Hanoi, the capital of Vietnam, is known for its centuries-old architecture and a rich culture with Southeast Asian, Chinese and French influences. At its heart is the chaotic Old Quarter, where the narrow streets are roughly arranged by trade. There are many little temples, including Bach Ma, honoring a legendary horse, plus Dong Xuan market, selling household goods and street food.
• How to get there?
From outside SE Asia there are many direct flights to Hanoi International Airport. Within SE Asia there are also many operators offering direct connections. Vietnam is well served with smaller provincial and international airports and getting to and from Hanoi form inside Vietnam is easy. Don’t forget also that trains play a big part of Vietnamese transport and can make for a more leisurely and interesting mode of transport, noting also it can be relatively cheap to take the train. Great if you are not in a hurry to get from A to B. Coaches, minivans and taxis are also available from many operators.
• Food & Accommodation
Hanoi has rich culinary traditions. Many of Vietnam's most famous dishes, such as phở, chả cá, bánh cuốn and cốm are believed to have originated in Hanoi. Perhaps most widely known is Phở—a simple rice noodle soup often eaten as breakfast at home or at street-side cafes, but also served in restaurants as a meal. Two varieties dominate the Hanoi scene: Phở Bò, containing beef, and Phở Gà, containing chicken.
Vietnam's national dish phở has been named as one of the Top 5 street foods in the world.
For the more adventurous, Hanoi also has a number of restaurants whose menus specifically offer dishes containing dog, snakeand various species of insects. Insect-inspired menus can be found at a number of restaurants in Khuong Thuong village, Hanoi. The signature dishes at these restaurant are those containing processed ant-eggs, often in the culinary styles of Thai people or Vietnam's Muong and Tay ethnic people.
Accommodation is varied and plentiful. Travel Loop Adventure will offer you a choice of hotel to suit your personal preference and budget.
Being the capital city, there are quite a few major public and private hospitals, as well as many smaller clinics. That said they don’t get great reviews and are often accused of incompetence. If you have no option go private (expensive so make sure you also have insurance) as these are better staffed and funded than the local hospitals. If at all possible you should consider heading to Bangkok or Singapore for something major. Of all the places in Vietnam, Hanoi certainly has the best healthcare options. Like neighbouring countries, medications are available at pharmacies without the need for a prescription.
Like any major city, the best advice on safety when in Hanoi is to use common sense.
The highest risk is probably traffic accidents; the city is notorious for having the highest number of incidents in SE Asia. While petty crime exists, again if you take care you can avoid this. Hanoi is home to more scams than most places; beware of taxis and hotels overcharging you.
• Where to go
The Old Quarter
Packed with charming colonial architecture, Buddhist temples and pagodas, the Old Quarter, located near Hoan Kiem Lake in Hoan Kiem District, is Hanoi’s major commercial district. Its heart and soul is exposed in the ancient commercial streets, which are named after their original businesses dating back about 1,000 years. Though most of the specialties (cotton, jewelry, herbs, and silk) have changed over time and have been replaced with a variety of modern-day commodities and services, visitors can still appreciate some of the original goods as well as get a feel of rich old Vietnamese customs.
The preserved shop-houses that lie along these roads were built a little over a century ago and were constructed in their long and narrow style to avoid being hit by high taxes. Each has a street-facing façade and multiple courtyards inside. The front part of the buildings is where trading takes place while the family occupies the rest. Though one shop-house was meant to be for one family (with many generations in it), nowadays it is more common to see quite a few families jammed in under one roof. Expect to find plenty of hip café, bars, a variety of restaurants, bakeries, boutique shops and art galleries in this historical area.
Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum
Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum in Ba Dinh Square is one of the most visited attractions in Hanoi. It is the final resting place of Ho Chi Minh, the most iconic and popular leader of Vietnam, known to his people as ‘Uncle Ho’. His body is preserved here in a glass case at the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum in central Hanoi (albeit against his wishes). For visitors, a trip to Uncle Ho’s final resting place can be an extraordinary experience as it is not just an average attraction; it’s a part of a unique history.
Started in 1973, the construction of the mausoleum was modeled on Lenin's mausoleum in Russia and was first open to the public in 1975. The granite building meant a great deal for many locals as it ensures that their beloved leader ‘lives on forever’.
Security is tight and visitors should dress with respect (no shorts, sleeveless shirts and miniskirts) and everyone has to deposit their bags and cameras before getting in. Visitors are not allowed to stop and hold the constant queue up, as the place is constantly busy. Uncle Ho’s remains are sent yearly to Russia for maintenance therefore the mausoleum is closed usually from October onwards. It’s best to recheck with your hotel tour desk before visiting. Admission is free but donations are accepted.
Water Puppet Theatre
The world-famous Thang Long Water Puppet Theatre in Hanoi has its roots in an art form that dates back to the 11th century. The tradition of water puppet theatre stems from a time when rice paddy fields were flooded and villagers would make entertainment by standing in the waist-deep water with the puppets performing over the water. Using large rods to support the puppets it appears as if they were moving across the water with the puppeteers hidden behind a screen.
This tradition is unique to North Vietnam but has recently found fame on stages all over the world; so it’s a rare treat to see the puppets perform in their original location at the Thang Long Water Puppet Theatre. Performances are accompanied by a Vietnamese orchestra playing traditional music using drums, wooden bells, horns, bamboo flutes and cymbals. There are also authentic Vietnamese operatic songs telling the story that is being acted out by the puppets. Most of the shows recount Vietnamese folk tales and legends with topics including the celebration of the rice harvest depicted in a humorous fashion.
One Pillar Pagoda
Built between the years of 1028 and1054 during the reign of Emperor Ly Thai Tong of the Ly Dynasty, the One Pillar Pagoda is one of Vietnam’s most iconic temples.
Legend claims that The One Pillar Pagoda was built following a dream by the fatherless emperor in which the enlightened being Avalokiteshvara gave him a baby son resting on a lotus flower. Emperor Ly Thai Tong commissioned the pagoda to be created in resemblance of this lotus flower, which is also the Buddhist symbol of enlightenment.
After the temple was completed, loyal followers flocked daily to give thanks and support to the emperor, praying to Quan Am for a long and successful sovereignty. Today, the concrete pillar that supports the tiny wooden pagoda is a replacement for the original one which was blown up by the departing French, it remains unclear how much of the wooden temple is the original one.
The Temple of Literature
The Temple of Literature is often cited as one of Hanoi’s most picturesque tourist attractions. Originally built as a university in 1070 dedicated to Confucius, scholars and sages, the building is extremely well preserved and is a superb example of traditional-style Vietnamese architecture.
This ancient site offers a lake of literature, the Well of Heavenly Clarity, turtle steles, pavilions, courtyards and passageways that were once used by royalty. Visiting the Temple of Literature you will discover historic buildings from the Ly and Tran dynasties in a revered place that has seen thousands of doctors’ graduate in what has now become a memorial to education and literature.
Originally the university only accepted aristocrats, the elite and royal family members as students before eventually opening its doors to brighter ‘commoners’. Successful graduates had their names engraved on a stone stele, which can be found on top of the stone turtles.
Hanoi Opera House
The beautiful Hanoi Opera House was built in 1911 by the then ruling French. It’s a phenomenal piece of neo-classical French architecture featuring Gothic themes on the doors and domes with pillars, shuttered windows, balconies and a glass room. Musicians, actors and dancers play to a 600-strong audience delivering powerful operatic and classical performances, making it a very popular theatrical attraction.
The Hanoi Opera House is the biggest theatre in Vietnam and speaks volumes as historical and cultural evidence of Vietnam under French rule. The interior is even more magnificent than the exterior with many arguing it is aesthetically even more appealing than the Paris Opera House. Visitors today will be entertained at this architectural landmark, which features a range of events including local Vietnamese opera, traditional folk music, ballets and many international concerts.