Hanoi travel guide (part 2)
What to See & Do
Here are the top sights, in no particular order. Plan to get around to most of them via cyclo (bike-propelled cart) and you’ll have a very enjoyable trip and be able to see the highlights in two days or the entire city in less than a week.
In Central Hanoi you will find most of the sights, shopping, accommodations, restaurants, and resources of interest to travelers.
Take time to immerse yourself in the vibrant street scenes and life of the central core – the women hauling mini-malls on bicycles, the men playing cards on street corners, the laborers toting huge loads in two baskets at the ends of a bamboo rod across their shoulders… another world.
Ho An Kiem Lake
The central area lies around Hoan (Ho An) Kiem Lake. The lake itself is peaceful, with the three-tiered pagoda in the middle and the small footbridge at the north end near the Water Puppet Theater. Walking around the lake is great for exercise, and you can watch the local people doing their T’ai Chi exercises in the morning. There are numerous ice cream parlors and over-priced restaurants on the west side of the lake.
The French Quarter
This is the area where the Opera, Governor’s house, and villas of the wealthy were located. The southeast corner of Ho An Kiem Lake is very pleasant. This is also where many of the international standard hotels and auberges (such as the Hanoi Hilton) can be found. Spend some time wandering the leafy streets and picturing the way the area must have looked, all pastels and elegant colonials, in its heyday.
The Hanoi Hilton Hotel (1 Le Thanh Tong Street; tel. 4/9330500), overlooking the Opera, makes a pleasant stop for tea and pastries, especially if you are staying in one of the two- or three-star tourist hotels at the north end of the lake.
The Opera is a sight in and of itself. It stands in August Revolution Square; tel. 4/825 4312. You’ll find ourself transported back to the luxurious lifestyle of French colonialism when the residents tried to recreate the life they left behind in La Belle France. There are no tours – too bad since the interior is fully restored to its marble, gilt, and crystal glory. You might luck into a performance; that’s the only way to get inside nowadays. But the outside is quite splendid and worth a walk around.
See a large picture of the Opera.
The History Museum is one block east of the Opera House. I found the contents to be fascinating, but the outside is even better – a mix of Vietnamese and French Colonial.
A block north of this museum is the Museum of Vietnamese Revolution, in another French Colonial building. Of particular note is the exhibit covering the American War.
Walk back to the Opera House and head two blocks north on Ly Thai To to see the Residence of the Governor of Tonkin and the Metropole Hotel. These are two of the most attractive Colonial-era buildings in all of Vietnam.
Walk along Trang Tien if you want to to do some shopping, especially for books and jewelry. If you head west you’ll end up at the lake.If you continue south (from the eastern end of the lake) you will see two tall towers, and in the shadow of these buildings is the pre-Colonial, much dreaded, Hoa Lo Prison. This is the infamous site called the “Hanoi Hilton” by American prisoners of war during the Vietnamese-American War. It has a much longer history though, dating back to the early 20th century, and most of the displays focus on the time the prison was used by the French to hold Vietnamese prisoners prior to 1945.
The Old Quarter
This is where I prefer to stay. There are lots of basic hotels with free Internet, quiet rooms, decent food, and CNN/satellite TV. You’re close to Hoan Kiem Lake, several markets, lots of good restaurants, and plenty of travel specialists to arrange your onward travel, confirm flights, and set up tours.
Ma May is one of the main streets in the Old Quarter. As you walk along it, you will come to another main road – Hang Buom – passing a large collection of variegated architecture – pre-Colonial shophouses, Colonial villas, and Soviet-inspired concrete slab buildings. On Hang Buom you will see one of the oldest remaining temples – the Bach Ma Temple (founded in the ninth century), dating from the 18th century.
Dong Xuan, the largest covered market in Hanoi, is on the eastern edge of the Old Quarter – not too far from the Water Puppet Theater. It’s three levels of anything and everything you can imagine (and a few things you might not want to think about). I love walking through the food stalls and shops. Some of the items used in food preparation are amazing; others make me never want to eat again unless I know all the ingredients and watch the preparation!
Caution. With the increasing incidence of bird flu showing up in humans in Vietnam, stay away from any markets that include food stalls. Live chickens go with food stalls, so discretion is the better part of valor for the time being.
If you proceed to the south (toward the lake) you’ll come to the Museum of Independence at 48 Hang Ngang. This site is noteworthy because it is where Ho Chi Minh drafted his Declaration of Independence for the “Democratic” Republic of Vietnam in 1945. There is no cost to enter, and the two upper levels are certainly worth a look to see how he lived.
From here walk south to the lake – you’ll be entering a shopper’s paradise.
The West Side
Immediately to the west of Hoan Lake is a pair of shopping streets – they parallel the lake from one end
to the other (running north-south). You can find drawings, paintings, fabric, silk, clothes, lacquerware, gold and silver, and much more. Continuing to the west you will find the most important monuments and historical sites in the city.
The Temple of Literature, Quoc Tu Giam St, Dong Da District, was founded in the 11th century as Vietnam’s first university and includes an open-air temple complex. It is a fascinating place to walk through, with its arched open rooms, steles carved with historical information, and peaceful garden-like atmosphere.
Temple of Literature
Other sites in the area worth a visit (hire a cyclodriver for $10 for the day) are: the One Pillar Pagoda, Presidential Palace, Ho Chi Minh’s Mausoleum, Cot Co Flag Tower, and the Museum of Military History. All of these places are close together and can be easily visited in a single day.
Another of my favorite places is the National Fine Arts Museum, located south of the Temple of Literature at 66 Nguyen Thai Hoc. The eclectic mix of styles, periods, and themes is fascinating. The museum is open during business hours Tuesday-Sunday.
Outside the Central Area
Another area worth a visit is the smaller West Lake. It is primarily a fashionable residential area, but there are a few sights such as the Museum of Ethnology and the Yen Phu Temple that you should see.
See also trips from Hanoi: Halong Bay or Sapa & Lao Cai
History, How to get to Hanoi, How to get around
Where to eat in Hanoi, Shopping, Nightlife
Picture of the Opera
Trips from Hanoi - Halong Bay and Sapa
Vietnam travel guide homepage
Cities and regions of Vietnam homepage