The Vietnamese nation was born among the lagoons and marshes of the Red River Delta around 4000 years ago, and for most of its independent existence has been ruled from Hanoi, Vietnam's comparatively small, elegant capital lying in the heart of the northern delta. The region is steeped in the past and, while it lacks the bustling river life and rich physical beauty of the Mekong Delta, there's a wealth of historical and spiritual sights to explore – despite innumerable wars and a sometimes hostile natural environment that's only partly been tamed by an elaborate, centuries-old network of canals and embankments.
Given the political and historical importance of Hanoi and its burgeoning population of over three million, it's a surprisingly low-key city with a more intimate appeal than brash, young Ho Chi Minh City. At its centre lies a tree-fringed lake and shaded avenues of classy French villas dressed up in jaded stucco, but the rest of Hanoi is bursting at the seams and nowhere is this more evident than in the teeming traffic and the vibrant, intoxicating tangle of streets known as the Old Quarter, the city's commercial heart since the fifteenth century. Delving back even further, a handful of Hanoi's more than six hundred temples and pagodas hail from the original, eleventh-century city, most notably the Temple of Literature, which encompasses both Vietnam's foremost Confucian sanctuary and its first university. Many visitors, however, are drawn to Hanoi by more recent events, seeking explanations among the exhibits of the Military History Museum and in Ho Chi Minh's Mausoleum for the extraordinary Vietnamese tenacity displayed during the wars of the twentieth century.
Modern Hanoi has an increasingly confident, "can do" air about it and a buzz that is even beginning to rival Ho Chi Minh City. There's more money about nowadays and the wealthier Hanoians are prepared to flaunt it in the ever-more sophisticated restaurants, cafés and designer boutiques that have exploded all over the city. Hanoi now boasts glitzy, multistorey shopping malls and wine warehouses; beauty parlours are the latest fad and some seriously expensive cars cruise the streets. Almost everyone else zips around on motorbikes rather than the deeply untrendy bicycle. The authorities are trying – with mixed success – to temper the anarchy with laws to curb traffic and regulate unsympathetic building projects in the Old Quarter, coupled with an ambitious twenty-year development plan that aims to ease congestion by creating satellite towns. Nevertheless, the city centre has not completely lost its old-world charm nor its distinctive character.
Hanoi, somewhat unjustly, remains less popular than Ho Chi Minh City as a jumping-off point for touring Vietnam, with many making the journey from south to north. Nevertheless, it provides a convenient base for excursions to Ha Long Bay, and to Sa Pa and the northern mountains, where you'll be able to get away from the tourist hordes and sample life in rural Vietnam (see "Ha Long Bay and the northern seaboard" and "The far north"). There are also a few attractions much closer at hand, predominantly religious foundations such as the Perfume Pagoda, with its spectacular setting among limestone hills. In the historical realm, dynastic temples mark where the Bronze Age Dong Son culture gave rise to the proto-Vietnamese kingdoms of Van Lang and then Au Lac, ruled from the spiral-shaped citadel of Co Loa just north of today's capital. The Red River Delta's fertile alluvial soil supports one of the highest rural population densities in Southeast Asia, living in bamboo-screened villages dotted among the paddy fields. Some of these communities have been plying the same trade for generations, such as ceramics, carpentry or snake-breeding. While the more successful craft villages are becoming commercialized, it's possible, with a bit of effort, to get well off the beaten track to where Confucianism still holds sway.
The best time to visit Hanoi is during the three months from October to December, when you'll find warm, sunny days (25–30°C) and levels of humidity below the norm of eighty percent, though it can be chilly at night. From January to March, cold winds from China combine with high humidity to give a fine mist which often hangs in the air for days. During this period temperatures hover around 20°C but may plunge as much as ten degrees in a few hours. March and April usually bring better weather and swathes of electric-green rice seedlings, before the extreme summer heat arrives in late April, accompanied by monsoon storms which peak in August and can last until early October, causing serious flooding throughout the delta.
Hanoi is a city of stunning visual and audio contrast. The rickety sounds of cyclos (pedicabs) fight for airwaves amidst the blasting horns of motorbikes, and the Nike swoosh wallpapers the French-styled building facades in the Old Quarter.
The Hoan Kiem district, Hanoi's commercial nucleus, ripples out from the lake of the same name. The lake's name means Lake of the Restored Sword, according to a legend dating back to the mid-15th century. A magical sword, having been found in the lake by the then emperor, and used to fend off the invading Chinese, was snatched by a giant golden tortoise and returned to its home in the depths. The tranquil, 18th-century Ngoc Son Temple occupies an island in the northern part of the lake.
Today the lake and its immediate surrounds offer more than water, greens and folklore. In the pre-dawn light, Hanoians transform the area into an outdoor gymnasium, complete with badminton courts, exercise pavilions and tracks for speed walkers and slow chugging joggers. During the day, the area acts as a magnet for tourists and those who feed off them-postcard sellers, black-market moneychangers and shoeshine boys. At twilight, families stroll, friends sip fruit juices in outdoor cafes and lovers seek privacy in the shadows of the trees.
The area surrounding the lake beckons travelers with eats, treats and sleeps. The main post office, the ANZ Bank (with ATM machine), supermarkets and film-developing stores, which line the lake's circumference, satisfy mundane needs. Museums, including the Vietnam History Museum , the Geology Museum , the Museum of Vietnamese Revolution , the Maison Centrale and the Vietnam Women's Museum , congregate in an area slightly south and west of the lake.
The district also offers a variety of entertainment. For live performances, check the Hanoi Opera House , the Central Cultural House and the Municipal Water Puppet Theater . For a view of the big screen, Fansland Cinema , New Age Cinema and the Alliance Francais Cinema show foreign films. For more literary pursuits, the Thang Long Bookshop stocks an extensive selection of foreign and local authors, as does the nearby Hanoi Bookshop. For the weary, hungry or thirsty, numerous hotels, restaurants, cafes and pubs provide a place to recharge.
The tangled streets of the Old Quarter, which spread from Hoan Kiem's fringes, is like Hanoi's intestines. Originally a snake- and alligator-infested swamp, the Old Quarter, or 36 Pho Phuong (36 Streets), now functions as an outdoor shopping mall and stomping ground for backpackers.
In the early 13th century, skilled craftsmen migrated to the area, and each of the 36 guilds claimed a street as its own, naming it after its specific merchandise. At least one temple resides on each street, although many of the old temples have been transformed into shops and homes. Dating back to the ninth century, the Bach Ma Pagoda is the area's oldest and most revered place of worship.
Some of the more esoteric strips include a street lined with temple items, such as fake money and paper motorbikes, to be burned to provide the dead with transportation and funds. The more upscale Hang Gai features silk shops, embroidered items and galleries. Smack in the center of the maze-like shopping Mecca, a flower market at the end of Hang Be explodes with colors and scents.
Aside from shopping, the Old Quarter sleeps and feeds most of Hanoi's budget travelers. The restaurants and shops along Nha Tho cater to a more bloated budget.
Moving further north, the area surrounding West Lake possesses the same clean poshness as the ritzy Beverly Hills. Traditionally the lake was an area for royal recreation and spiritual pursuits. Monarchs constructed palaces and sponsored religious foundations, among them Hanoi's most ancient pagoda, Tran Quoc . Today many expatriates have claimed the relatively quiet area as their home turf. Enclaves of starchy white three-story homes, lakeside clubs and posh joint-venture hotels have sprung up in pockets surrounding the lake including the Meritus Westlake Hotel and the Thang Loi Hotel .
Aside from luxurious accommodations, West Lake boasts several pagodas, seafood eateries and water diversions. The Museum of Ethnology , which houses an extensive collection of artifacts from minorities across the nation, resides not far from the lake.
Just south of West Lake, the Ba Dinh district is the old French administrative center and current home to Hanoi's Mecca: the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum and sprawling surrounding compound. Majestic chateaux, many of which house embassies and government offices, remain set back along the luxuriously wide tree-lined boulevards. Several new flashy hotels, including the Daewoo Hotel , the Hanoi Horrison Hotel and the Hanoi Hotel have seized the classy area as their own, eagerly anticipating the growth of a much talked-about business center. Aside from the complex devoted to Ho Chi Minh, the One Pillar Pagoda , the Botanical Gardens and the Temple of Literature lure tourists.
Hai Ba Trung
With few tourist attractions, the Hai Ba Trung district hardly brims with travelers. The district pulses with the energy of daily life. Markets, merchants, strips of food stalls and green expanses cater to the needs of locals. Lenin Park and the space surrounding Thien Quang Lake provide shaded, grassy spots for morning exercisers to stretch or couples to frolic in the twilight. Food stalls specializing in fast rice and noodle dishes line almost the entire stretch of Mai Hoc De. Succulent crabs and prawns can be found in the multi-level establishments along Pho To Hien Thanh. Numerous salons and com bias (rice stalls) are clustered along Pho Bui Thi Xuan, and the nearby Hom Market carries everything from flip-flops to live chickens.
The city is fairly spread out and cyclos or motorbike taxis will get you from one area to another. Once you have picked a spot, wandering on your feet affords the best view of Hanoi's chaotic street life.
To eat and drink in Hanoi is to taste the city's culture. The table, be it the plastic variety found in pho (noodle soup) sidewalk stalls or the taller and more substantial seen in restaurants, is a magnet for social interaction. Beyond your immediate party, the scenes that unfold in food stalls, cafes and restaurants offer a candid view of the local mode of life.
As Hanoi wakes and sleeps early, finding food before dawn is easy, but satisfying the late-night munchies is a bit more challenging. Breakfast Vietnamese-style can be found on most city blocks-join a group of Vietnamese curled over low stools, slurping the white noodles served submerged in a meaty broth by vendors of pho stands. Chau, like hot oatmeal except made from rice and mixed with fish or meat, fried scallions and herbs, make another typical morning meal. Both hearty dishes will fill your stomach for less than a dollar. Food stalls line Mai Hoc De and early morning pho stands ladle out noodles on Dinh Liet.
Several pricier chair-and-table establishments appeal to those craving the familiar tastes of a Western-style breakfast. The eggs Benedict drenched in a rich hollandaise sauce at Moca Cafe will quiet growling tummies, and the buffet at La Brasserie in the Nikko Hotel offers limitless pastries, fruits and coffee. Serving breakfast foods all day, Cafe 129 and Kinh Do 252 Cafe combine both local and foreign tastes in food and decor.
At noon the streets buzz with motorbikes as most Vietnamese rush home for a two-hour lunch and nap. The noon meal lingers. The tree-filled garden and lengthy list of salads and buttery pastries at Hoa Sua offer an ideal place for a ladies lunch. The restored French-villa setting of the Verandah Restaurant and Bar is another place suitable for pre- or post-shopping lunch. Au Lac , the Kangaroo Cafe and KOTO Restaurant also provide casual spots for a leisurely lunch.
Pho To Hien Thanh
Long tables of Vietnamese crack into crabs, prawns and clams at any one the casual seafood eateries on Pho To Hien Thanh. Other places serving food from the waters include San Ho Seafood Restaurant , which offers a set seafood lunch starting at USD5. Cha Ca La Vong serves grilled fish cakes, a specialty of Hanoi.
Several of the fancier private clubs and hotels offer lunch and dinner specials, which draw a more professional crowd. All-you-can-eat buffets featuring international cuisine change every season. Check the local paper for current promotions at the Press Club, Cafe Promenade at the Daewoo Hotel , Turtle's Poem at the Hilton Hanoi Opera and Le Beaulieu at the Hotel Sofitel Metropole Hanoi .
For group lunches or solo dining, The Deli prepares (and also delivers) sandwiches as does the more posh Hanoi Gourmet . Bui Thi Xuan is home to a concentration of com bias, rice stands where patrons select from a display of prepared foods including grilled meats, fried fish, shrimp, various pickled and blanched greens, and sauteed tofu, and mix them with rice.
Mid-afternoon grazers flock to the Ciao Cafe for pastries and light bites, sit at the lakeside balcony at Co Ngu Bar for sinh tos (fruit juices), and sip coffee topped with frothy egg whites at the tucked-away Cafe Pho Co. Tea drinkers should sample some of the 73 varieties brewed at the See Wan Ton Teahouse.
Bars & Casual Dining
The bars at Emperor Restaurant (enchanting scenery), La Salsa Tapas Bar and Restaurant (great olives) and La Brique (fine wines) are stylish, upscale places to enjoy a pre-dinner drink. Each presents a refined menu that might entice you to stay for dinner.
Casual eating en masse proves popular as locals and foreigners stretch the early evening hours. The easily adjoining tables, large menus and low prices of bia hois (beer halls) make these Hanoi institutions popular places for large groups. A few places currently en vogue include Quan Bia Minh , Bia Hoi Dai Nam , Cua Hang Bac Nam Bia Hoi and 60 Ly Thuong Kiet Street. For a truly Vietnamese gastronomical experience, assemble a group for a "dogs dinner" at Anh Tu Thit Cho Restaurant. As dog is the only option there, vegetarians might want to try Com Chay Nang Tam Vegetarian Restaurant and meet up with their carnivorous friends later.
Couples seeking romantic settings, travelers on business accounts and those impressing out-of-town guests frequent Indochine and Nam Phuong -two classy Vietnamese restaurants housed in French villas. Splashy non-Asian places include Il Grillo , the Red Onion Bistro and the Press Club Restaurant.
When quantity is your main objective try the ribs and pub grub at Al Fresco's or the Vietnamese buffet at the classy Brother's Cafe . Stomachs never leave empty after a hearty Indian meal at Tandoor .
For sweets Vietnamese style, try the soupy blends of creamy and crunchy textures ladled over ice at Che Sai Gon. Traditionalists can enjoy the cool richness of Fanny's ice cream while circling Hoan Kiem Lake or the soft-serve cool treats at Kem Kiwi Ice.
Vietnamese couples sit in the quiet shadows under the trees at Dak-Linh Cafe , drinking teas and juices while foreigners tend to frequent the pricier Thuy Ta Cafe. Both boast prime spots on the edge of Hoan Kiem Lake for watching the night scene unfold and digest the day's events.
Hanoi spreads over 2,000 square kilometers, but most important sites lie in compact areas. Walking can be daunting, with the onslaught of motorcycles, but in fact is relatively easy. The traffic in Hanoi moves like a snake in that it appears to continually move, sliding around things if they get in the way. However, when crossing a road, go slowly and carefully-any sudden movements may cause a domino effect!
Below are suggestions for touring the labyrinth-like Old Quarter, the major landmarks of Hanoi, and for those with more time, try a trip around West Lake that takes in the rural suburbs. The first two tours could be by foot, bicycle or for a leisurely experience, try a cyclo. The third offers a longer trip those with a bicycle or motorcycle.
Old Quarter Walking Tour
The Old Quarter offers one of the most fascinating inner-city areas in Vietnam and is well worth exploring. It is based around 36 streets, each named after the merchandise sold there. To some extent this tradition continues, although Hang Gai might just as likely sell CDs these days as silk.
This walk covers only about three kilometers but could take around two hours. The streets are a maze, so bring a map. The tour begins at St. Joseph's Cathedral , completed in the 1880s. It stands at the end of Nha Tho, which is fast becoming one of Hanoi's trendiest streets with its fashionable foreign restaurants and boutiques. A walk along the right-hand side of the cathedral, takes you through alleyways that offer an interesting insight into Vietnamese daily life. Turn right onto Thanh Phu Doan and across Hang Bong Street and you will come to an open intersection with Hang Da Market to your left. As with most Vietnamese markets, it makes for an interesting stroll. Piles of fresh vegetables, animal entrails and slices of pig fat fill the hall. The Market also reveals a good spot for buying pottery.
Opposite the market runs another narrow alley, Yen Thai, which takes you to Hanh Manh. This street sells traditional musical instruments, and you may see workers making ceremonial drums. From Hang Manh turn right into the colorful Hang Quat, which sells religious and temple paraphernalia. Then turn left at Luong Van Can and right onto Hang Bac. Originally Silver Street, it is now the heart of backpacker land. Check the hand-carved funeral headstones on this road.
When you turn left up Ta Hien onto Hang Buom, you can see to your left Bach Ma Pagoda , founded in the Ly Dynasty. Turn left yet again down Dao Duy Tu and straight on until you spot the archway of the original city walls to your right. A narrow alley straight ahead takes you to the back of Dong Xuan Market , one of Hanoi's busiest. The alley abounds with ladies selling seafood and other fresh, often live, produce.
Keeping the concrete market building to your left, go to Pho Dong Xuan past a picturesque pagoda with a cooking pan shop at its entrance. Walking south along the main street at the market's front takes you past fashion clothes stores and expensive watch shops back to the north shore of Hoan Kiem Lake .
Central Hanoi Landmarks Tour
This tour takes in Hanoi's major tourist sights from Ba Dinh Square, where Ho Chi Minh declared Vietnam's independence, to the ancient Confucian Temple of Literature and finishes in the French Quarter's wider boulevards.
Start at Ba Dinh Square and Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum opposite the National Assembly Building. Behind the mausoleum are Uncle Ho's stilt house and museum and the One Pillar Pagoda . Follow Dien Bien Phu southeast until you see Lenin's statue on your right. Watch for the old French villas, now housing embassies and government offices and the Cot Co Flag Tower on the grounds of the Army Museum .
Go along Duong Hoang Dieu south to Nguyen Thai Hoc and you will come to the Fine Arts Museum . Opposite is the back of the Temple of Literature , the Confucian center dating from 1070. Travel east along Ngyuyen Khyuyen, until it becomes Hai Ba Trung, then turn right onto Quan Su. At number 73 is Quan Su Pagoda, Hanoi's center of Buddhism. Carry on for about one kilometer along Ly Thong Kiet and left at Phan Chu Trinh to reach the Opera House at the heart of the French Quarter. Behind this at 1 Trang Tinh lies the Vietnam History Museum with its beautiful French-Vietnamese architecture.
West Lake Bicycle Tour
This tour covers about 15 kilometers and can be accomplished on bicycle or motorbike. Start at Thuy Khue Street and meander around West Lake through houses and shops. Carry on past several pagodas, which can offer a respite from the busy road. Turn right onto Long Quan and after one kilometer you will reach West Lake. The countryside lies to the left, and alongside the lake are a variety of bars and restaurants selling snails, seafood and even deer. You cannot miss the Ho Tay Lake Water Park , with its huge Ferris wheel. Continue along Long Quan until the junction of Ao Co. This area boasts many flower nurseries and busy early morning flower markets. Look for kumquat trees around Tet (lunar new year).
Turn right, back to town passing dog meat (thit cho) restaurants to your left and then turn right again onto Duong Xuan Dieu. This takes you through the villas of the Tay Ho area, which are popular with foreign residents. Take the third lane right down Duong Dang Thai Mai and continue past fishing ponds and lotus lilies. At the end of the road looms Tay Ho Pagoda , one of Hanoi's most popular.
Returning to Duong Xuan Dieu check out the fine view of Kim Lien Pagoda to your left before turning right onto Yen Phu Dyke Road toward the Meritus Westlake Hotel . Finish your tour at the southwest corner of West Lake with a visit to Tran Quoc and Quan Thanh pagodas.
If you're seeking a bit more direction, HappyDays Travel offers a Full-Day City Tour that will take you to the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum , the Presidential Palace, the One Pillar Pagoda , the Temple of Literature , the Museum of Ethnology and the Hoan Kiem Lake . The tour ends in Hanoi's Old Quarter, with free time for shopping in Old Town, and a traditional water puppet show. The tour provides an air-conditioned vehicle, English-speaking tour guide, all entrance fees, and lunch.