Hanoi, Vietnam’s colourful and chaotic capital, is easy to explore in just two days.
Bernard O’Riordan visited in September 2018
Hanoi really is a sensory overload for unsuspecting visitors. From the boisterous street food vendors to the frenetic beeping and honking of scooters and motorbikes, there’s just something intoxicating about Vietnam’s small capital city.
It is in the Old Quarter, a labyrinth of alleys and pot-holed back streets that have been the beating heart of Hanoi for more than 1,000 years, that you get a real sense of what this city is about.
The Old Quarter begins at the north and west shores of Hoan Kiem Lake – the liquid heart of the city and the calm nucleus around which this chaotic city revolves.
From the crumbling lemon-coloured French-colonial buildings that house tiny cafes and boutique hotels, to the Buddhist temples and even the Communist Party’s local offices, it seems everyone jostles for space in crowded Hanoi.
While the majority of Hanoi’s popular tourist attractions – Ho Chi Minh’s mausoleum, the Temple of Literature and the One-Pillar Pagoda – hover outside its fringes, the Old Quarter is what gives Hanoi its charm.
The so-called “36 Streets” of Hanoi’s Old Quarter have a specific purpose, the legacy of the 13th-century guildsmen who divided up the Old Quarter into 36 areas, so the prefix “Hang” on street signs means “merchandise”.
Wander down Hang Gai and you’ll find silk souvenirs. Over on Hang Bac, you’ll find silver. At Lan Ong, the traditional medicine street, the smell of herbs masks the toxic bike fumes, while boutique handicrafts can be found around Nha Chung.
Hanoi is like a city of teenagers, with nearly 60% of the population born after the war ended in 1975.
No one knows just how many of these specialised streets still exist in the Old Quarter, since its boundaries differ from map to map, but there are said to be more than 60.
You’ll also find a dedicated beer street (Ta Hien Street) and a BBQ chicken street (Ly Van Phuc Street), while down almost any laneway you’ll find street vendors and restaurants serving some of the country’s most recognised food dishes, many that originate in Hanoi.
Phở, a rice noodle soup eaten for breakfast normally with beef or chicken, is a much-raved about dish the world over. It’s a staple breakfast food and you’ll see many a contented soul crouching over a bowl and slurping the soup at all hours of the day.
Other popular local dishes include bánh cuôn, a rice noodle roll filled with ground pork, mushrooms and shallots; bún chả, grilled pork and noodles in a broth with fresh herbs; and of course, bánh mì, a classic Vietnamese baguette typically stuffed with pork or chicken, pate and pickled vegetables.
The other really noticeable thing about Hanoi is that, despite its ancient traditions, it feels like a city of teenagers. They are everywhere – doubled up on motorbikes as they race off to work or school; drinking and smoking at street-side bars or in cafes; helping out in the family-run business.
This shouldn’t really come as a surprise though, because nearly 60 per cent of the population in Vietnam was born after the war ended in 1975.
In a lot of ways, this city built on the right bank of the Red River still seems very much a third-world city in terms of its infrastructure, its cracking sidewalks and it pollution and congestion.
But it’s the vibrant mix of old and new that is attracting visitors the world over in growing numbers. This year alone it expects to attract a record 5.5 million foreign visitors.
Whether you’re visiting Hanoi for a few hours or a few days, there’s plenty to see and do in this city of lakes, temples and pagodas. With a culture forged on conflict, courage and communism, Hanoi’s history is in its soul as well as its sights.
Why dodge the scooters when you can explore Hanoi on the back of one? It’s a really fast and efficient way to get your bearings in this storied city, while visiting many of the sights and attractions it might otherwise take days to get to. Even if you’ve never ridden on a motorbike or scooter, you’ll feel totally at ease as everyone travels at the same 20-25 mph speed. There are many scooter tour companies in Hanoi, some offering half-day tours and others full-day tours. Some even offer street food tours. We booked a half-day city tour with Paloma Motorbike Tours which took in many popular sights including Long Bien Bridge, Huu Tiep Lake, St Joseph’s Cathedral, Tran Quoc Pagoda and Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum. We also stopped for the famous egg coffee at Cafe Giang and had lunch at the Bun Cha institution, Bun Cha Dac Kim in the Old Quarter.
Hoan Kiem Lake
Hoan Kiem Lake is a calm oasis in the city centre. Hoan Kiem means “lake of sword restored”, in reference to the victorious emperor Le Thai To. It’s claimed he was sent a magical sword from heaven, which he used to repel Chinese invaders. After he won in battle, a giant tortoise snatched the weapon and dragged it into the river before handing it back to its divine owners. A rare breed of turtle is said to still live in the lake, and there is also a preserved 2m-long specimen on show next to the pagoda in the centre of the lake. You can also cross the iconic red bridge to Hanoi’s most-photographed site, the Temple of the Jade Mountain (Ngoc Son Temple), which is worth a quick look.
St Joseph’s Cathedral
This 132-year old, white-washed building dates back to the 19th century but, with its heavily polluted facade, it looks more like a relic from medieval France. It’s officially known as St Joseph’s Cathedral, but to many locals it’s just called the “Big Church”, because it is the largest Catholic building in the capital. The gothic structure, located in the Hoan Kiem District, was built in 1884 and completed three years later. It is 64.5 metres long, and 20.5 metres wide, and has two bell towers that are 31.5 metres high.
Address: 40 Nhà Chung, Hàng Trống, Hoàn Kiếm.
Hanoi Opera House
Modelled after one of Paris’ opera houses, Hanoi Opera House was built by the French colonial administration between 1901 and 1911. In May 1946 the National Assembly of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam held its first meeting under the Opera House’s roof, and the constitution for the Democratic Republic of Vietnam was passed here in October of the same year. These days the 900-seat Opera House, located in the French Quarter, plays host to visiting performers as well as Vietnamese symphonies.
Address: Số 01 Tràng Tiền, Phan Chu Trinh, Hoàn Kiếm.
Sofitel Legend Metropole
The Sofitel Legend Metropole is the city’s most iconic hotel, so it’s worth at least having a look. The colonial, neo-classical hotel with its elegant white facade and dark green shutters sits in the heart of the French Quarter, just a few minutes walk from the Opera House. Among its most notable guests was Charlie Chaplin, who spent his honeymoon there in 1936, and who has one of the suites named after him. These days guests can organise a city tour in one of the hotels vintage cars parked out front (pictured). While the Metropole is a favourite with the local and international business set, you don’t have to be a millionaire to enjoy a drink poolside at the Bamboo Bar or inside at Le Club Bar.
Address: 15 Ngo Quyen, Hoan Kiem.
Long Biên Bridge
The historic, 1.4 mile-long Long Biên Bridge was built in 1898 by a team of architects from Paris. The cantilever bridge over the Red River was targeted repeatedly during the Vietnam War, due to its strategic value. But every time a US bomb destroyed part of the bridge, the people of Hanoi would rebuild it as quickly as it was damaged. These days, each side of the railway track is a footpath and a scooter road, which in rush hour are filled by thousands of buzzing bikes. The bridge is just 1km from the Old Quarter, making it easy to ride or walk there.
Vietnam Military History Museum
You’ll know you’ve arrived at the Vietnam Military History Museum when you see the hexagonal Flag Tower, one of the symbols of Hanoi, near the entrance. The Museum displays Soviet and Chinese equipment alongside French and US-made weapons captured during years of warfare. There is an indoor display with artefacts, films and photos. But perhaps the most impressive is the outdoor “war meets art” display – a mound of plane debris stacked high in the centre of the courtyard. You’ll see a Soviet-built MiG-21 jet fighter and a US F-111 as well as other intact planes, a helicopter and artillery. At the centre is a poster of a female Viet Cong soldier dragging the wing of an American plane. Entry costs 30,000 Vietnamese Dong – about US$1.28.
Address: 28A Dien Bien Phu Street, Ba Dinh district.
Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum
This monumental marble edifice is the final resting place of Vietnam’s revolutionary leader Ho Chi Minh, who died in 1969. The Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum was built from materials gathered all over Vietnam between 1973 and 1975. The revered leader rests embalmed with his arms crossed and beard still long in a glass sarcophagus in the bowels of the building. The guards are strict, so remember that cameras are not allowed inside and no one wearing shorts will be permitted access. If you are lucky enough to catch the changing of the guard – the pomp and ceremony rivals anything you’ll see at London’s Buckingham Palace. The mausoleum is only open in the mornings (8am-10.15am every day except Monday and Friday). I heard it’s often best to get there early to avoid waiting in line, as many Vietnamese queue to pay their respects to the revolutionary leader who gave them their freedom.
Address: 19 Ngoc Ha, Ba Dinh.
Huu Tiep Lake
Hidden behind some houses in a non-descript neighbourhood, you’ll find a chunk of the wreckage of an American B-52 bomber rusting in the green, soupy water of Huu Tiep Lake, nicknamed “B-52 Lake”. The US bomber was knocked out of the sky during a bombing raid over Hanoi on the night of December 27, 1972. The twisted metal of the bomber rests half submerged on the algae-green waters in the flower-planting village of Ngoc Ha. Next to the lake is an inscription applauding the “outstanding feat of arm” that brought down the bomber of the “US imperialist.”
Address: Ngõ 55 – Hoàng Hoa Thám, Ngọc Hồ, Ba Đình.
Truc Bach Lake
On the shores of Truc Bach Lake there’s a stone sculpture commemorating the capture of US navy pilot John McCain, who was shot down during a bombing run over North Vietnam in 1967. McCain parachuted into Truc Bach Lake, in what is now a busy part of Hanoi, and was dragged out by vengeful locals. He spent the five and a half years as a high-profile prisoner of war in Hoa Lo prison – the infamous “Hanoi Hilton”, but later became an esteemed friend of the country. This monument was erected in 1967, and renovated in the 1980s and 1990s. Following McCain’s death in August this year, many Vietnamese gathered at this site to pay their respects to a foe-turned-friend.
Address: 7 Thanh Niên, Trúc Bạch, Ba Đình.
Tran Quoc Pagoda
Across the road from Truc Bach Lake you’ll find Tran Quoc Pagoda – the oldest Buddhist temple in Hanoi, with a history of 1,500 years. The pagoda was originally built in the sixth century during the reign of Emperor Lý Nam Đế (from 544 until 548). The bright red pagoda stands out and contrasts beautifully with the green waters of the surrounding West Lake. On the grounds of Tran Quoc is a Bodhi tree taken as a cutting of the original tree in Bodh Gaya, India under which the Buddha sat and achieved enlightenment. Entry to the Pagoda is free.
As we wrote in an earlier blog, Hanoi’s Train Street is one of the most unique neighbourhoods you’ll find. I don’t know of too many residential areas where a locomotive whistles past your front door step twice a day, forcing you to drop everything and race inside. Train Street has become such a popular tourist attraction that a small cafe popped up serving beer and other refreshments half way along the track. It was actually ordered to close on October 12, 2019, amid growing safety concerns. As a result, Train Street is pretty much off limits to tourists these days. But if you’re in the neighbourhood, you’ll still see trains passing twice a day, at 3.30pm and 7.30pm.
Address: Best seen near Le Duan and Kham Tien Street.
BBQ Chicken Street
Hanoi is famous for its street food, and Chicken Street – or BBQ Chicken Street as it’s more widely known – will not disappoint. It’s actually a lot like Satay Street in Singapore. Located at Ly Van Phuc, you’ll find local street vendors stoking the bbq from about 5.30pm. Sticky chicken feet, charred and smokey chicken wings and satay chicken skewers are popular here, particularly with the backpacker crowd. You’ll also find some vendors serving up bbq pork and banh mi.
Address: Lý Văn Phức, Cát Linh, Đống Đa.
Often the first place to visit and the last place to leave for many tourists, Beer Street, or Ta Hien Street as it’s officially known, is a tiny laneway in the Old Quarter with nothing but bars, pubs and delicious food. (It is also referred to as Pho Tay – Foreigner Street – because it attracts so many western visitors). The snack of choice here is basil roasted peanuts, consumed by the handful with one of the many popular beers like 333, Saigon Special or Hanoi Premium. Beer Street is often heaving on a Friday, Saturday or Sunday night, and although it’s a little touristy, it’s a great place to sit back with a beer or two and do some people-watching.
Address: Tạ Hiện, Hàng Buồm, Hoàn Kiếm.
This blog was updated on October 10, 2019 following a crackdown on cafes on Train Street.
© 2019 Bernard O’Riordan (Travel Instinct). All Rights Reserved
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