Located in the heart of the Red River Delta, the poetic capital of Vietnam has been at the center of the country's historical and spiritual development since the area was first inhabited some 4000 years ago. The city served as Vietnam's capital from 1010 until 1802, when Hue became capital during the Nguyen Dynasty. From 1902 to 1953 Hanoi was again the capital, this time of French Indochina. From 1954 to 1976 it was the capital of North Vietnam.
Hanoi's rich history can be seen and felt on every street corner, from the vibrant streets of the Old Quarter to the dignified grounds of the Temple of Literature, and the somber halls of Ho Chi Minh's Mausoleum - this charming city invites you to step back in time and explore the many influences that helped shape it. Despite its large size and mad traffic, Hanoi is an intimate city that lacks the frenetic pace of Saigon. Small cafes, atmospheric pagodas, and tree shaded parks provide tranquil havens that invite the visitor to soak in the special atmosphere of this enchanting city.
Places to See - Top Picks
Founded in 1070 and dedicated to Confucius, the Temple of Literature became Vietnam's first university in 1076. The complex, which features five courtyards and linking pathways, is home to 82 stele mounted on stone turtles featuring the names, places of birth, and academic achievements of the graduates. The tree shaded temple complex is a tranquil haven from the noisy streets of the city. Wandering along the paths and relaxing at the lily pond is a great way to soak in the atmosphere.
This charming little pagoda was built by Emperor Ly Thai Tong in gratitude for the male heir his wife bore him. It is supposed to represent a lotus flower, which is a symbol of purity.
Located in the center of the city, this romantic lake is named after the legend of Emperor Ly Thai To, who possessed a magical sword that was given to him by the gods. One day, it was stolen by a giant golden turtle which disappeared with it into the waters of the lake and supposedly returned it to the heavens - hence the name of the lake. One of the loveliest features of the lake is Ngoc Son Temple, which is built on a tiny island. The island can be reached via a beautiful red bridge, from where you have great vistas over the lake. It's the perfect spot for taking photos.
The lake is surrounded by a lovely park with lots of big old trees where locals come and exercise. It's a great place to see people practice tai chi in the morning, or to sit on one of the benches and watch people stroll by.
Hanoi's oldest pagoda sits on a tiny island in Ho Tay, or West Lake, which has become the city's chicest address. The pagoda is believed to date from the 6th century, and features a stone stele from 1639 in front of the building.
This stark and imposing dark grey building sits on the west side of the equally imposing Ba Dinh Square. The mausoleum is easily Hanoi's most visited site, as thousands of people come here to pay their respects to Uncle Ho, as he is often referred to. Although Ho Chi Minh's body was embalmed after his death in 1969, it was not made available to the public until after 1975. The mausoleum is akin to a sacred pilgrimage site, and appropriate attire (no shorts, sleeveless tops, or other revealing clothes) and respectful behavior (hands are not allowed to be put in pockets, hats must be taken off, absolutely no photography or video recording, no laughing or talking, no loud noises) are strictly enforced. Visitors are not allowed to bring anything inside the mausoleum, including bags or cameras. You can leave your belongings at a counter at the entrance to the mausoleum.
Although the museum is located in Hanoi's suburbs, it is very much worth a visit. It comprises two floors of very well preserved collections of textiles, tools, jewelry, every day objects, and art from Vietnam's diverse ethnic groups. Aside from the permanent collection, the museum houses special temporary exhibits. There is also a wonderful outdoor area with several replicas of typical hill tribe houses. The museum also serves as a research and educational center. It is open every day except Monday, and can be reached either by public transportation (bus #14), or by taxi (approximately 20 minutes from the city center).
The Old Quarter is undoubtedly one of Hanoi's most fascinating places. The historic home of the city's merchants, this traditional neighborhood goes back to the 15th century and has retained much of its charm and original character. Although it is only about one square kilometer in size, it is filled to the brim with shops, people, and traffic, and teeming with activity.
The names of the numerous small lanes and streets date back several centuries and correspond to the original craft that was practiced on each of them. To this day, some of the streets still feature the craft after which they were named, such as paper products, religious accessories, bamboo products, and traditional medicine, to name a few. During the day, most business activities take place on the sidewalks. They are used for displaying goods as well as manufacturing them, and you can watch everything from the production of bamboo ladders to the engraving of tomb stones. At night, people use the sidewalks as porches where families come together to socialize over a meal or drink. It is easy to spend hours, if not days wandering around the streets. There are hundreds of shops, food stalls, and restaurants, and it is mesmerizing to watch life unfold on the streets and sidewalks of this small historic "island".
The Old Quarter also features beautiful examples of historic architecture, including traditional shop houses and temples. Many old houses here have extremely narrow fronts (some are as narrow as 2m/6ft) due to the taxation of street frontage. To make up for lost space, these houses extend very far in the back, giving them strange "tunnel" layouts. Don't miss an evening walk through the Old Quarter - the daytime hustle and bustle gives way to quiet romantic alleys lined with delightful old buildings. Truly enchanting!
When in Hanoi, do as the locals and join them at one of the many bia hoi, or beer outlets. These are usually simple operations (often with sidewalk seating on tiny plastic chairs) where locals come together to socialize over a glass or two of locally brewed beer. Some of them offer excellent and cheap food. Bia hoi offer great opportunities to partake in the local life style, soak in authentic Vietnamese culture, and strike up a conversation with the locals. They are spread out all over the city.
This traditional art is assumed to have originated in the Red River Delta. A shallow pool filled with water serves as the stage for these noisy and fun spectacles. The actors, who are standing in thigh high water manipulate a plethora of hand carved puppets, and are obscured from the audience by a screen. The puppet shows are accompanied by an orchestra and singers. Shows feature traditional folk tales and music, and involve a good bit of splashing as well as pyrotechnical effects, and are very entertaining.
Hanoi is most famous for its pho - highly aromatic broth with noodles, thin slices of beef, and fresh herbs. Pho is served anywhere from fancy restaurants to food stalls, and readily available throughout the city. Another specialty is bun cha, which are small barbequed pork burgers served over rice noodles and garnished with fresh herbs. They also come as bun bo (beef) and bun ga (chicken). Like elsewhere in Vietnam, street vendors typically specialize in the preparation of one or two dishes only, which they have mastered to perfection. Street vendors in Hanoi serve outstanding food, and you are guaranteed an authentic experience and flavor. Make sure to only eat freshly prepared foods though. Coffee, a legacy of the French, is hugely popular in Hanoi, and there are cafes everywhere, including simple set ups and Western style coffee houses that also serve pastries.
Hanoi offers a stupendous array of handicrafts, accessories, silk, and other souvenirs to choose from. Top picks include embroidery, stylish silk scarves, hand bags, and custom tailored outfits, elegant lacquerware, bamboo bowls and plates, silk lanterns, water puppets, fake antiques, and textiles, garments, and baskets from ethnic minority groups. There's also a growing and very hip art scene in Hanoi with lots of interesting galleries that are worth checking out.
For recommended hotels in Hanoi, click here: Hanoi Hotels.
Seasonal climate with very hot, wet, and humid summers (May to September), and cool and dry winters (November to March). Maximum temperatures in the summer can reach up to 40C, whereas temperatures in the winter can dip down to 6C. Best time to visit is fall and early winter when it is neither too rainy nor too cold.
Notes From the Field
“Hanoi is probably our favorite city in Vietnam. It has an incredible amount to offer, but without the frantic pace of Saigon. We never tire of the Old Quarter...walking around and watching life on the streets, exploring the hundreds of interesting shops, and eating the great food from both street vendors and restaurants.
On the first morning of our first trip to Hanoi we arrived very early on an overnight train from Hue. Our hotel room wasn't ready, so we walked over to Hoan Kiem Lake to have breakfast and relax. The lake was lined with people slowly practicing Tai Chi, stretching, and doing various forms of exercise. We knew we were going to like it.
Another great thing about Hanoi is that the city has so much to see outside of just the Old Quarter. The Temple of Literature is a beautiful and fascinating place everyone should visit. We spent a couple of hours there looking around, sitting down, and taking in the scenery. The One Pillar Pagoda and Ho Chi Minh's Mausoleum (close to each other) are also worth a visit.
Back to the Old Quarter...although attending the Water Puppet Show might sound overly touristy, we'd highly recommend it. The music alone is worth the low price of admission, and the show is great!”
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