Hanoi is a city of jade green lakes, tree-lined boulevards and corner cafes perfect to sit in and soak up some of Asia’s best street life. Heavily bombed during the American War, much of the outskirts have been rebuilt in drab socialist architecture, though the center remains of Asia’s best-preserved old quarters.
Situated on a curve of the Red River, Hanoi recently celebrated its 1,000th birthday. Archeological digs confirm that the site has been inhabited for over 5,000 years and it has been the official capital of Vietnam since 1945.
Home to more than 6 million inhabitants, many elderly residents of Vietnam’s second largest city speak French and enjoy engaging visitors in conversation, particularly along the shores of Hanoi’s numerous lakes. It is here where the soul of the city can best be discovered. Residents of Hanoi like to start their day here with tai chi classes, move on to a bowl of steaming pho, then on to card games and a day filled with gossip. In the afternoons school children play badminton in the street before being called home to dinner.
The Hoan Kiem Lake, or the ‘Lake of the Restored Sword’ is the geographic center of Hanoi. Tai chi is practiced all along the lake each morning, and sipping a cup of strong Vietnamese coffee at one of the cafes along the lake is a great way to start the day.
Directly to the north of the lake is the District of the 36 Streets, the oldest neighborhood in Hanoi. Each street and alleyway here sells just one product including silk, funeral tablets, bamboo, or rice paper. Narrow and twisting, this fascinating area is best explored by throwing away the map and just walking it – stopping for a coffee to watch the surging traffic or at a corner restaurant to enjoy a bowl of pho.
Ba Dinh Square is home to the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum where Ho’s body is viewed each day by hundreds of his adoring countrymen visiting from the provinces. Known throughout Vietnam as Uncle Ho, the house he inhabited as president is also open to the public along with the Ho Chi Minh Museum that contains artifacts of Ho’s life. Nearby is the One Pillar Pagoda, a Buddhist pavilion built in 1049 AD.
Hanoi is also home to the Temple of Literature, built in the year 1070 AD. Dedicated to Confucius, the temple is known as Van Mieu in Vietnamese, and was the country’s first official university. For over 700 years, graduates of this elite school had their names engraved in stone tablets that still be found at the temple, considered to be Hanoi’s finest cultural sites.
Hanoi’s Museum Ethnologydisplays religious objects, farmer’s implements and woven cloth from Vietnam’s 54 ethnic minorities. Mainly inhabiting the highlands of the north and center of the country, these ethnic groups are closely linked to others found in Laos and northern Thailand. Full sized ethnic minority houses are on display in the large gardens.
Hanoi’s nightlife scene is conservative and limited in scope, though venues are beginning to open catering to the increasing numbers of expatriates and foreign visitors. Expect to rub shoulders with a fairly even mix of hip locals, English teachers, long term expats, backpackers and upscale package tourist though don’t expect the partying to go till dawn: most venues close just after midnight.
Well known expat bars to knock back a pint include Apocalypse Now, The Spotted Cow, and Finnegans. A younger crowd seeking hip hop and electronica head for Dragonfly, while jazz fans flock to Indochine Jazz Club and Minh’s Jazz Club in the 36 Streets District.
Bia Hoi (Bia is Vietnamese for beer) is an extremely popular pastime among male Hanoians. Served in plastic jugs, Bia Hoi venues are where office workers head to blow off some steam and can be found along many street corners, particularly in the suburban areas.
Budget Hotels in Hanoi
Van Minh Hotel – ground floor travel agency
Thu Giang Guesthouse - one of the least expensive in Hanoi
Hong Ngoc Hotel - not high on style but gentle on price
Mid Range Hotels in Hanoi
Hanoi Luxury Hotels in Hanoi
Hotel Sofitel Metropole - French colonial glamour right on the edge of the Hoan Kiem lake
Daewoo Hotel – modern multistory hotel in Hanoi’s business district
Intercontinental West Lake – stunning views of Hanoi’s largest lake