which most certainly never swam in this lake) resides in a glass display case. The spot is lovely, not only for the ostentatious architecture, but for interesting people who take refuge from the city here. Your camera may capture old men playing checkers in the Pavilion of the Stelae, someone fishing quietly among the willows which practically obscure the island from view, a couple posing for their wedding photo with the Tortoise Pagoda in the background, or the young photographers who always gather on the red wooden bridge.
Practically across the street from the bridge is the water puppetry theater. Scenes from Vietnamese lore and history (including ancient battles) are elaborately performed by colorful lacquered puppets in an indoor pond, accompanied by traditional Vietnamese folk music. It sounds awfully corny, but missing this Hanoi attraction is like going to Paris and skipping the Eiffel Tower. Tickets for the evening performances are cheap and sell out early in the day. Avoid seats closest to the water or you may get splashed.
The Old Quarter
Some of the 36 streets that make up the Ancient Quarter still offer only a single commodity. One of the best is Hang Quat, where shops sell an incredible array of lacquered wood candle sticks, bowls, picture frames, religious shrines, and decorative pieces. Practically every single item is painted in some combination of red, white and gold. Many of the things are elaborate to the point of being garish. Since prices are staggeringly low, buy what you can. Like folk art in other developing nations, these uniquely Northern Vietnamese handicrafts will begin to die out along with the present generation of artisans creating them. The shelves of shops in Ho Chi Minh city are already filled with factory made schlock. Sadly, this will happen in Hanoi soon enough.
Vietnamese silk is among the world’s finest. Hang Gai (thread street) has for centuries been home to some of Hanoi’s best silk shops. Detailed Hanoi Old Quarter
Hanoians are proud people; they take pride in their cuisines, their etiquettes, their rich tradition and about their own love for the city not only to international tourists but also to people from other provinces in Vietnam. Hanoi food is listed among things you should try before leaving to another world. (read our top 5 must-try foods in Hanoi).
Adding to that, Hanoi is packed with museums, monuments, cafes, restaurants, discos, handicraft stores and almost anything that make your stay both convenient and entertaining. Most travellers spend about 2-5 days to tour the city but should you fall in love with Hanoi, you can always stay longer!