Hanoi is braced for a surge in visitor numbers in 2010 as it celebrates its 1,000th birthday, and none of these visitors is likely to be disappointed. Unlike most other Asian cities, Hanoi has preserved its character so that for modern visitors it is a treasure trove of sights to be discovered.
From ancient buildings like the Temple of Literature to grand colonial structures such as the Opera House, and thoroughly contemporary bars in the city centre, the city’s buildings reflect the diverse influences on Hanoi over a millennium. There’s plenty to keep visitors busy for a week or two here, but most people allow just two-to-three days, so for those looking for a streamlined itinerary, here follows a list of Hanoi’s top ten attractions.
Recommended Hanoi attractions
Old Quarter: There must have been a time when most Asian cities had a commercial district similar to Hanoi’s Old Quarter, but all have been razed in the name of development. This makes this particular district of Hanoi a living museum of inestimable value. It was once surrounded by ramparts and wooden gates, though only one gate now remains, at the eastern end of Hang Chieu.
The best way to explore is on foot, just following your instincts; you might get lost but you can always take a cyclo or motorbike back to your hotel. It’s worth looking out for Bach Ma Temple (Open: 07:00-11:00, 14:00-17:00. On the 1st and 15th of every lunar month: 07:00-21:00 (daily); on 76 Hang Buom St, tel:+84 4 3860 0963) and for the beautifully-restored Memorial House: (Open: 08:00-17:00 (daily); Admission: 5000D; 87 P Ma May).
Hoan Kiem Lake: Located immediately south of the Old Quarter, this smallish lake offers a welcome respite after the crowded streets of the commercial district, so it makes sense to fit in both at a single visit. It takes just half an hour to stroll round the lake, and another half hour to cross the cute The Huc Bridge to Den Ngoc Son temple for a look at an enormous turtle that once lived in the lake.
However, many will want to hang around another hour to take photos and enjoy a drink at a scenic neighbouring café. The lake’s perimeter is particularly lively at dawn and dusk, a favourite time for exercise.
French Quarter: Moving south again from Hoan Kiem Lake, the French Quarter sprawls over a large area, so to see it all it’s worth hiring a cyclo. There are no stand-out attractions here, just street after street of lovely old colonial houses, most of which have undergone major renovations in the last decade.
Opera House: To feast your eyes on a fine example of French colonial architecture, albeit frequently renovated over the years, head for Hanoi’s Opera House on Trang Tien, to the southeast of Hoan Kiem Lake. This elegant structure took 10 years to build and opened in 1911. It is only open to the public for evening performances of a concert or ballet, so check out if anything is on during your stay.
Temple of Literature: This venerable institution is not only Hanoi’s most revered temple, but also the country’s seat of learning, as it was here that Vietnam’s first university was established in 1067. The temple is dedicated to Confucius, and consists of five consecutive courtyards which contain ancient stelae inscribed with the names of graduates. There’s also a music room where visitors can take a seat and be serenaded by traditional musicians. Open: 08:30-11:30, 13:30-16:30 (Tuesday-Sunday); Admission: adults/20,000D, children/5,000D; Quoc Tu Giam Road, tel: +84 4 3747 2499.
One Pillar Pagoda: The One Pillar Pagoda appears out of place, located as it is among Ho Chi Minh memorabilia (his house, mausoleum and museum), yet it dates back longer than any nearby structure, in fact to 1049. As its name suggests, the quaint, tiny pagoda is perched on a single pillar set in a small lotus pond, and the shape is intended to mimic the form of a lotus. The structure that you see today was built after 1954, when the French blew up the previous building before they left the country. Open: 08:00-17:00 (daily); Admission: free; Ong Ich Kiem Road, tel: +84 4 3858 7325.
Hoa Lo Prison Museum: This prison, famously dubbed ‘the Hanoi Hilton’, is where American prisoners-of-war such as John McCain were kept during the Vietnam War, and when the area was redeveloped in the 1990s, a small section of the prison was turned into a museum. The exhibits are from both Indochina Wars, and include a guillotine and some ghastly instruments of torture. The museum is dwarfed by a shining symbol of Vietnam’s resurgent economy – Hanoi Towers. Open: 08:00-11:30, 13:30-16:30 (Tuesday-Sunday); Admission: 5,000D; 1 P Hoa Lo, cnr P Hai Ba Trung, tel: +84 4 3824 6358.
Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum: Hanoi’s strangest attraction is found just west of Ba Dinh Square, in an area dedicated to the nation’s fight for independence.
You’ll need to be dressed respectfully, meaning no shorts or sleeveless shirts, and remove your hat if you’re wearing one, to walk past the glass casket that contains the mortal remains of the country’s national hero. The mausoleum is closed in October-November each year when the corpse is sent to Russia for expert re-touching. Open: 08:00-11:00, Last entrance: 10:15 (Closed Monday, Friday); Admission: free. At the junction of Ngoc Ha and Doi Can.
Museum of Ethnography: Though most foreigners think of all Vietnamese as wearing ao dais (the national dress) and conical hats, the nation is ethnically diverse, with over 50 different minority groups living in different parts of the country. The majority live in the hills northwest of Hanoi, and this well-organized museum gives an excellent introduction to the various tribal groups’ typical dress, lifestyle and type of house.
It is located a few kilometers from the city centre, but is worth making the trip for its fascinating displays laid out in a user-friendly fashion. Open: 08:30-17:30 (Tuesday-Sunday); Admission: adults/25,000D, children/5,000D; Nguyen Van Huyen St, Western Hanoi, tel: +84 4 3756 2193, email: firstname.lastname@example.org, website: www.vme.org.vn.
History Museum: As is evident strolling around Hanoi’s streets, this is a city with lots of history, so it would take a dedicated visitor all day at the History Museum and still not see everything. Nevertheless, this place is worth visiting not only for the way it traces the country’s turbulent past, but also to see one of the finest colonial buildings in the city.
It was designed by renowned architect Ernest Hebrard in the early 20th century and was once the home of the French governor general. Be prepared for a rousing patriotic tone in the rooms that recount French and American occupation. Open: 08:00-11:30, 13:30-16:30 (Tuesday-Sunday); Admission 20,000D; 1 P Trang Tien, tel: +84 4 825 3518.
Water Puppet Theatre: Often booked out days in advance, this is Hanoi’s biggest night-time attraction, though there are performances in the afternoon as well. In each performance a dozen or more puppets, of kings, warriors, farmers, dragons, ducks and snakes, charge around the watery stage, propelled by rods and pulleys invisible to the audience.
It’s 45 minutes of non-stop fun, with a background of traditional music played live. After the performance, the puppeteers wade forward to take a bow and are usually greeted by rapturous applause. Municipal Water Puppet Theatre, Open show: 15:30-21:15; Tickets: 60,000-100,000D; camera: 15,000D; 57 Dinh Tien Hoang St, tel: +84 4 3936 4335 , fax: +84 4 3824 5117, email: email@example.com, website: www.thanglongwaterpuppet.org.