Late night beer joints, food stalls spilling out across the street and a peaceful lake for a morning stroll. Hanoi offers an eye–popping introduction to Vietnam.
The bustling, narrow streets of the Old Quarter are the ultimate expression of Vietnam’s can–do attitude. Businesses sprawl across the narrow paths, selling everything from flip-flops to locally grown coffee. In between it all you’ll find workers taking a nap on their scooters or locals cooking up treats over an open fire.
Food fanatics will find so much to love here. Don’t be put off by pulling up a child–sized chair at any one of the street side carts which dot the Old Quarter and the edges of the blissful Hoa Kiem Lake. Vietnamese food is unquestionably among the most delicious in all of Asia. Try banh mi (baguettes with cold cuts, chilli and fresh leaves) which marries Asian flavours with the fresh bread from the country’s French colonial past. Hanoi’s seafood is also legendary.
That colonial history is in evidence all over Hanoi: crumbling buildings dot the city from a time before it suffered at the hands of American bombers during the war of the 1960s and 1970s. But it’s a brutalist modern building which is the city’s most famous. Ho Chi Minh’s mausoleum is an essential stop off for any visitor. Huge crowds gather everyday to file past the body of the one–time leader of Vietnam, who helped see off French and American troops.
Things to see in Hanoi
The Old Quarter
Hanoi’s Old Quarter is a maddening maze of 36 narrow streets named after the products that were traditionally sold along each. Today the shops are as likely to sell mobile phones and homeware as silk clothes and traditional medicine, but the streets are still pleasant to wander through, especially as there are many bars, boutique shops and hotels to be found along them – just watch out for the endless throng of mopeds.
Hanoi Water Puppet Theatre
Located at 57B, Dinh Tien Hoang street, nearby Hoan Kiem Lake, Thang Long Water Puppet Theater is a familiar address for both domestic tourists and foreign ones, who want to enjoy water puppet shows and discovery the beauty of this unique Vietnam traditional art.
Vietnam Museum of Ethnology
Covering 54 ethnic tribes that live throughout Vietnam, this museum houses an enormous collection of artefacts including clothing, jewellery and musical instruments. Most strikingly, the grounds feature examples of Tay and Yao stilt houses, as well as an Ede long house and a Garai traditional tomb. There are also many extraordinary photos to be found here.
Opening Times: Tue-Sun 0830-1730.
Fine Arts Museum
Housed in a French colonial house from 1930s, this impressive building explores art from the prehistory to the present day. Examples of socialist realist paintings that show peasants striking patriotic poses are of particular interest, while there are also sculptures of the ancient Cham, beautiful oil-and-silk paintings, and precious artworks from Vietnam’s ethnic minorities.
Opening Times: Tue-Sun 0830-1700.
Ho Chi Minh Museum
Designed by Soviet architects with a shape said to represent the lotus flower, Ho Chi Minh Museum is dedicated to the life and achievements of the revolutionary leader. Inaugurated in 1990, on what would have been his 100th birthday, the museum depicts Ho Chi Minh’s epic struggle for the liberation of Vietnam from imperial powers.
Opening Times: Mon 0800-1200, Tue-Thu 0800-1630, Fri 0800-1200, Sat-Sun 0800-1630.
Ho Chi Minh's Mausoleum
Despite his wishes to be cremated, the former president, Ho Chi Minh, lies in state here and people come from all over the world to pay their respects, so expect a lengthy queue before entering. His embalmed body is displayed in a granite monolith modelled after Lenin's tomb in Moscow, and visitors must walk around in a respectful silence. No photos are allowed inside and visitors must dress modestly.
Opening Times: Tue-Thu 0730-1030, Sat-Sun 0730-1100 (1 Apr-31 Oct); Tue-Thu 0800-1100, Sat-Sun 0800-1130 (1 Nov-31 Mar).
Ho Chi Minh's House
This simple stilt house is modelled on a traditional communal home and was where Ho Chi Minh occasionally lived as was president until his death in 1969. The two simple rooms, a study and bedroom, contain many of his personal effects, and his cars are on display nearby. He is said to have preferred to live and work here rather than use the stunning colonial Presidential Palace next door.
Opening Times: Daily 0730-1100 and 1400-1600 (summer); daily 0800-1100 and 1330-1600 (winter).
The Temple of Literature
This beautifully preserved temple, dating from 1070, was originally dedicated to Confucius and became the first university in Vietnam. Today it’s an oasis of calm in the heart of Hanoi. The central entrance was reserved for the king and the two side entrances for the mandarins. The interior is divided into walled courtyards and one is lined with stone stelae mounted on the backs of tortoises that are engraved with the names of the students who passed their exams.
Opening Times: Daily 0730-1730 (summer); daily 0800-1700 (winter).
Tran Quoc Pagoda
The Tran Quoc Pagoda in Hanoi is one of the oldest pagodas in the whole of Vietnam and is invariably full of locals performing simple ceremonies, praying solemnly and making offerings. Attractively located on an islet on the West Lake, it has a tranquil garden and a spectacular tiered tower and offers a little solace from the chaos of the city.
Opening Times: Mon-Sat 0700-1130 and 1310-1800, Sun 0700-1800.
Vietnam National Museum of History
An essential prelude to the Military Museum, this well-planned step back in time describes Vietnamese history from prehistoric settlements through to the reign of the Chinese, before covering the centuries of independence ahead of the French conquest. The story is told through a large collection of extraordinary artefacts including ceramics, sculptures and tablets.
Opening Times: Mon-Sun 0800-1200 and 1330-1700.