With a history stretching back a millennium, Hanoi offers an intriguing mix of old world charm and trendy chic
Among Asian capital cities, Hanoi is one of the oldest, with a 1,000-year history. It is also the easiest to explore on foot, especially around the Old Quarter district with quaint shophouses dating back to the 14th century. Thanks to creative locals, most of the old architecture has been rejuvenated and given a new lease of life as chic cafes, cosy restaurants and trendy shops.
Start your first day in the city by exploring Hoan Kiem Lake and the surrounding Old Quarter. If you head out to the lake early at 6 am, you might come across locals doing their morning exercises, practising tai chi or dancing. In the middle of the lake you will see a pagoda-like structure called Tortoise Tower (Thap Rua).
There is also a small islet on the northern end of the lake where Ngoc Son Temple is located. The red bridge leading to the temple is a popular spot for Instagram photos.
When you are done exploring the lake area, walk towards St Joseph’s Cathedral on the west side of the lake. If you happen to visit at a time when they are conducting a mass, you can go inside to take a look at the ornate gold-gilded interior. Young Hanoians like to hang out or meet friends at the square outside the church.
Near the church, you will find several cafes and restaurants including the famous Hanoi House Cafe (Level 2, 47A Ly Quoc Su Street), a hidden gem exemplifying French-style architecture from the early 20th century. Ly Quoc Su Street is also known for its designer boutiques selling branded items. For breakfast or lunch, try Bun Bo Nam Bo (67 Hang Dieu) which is famous for their grilled beef noodles served in bowls and topped with lots of greens, peanuts and other ingredients. You have to stir it up as the sweet sauce is right at the bottom of the bowl.
After lunch, visit the Temple of Literature (Van Mieu), which used to be a university during the 11th century. Inside the temple grounds is a courtyard with rows of tortoise statues and the names of scholars engraved on the tablets. Locals believe that wisdom and knowledge can be acquired by touching the heads of the stone tortoises.
Thanks to the internet, the so-called Hanoi Train Street (Ngo 224 Le Duan) has grown in popularity over the years. There are several cafes along the narrow alley where you can enjoy your coffee just inches away from the railway tracks and make way when the train approaches twice a day, around 3pm and 7pm. Cafe 90 Duong Tau is one of the many cafes there which offers egg coffee as the main draw. A bit off the beaten path, Chim Sao (chimsao.com) is a recommended restaurant to end the day with traditional Vietnamese food in a 1934 French house filled with antiques.
If you're an early riser, visit Ba Dinh Square to catch the flag-raising ceremony and changing of the guards at 6 am. The national ritual is a source of pride for Vietnamese and the heart-warming event is well worth the trouble of getting up early. After the event, you can pop in to see Uncle Ho's embalmed body at the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum facing Ba Dinh Square. But do note that no photography is allowed inside the mausoleum and the place closes by 11 am.
Beside the mausoleum, you can find One-Pillar Pagoda (Chua Mot Cot), a famous tourist attraction in the city. From the mausoleum, it is just 10 minutes' walk (850 metres) to the Hanoi Botanical Garden (Bach Thao Park), which offers an escape from the city bustle. The garden was first created by the French in the 19th century.
The Ho Chi Minh Museum is located just 12 minutes' walk (950 metres) from the Garden. Sadly, photography is not allowed inside the museum. History buffs may be keen to see the downed US B-52 bomber at Huu Tiep Lake, just five minutes' walk (400 metres) from the museum. If you haven't had enough of history lessons, the Vietnam Military History Museum is also around the area.
Beside the history museum is the Thanh Long Imperial Citadel, which is recognised as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. At the display room you can see interesting excavated items dating back to 600 BC.
If you have time to kill in the afternoon, catch a show at the Thang Long Water Puppet Theatre (57B Dinh Tien Hoang) near Hoan Kiem Lake. After the show, chill out over coffee at one of the cafes overlooking the bustling Dong Kinh Nghia Thuc Square, which is actually a roundabout.
Or you can check out the trendy Loading T Cafe (8 Chan Cam) near Hoan Kiem lake, which is housed inside a century-old colonial villa.
If you happen to be around Hoan Kiem Lake on a Friday or weekend nights, don't miss the night market which starts at 7pm along Hang Dao Street stretching all the way to Dong Xuan Market. At the market, you will find all kinds of local street foods, souvenirs, cheap t-shirts, apparels and many other knick-knacks.
For dinner, Quan An Ngon (18 Phan Boi Chau) around Hoan Kiem area is a good place to try all the popular Vietnamese cuisines under one roof. If you prefer something less touristy, check out streets like Tong Duy Tan or Ma May which come alive at dusk with food stalls and crowds of people huddled over low tables and stools.
You shouldn’t leave Hanoi without exploring the villages in and outside the city. The nearest one is Ho Khau Village (Lang Ho Khau) located along the west bank of West Lake (Ho Tay), just six kilometres from Hoan Kiem lake. You can start at 374 Thuy Khue Street and explore the area to see the temples, old houses along narrow lanes which date back a few hundred years. While at West Lake, remember to check out the picturesque Tran Quoc Pagoda at the south end of the lake. Dating back to the 6th century, it is the oldest Buddhist temple in the city.
Other nearby villages are Bat Trang, located 15 km southeast of the city, and Van Phuc, located 15 km west of the city. Bat Trang is famous for pottery while Van Phuc is known for producing silk.
Cu Da Village (Lang Cu Da), famous for producing vermicelli or glass noodles, is located about 20 km south of Hanoi. Travel another 16 km and you will reach Chuong Village (Lang Chuong), a place where the traditional conical hats are made.
If you have more time to spare, travel 100km (around two hours) south of the city to explore Ninh Binh province, famous for its picturesque limestone mountains. Tourists going to Ninh Binh usually head straight to Tam Coc where they can board a small sampan to cruise along the meandering river and wonder at the surreal landscape. However, it is more comfortable to visit during the cooler months as it can get very hot during summer and there is no shelter on board the sampans.
About 30 minutes from Tam Coc is Trang An which offers a similar experience except the boat rides take you through mountain caves. There are also less tourists visiting Trang An.
If you are physically fit, visit Hang Mua, about 15 minutes south of Trang An, where you can climb up to the temple on top of the mountain to enjoy a panoramic view of the surrounding area.
Other places of interest around Ninh Binh are Hoa Lu, Bai Dinh Temple and Bich Dong Pagoda. Hoa Lu was at one time the capital of Vietnam and what remains today are ancient temple ruins and citadels.
Airlines such as AirAsia, Vietnam Airlines, Malaysia Airlines and Malindo Air offer direct flights from KLIA and klia2 to Hanoi. Flight duration is approximately 3.5 hours.
Learn to handle the local currency with grace. Foreigners have been known feel “cheated” over 5,000 dong not realising that it is just US$0.20. For example, if the price of a taxi ride is 45,000 dong, just give 50,000 and forget about the change.
It is polite to ask for permission before you take someone’s photo but taking a photo of official residences and military installations is not allowed.
Do not hop onto a rickshaw (xichlo) or motorbike taxi (xe om) unless you know how to speak Vietnamese and have negotiated a price beforehand.
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