Few capital cities embody the old world romance of Hanoi. The capital city’s ideal riverside location in northern Vietnam has attracted Chinese invaders and French colonisers. This rich historical background made charming Hanoi what it is today—a lovely city teeming with cultural gems and heritage buildings, sprinkled with breathtaking natural wonders further afield. This is truly a place where East meets West in perfect harmony.
Best of Hanoi
1. Old Quarter
For centuries, Hanoi’s craftsmen have settled and peddled on the 36 busy streets lined with narrow buildings named after their particular trades. Both locals and visitors come here for the food and atmosphere that are said to be the soul of old Hanoi.
2. Ha Long Bay
Venture three hours away from the city to this UNESCO World Heritage Site of 2,000 islets where junk ships sail around surreal limestone peaks. The picturesque “Bay of Descending Dragons” is a popular tourist destination with rich biological and geological diversity. Cruise the bay on a junk ship to discover its hidden beaches and lagoons.
Under the shadow of Fansipan, Indochina’s highest peak, lies Sapa, home to several highland minorities and the starting point for mountain treks between villages. For an authentic experience spend the night at homestays and visit picturesque Cat Cat village and colourful Bac Ha market.
4. Hoa Lo Prison
Dubbed the ‘Hanoi Hilton’ by American POWs, the infamous prison was first used by the French to house Vietnamese prisoners. During the Vietnam War, it was controlled by North Vietnam.
5. Temple of Literature
Nearly 1,000 years old, this sprawling temple of Confucius was once the site of the Imperial Academy, Vietnam’s first university. Before Vietnamese New Year, calligraphers can write your wishes in Chinese characters for you to keep throughout the year.
6. Ho Chi Minh’s Mausoleum
Why visit a Mausoleum? Because this is one of the most iconic landmarks of the city formerly known as Saigon! Ho Chi Minh (that’s his name) has his body eternally enshrined and his memory forever preserved under glass in the cold central hall. Beware as there are strict rules on dress code and behaviour, so mind your p’s and q’s here.
7. Water Puppet Theatre
Water puppetry is an age-old art of North Vietnam in which puppets are manipulated over waist-deep water. Unconventional but traditionally Vietnamese, a water puppet performance is a memorable experience!
8. One Pillar Pagoda
This is a replica (built late 1950’s) to replace the original one destroyed by the French Union during the First Indochina War, but its beauty, tranquillity and well-wishes behind the one pillar structure remain. The great Emperor Ly Thai Tong erected this marvel in 1048 as a result of a good dream that was a good omen for his kingdom.
9. Hoan Kiem Lake
This legendary lake is famous for the scenic views of Tortoise Tower (Thap Rùa), Jade Islet and the red lacquered The Huc Bridge. Visit the lake in the morning to see locals young and old go about their activities, from Tai Chi to aerobics.
10. St. Joseph Cathedral
At the end of a lane lined by leafy cafés and fancy shops stands Hanoi’s version of the Notre Dame de Paris, complete with a gilt altar, tall stained glass windows and a vaulted ceiling. This Gothic cathedral made of granite, built in 1886, is the oldest church in Hanoi and the seat of Catholicism in the city.
Pho originated in North Vietnam and has since become a well-loved national dish. The Hanoi variety uses thicker noodles, a clear broth made of beef bones simmered for hours, and fewer greens than its Saigon counterpart. The result is a simple but flavourful soup that is good to the last drop.
12. Drip Coffee
Whether hot or iced, black and bitter or sweetened with condensed milk, Vietnamese cà phê is good in any kind of weather. Join the locals on the roadside, sit on a low stool, and have a chat while waiting for your coffee to drip down from the phin, the single-cup brewer and filter.