Hanoi is a city with much to offer visitors. Tasty street food, beautiful architecture and some wonderful cultural attractions are all part of the city’s appeal. But if you haven’t been to Southeast Asia before, arriving in Hanoi for the first time can be a huge culture shock. Motorbikes buzz around in all directions and the frenetic activity of life in the Vietnamese capital can be overwhelming. One of the best ways to get your bearings and make the most of your time in Hanoi is with a guided city tour. These are typically a fun combination of walking and riding in cyclos (the local rickshaws).
Hanoi is also a great base to explore the stunning Halong Bay. This magical myriad of islands and limestone karsts spans the Gulf of Tonkin and makes for the perfect add-on to any visit to Hanoi.
Founded more than 1,000 years ago on a bend in the Red River, Hanoi remains as the cultural and commercial centre of Vietnam. Although there are many reminders in Hanoi of the city’s historic past, it’s also a modern vibrant city with a young and increasingly affluent population. The combination of old and new makes Hanoi a fascinating destination to visit.
One of the joys of a visit to Hanoi is exploring the ancient streets of the Old Quarter. Up until the late 18th century, these streets were filled with traders serving the Imperial City. The links to the past can still be found throughout the famous ’36 Streets’. With names like Silk Street and Medicine Street, these old roads are where some store owners continue to sell goods much as their forefathers would have done. The Old Quarter is also home to the oldest church in Hanoi, St. Josephs Cathedral, which dates back to the 1880s.
Up until the 1950s, Hanoi was an important city for French Indochina. That influence can still be seen today with the leafy boulevards and pretty architecture of the French Quarter a picturesque legacy from colonial times. China also played an integral role in the history of Vietnam which is reflected in the pagodas and temples dotted around the city. Located in between the French Quarter and Old Quarter, Hoan Kiem Lake is one of the best-known landmarks in Hanoi and a popular location for locals to walk and relax. Just behind the lake is the Water Puppet Theatre. Performances of this traditional Vietnamese art take place daily from mid-afternoon until early evening. Ho Tay (West Lake) is another popular location for locals and visitors who enjoy cycling around the expanse of water. For lovers of history and culture, Hanoi is also home to some of the most important monuments in Vietnam.
Ho Chi Minh’s Mausoleum
The mausoleum is where the embalmed body of Vietnam’s 20th-century communist leader is kept. The imposing building is open to the public (free entry) to pay their respects to the man known as Uncle Ho who was the driving force behind Vietnam’s struggle against French colonial rule.
One Pillar Pagoda
The construction of the One Pillar Pagoda was a labour of love by an 11th century emperor to give thanks for the birth of his child. Constructed from wood and sitting on a single stone column in the middle of a lotus pond, the One Pillar Pagoda is smaller than most visitors expect, but is still one of the iconic images of Hanoi. The pagoda was destroyed by French forces in the 1950s and had to be rebuilt by the Vietnamese.
Temple of Literature
The Temple of Literature dates back to the 11th century and is dedicated to Confucius. Vietnam’s first university was established here soon after the temple was built. The building now honours Vietnam’s greatest scholars and writers.
Noodles and beer
If you really want a local experience, sit yourself down on one of the tiny plastic chairs at any of Hanoi’s street stalls. The most famous dish is ‘pho’ a beef noodle soup, but there are a host of other tasty dishes to try. And when you’ve finished your meal wash it down with a glass or two of the local beer, ‘bia hoi’.
Halong Bay is one of the most striking natural sights in Southeast Asia. Formed by over 2,000 islands the seascape has a captivating beauty and an enchanting legend.
According to ancient folklore, a family of dragons were sent by the gods to protect Vietnam in the country’s formative years. The dragons lived in the mountains and spat out jewels into the sea which formed islands and karsts to make a protective barrier against invading ships. When the work of the dragons was finished they decided to move from the mountains and live in the bay. Where the mother dragon entered the sea became ‘Ha-Long’ which translates as ‘dragon descending into the sea’.
Whether you believe in the legend or not, Halong Bay is a gorgeous destination and can dovetail perfectly with any visit to Hanoi. A trip to the Vietnamese capital will allow you to discover culture and history. A tour of Halong Bay lets you discover hidden islands and caves, stunning seascapes and sublime sunsets.