has ever visited Hanoi will probably tell you that it
may be the most beautiful city in all of Asia. People
have settled here along the Red River for a thousand
years. Nestled along wooded boulevards among the
city’s two dozen lakes you will find architectural
souvenirs left by all who conquered this great valley,
from the Chinese who first came in the last millennium
to the French, booted out in our own century.
into the city from Noi Bai Airport takes about an hour
and offers some poignant glimpses of modern Vietnamese
life: farmers tending their fields, great rivers,
modern highways that abruptly become bumpy roads. The
drive is especially breathtaking at dusk when the
roads fill with bicycles, and everything takes on the
same deep colors as the modern paintings you see in
Hanoi's galleries. Somehow the setting sun seems
enormous here as it dips into the cornfields on the
On the edge
of the city the road dissolves into a maze of winding,
narrow, wooded lanes. You are surrounded by roadside
artisans, shops and taverns, then by graceful villas
and commuters on bicycles, cyclos and motorbikes.
Modern buildings appear from nowhere, looking so out
of place that you have to wonder if they were dropped
from the sky and just left where they came to rest.
While you tell yourself that nothing as preposterous
as Hanoi can be so beautiful, you cannot help but be
and hired cars are easy to find in Hanoi. If you plan
an extended visit you might consider renting a bicycle
end of Hoan Kiem Lake is Hanoi's "ground zero."
Practically all the city’s economical hotels, tourist
shops, and cafés catering to visitors are located
here. Not only is it the oldest part of the city, it
is the busiest and most interesting. Every street is
winding, intimate, and shady. At night the lights of
storefronts keep the streets lit and animated.
which guide book you read, this district of Hanoi is
variously called the "Old Quarter," the "Ancient
Quarter," and "36 streets." It is wedged between the
northern shore of Hoan Kiem Lake, the walls of the
ancient Citadel, and the levies that protect the city
from the Red River. The 36 little streets in the
quarter are each named for a commodity once sold by
all the businesses on that street. Streets here are
named for the medicine, jewelry, fans, copper, horse
hair, chicken, and even coffins once sold on them.
This explains why the names of some of the longer
streets inexplicably change after one or two blocks.
As you explore, you will still happen upon entire
blocks of tinsmiths, tailors, paper goods merchants,
and lacquerware makers.
Ancient Quarter the most appealing mode of
transportation for those who do not care to enjoy the
"36 Streets" on foot is the cyclo. Often they are
driven by men wearing pea-green pith helmets that make
them look like soldiers. Settle on the fare in advance
(a dollar or less one way). Most drivers will also
quote you an hourly rate and will take you to all the
obligatory cultural and historical spots.
very compact, and the city’s most interesting places
for tourists are all relatively close to each other,
which makes it easy to enjoy the best parts of the
city on foot or by cyclo. You could probably explore
the Ancient Quarter and visit all the places below in
a single day, but why rush?
on your very first morning in Hanoi should begin with
a visit to Ho Chi Minh's Mausoleum, without a doubt
the city’s single most visited site, and one of
Vietnam's most revered places. The cyclo ride from
Hoan Kiem Lake takes only about five minutes. The
Mausoleum is open only in the mornings, from 7:30 to
10:30 in the Summer and from 8:00 to 11:00 in the
Winter. There are often large crowds, so arrive early.
imposing shrine was built on the edge of Ba Dinh
Square, the place where Ho Chi Minh delivered the
Declaration of Independence of the Republic of Viet
Nam to half a million of his countrymen in 1945,
following the surrender of the Japanese. The angular
gray granite edifice stands stern and alone against
the skyline. The street and square are usually so
abandoned that the whole scene is enormously stately,
like a miniature version of Tiananmen Square.
As you exit
on the side of the building, look for the ornate
yellow former Governor’s Palace, which also faces Ba
Dinh Square. Although not open to the public, it is a
poignant contrast to Ho Chi Minh's House on Stilts,
which sits along a tiny lake in the wooded park
behind. He lived and worked here in incredible
simplicity from 1958 to 1969. Built of teak, the
little house is an architectural gem, and many of his
personal things remain on display.
Pillar Pagoda is about 50 meters away. This little
architectural curiosity gets its name because the
shrine sits atop a single massive pedestal. The
original was built by Emperor Ly Thai To, who was
inspired by a dream.
The Ho Chi
Minh Museum is probably Vietnam's most important
contemporary architectural achievement. Opened to the
public in 1990 to commemorate Ho’s centenary, the
exhibits are like a huge scrap book which chronicles
his rather transient early years. Guides are
You can not
help being overwhelmed by the serenity of Van Mieu
(Temple of Literature)and Quoc Tu Giam (National
University) from the moment you pass through its
towering gates. Together, they make one of Asia’s
loveliest spots. Hidden from the humming metropolis
behind high stone walls and ancient Frangipani trees
are some of Vietnam’s most magnificent religious
structures and historical treasures. Great pools
filled with blooming Lotus bear names like "Well of
Heavenly Clarity". Dating from 1076, this was this
part of Asia’s most prestigious center of learning for
aristocrats and the children of the Mandarins. The
focal point of the site is the Sanctuary dedicated to
Confucius, which is filled with elaborate Chinese
reliquary. Live performances of traditional folk music
by costumed women are ongoing during public hours.
at its geographical center, little Hoan Kiem Lake is
the very heart of life in Hanoi. According to a 15th
Century legend, a giant turtle presented Emperor Le
Loi with a magic sword with which to defeat Chinese
invadors. In accordance with their pact, the Emperor
returned the sword to the turtle after a glorious
victory in battle. Thus, the lake was named Hoan Kiem,
or "restored sword."
itself is like a living thing with a personality that
changes continuously with the hour and the season.
Some of your most vivid memories of Hanoi might come
from the 45 minute walks you take around Hoan Kiem at
sunrise, at midday, and again after dark.
after dawn, hundreds of people take their daily
exercise on the footpath that circles the lake. If you
arrive around six you will see a dozen badminton
games, scores of old people practicing Tai Chi, and
many shirtless young men jogging or stretching.
day the lake belongs to tourists and to workers from
surrounding government offices. Tour busses and taxis
park at the North end of the lake, near the gates and
foot bridge which lead to the Ngoc Son Pagoda. Scores
of young people sell post cards, maps, and paperback
books here. Others shine shoes or offer to memorialize
your visit with photos taken with must surely be
war-era 35mm cameras. Although persistent, they are
seldom rude. Many speak wonderful English and are well
worth having a conversation with.
Pagoda sits on an islet at the North end of the lake.
The oldest structures in the complex date to 1225,
though most of what you see was either built or
reconstructed in the 19th century. In addition to the
two beautifully ornate Confucianist sanctuaries
dedicated to various long-dead humans, a huge stuffed
turtle (which most certainly never swam in this lake)
resides in a glass display case. The spot is lovely,
not only for the ostentatious architecture, but for
interesting people who take refuge from the city here.
Your camera may capture old men playing checkers in
the Pavilion of the Stelae, someone fishing quietly
among the willows which practically obscure the island
from view, a couple posing for their wedding photo
with the Tortoise Pagoda in the background, or the
young photographers who always gather on the red
across the street from the bridge is the water
puppetry theater. Scenes from Vietnamese lore and
history (including ancient battles) are elaborately
performed by colorful lacquered puppets in an indoor
pond, accompanied by traditional Vietnamese folk
music. It sounds awfully corny, but missing this Hanoi
attraction is like going to Paris and skipping the
Eiffel Tower. Tickets for the evening performances are
cheap and sell out early in the day. Avoid seats
closest to the water or you may get splashed.
Some of the
36 streets that make up the Ancient Quarter still
offer only a single commodity. One of the best is Hang
Quat, where shops sell an incredible array of
lacquered wood candle sticks, bowls, picture frames,
religious shrines, and decorative pieces. Practically
every single item is painted in some combination of
red, white and gold. Many of the things are elaborate
to the point of being garish. Since prices are
staggeringly low, buy what you can. Like folk art in
other developing nations, these uniquely Northern
Vietnamese handicrafts will begin to die out along
with the present generation of artisans creating them.
The shelves of shops in Saigon are already filled with
factory made schlock. Sadly, this will happen in Hanoi
silk is among the world’s finest. Hàng Gai (thread
street) has for centuries been home to some of Hanoi’s
best silk shop