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.
Street Vendors are omni present in Hanoi
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 suggesteditinerary for walking tour) or with a prebooked guided Hanoi city tour.
Hoan Kiem Lake
A corner of 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.