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.