In 2010, Hanoi, the capital of Vietnam, celebrated its 1000 year anniversary as a city. The area where Hanoi is situated has been inhabited for several millennia, and Hanoi served as the political center of the country for most of its history. It was the capital of Northern Vietnam between 1954 and 1976 and has become the capital of the reunited country. That long history can be sensed all around, and although Hanoi has suffered a lot from wars and natural disasters, a great number of the historical places have been preserved. Today its population is the second largest after Ho Chi Minh City. Although Hanoi is a lively and dynamic city, compared to Ho Chi Minh, or Southeast Asia’s other metropolises, it can still be described as provincial and has a unique, genteel atmosphere. Don’t be misled, though, traffic here is just as chaotic as in Ho Chi Minh, scooters, cars and bicycles mixing with pedestrians without any apparent order. The name “Hanoi” combines two words: Ha, standing for river and Noi standing for the interior, so Hanoi means something like “land between the rivers”. This very well summarizes the geography of the city, it being surrounded by the Red River, and several other rivers flowing through its area. The many lakes in and around the city also add to its charm. They are nicknamed as the lungs of the city and combined with several parks, they make Hanoi a pleasantly green city.
Things to see and do
Shop around and have lunch in the Old Quarter
The French colonial past of Hanoi can be most intensely sensed in the Old Quarter, where many nice examples of colonial architecture have been preserved. The Old Quarter is the commercial district of Hanoi and has been a center of trade for several centuries. The present layout, with long, narrow streets was developed in the late 19th century. It’s really interesting to observe how each “shop-house” has a front part, where business is done and a back part with inner courtyards, used by the family. The streets of the district still have names reflecting the line of business each street specialized in. The shops today mainly sell modern commodities, but you can also discover some really nice artefacts. For souvenirs, local lacquerware it is a perfect choice. You can also find some of the best street food in Hanoi here. Have a Vietnamese sandwich (bánh mì) or a bowl of pho soup, you will be amazed by how delicious these simple dishes can be.
Watch a show at the Thang Long Water Puppet Theatre
If you can get a ticket to a show in the world-famous Thang Long Water Puppet Theatre, you can consider yourself really lucky! This unique Vietnamese art form is based on the ancient rural tradition of performing stories with puppets over flooded rice paddies. In the Thang Long Theatre, a huge pool of water is used as the stage for the puppies, which are manipulated with long rods. The shows are based on Vietnamese folk stories and are accompanied by traditional music. Watching a performance is also a great opportunity to get familiar with Vietnamese musical instruments.
Visit the Imperial Citadel of Thang Long
The Imperial Citadel of Thang Long, in the heart of Hanoi, is a grandiose historical place, which has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Over several centuries, it has been gradually expanded into the huge complex it is today. Besides its impressive Flag Tower, which is a symbol of Hanoi, it contains some recently restored buildings and ancient ruins. Artifacts from the ongoing excavations are displayed in a small museum. For those interested in Vietnam’s long and varied history, this place is a must see!
Visit the Maison Centrale (Hoa Lo Prison Museum)
What is today known as “Maison Centrale” was originally part of a much larger prison complex, most of which has been torn down. The prison housed Vietnamese revolutionaries fighting for Vietnam’s independence from France and later, during the Vietnam War, American prisoners of war. It was these American inmates who gave the fortress the nickname “Hanoi Hilton”. In the 1990s a great part of the complex was demolished and most of what was left were converted into a museum, which is today a popular tourist attraction. The displays mainly concentrate on the colonial period, one of the highlights being a guillotine which was once used for executions here.
Discover the temples of Hanoi
Well reflecting the multi-religious heritage of Vietnam, there are over 2000 pagodas in present-day Hanoi, mostly Buddhist temples, but also several belonging to Confucianism or Taoism. There are many exquisite temples that are worth a visit just for their architectural value, but those interested in the rich culture of Vietnam will find a lot more to appreciate. The Temple of Literature, the site of Vietnam’s first university, is a beautiful Buddhist temple honoring the greatest scholars and literary figures of the country. The Tran Quoc Pagoda, beside the Ho Tay Lake, was founded in the 6th century and is said to be the oldest temple in Vietnam. The One Pillar Pagoda has a unique architecture representing a lotus flower, a Buddhist symbol of purity. The wooden structure is based on a single stone pillar rising from a lotus pond. The Kim Lien Pagoda is another spectacular, multi-tiered pagoda with a scenic garden.
Enjoy the breathtaking scenery of Sapa
You can take an overnight train from Hanoi to reach Sapa, a place containing some of the most dramatic landscapes in Vietnam. Enjoy the jaw-dropping view of the mountains all around and the most beautiful rice terraces in the world or take a trekking tour to one of the mountain villages in the vicinity. Getting familiar with the culture of the ethnic minority groups of these villages is a really memorable experience.
Spend a few days in Ha Long Bay
Ha Long Bay with its stunning limestone formations and charming little islands, secluded grottoes, and narrow lagoons, is one of northern Vietnam’s most scenic places. Lovers of water sports can indulge in kayaking, diving, and several other activities, you’ll be almost spoilt for choice. Not surprisingly, Ha Long Bay is usually crowded with tourists. If you want to get away from the hassle, take a cruise to one of the more untouched but just as alluring places nearby.