Hanoi, Vietnam’s elegant capital lies on the banks of the Red River with the tranquil Hoan Kiem Lake at its center. Hanoi is a city where the modern co-exists with the traditional; it is a city where imagination becomes a reality. There is a curious paradox about Hanoi that attracts tourists to unravel its various mysteries.
Hanoi became a French protectorate in the 1880s and the colonial influence is much in evidence in the bustling Old Quarter, the wide boulevards, and in the buildings that house the government departments and foreign embassies. Yet, the city still retains its architectural masterpieces dating back to the eleventh-century court of its founding father King Ly Thai To, the most notable being the Temple of Literature.
Hanoi was seriously damaged in the American War, particularly during the infamous Christmas Bombing campaign of 1972. Political isolation and lack of resources held the city back for some years but with economic reforms in 1986 and the advent of tourism in 1993, Hanoi bounced back on to the fast track of development and there was an explosion in cafés, cybercafés, and hotels that changed the city’s landscape.
Today Hanoi beautifully balances the dynamic modernism of Asia with the Parisian grace of a bygone era. Browse through the Old Quarter and discover the charm of the exotically chic old Asia in the bustling backstreets or get a peek in the city’s tumultuous past in its museums. Visit the Temple of Literature and step into history as you walk through the corridors of the country’s oldest center for higher learning. Watch Hanoi’s famed water puppets or see ‘Uncle Ho’ in the flesh at Ho Chi Minh’s Mausoleum. Piece together the country’s ethnic mosaic in the Vietnam Museum of Ethnology or witness the synchronized t’ai chi at dawn on the shores of the Hoan Kiem Lake. See the movers and shakers dine in the designer hotels and restaurants or indulge in the local flavors from the vendors of pho stands. Visit Hanoi and discover the paradox that is Vietnam.
Things To See
Hanoi has much to offer the tourists through its historic sites, museums, and parks. Stroll through the Old Quarter where you can see the bearded grandfathers ponder over the next move on the chess boards or admire the tunnel shaped houses that seem to be frozen in time. Trace the tumultuous history of the nation and witness first hand the scars of the American War on the city.
Hoan Kiem Lake: This tranquil lake between the Old Quarter and the French Quarter is part of the city’s folklore. A ghostly shrine (the Turtle Pagoda) is in tribute to a golden turtle, who in the 15th century, is said to have returned a magic sword to its home in the lake after it had been taken. There is a sculptured park along the banks where you will find a number of postcard sellers, hawkers, people playing chess, or photographs looking for some interesting subjects. In the early mornings, you can join in a session of Tai Chi. There is a temple, Ngoc Son, which you can reach by crossing a small red lacquered bridge.
The Old Quarter: You can discover the Asia you have heard about in the bustling backstreets of the Old Quarter. Situated to the north of the lake, the Old Quarter with its 36 fascinating streets has been a focal point of commerce for almost 1000 years. The streets have been named after the traditional things that were once sold here. Bustling with activity, this is the best place to check out the pulse of this city. You can see the hawkers in traditional conical hats ply their ware in ways that have remained unchanged over the centuries. The traditional tunnel houses here are an added attraction. You can visit 87 Ma May, one of the traditional houses, painstakingly restored and frozen in its late-19th-century condition. The woodwork in the house is truly impressive.
Temple of Literature: Founded by King Ly Thanh Tong in 1070 as a tribute to education, it soon became home to Hanoi’s first university. Even though the last national examination was held 200 years ago, the site attracts art students who try to reproduce the traditional Vietnamese architecture on paper.
One Pillar Pagoda: Originally constructed in by Emperor Ly Thai Tong to commemorate the long awaited birth of an heir, the One Pillar Pagoda was destroyed during the French War. The new Vietnamese government rebuilt the temple in 1955. This lotus-shaped pagoda rests on a single stone pillar rising out of a lotus pool.
Ambassadors’ Pagoda: The pagoda serves as the headquarters of the Vietnam Buddhist Association. The place attracts a lot of Buddhists during the first and 15th days of the lunar month. The people come here to make an offering.
Cho 19-12: This is an old style market catering to the city’s more traditional residents who have still not adopted the Western shopping habits. Walk through the market during the busy morning hours and you’ll find that the atmosphere is nothing less than a carnival.
History Museum: The impressive French-colonial building contains engrossing exhibits of archaeological artifacts and the recorded history of Vietnam up to 1945. Attractions include the life-sized diorama depicting Vietnamese cave-dwellers and the scale-model battle scenes.
Museum Of The Vietnamese Revolution: The museum takes over from the History Museum which traces the history of the nation until 1945. On display are photos, documents, yellowed newspapers and unsigned oils that trace the history of the revolution.
Ho Tay Water Park & Moon Park: The Park is usually full in the sweltering summers. After enjoying a host of water slides and dips in the refreshing pools, you can take a roller coaster ride in the adjacent Moon Park.
Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum: Set in the middle of Ba Dinh Square the mausoleum is a large memorial housing Ho Chi Minh’s entombed body. The memorial was inspired by Lenin’s mausoleum in Moscow. Visitors to the mausoleum are advised to dress conservatively and observe the strict code of silence when entering the building.
Museum Of Vietnamese Women: On display are fascinating artifacts, including homemade machetes, a knife with a caption that states that it was used to slash an oppressor’s neck and the garments worn by a female spy who pretended to be crazy. The top floor focuses on the beautiful textiles made by ethnic-minority women.
Hoa Lo Prison (Hanoi Hilton): The prison was built by the French to detain Vietnamese dissidents. It was later used by the Vietnamese to detain the American prisoners of war, including now US Senator John McCain. The exhibits paint a horrid picture of the treatment meted out to the students by the French and a somewhat rosier picture of the treatment of the US POW’s.
Museum Of Independence: The house of Ho Chi Minh, who drafted the Declaration of Independence, is located in the Old Quarter. You can browse through exhibit of photos on the ground floor and Ho’s living quarters upstairs.
The Hanoi Citadel (Forbidden City): Currently in the process of being excavated by the Vietnamese national government, this site, dating back to 1010, was the start of Hanoi’s domain as the capital of Vietnam.
You will have little trouble finding accommodations that suit your taste and budget. For the high budget traveler, there are fine luxury hotels complete with beautiful suites, fitness centers, pools, and first class service. For the backpackers, there are comfortable guesthouses charging as little as $5 a day. There is also no shortage of midrange hotels to cater to the mid range travelers.
Old Quarter: The Old Quarter, to the north of the Hoan Kiem Lake is the city’s tourim hub. This 700 year old commercial area is dotted with budget hotels such as the Hotel Especen 11 near St. Joseph’s Cathedral, the Old Darling Hotel, and the Nam Phuong Hotel. In fact the competition here is so great that add a few more dollars to your budget and you will easily be able to find a hotel offering some level of luxury. Some of the better hotels are The Salute Hotel, The Classic Street, and The Quoc Hoa.
Hoan Kiem: If you want to stay at a walking distance from the tourist attractions, shopping centers and restaurants, you can choose your accommodation in the Hoan Kiem District. The place is relatively quieter than the Old Quarter. The more opulent hotels in this area are Hotel Sofitel Metropole Hanoi and the Hilton Hanoi Opera. For budget accommodations you can check out the Thuy Nga Guesthouse, which offers some great views of the lake. The 70 years old Hoa Binh Hotel is also for the mid range travelers. High-end hotels include Melia Hotel and Guoman Hotel.
Ba Dinh District: Located west of the city’s center, the Ba Dinh District plays host to a number of embassies and government buildings. Here you can also find some of Hanoi’s nicest lodgings. The spectacular Daewoo Hotel is the preferred hotel of presidents and celebrities. Other classy hotels include Lakeside Hotel and the five-star Hanoi Horrison.
By eating in Hanoi you get a taste of the city’s culture. The scenes at the food stalls, cafes and restaurants offer an interesting perspective of the local mode of life. Hanoi is a city that wakes early and sleeps early and though it is easy to find food in the early mornings, finding something to eat late at night can prove to be challenging. Staple breakfast in Vietnam consists of white noodles served submerged in meaty broth. You can taste the local flavors from vendors of pho stands. Chau, another typical morning meal, made from rice and mixed with fish or meat, fried scallions and herbs, costs less than a dollar. You can find food stalls along Mai Hoc De. The bia hois (beer halls) are Vietnamese institutions with large menus and low prices.
If you crave for the familiar Western-style breakfast, you can head to Moca Café or enjoy a buffet at La Brasserie in the Nikko Hotel where you can choose from numerous pastries, fruits and coffee. For the best of both local and Western, you can head to Kinh Do 252 Café.
At noon the Vietnamese rush home for a two-hour lunch and nap. Hoa Sua, a tree-filled garden has a lengthy list of salads and buttery pastries. The Verandah Restaurant and Bar is suitable for pre- or post-shopping lunch. Other great spots for a leisurely lunch include Au Lac, the Kangaroo Cafe and KOTO Restaurant. If you have a penchant for sea food, you can check out the eateries on Pho To Hien Thanh. For a truly Vietnamese gastronomical experience, you can try out a “dogs dinner” at Anh Tu Thit Cho Restaurant.
Hanoi has its share of fancy private clubs and hotels that draw a more professional crowd. You can choose from local food to international cuisines that change with the season. Some great names include Cafe Promenade at the Daewoo Hotel, Le Beaulieu at the Hotel Sofitel Metropole Hanoi and Turtle’s Poem at the Hilton Hanoi Opera.
Hanoi is a great place for shopping and here you can buy many goods at reasonable prices. The city is home to numerous day and night markets, both indoors and outdoors. Shopping in the night markets is more about socializing but that should not stop you from putting your bargaining skills to test and finding something really interesting to take back home to remind you of your memorable visit to the city.
You can shop for a unique range of traditional handicrafts, silks, lacquerware, wood and bamboo products, and ceramic items. Another reason why Hanoi is a shopper’s paradise is that the goods here are ridiculously cheap. You can also shop for traditional conical Vietnamese hats, slippers, shoes, and handbags made from traditional materials like silk and bamboo. There is a wide range of beautiful items such as lacquer ware, vases, trays, rosewood boxes, wood-block prints, oil or watercolor paintings, blinds made from bamboo, reed mats, carpets, ceramics and leather work. You can also purchase valuable items such as art, antiques and jewelry. Some of these are subject to government regulations and so be sure to ask the dealer before making a purchase. Also keep in mind that cheap imitations are very common so when you are buying something really expensive, get it certified from an expert.
Old Quarter: The best place to shop in Hanoi is undoubtedly the Old Quarter lined with silk stores where you can purchase silks and also get them stitched. You must check out the Hang Gai, appropriately known as the ‘Silk Street’. The shops here mostly cater to the tourists who come here to shop for souvenirs. Stroll through the Hanoi’s Dong Xuan Market and you will find everything under the sky for sale here. You can purchase silk bags here for less than US$10.
Nha Tho: The Nha Tho or the Cathedral Street with traditional houses has some of Hanoi’s most stunning shops catering to the well heeled. Though the goods on sale are pretty expensive window shopping is an experience in itself.
Weekend night market: The Dong Xuan Market transforms into a night bazaar during the weekends.
Hang Da Market: The market is a great place to shop for imported food, wines, and flowers. The upstairs stalls sell fabrics and off-the-hangar clothing and even watches.
Shopping malls: Shopping malls are gradually making their presence felt in the city. Malls worth checking out include the Trang Tien Plaza at 24 Hai Ba Trung and VinCom City Towers at 191 Ba Trieu.
Excursions From Hanoi
Halong Bay: The UNESCO World Heritage Site of Halong Bay is around four hours away from Hanoi. There are thousands of limestone islets rising up from the sea, many of them with spectacular caves, a few of which you can explore. You can take the journey in one day but we recommend that you spend the night on a boat to get the best view of the bay and the floating villages.
Perfume Pagoda: Located at around 65km (40 miles) southeast of Hanoi, the Perfume Pagoda is actually a series of spectacular pagodas and Buddhist shrines located amidst scenic settings of forest streams, lakes and grottoes. You can reach The Perfume Pagoda by boat. There is a steep path leading up to the Pagoda.
Nightlife and Entertainment
The nightlife scene in Hanoi is pretty staid as the streets are deserted by 11 PM. There are some clubs and live music but they are short in supply. The government restrictions ensure that most establishments close early and there are occasional police raids for those flouting rules. Much of the city’s nightlife is concentrated around Old Quarter and around Hoan Kiem Lake.
Some venues worth checking out for a drink or two include The Spotted Cow, a sports bar, Finnegan’s Irish Pub, Relax Bar, 60 Ly Thuong Kiet, and Polite Pub. For some dance floor action you can visit Apocalypse Now, Star Bowl Centre, Pham Ngoc Thach, or New Century.
Hanoi’s performing arts are an interesting alternative to the lack of a more happening nightlife. The Alliance Française has weekly shows of French films. The Hanoi Traditional Theater usually hosts cheo operas and traditional music concerts while the National Puppet Theater hosts regular water puppet shows. For classical music concerts, ballets, and Western and Vietnamese operas you can visit the impressive Opera House.
Visitors to Hanoi can experience a wide range of weather depending on when they choose to visit. The best time to visit the city is from November to February when temperatures reach their daytime peak at 20C and there is rarely any rainfall. Most visitors choose to come during the summer which is also coincidentally the season with the worst weather. Temperatures routinely reach the thirties, there is also a high rate of humidity, and rain showers are a common occurrence.
By air: Noi Bai Airport is about 35km (21 miles) north of the city. It is the second largest international airport in the country after Ho Chi Minh City. The airport serves cities in Asia and Europe with regular flights to Bangkok, Hong Kong, Singapore and Kuala Lumpur.
Facilities at the airport: These include bureau de change, duty-free shops and cafes. There are no car hire providers at the airport but metered taxis are available. There are buses to the city operated by the Vietnam Airlines.
By rail: Duong Sat Vietnam trains leave from Ga Hang Co, 120 Le Duan in the southwest of the city, the starting point for trains north to Lao Cai, east to Haiphong and south to Ho Chi Minh City. For northern services, the starting point is on Tran Quy Cap. There is only one major rail route in Vietnam from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City. Internationally, there is a twice-weekly train service to Beijing via Kunming and Guangzhou.
There is a special counter for the foreigners to purchase their tickets. In case you need information, you can dial 1080 and your queries will be answered by English-speaking operators. If you are traveling long distance, we recommend you book cheap class sleepers; for short distances you can book soft seats. Trains are popular form of transport of travel around the country so you must book in advance around public holidays like Tet.
By Road: There are various bus stations around the city with each serving a different destination. The buses range from moderately good to ramshackle, though the ones going to Ho Chi Minh City are modern and air-conditioned. It is not possible to book tickets over the phone and you will have to travel to the bus station the day before to buy the ticket and also check the schedule.
Cars: Self-drive cars are non-existent. Long term vacationers are allowed to drive in the city but the traffic is very chaotic, so this is not recommended. Also keep in mind, if you are involved in an accident in all probability you will be held responsible chiefly because you happen to be a foreigner.
Public Transport: The city is well connected by a public transport system but it can be pretty confusing especially to a short-term visitor. Around 40 bus routes are operated by Hanoi Bus. Monthly passes are available on these buses.
Taxis: The best way to travel around the city is in taxis and cyclo. Several metered taxis operate in Hanoi. Just make sure to check the meter is on before starting. You will easily find cyclos outside hotels and restaurants but be sure to negotiate the fare before setting off to your destination. Motorbike taxis are also good for getting around the city.
Bicycle: This is another good way of getting around considering the heavy traffic on the roads. You can hire a bicycle for a day or longer period from a number of outlets on Hang Bac Street in the Old Quarter.