The capital of Vietnam, Hanoi is located in the north of the country. Crowded (pop. 6,000,000+), a little polluted, and slightly run-down, it nonetheless is very quaint.
Though I did not like Vietnam, I liked Hanoi.
Time and poor rebuilding may have worn down the city. All over Hanoi, old French colonial homes lay crumbling as modern buildings spring up around them, slowly bringing the city into the modern age. The city’s old quarter, located right by Hoan Kiem Lake, is a fine example of French Colonial architecture. I imagine this is what New Orleans would look like if it was left to decay.
But Hanoi is a fascinating city where you’ll find amazing street side pho places, little beer bars, and a fast pace where you need to follow the grandmothers as you cross the street or you’ll get run over.
Navigate tiny streets and outdoor markets as people crush you from all sides. Hanoi is very busy, and this quarter is one of the busiest – flooded with bikes, buses, markets, and tourists. Buses cram down streets I didn’t think even motorbikes could get through. A bus of mine went down one the wrong way and I was sure we were done for. Crossing the street here is a fine art, as motorbikes and cars don’t stop for you. But, despite the crowds, these densely-packed streets have a lot of charm as the old battles the new for dominance.
Hanoi is one of my favorites and today I want to share some things to see or do while in Hanoi:
Visit the Old Quarter
The Old Quarter’s 2,000-year-old streets are a web of shopping opportunities and cheap eateries. Gold and silver jewelry, clothes, cosmetics and even musical instruments can all be bought here alongside a myriad of other goods. There’s also a lot of fascinating old worn French architecture around and you can still see the strong French influence in the area. The old quarter is also a great place to sit and drink Bia Hoi, cheap Vietnamese beer. At 75 cents a beer, you can’t go wrong!
Visit Hoam Kiem Lake and Ngoc Son Temple
(Dinh Tien Hoang St, +84 8 3910 0555)
Get here early in the morning to watch throngs of people practicing Tai Chi, running, cycling and walking before their working day begins. In the center of the lake is the Tortoise Pagoda, a shrine to the famous giant turtles that live in the lake. The lake is very beautiful and there is a temple worth visiting on the north end of the lake. You can visit this area daily from 8am to 5pm. It is 20,000 DNG to enter.
Visit the Temple of Literature
(Quoc Tu Giam Street, Dong Da District)
Built in 1070, the Van Mieu temple is a great example of traditional Vietnamese architecture and is one of the oldest structures in the country. Originally dedicated to Confucius, you can wander the five courtyards decorated and see the stelae mark with the first diplomas for the university’s doctorate students. Entrance is 30,000 VND per person. Opening hours are Tuesday to Sunday, 7:30am to 11:30am and 1:30pm to 4:30pm.
Visit the Ho Chi Minh Museum
(19 Ngoc Ha, Ba Dinh, +84 24 3846 3757, baotanghochiminh.vn)
Looking for something morbd? You can check out the body of former leader Ho Chi Minh himself. Despite wanting his body to be cremated (so as to not waste agricultural land), his countrymen mummified him and put him on display. It’s a creepy sight and he looks very “plastic.” No cameras are allowed in, and soldiers stand guard to make sure you do not speak either. Make sure you time your visit right, though – Ho Chi Minh spends a few months out of the year in Moscow getting “worked” on.
For those interested in Ho Chi Minh, you can also see his old presidential palace as well as a museum dedicated to his life. The museum is really more of a propaganda tool designed to show how Ho Chi Minh led a revolution against imperialist pigs instead of being a chronology of his life. The museum is open daily from 7:30am to 6pm. Tickets are 30,000 VND per person.
Escape the Hustle for Halong Bay
For those who find the hustle and bustle of Hanoi too much to handle, there are many trips outside the city you can take, too. You can head out to the World Heritage site, Halong Bay, and sail through limestone karsts. Or head west to Sapa, one of the most beautiful regions of the world and home to many hill tribes. Sapa was really beautiful. In fact, Vietnam’s natural beauty was the highlight of my time there.
***You’ll find a lot of things to see and do in Hanoi. This city will keep you entertained on your visit but what really makes Hanoi amazing is the charm of the city. It has that special something that makes it absolutely fascinating as much as it is frustrating as you try to make your way around in a place that seems never to notice you. It’s an adventure in Hanoi and is why every traveler should visit!