The traffic was insane. Motorbikes ceased being motorbikes. The layers upon layers of motorists morphed into one large, dark, impatient mass. Then, the light turned green. The flood gates opened, and a sea poured forth into the intersection with a deafening roar. It was rush hour in Hanoi, and what a spectacle.
Arriving in Vietnam for the first time, I wasn’t sure what to expect. Hearing a lot about Hanoi, mostly about its traffic, I was primed for anything. The city was, in some ways, what I expected. In other ways, it was a complete surprise. For anyone wanting to visit Vietnam, Hanoi cannot be missed. It’s quintessential Vietnam. The traffic. The history. The food. For being the capital, the city is teeming with charm and character. It’s a large city with a small city feel.
The biggest hurdle to overcome for the first-time visitor is navigating traffic. Crossing the street in Hanoi is an adventure. But as the saying goes, it’s not the destination that matters, it’s the journey. The trick is to not bolt across. It’ll be hard to fight your instincts to dash. But, doing so will likely end in an accident. If you stroll across, it gives the motorists time to maneuver around you. Before your first crossing, just watch a few of the locals go (they just step out without even looking) and you’ll understand. But once you get the hang of crossing the street, you won’t even think twice. If you wait for a break in traffic, you could be on the street corner all day.
And walking is the best way to explore the city. You can appreciate the lushness of the city as trees are everywhere. On some streets, the buildings disappear and all you see is green. It’s an incredibly green city. Sidewalks aren’t always usable. Instead, they are make shift motorbike parking lots. Or temporary kitchens. Walking in the street becomes the norm. Despite this, Hanoi is walkable making getting to the many sights in Hanoi easy.
Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum Complex
If there is one person synonymous with Hanoi (or all of Vietnam, for that matter), it’s Ho Chi Minh. Bac Ho (Uncle Ho), as he’s called by the locals, worked his life to free and unite Vietnam. Though he didn’t live to see the north and south unite, he’s the face of Vietnam.
Though he wished to be cremated, his body is on display in a large mausoleum in Ba Dinh Square. If you wish to see him, beware as he keeps short hours. The mausoleum is closed on Mondays and Fridays and open only 8 – 11 a.m. all other days (and for 2 months, his body is sent to Russia for maintenance). Though free to visit, you may be asked to store your belongings before entering. Photography is not permitted. Dress is important – no bare shoulders or knees.
If you miss seeing him in, there’s still plenty to see in the area. To the right of the mausoleum is the entrance to the Ho Chi Minh Complex (25,000 VND). As you enter, the Presidential Palace is on your right. Though its closed to tourists (still used for foreign visitor receptions), it’s still a beautiful building to look at. Adhering to the path, you come to house No. 54, where Ho Chi Minh lived and worked for a short time. Originally the electrician’s house, visitors can glimpse parts of the interior and several impressive cars that were gifts from foreign emissaries.
Walking around a large fish pond, you come to the Stilt House. Beautiful, yet simple, it was used by Bac Ho until he died. The tour takes you past the downstairs gathering place and the more private upstairs rooms.
Though you get to see where Ho Chi Minh lived, you don’t really get a sense of who he was as a person by visiting. Information on the grounds is sparse. And, the path for getting around the complex is one-way. Guards will yell if you try to back track.
To get a better sense of the man, there’s the Ho Chi Minh Museum, located just outside the complex. There’s a separate admission fee of 25,000 VND.
Located near the museum is the quaint yet intricate One-Pillar Pagoda. Exiting out of the complex, a short 10-minute stroll through the back streets of Hanoi, leads you to Huu Tiep Lake with the wreckage of a B-52 bomber. Surrounded by modern housing, it serves as a reminder of the violent history of Vietnam (well beyond the American War) and how the country is now prospering.
If you’re walking from the Old Quarter to the Ho Chi Minh Complex, you’ll probably go down P. Dien Bien Phu. It’s a bustling street where impatient motorbikes dart down the sidewalks rather than wait in traffic.
The street intersects with some railroad tracks. Don’t just cross them. Walking along the tracks takes you to another part of Hanoi, where store fronts and houses line the tracks. It’s its own little city.
In case you forgot that Vietnam is a Communist country, you can rest your feet next to a large statue of Lenin in a park dedicated to him while looking at the iconic Flag Tower across the street. While pausing there, I watched skateboarders and a small dance group rehearsing a routine. Parks are fun in Vietnam.
Near the end of the block is the entrance to the Vietnam Military History Museum, displaying relics from its war-torn history. If you opt to not go in, once in the Citadel, there are good views of the large military vehicles on display outside.
Imperial Citadel of Thang Long
Next to the Military Museum is the entrance to the Imperial Citadel of Thang Long. The original seat of military power in Vietnam, the site has a long history. Yet, it’s not an easy place to navigate. Nor is there a lot of original things to see. The most impressive parts are the Doan Mon Gate that welcomes visitors and several displays of ceramic and terracotta works (the details are amazing). A ticket is 30,000 VND.
The Old Quarter
The pulse of Hanoi resides in the Old Quarter. A maze of narrow streets that are a joy to explore, especially when you decide to get lost. Walking around, you’ll start to notice how each street has its specialty – from shoes to gravestones, from clothing to metalworks. It’s easy to lose yourself here from looking at the stores, taking in the architecture, enjoying the aromas of the food stalls. The Old Quarter is also home to several key sights in Hanoi.
Hoan Kiem Lake
The heart of the Old Quarter is Hoan Kiem Lake. Walking around the lake is easy and enjoyable. It’s also a popular spot for college students to ask visitors if they can practice their English with them. It’s a great way to learn more about Vietnam. In the early mornings, the park is a mecca for locals to exercise en masse. It’s fun to watch. At night, you’re likely to see rats. In the middle of the lake stands Thap Rua (Turtle Tower), a commemorative tower that has long been a symbol of resistance.
Crossing over a vibrant bridge from the lake’s shores takes you to the entrance of Ngoc Son Temple (Temple of the Jade Mountain), the most popular temple in Hanoi. To avoid the crowds, you will need to get there when it opens.
Other places of interest in the Old Quarter include the Thang Long Water Puppet Theater, located near Hoan Kiem Lake. On Ma May Street is the Memorial House. Though scarcely furnished, it does allow visitors to see how a traditional Vietnamese house looks. Though less than 25% of Vietnamese are Catholic, there is the St. Joseph Cathedral standing tall among the small shops and restaurants.
And, if it’s food you’re after, head to P Hang Manh, down the street from St. Joseph’s, for a delicious bowl of Bun Cha. A northern specialty, it consists of pork patties, noodles, and greens. As Bun Cha is these restaurants’ specialty, you’ll find about four items on the menu. The food comes quickly after ordering. And, it’s good!
Hoa Lo Prison Museum
Just outside the Old Quarter is the Hoa Lo Prison Museum – the Hanoi Hilton. Though only a small fraction of the prison remains, it’s still a moving experience. First used by the French as a prison when they governed Vietnam, most of the displays focus on the wrongs done to the Vietnamese. Cell conditions were horrific with most being shackled to one spot. One of the guillotines used to execute prisoners is on display. I would caution bringing small children as there are a few graphic and disturbing photos. Towards the end of the tour is when the displays turn to the US pilots imprisoned here.
Temple of Literature
About a 30-mintue walk from the Old Quarter past the train station is the Temple of Literature. If you are short on time in the city, this is the sight to see. With an entrance fee of 30,000 VND, it’s well worth the price. Dedicated to Confucius, the complex is large. The site of the first university in Vietnam in 1076, there are several temples to walk though. The architecture is stunning. The complex also offers a peaceful respite from the noise and chaos of the city streets.
Whether you’re visiting for two days or five, it’s impossible to be bored in Hanoi. It’s a culinary treasure trove of Vietnamese cuisine. There’s also a thriving art scene and original works of art are affordable. And, Hanoi is a rare city in Vietnam as its doesn’t have a strong foreign influence, unlike Ho Chi Minh City. At it’s core, it is Vietnamese and you can feel that. That’s what I loved about the city. I’m sure you will, too.