Hanoi is arguably Asia's most charming capital city. Hanoi, meaning ‘embraced by the river', is a city of broad, tree-lined boulevards, elegant French villas and colonial-era buildings painted in muted hues of mustard and white. It is also one of Asia's greenest cities with an abundance of parks and lakes as well as a host of cafes and art galleries and an Old Quarter steeped in history. By day the city hums with commerce and moves at motorbike speed; by night the city is an enchanting, 19th century Asian village best experienced from the seat of a silent cyclo.
Hanoi sits astride the banks of the Red River, Vietnam's second longest river. Beneath modern-day Hanoi lie artefacts and relics of the early Bronze and Iron ages, dating back to 2,000BC. The city was officially founded by Emperor Ly Thai To, who in 1010 renamed the area Thang Long or Soaring Dragon. Soon after, some of the city's oldest structures were built including the Temple of Literature, one of the oldest universities in the world.
In the 17th and 18th centuries the city experienced rapid growth due to the expansion of foreign trade. In 1786, the Tay Son Army from the south invaded northern Vietnam and united the country. During the Tay Son reign the capital was moved south to Hue, where it remained throughout the Nguyen Dynasty. Indeed Hanoi had to wait until 1831 to regain its former name, when Emperor Minh Mang established it as the capital of the Northern Province. The city's main period of growth stemmed from the arrival of the French in 1888. Fortunately, many of the old boulevards and residences have survived and today are used to house Foreign Embassies and Government institutions. From 1902 until 1953, the city served as the capital of French Indochina. In 1945, Ho Chi Minh proclaimed in his independence speech in Ba Dinh square, that Hanoi would henceforth be the capital of Vietnam. Today, Hanoi is a bustling city of nearly 7 million people.
What to see in Hanoi?
Hanoi is one of Asia’s most fascinating cities with its unique blend of western and oriental charm. You can wander through the 36 streets in the Old Quarter, rummage for souvenirs and witness the artisans working on their specialty crafts. As the oldest university (established since 1070), the Temple of Literature and its five courtyards retains a scholarly atmosphere and makes a peaceful respite from Hanoi’s busy streets. Pay homage to the late Ho Chi Minh at the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum and his ‘house on stilts’ and learn why “Uncle Ho” is such a respected figure to the Vietnamese. Vietnam is a culturally diverse country and the fascinating ways of life of her 54 ethnic groups can be seen at the Museum of Ethnology.
To check out the budding arts scene, pop into the dozens of art galleries that stock works ranging from traditional to modern. Some of our favorites, the Apricot Gallery and Art Vietnam have consistently received positive accolades from art connoisseurs and travelers. Although modern entertainment outlets are readily available in Hanoi, why not opt to catch a water puppet show - a unique cultural form of North Vietnam? For early risers, head to Hoan Kiem Lake or Park of Reunification (formerly Lenin Park) and observe Vietnamese in their synchronized Tai Chi moves. On fine afternoons, stroll through the French quarter, sip an aromatic cup of coffee on the sidewalk and observe the bustling street life.
If you have more time to spare, there are many interesting locales in Hanoi’s outskirts that are lesser visited by tourists. Tam Coc in Ninh Binh - with its series of limestone rock formations jutting out from a sea of rice paddies, is a scenic and surreal place to visit. Nearby Hoa Lu also offers similar landscapes of rocky outcrops - no less spectacular when compared to Tam Coc - as well as 10th century relics from when the area was the capital’s country.
To learn about Vietnam’s pottery history, a visit to Bat Trang Ceramic Village should be on the travel agenda. Here, you could try your hands at making the ceramics, but it is much easier to be enticed into owning the exquisite vases, bowls and dishes produced from the hands of the talented Bat Trang potters. For lovers of indigenous crafts, the Van Phuc Weaving Village lures visitors with its bewildering range of silk products.
Explore the rustic landscapes by cycling around the city’s northern outskirts in Dong Ho Village, which is also famous for its painting styles that depict the traditional Vietnamese village lives. Follow the trails of Vietnamese pilgrims and embark on a 2-hour trek up Huong Son Mountain to Perfume Pagoda (or Chua Huong), with lots of photographic opportunities along the way.
Where to stay in Hanoi?
When in Hanoi, a stay in a colonial-style hotel should not be missed. Located in the heart of Hanoi since 1901, Sofitel Legend Metropole Hanoi has a long history of being a luxury place for prestigious events and a popular place of rendez-vous. This charming hotel blends warm Vietnamese hospitality with the European luxury heritage offering legendary service. Centrally located in Hanoi's elegant French Quarter, the Hilton Hanoi Opera Hotel is a short walk from the famous Old Quarter and the city's bustling business district. Voted 'Vietnam's Leading Hotel' for five consecutive years by the prestigious World Travel Awards, the Hilton Hanoi Opera is a landmark in the city. InterContinental Hanoi Westlake is Hanoi’s newest first-class hotel. Built entirely over the serene waters of historic West Lake and adjacent to the famous 800-year-old Golden Lotus Pagoda, the hotel features 359 guestrooms showcasing contemporary Vietnamese design at its best. In the heart of ancient Hanoi is a haven of boutique sophistication reinventing the Bohemian glamour of the Belle Époque era with a 21st Century twist. An operatic highlight in ancient Hanoi, Hotel de l’Opera Hanoi rests just a step away from Hanoi’s beautiful Opera House. The Movenpick Hotel Hanoi is conveniently located in the heart of Hanoi’s central business district. The hotel features distinctive French architecture with 154 well-appointed rooms and suites. Located in centre of the capital, the newly built Maison d'Hanoi Hanova Hotel is a stylish business hotel. It is a modernized classic, referencing Hanoi’s French colonial past with its Asian Art Deco façade. Inside, the mix of French colonial and Asian accents continues, with colors and decorations evoking Hanoi's long history. In a great hotel, different things make different properties outstanding. Serenade Hotel will be your ideal choice during your time staying in Hanoi. The reason why we can confident is because we operate our hotel based on three simple criteria: “comfort, courtesy and cleanliness”, which is shown clearly through our service. Conveniently located in the heart of Hanoi, the Hoa Binh Palace Hotel offers you much more than a three star hotel. Erected in 1926 with the name "Le Splendid" the hotel building is one of the finest architectural wonders that have been preserved from the past.
Hanoi – Attractions
Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum
Visiting Ho Chi Minh's mausoleum is an unforgettable experience. Inside an imposing building lies the embalmed body of the founder of modern Vietnam. When visiting the mausoleum the following rules need to be observed: No short sleeves & skirts are allowed. Silence should be observed when entering the tomb and definitely no photographs (in fact all bags have to be left outside). It’s quite an experience as you queue with many Vietnamese, some of whom have traveled many miles to make the pilgrimage. The mausoleum is a unique opportunity to reflect upon the life of one of the 20th century's more revered historical figures. Next to the mausoleum is a replica of "Uncle Ho's" wooden house on stilts.
Temple Of Literature
Dating back to 1070, the Temple of Literature was the site of Vietnam's first university and was used to educate the sons of the mandarin class. The complex consists of five separate courtyards with different paths that would originally have been reserved for the Emperor and his mandarins and highlighted by the Khue Van Pavilion. One of the courtyards contains the statue of Confucius guarded by two beautiful bronze storks standing on turtles. Another feature of the temple is the steles. Between 1442 and 1779, hundreds of stone tablets, or steles were erected to record the names and achievements of the graduates. Eighty-two of the steles remain and are considered the most valuable artifacts at the temple. The temple highlights the importance that Vietnamese society placed then and now on education.
One Pillar Pagoda
Emperor Ly Thai Tong built one of Hanoi's most famous landmarks, the One Pillar Pagoda in 1049 in honor of the Goddess of Mercy. The pillar was destroyed in 1954, but the pagoda was quickly rebuilt. The design of the pagoda reflects the Buddhist belief that the world was created much as a lotus flower emerges from the water. The pagoda is built above a small pond covered in lotus blossoms.
Hoan Kiem Lake
Hoan Kiem Lake is at the heart of Hanoi – the capital of Vietnam. In the morning, local residents gather and jog around a peaceful lake ringed by trees; or simply support each other complete Tai Chi practices. In the evening, more people would gather in lakeside cafes and ice-cream parlours to enjoy the peaceful atmosphere and share their daily events. The Lake also has a rich and colourful history too. In the 15th century, after Emperor Le Thai To had drove the invading Chinese with a magical sword, a giant tortoise seized his sword whilst he rowed in Hoan Kiem Lake. He took this sign as an intervention from above to signify that peace shall be restored. Thereafter, he renamed the lake to Ho Hoan Kiem or translated to “Lake of the Restored Sword”.
The Old Quarter
A walk through the Old Quarter, also known as the 36 Streets offers a glimpse in to Vietnamese life from ages past. In the early 13th century, guilds and artisans clustered their shops around certain streets. As time went by the narrow lanes adopted the names of the particular guild or goods sold there. Hence you can still walk from Fish Street to Tin Street to Bamboo Street. It’s a great place to explore on foot with numerous photo opportunities. There are also two ancient houses in the Old Quarter that are especially worth visiting:
Ancient House: 87 Ma May Street
Built over 110 years ago, this house is one of the two ancient homes in Hanoi's Old Quarter, which were carefully restored as part of Hanoi's 990th Anniversary in 2000. The house is a typical Old Quarter "tube house" 2 meters wide and 60 meters long with open yards between rooms for air and light. The house is arranged strictly in accordance with "Feng Shui" rules and is vividly decorated in a traditional style.
Ancient House: 38 Hang Dao Street
This house, built on the foundations of a 17th century trader's home has been renovated to reflect the architecture and decorative styles of old Hanoi. The first floor is designed for trading purposes and living accommodation, the second for the family altar and the act of worshipping.
Hanoi Opera House
The Hanoi Opera House is one of Hanoi's grandest buildings. The exterior is a delightful mix of French neo-classical design with shuttered windows, wrought iron balconies and tiles friezes. Construction of the Hanoi Opera House began in 1901 and was completed in 1911.
Water Puppet Theatre
Water puppetry is a remarkable Vietnamese art form combining traditional music, fireworks and elaborate puppets floating gracefully on the water. The stories depict Vietnamese legends, peasant life and local festivals. The art form dates back to the 10th century and originally these plays would have taken place on lakes and ponds during the monsoon season. The stories remain the same but now the production takes place in a specially designed theatre with a stage knee-deep in water. The puppeteers are hidden behind a bamboo screen and the whole experience is both entertaining and amusing.
Museum of Ethnology
This is a must-see for anyone intending to visit either Mai Chau or Sapa, or indeed anyone interested in Vietnam’s cultural diversity. The museum is widely acknowledged as the best in the country and has an extensive display dedicated to Vietnam’s 54 Ethnic minority peoples. As well as the comprehensive array of exhibits inside, there are also traditional tribal houses reconstructed within the grounds.
Quan Thanh Temple
Quan Thanh Temple was built during the reign of King Ly Thai To (1010 - 1028). The temple honors Saint Tran Vu, a legendary figure who helped King An Duong Vuong chase away demons during the construction of Co Loa Citadel. The central feature of the temple is a giant, black, bronze statue of Tran Vu cast in 1667.
Tran Quoc Pagoda
With origins dating back to the 6th century Tran Quoc is one of the oldest pagodas in Vietnam. The pagoda's unique design features a visitor hall, two corridors and a bell tower. Inside are numerous statues, the most notable of which is the wooden statue of the Shakyamuri Buddha. The oldest stele was built in 1639 and depicts the pagoda's history. Several burial stupas in the garden are relics of one of the earliest Zen Buddhist groups in North Vietnam.
Bat Trang Ceramics Village
Bat Trang Ceramics Village (in existence for at least 500 years) is approximately 10km northeast of Hanoi and lies on the left side of the Red River bank. It specializes in crafting ritual objects, and producing household utensils such as bowls, plates, vases, cups and pots. Recently, the village has diversified its holdings and started to offer fine art ceramics and high quality porcelain. The village artisans' skills in providing handicrafts remain unmatched and non-rivaled.
Hoa Binh is a mountainous province located in the North, the culture of Hoa Binh combines six minorities with their own languages, traditional literature, and festivals. Tourists especially enjoy the minority specialty dishes including rice cooked in bamboo and grilled meat, also enjoy watching traditional dancing, music performances (bronze, drums, gongs), and Thai minority singing and dancing.
Located in Hoa Binh Province, 70 km from Hoa Binh town. From the top of Mountain there is a superb panorama of the stilt house of Mai Chau sitting in a fertile green valley. The area is home to several ethnic minorities, particularly the White Thai ethnic group. Their traditional stilt houses are large structures with palm leaf roofs and polished bamboo floors. The Sunday market brings lots of people into town. People from different minorities is living in the mountains nearby come to sell such products as honey, bananas, corn and tho cam weaving.
Ninh Binh is a small town about 100km south of Hanoi, which is surrounded by a number of most interesting sites. Hoa Lu was the first capital of the independent Vietnam, under the Dinh dynasty and the early Le Dynasty (968-1009). There are two sanctuaries, each of them devoted to the emperors of one of these two dynasties. They are set into a landscape of limestone mountains reminiscent of some the better known sites of South China. In Tam Coc or better known as Dry Halong Bay, you can take a boat tour on a river which tunnels several times into the same type of mountains. The river is actually used by local villagers to access their rice fields. The nearby Ken Ga canal provides the opportunity to observe river life in the North, and contrast it with what one can see in the Mekong Delta. The whole area was an important center of Catholicism, and you will be surprised to see churches among the rice fields. Phat Diem has a vast cathedral which has a unique Sino-Vietnamese architecture.