Hanoi — with its war-torn history — has grown into a bustling tourist destination. Located in northern Vietnam on the right bank of the Red River, it is one of the oldest capital cities in Southeast Asia, founded by Emperor Ly Thai To in AD 1010.
During our one-week visit in late April, we were warmly welcomed by the gracious and proud Vietnamese people, who encouraged us to experience the history, traditions and modernization of this alluring city.
American travelers seeking a great value will also be attracted to Hanoi with the current exchange rate. The remarkable sights, sounds and smells of this charming, ancient city will stay with you for a long time.
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At the center of Hanoi is the picturesque Hoan Kiem Lake (Lake of the Returned Sword). In the middle of the lake on a small island stands the iconic pagoda, Thap Rua (Turtle Tower), which honors the mystical turtle that helped save the city from the Chinese in the early 15th century.
On the northern shore of the lake is the revered Ngoc Son Temple (Temple of the Jade Mountain). It is a favorite tourist spot accessed by the red-painted wooden Huc Bridge (Sunbeam Bridge).
Strolling along Hoan Kiem Lake is a peaceful contrast to the noise and traffic of the surrounding city. Beautiful flowers, winding paths and inviting benches adorn the walkways. During our visit, there was a patriotic display at the lakefront celebrating the 40th anniversary of Reunification Day (April 30, 1975) when North and South Vietnam reunited at the end of the Vietnam War.
Our first day in Hanoi was spent visiting the 600-year-old ancient quarter located near Hoan Kiem Lake. Known as the Old Quarter or 36 Streets, this lively area with narrow streets and alleys is packed with merchandise such as shoes, clothing, jewelry and a variety of crafts made from silk, bamboo or lacquer.
The streets are named after the products sold there, such as Hang Gai (Silk Street) or Hang Bac (Silver Street), based upon the historical trade guilds.
Among the small shops are street food vendors, boutique hotels and authentic Vietnamese restaurants. We enjoyed a great lunch at New Day, a popular local eatery.
There are many interesting cultural and historical sites to visit throughout Hanoi, usually requiring a small entrance fee. We saw sever- al fascinating pagodas, temples and museums.
Founded to commemorate Chinese philosopher Confucius, the Temple of Literature is one of the oldest architectural complexes in Hanoi. It was the center of higher learning for more than seven centuries. The complex consists of five courtyards, formal gardens and ornate gateways.
The Vietnamese Museum of Women features many thought-provoking exhibits that provide a unique perspective on how women have contributed to the history and culture of Vietnam. It consists of three main galleries — Women and Family, Women and History, and Women’s Fashion.
Located in downtown Hanoi, the notorious Hoa Lo Prison was built by French colonists in 1896 to hold Vietnamese political and revolutionary prisoners. The original entrance sign — Maison Centrale — is still there today. During the Vietnam War, the prison housed captured American pilots (including Sen. John McCain) who mockingly named it the Hanoi Hilton. The museum exhibits include prisoner cells, torture instruments and historical artifacts.
The Thang Long Water Puppet Theatre provides an opportunity to experience the traditional and authentic expression of Vietnamese culture. The show features 14 short stories representing ancient folklore. It is performed in a large water-filled arena with a live orchestra using traditional musical instruments. The puppeteers hide behind the stage, standing in waist deep water as they maneuver the puppets.
Hanoi is famous for its street food. One of the highlights of our trip was taking a three-hour private walking tour through the Old Quarter with our passionate guide, Van Cong Tu, from Hanoi Street Food Tours.
Our first stop was to enjoy a taste of egg beer or egg coffee (traditionally prepared with egg yolks, sugar, condensed milk and coffee). That led to sampling a spicy papaya salad, banh cuon (a rice pancake rolled with pork), black chicken in a can, coconut spring rolls, cha chanh (lemon iced tea), barbecued baby quail and much more. With one of the dishes, we learned about the ingredients later — it was sea worm!
In addition to the amazing array of strange foods, Tu took time to teach us about the Vietnamese culture and way of life. I would highly recommend a private tour for its spon taneity and customization, even though it may be more expensive than a group tour. We paid $75 per person.
The most popular Hanoi dish is called bun cha — served with grilled pork, white rice noodles, and herbs in a sweet broth. We first tried it from a street vendor near our apartment. The combination of charcoal smoke, savory smells and dining under a plastic tarp created a sensory overload and one of the most unique culinary experiences. And the cost is about the equivalent of a U.S. dollar.
There are also many excellent fusion restaurants in Hanoi that blend French and Vietnamese cuisine. These innovative dishes are incredibly delicious and presented at the table like artwork. Don’t miss the charming Green Tangerine and trendy Pots and Pans, both upscale restaurants.
There is no better coffee than Vietnamese coffee, and the best way to savor a good cup is in a local café. One such hidden gem is Café Dinh. Located across from Hoan Kiem Lake above a storefront in a tiny room with cement floors, gray walls and small chairs, we enjoyed probably the best cup of coffee ever, including the unique cà phê trung — egg coffee.
The architectural style in Hanoi is heavily influenced by foreign invaders, most notably the French and Chinese. However, tall, thin buildings called “tube” or “rocket houses” are considered the iconic Vietnamese style.
It is thought that these four-or-five-story buildings were originally built long and narrow to avoid taxes based on the width of a building. Historically, they include mixed use of space — both residence and commerce.
A popular mode of transportation in Hanoi is the motorbike. During the day, it is fascinating to watch various types of people riding motorbikes — families of four huddled together, vendors promoting items for sale or workers balancing a load of building supplies. At night, it is almost magical as the city streets are literally transformed into a sea of lights gliding through the traffic.
For pedestrians trying to navigate crossing the street, it may first appear very daunting and scary. The lesson we learned from the locals was golden — just walk confidently across the street and the traffic will work around you. Another easy and inexpensive way to get around town is by taxi. It is not recommended to rent a car due to the difficult traffic patterns.
The friendly people, compelling history, interesting sites and great value make a trip to Hanoi a rich and fascinating vacation destination.