Imagine a city where the exotic chic of old Asia blends with the dynamic face of new Asia, where the medieval and modern co-exist. A city with a blend of Parisian grace and Asian pace, an architectural museum piece evolving in harmony with its history, rather than bulldozing through like many of the region’s capitals. Hanoi is where imagination becomes reality.
A mass of motorbikes swarms through the tangled web of streets that is the Old Quarter, a cauldron of commerce for almost 1000 years and still the best place to check the pulse of this resurgent city. Hawkers in conical hats ply their wares, locals sip coffee and bia hoi (beer) watching life (and plenty of tourists) pass them by. Witness synchronised t’ai chi at dawn on the shores of Hoan Kiem Lake while goateed grandfathers tug at their wisps over the next chess move. See the bold and beautiful dine at designer restaurants and cut the latest moves on the dance floor. Hanoi has it all: the ancient history, a colonial legacy and a modern outlook. There is no better place to untangle the paradox that is modern Vietnam.
The grand old dame of Asia, Hanoi lay in a deep slumber after Vietnam’s partition in 1954 until the effects of economic reforms kicked in four decades later. The city survived American bombs and Russian planners to emerge relatively unscathed in the early 1990s as an example of a French-conceived colonial city. Huge mansions line grand boulevards, and lakes and parks dot the city, providing a romantic backdrop to the nonstop soundtrack. There are still moments of Paris, as the smell of baguettes and café au lait permeates street corners.
Known by many names down the centuries, Thanh Long (City of the Soaring Dragon) is the most evocative, and let there be no doubt that this dragon is on the up once more.
Sights in Hanoi
A must for the architecture more than the collection, the History Museum was formerly home to the École Française d’Extrême Orient in Vietnam. It is an elegant, ochre-coloured structure built between 1925 and 1932. French architect Ernest Hebrard was among the first in Vietnam to incorporate a blend of Chinese and French design elements in his creations, and this particular building remains one of Hanoi’s most stunning architectural show pieces.
Museum of Vietnamese Women
The Vietnamese women celebrated here are graceful, wily and strong as all hell. Among the fuzzy photos usually displayed in Hanoi museums are some fascinating artefacts, including homemade machetes, a knife with an explicit caption noting it slashed at an oppressor’s neck and the ragtag garments worn by a female spy who pretended to be crazy. The top floor showcases beautiful textiles made by ethnic-minority women.
Ho Chi Minh’s Mausoleum
In the tradition of Lenin and Stalin before him – and Mao afterwards – Ho Chi Minh’s Mausoleum is a monumental marble edifice. Contrary to his desire for a simple cremation, the mausoleum was constructed from materials gathered from all over Vietnam between 1973 and 1975. The roof and peristyle are said to evoke either a traditional communal house or a lotus flower, though to many tourists it looks like a concrete cubicle with columns. Set deep in the bowels of the building in a glass sarcophagus is the frail, pale body of Ho Chi Minh. The mausoleum is closed for about two months each year while Ho Chi Minh’s embalmed corpse goes to Russia for maintenance.
Vietnam Museum of Ethnology
The outstanding Vietnam Museum of Ethnology is one of the country’s premier museums. Occupying a fine modern structure, the terrific collection features well-presented tribal art, artefacts and everyday objects gathered from across the nation. Displays are well labelled in Vietnamese, French and English. For anyone with an interest in Vietnam’s minorities, it’s an essential visit – though it is located way out in the suburbs.
Tran Quoc Pagoda
On the eastern shore of West Lake, this is one of the oldest pagodas in Vietnam. The current structures are very impressive and date back to 1842. The pagoda is just off the road that divides West Lake and Truc Bach Lake.
87 Ma May
The traditional houses of the Old Quarter are a huge part of the neighbourhood’s appeal, but you’ll rarely have an opportunity to see beyond their shopfronts. Here, you can – this house is a beauty, lovingly restored and frozen in its late-19th-century condition. The woodwork upstairs is particularly impressive, and it’s surprising to see how effectively the courtyard creates an open, livable space.
Women ‘s Museum
Hanoi’s Women’s Museum is the subject of an ongoing modernisation program that is introducing better displays and updated facilities. It’s a work in progress, so you might encounter some ongoing renovations. There are some powerful tributes to women soldiers and great exhibits from the international women’s movement protesting against the American War. And there’s much more in terms of cultural and political information. On the 4th floor, you’ll find different costumes worn by the women of the ethnic minority groups, and examples of tribal basketware and fabric motifs. Many of the exhibits have multilingual explanations, and regular exhibitions are held on topics as…
Ngoc Son Temple
Perhaps the most visited temple in Hanoi, Ngoc Son Temple sits pretty on a delightful little island in the northern part of Hoan Kiem Lake. An elegant scarlet bridge, known as Huc (Rising Sun) Bridge, constructed in classical Vietnamese style and lined with flags, connects the island to the lakeshore. Surrounded by water and shaded by trees, this small temple is dedicated to General Tran Hung Dao, who defeated the Mongols in the 13th century, La To, the patron saint of physicians, and the scholar Van Xuong. Inside you’ll find some fine ceramics, a gong or two, some ancient bells and a glass case containing a stuffed lake turtle, which is said to have weighed a hefty…
Tay Phuong Pagoda
This is also known as Sung Phuc Pagoda and consists of three single-level structures built in descending order on a hillock said to resemble a buffalo. The figures representing ‘the conditions of man’ are carved from jackfruit wood, many dating from the 18th century, and are the pagoda’s most celebrated feature. The earliest construction here dates from the 8th century. Take the steep steps up to the main pagoda building, then find a path at the back that loops down past the other two pagodas and wander through the hillside village surrounding the complex.
Bach ma Temple
In the heart of the Old Quarter, the small Bach Ma Temple is said to be the oldest temple in the city, though much of the current structure dates from the 18th century and a shrine to Confucius was added in 1839. It was originally built by King Ly Thai To in the 11th century to honour a white horse that guided him to this site, where he chose to construct his city walls. Pass through the wonderful old wooden doors of the pagoda to see a statue of the legendary white horse, as well as a beautiful red-lacquered funeral palanquin.
One Pillar Pagoda
A Hanoi landmark, the One Pillar Pagoda was built by the Emperor Ly Thai Tong, who ruled from 1028 to 1054. According to the annals, the heirless emperor dreamed that he had met Quan The Am Bo Tat, the Goddess of Mercy, who, while seated on a lotus flower, handed him a male child. Ly Thai Tong then married a young peasant girl and had a son and heir by her. As a way of expressing his gratitude for this event, he constructed this pagoda in 1049.
Ho Chi Minh ‘s Stilt House
Behind Ho Chi Minh’s Mausoleum is a humble stilt house, where Ho lived on and off from 1958 to 1969. The house is an interpretation of a traditional rural dwelling, and has been preserved just as Ho left it. It’s set in a well-tended garden next to a carp-filled pond. Just how much time he actually spent here is questionable – the house would have been a tempting target for US bombers had it been suspected that Ho was hanging out here.
Vietnam Military History Museum
Vietnamese military history is not a conventional matter of tanks and battalions, which is why this museum is so engrossing. Exhibits include ample evidence of Vietnamese resourcefulness: bamboo spikes, crudely tinkered firearms, buffalo horns, crazy-looking torpedoes. Quality photos get you behind Viet Minh lines. Outside the building, an artistic heap of B-52 wreckage is worth a walk-around, and be sure to go to the top of the Flag Tower.
Hanoi Cathedral’s twin towers and Gothic arches elicit understandable comparisons with Paris’ Notre Dame Cathedral. Nha Tho (also known as St Joseph’s Cathedral) is smaller and greyer and in need of restoration; nevertheless, it cuts a striking figure. The interior is even more magnificent. Enter the grounds through the gate and look for the door on the left side of the church (Pho Nha Chung side).
Hoa Lo Prison Museum
This thought-provoking site is all that remains of the former Hoa Lo Prison, ironically nicknamed the ‘Hanoi Hilton’ by US POWs during the American War. Those incarcerated at Hoa Lo included Pete Peterson, who later became the first US Ambassador to a unified Vietnam in 1995, and Senator John McCain (the Republican nominee for the US presidency in 2008).
Quan Thanh Temple
Shaded by huge trees, QuanThanhTemple was established during the Ly dynasty (1010–1225) and was dedicated to Tran Vo (God of the North), whose symbols of power were the tortoise and the snake. A bronze statue and bell date from 1677. The temple is on the shores of Truc Bach Lake, near the intersection of Ð Thanh Nien and P Quan Thanh.
The nearest green lung to the Old Quarter, Lenin Park is about 2km south of Hoan Kiem Lake. It’s a great place to escape urban Hanoi (and incorporates Bau Mau Lake, where there are pedal boats) and has a couple of cafes. You’ll find fitness bars for pull-ups and dips, and its shady paths are popular with joggers.
Truc Bach Lake
This lake is separated from Ho Tay by Ð. Thanh Nien, which is lined with flame trees. During the 18th century the Trinh lords built a palace on the lakeside; it was later transformed into a reformatory for wayward royal concubines, who were condemned to spend their days weaving pure white silk.
Temple of Literature
About 2km west of Hoan Kiem Lake, the Temple of Literature is a rare example of well-preserved traditional Vietnamese architecture. The temple complex, consisting of five courtyards, is extensive and well kept, and makes a welcome retreat from the frenetic streets of Hanoi.
Museum of the Vietnamese Revolution
A must for all budding revolutionaries, the history of the Vietnamese Revolution is enthusiastically presented in this museum. It’s diagonally across the road from the History Museum.
Dong Xuan Market
No trip to the Old Quarter would be complete without a visit to the Dong Xuan Market, rebuilt after a fire in 1994.