Hanoi is a hectic collage of sights, sounds and smells. Masses of motorbikes roar down roadways, and bike and car horns are constantly honking. Women wearing traditional conical straw hats carry poles with baskets on each end, small shops overflow with colorful embroidery and food vendors sell cooked pigeons with their heads still on.
For more than 4,000 years, from a humble fishing village to a busy seaport, the city has thrived along the banks of the Red River in northern Vietnam. The seaport was given the name Ha (river) Noi (in) by King Minh Mang in 1831. Hanoi is the country’s intellectual and cultural heart, and draws the best and brightest artisans from around the country. Many streets in the old district are named after the products made there at one time, and you can still come across shrines here and there dedicated to an artisan’s god.
As the northern capital, Hanoi was heavily bombed during the Vietnam War. Still, there are reminders of the past, including French colonial architecture and 1,000-year-old temples and pagodas. The capital city, home to 6.5 million people, boasts parks with gnarled banyan trees and many lakes, some peppered with swan boats. The Hoa Lo Prison or “Hanoi Hilton” where U.S. Sen. John McCain was imprisoned as a POW is now the site of a high-rise. Fine hotels and high-end shopping also beckon tourists.
Nearby Halong Bay is one of Vietnam’s most celebrated attractions, with about 2,000 limestone islands that make up a spectacular natural UNESCO World Heritage Site. A trip on the water of the bay is the kind of awe-inspiring experience travelers crave. Sit in a Vietnamese junk (boat) on silk couches and drink green tea or local beer as you cruise into the mist past giant, craggy limestone formations protruding from the sea.
According to legend, a dragon sent by the gods to help the Vietnamese fight Chinese invaders, fell into the bay and formed the islands. In fact, these islands have seen their share of warring — the bay is in the Gulf of Tonkin, where Vietnamese and U.S. forces first fought.
The islands are mostly uninhabited, and many form odd shapes — one looks like a man’s face in profile, another like two roosters fighting. Their sheer cliffs and otherworldly presence have inspired writers, poets and artists. And it’s easy to see why. The place is magical.
The Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum is a concrete structure modeled on Lenin’s tomb in Moscow. “Uncle Ho,” the Communist revolutionary who began the revolution in 1949 and died in 1969 (six years before unified Communist Vietnam was established), is embalmed there and can be viewed under glass in his khaki suit. View the change of the guards around noon.
Nearby is the pretty, yellow French colonial Presidential Palace, built in 1906 for the French governor. If you want to tour the Ho Chi Minh Residence, head around back. The revolutionary, preferring a simpler life, chose to reside in a modest structure on stilts behind the palace. Beautiful grounds surround both residences.
Around the corner, the Ho Chi Minh Museum gives details of the Communist revolutionary’s life and displays his personal items. A good photo op nearby is the One-Pillar Pagoda, a reproduction of a shrine built in 1049 perched on a concrete pillar in a scenic lake. A prayer there is said to bring fertility and good health.
The Temple of Literature dates to 1070 and is dedicated to the Chinese philosopher Confucius. The beautiful buildings and temples, set around four courtyards, were bombed during the war but have been restored.
If you have a little extra time, consider an overnight Halong Bay cruise on a deluxe Vietnamese junk. It’s an entirely different experience from the full- and half-day tours that compete with dozens of other junks, visiting the same islands and caves at the same time. The overnight junks are beautifully detailed and crafted with polished teak or mahogany. The cabins are a bit small, but each has its own bathroom, and the beds are full-size and comfortable. Most of these two- or three-story junks have more than a dozen cabins and serve delicious, multicourse Vietnamese meals in nicely appointed dining rooms. A full bar with beer and a decent selection of affordable wines is available.
One of the biggest complaints from day-boat junk cruisers is the large number of boats cruising the bay in the same areas and the even more crowded beaches and cave tours. The overnight junk companies that own these floating hotels have contracts with the government to cruise in waters the day boats can’t. They cruise in out-of-the-way areas of Halong Bay restricted to their junks and the fishermen and families who live on the bay in floating villages. These companies also have permits for exclusive use of specific islands with private beaches offering cave exploring, kayaking and swimming. But what really makes these trips special is the magical twilight time, when you’re anchored in a cove among mist-shrouded islands with only the sounds of birds and the ice cubes clinking in your cocktail glass.
Editor’s Note: A junk cruise on Halong Bay can be the highlight of your trip or a major disaster. Many commercial junks are in poor repair and fall short of Western safety standards. The lower the ticket price, the more likely you’ll find yourself on one of these sketchy junks. In this case, you get what you pay for. Booking once you’ve arrived in Halong Bay also increases your chance of getting ripped off or falling victim to bait and switch. Do your homework on TripAdvisor, Cruise Critic and other forums to find the junk trip right for you, and reserve it in advance. Viator offers a number of options.
Interested in military history? Hire a cab and head about 8.5 miles south to the city’s outskirts and the Ho Chi Minh Trail Museum. The facility details the efforts to supply the North Vietnamese front lines by bicycle, truck and manpower. You can view three floors of photographs and many pieces of weaponry and war machinery. Beware: Traffic heading south can be a nightmare, so it can take an hour or more to get there.
Hoan Kiem Lake, in the heart of Hanoi, is the city’s Central Park and a peaceful place to stroll, jog or observe local life. Explore the stunning pagodas and temples, take a photo op at the long, Chinese-style Bridge of the Rising Sun, ride a swan boat or simply grab a snack at one of the small cafes and unwind. In the morning, residents go there to practice tai chi and martial arts; later in the day, elderly men gather to play chess. Giant turtles inhabit the lake, so be on the lookout.
In Vietnam, as in the rest of Asia, rice and noodles are food staples. As a result of the French colonial period’s influence, the cuisine is admired by food lovers around the world. Fresh herbs and hot chilies are found in many dishes including the local equivalent of fast food, pho soup. Pho (pronounced fuh) is flavored with fresh vegetables and savory stock, and is a breakfast, lunch and dinner favorite.
Vietnam’s long ocean coast and abundant rivers and lakes are sources for the fish, crab, shrimp and squid commonly found on menus. Nuoc mam, a pungent fermented fish sauce, is the preferred condiment, found on almost every dining table in the country.
Hidden away in the Old Quarter, Green Tangerine offers French-Vietnamese cuisine in an elegant, serene setting. You’ll find a colorful mix of travelers and well-heeled locals at this welcoming dining spot — the sign of a successful restaurant.
The Gourmet Corner restaurant is located on the 12th floor of the Elegance Diamond hotel, overlooking Hoan Kiem Lake, the Red River and the Hanoi skyline. The restaurant also offers outdoor terrace dining area for warm evenings. The menu includes authentic Vietnamese food, as well as Western-style cuisine such as steaks and pasta. The food is excellent, the service is friendly and the prices are reasonable.
Essence is located in heart of the Old Quarter in the Essence Hanoi hotel and offers authentic Vietnamese and Western dishes. Specialties include deep fried spring rolls and grilled bamboo beef. The staff is extremely helpful, and Wi-Fi is available at no charge.
For a change of pace from local cuisine, try the Moose & Roo Pub & Grill. Food is a bit more expensive here than at local Vietnamese spots, but well worth it if you crave an American-styled pulled pork sandwich, fish taco or cheeseburger. The restaurant boasts a great selection of foreign and domestic beers. Service is professional and friendly.
Shopping in Hanoi
Hanoi has great bargains, especially on Hang Gai Street, located in the city just north of Hoan Kiem Lake. Some of the “antique” items there might not be so antique, but they can make great souvenirs for a good price. You’ll also find silk goods (purses, scarves and suits) and crafts, including lacquered and embroidered items.
Near the Temple of Literature on Van Mieu Street, there is a nonprofit store, Craft Link, with a great reputation for beautiful, locally made crafts.
Hanoi’s crazy, hectic Old Quarter is a must-do stop for souvenir shopping (in a little shop, we found a silk purse for $6 that we paid $60 for in Boston) and to view the market scene.
Trang Tien Plaza, near Hoan Kiem Lake, is an upscale mall where you can get your Louis Vuitton or Cartier fix.
–written by Fran Golden