Hanoi is a much quieter city than Ho Chi Minh City, but there is still tons of traffic. That's one of the things that strikes you first when you take a tour around the city. The streets are filled with people, cars, motorbikes, noise, street stalls, women unloading food, and more. It's a beautiful city where I wouldn't hesitate to live, especially when you take Vietnamese hospitality into account.
The name comes from the fact that it was the first university in Vietnam. The complex is surrounded by brick walls and has a pond and gardens in the center which were once used for relaxation and mediation by the elite students. The whole place exudes a distinct sense of tranquility and harmony.
The names of the students who attended the university are carved on stone turtles on each side of the temple. They offer food, incense, and symbolic money to a statue of wise Confucius and his helpers, which also adds a mystic touch to the place.
The mausoleum of Ho Chi Minh is a pharaonic structure in Ba Dinh Square and holds the preserved remains of the leader of the Vietnamese revolution and the father of modern Vietnam: Ho Chi Minh. This magnum opus was built in 1975 and reminded me of the tomb of Che Guevara in Santa Clara, Cuba and even that of Lenin in Red Square when I visited during the Soviet era.
Ho Chi Minh had wanted for his remains to be cremated, but his successors disobeyed his will in the belief that such a famous character should be eternally present and revered by future generations. To keep his spirit alive, they decided to display his corpse in this mausoleum, no doubt inspired by the case of Lenin. Vietnam is not known for its mummification techniques, so the body is transported to Russia every year for "maintenance." Therefore, the mausoleum is closed in the months of October and November when to body is transported to Russia (this is why it's said that the corpse is most traveled of all time).
The mausoleum is built of marble from the mountains of Da Nang. There are huge lines to visit the glass-encased remains that start in the early morning. It is a place of pilgrimage and Vietnamese come from far reaches of the country to visit. The place is guarded by the white-uniformed Royal Guard and the changing of the guard is spectacular. The utmost respect is mandatory during the visit: no cameras or backpacks, and women must be covered up.
I went to visit the grave for two reasons: firstly, the huge queues, but also to understand and respect this emblematic symbol of Vietnam. Like most tourists, I simply see the mausoleum in the great square, the parades, the red flag waving in the wind and the famous slogan written in Vietnamese: "there is nothing more precious than independence."
Water puppetry is an ancient Vietnam art form. There are two stories that seem to explain its origin: one says that it was started among rice farmers who worked in the flooded rice paddies of the Red River delta. The other states that it began with traditional puppets being used during a great flood.
While the audience will invariably be mainly western tourists, the fact is that the show is just beautiful. I loved the stories! Peasants defending their villages against dragons, inter-clan battles, fisherman fighting with their fish (to the point to where it seems like there was a real live fish in the water), all accompanied by music which seems to breathe life into the show.
The musicians are in a sort of box off to one side of the stage, which itself is a water tank. The puppets are controlled by people on the sides of the stage (in waist-deep water) who move them with long sticks adapted with some mechanism to move the puppets back and forth.
Apparently, the puppets only last 3 or 4 months and then you have to replace them. Their manufacture is big business but you can also find smaller examples in nearby souvenir shops.
The shows tend to fill up, so make sure to get your tickets a few hours ahead of time or else you'll be spending the night in your hotel room!
This shallow freshwater lake is located practically in the center of Hanoi and is surrounded by trees which create an oasis of peace amid the city’s tempest of traffic and bikes.
The name "Hoan Kiem" means "Lake of the Restored Sword," a name derived from a legend where King Le Thai To found a sword in the lake that made him invincible to his enemies. After his battles, the sword was retaken by a turtle that lived in the lake. The Turtle Island containing the Temple of the Jade Mountain is located in the center of the lake and is accessible via a bright red bridge.
The Hoan shopping center, Hanoi Opera House, and Water Puppet Theatre are all located near the lake. There are also dozens of good restaurants overlooking the lake.
The city of Hanoi appears to be surrounded by a constant mist due to the humidity and fumes of millions of motorcycles. One place to truly appreciate the mist is at the "Lake of the Restored Sword," a pleasant place in the center of the city whose island contains the Temple of the Jade Mountain, one of the most photographed temples in Vietnam and home to a legend that’s like an Asian version of the King Arthur story.
The legend states that a fisherman named Le Loi dragged from the lake a magical sword which turned him into a brave warrior. His courage led him to be proclaimed king (King Lê Thái Tổ) and lead his people to victory in a 10-year war. One day, he was walking through the garden and saw a giant turtle emerging from the water and coming towards the royal boat. Feeling threatened, the King threw his sword into the water and the turtle grabbed it in its mouth and carried it back to the depths. The king felt the gods must have been angry and had sent the turtle to reclaim the sword. Since then, the turtles in the lake have been things of reverence and they roam free in the temple on the island.
The parks surrounding the lakes are full of elderly Vietnamese men playing cards or checkers (and curious onlookers enjoying the games).
The Perfume Pagoda is one of the most beautiful places in North Vietnam. It's a Buddhist shrine on the mountain of Huong Tich, at which we arrived after canoeing down the Day River.
The temple is located 70km. south of Hanoi and is not actually a pagoda, but rather a magical complex of temples that seems to emerge from the surrounding jungle. This temple complex is a Mecca of sorts for Vietnamese Buddhists, so much so that they've even added a cable car to help pilgrims avoid the 14-kilometer walk through the thick tropical brush surrounding the temple.
To get to the Day River, I'd suggest taking a bus from Hanoi (about 2 hours) and then chartering a boat to take you to the foot of the mountain. You can then opt for the hike and enjoy the hidden nooks and temples in the jungle or take the cable car and enjoy the wonderful views. The best bet is making the walk up and then going back down on the cable car.
The palace is located in the Ba Dinh district near the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum. It’s a colonial-style French building erected in 1906 as the residence of the Governor-General of French Indochina. When the French were expelled in 1954, it was supposed to be used by the new president but Ho Chi Minh refused the opulent palace and instead lived in the servants’ quarters, a place which is now known as the Stilt House. It’s currently used for official ceremonies and normal tourists cannot visit.
The Trấn Quốc Pagoda is the oldest pagoda in Hanoi, having been built in the 6th century during the reign of Lynam. It was originally located on the Red River but moved to West Lake in the 17th century. It has a very unique structure consisting of 11 octagonal floors; the whole building is painted a deep red color and is surrounded by other temples.
I was intrigued when the guide told is that the tree in the courtyard is a Bodhi tree from India. He said it came from the one where Buddha himself gained enlightenment. Whether that claim is truth or legend, I have to note that the temple itself and surrounding area had almost no visitors. This could be due to the fact that Buddhism is not a majority religion in Vietnam and that the temple is not a major tourist attraction in Hanoi. It seemed odd that so few locals chose to enjoy the beautiful pagoda set on the tranquil shores of West Lake.
In Hanoi, there are also food markets. These street markets have been for years one of the ways of providing for the residents of the Vietnamese capital. In them we find, meats of all kinds, including dog, Fish, seafood, fruit and alcohol. Because health conditions are not the best, I do not recommend buying anything (except the unpeeled fruit and bottled drinks), but it's essential to see it.
The One Pillar Pagoda is one of the most famous monuments in the city of Hanoi and is located in the Ba Dinh district near the Mausoleum of Ho Chi Minh, Presidential Palace, and Stilt House, all of which you can visit during the same day.
The pagoda's current incarnation comes after a long series of reconstructions, the most recent of which happened in 1954 when it was burned by the French during their retreat from Hanoi. The original temple was built in the 11th century by the emperor Ly Thai Tong. This name might not sound familiar to you, but it's ubiquitous on street signs throughout the entire country.
The temple stands on a pond filled with lotus flowers. In fact, the goal of the architects was to build a temple which resembled a lotus flower. To access the sanctuary, climb the stairs leading to the altar.
When we visited, there were many people coming to pay their respects at the lotus shrine dedicated to the goddess of mercy. It's interesting to watch the people coming and going, offerings in hand, along the temple steps.
This is the oldest neighbourhood in Hanoi, in the heart of the city around Lake Hoan Kiem. The buildings here, many of which are quite old, are low, some in the French style. Walking through the streets of the Old Quarter, you're guaranteed a good time. There are all sorts of stores, and you can stop to drink beer, eat at a street stall, or smoke the water pipes on offer. There are plenty of hotels and guesthouses here, as it's the quintessential backpacker neighbourhood. Travel agencies offering tours all over the country can also be found here.
Dong Xuan Market is in the northern part of downtown Hanoi. It is a pretty big market. It has two, 3-storey buildings which are connected on the second floor. In the market, you can find clothing, accessories, small appliances, electronics, decorative items, cereals, spices, etc. Fish is located at the eastern entrance. To find really good meat, you must go to the streets alongside the market. One of the most interesting things about this market is watching as the packages are loaded onto motorcycles for delivery, capable of carrying virtually anything from Plasma TVs to pigs and ducks!
Another unmissable spot in the city of Hanoi is the Quan Thanh Temple, a beautiful temple built to venerate the memory of General Huyen Thien Tran Vu, a staunch defender of the north. The temple has a beautiful facade with three stone doors and a steeple on top. In front of the entrance are four large pillars decorated with images of the phoenix, tiger, and other animals that are significant to Vietnamese culture. Inside the temple is a large patio, with an ornamental fish pond made of artistically crafted rock. The temple is very significant for locals, who come here in search of luck and happiness. Go early to get the best experience.
The train station is in downtown Hanoi only 5 minutes from Lake Hoan Kiem. Trains depart to all corners of the country and are widely used since they’re an economical means of travel and, aside from coastal roads near Ha Long Bay, the road system in Vietnam is fairly poor.
The trains themselves are also somewhat dilapidated. The seats are made of hard wood and the demand is such at you need to get tickets at least two days in advance. The only exceptions are the luxury sleeper trains which head to Lao Cai in the north. There is, however, also a third-class train for Lao Cai that is very inexpensive.
The famous "Reunification Train" connecting Hanoi with Ho Chi Minh City also departs from this station. The most famous train, though, is definitely the Orient Express which connects with Hanoi in the north.
The stilt house is a small, elevated home where Ho Chi Minh lived and worked until his death. The house itself is typical of Vietnamese minorities and its main characteristic is that it’s raised on stilts. These days, the Stilt House is a major tourist attraction for the Vietnamese since it was where the father of modern Vietnam made the majority of his decisions.
The house (also called Nha San Bac Ho in Vietnamese) honestly has little attraction for Westerners. There are various soldiers there at all hours making sure you don’t touch anything. You can visit the second floor and see the salons, bedroom, and offices of Ho Chi Minh.
Known as the little Notre Dame, St Joseph's Cathedral in Hanoi was built under French rule in 1886. It is neo-Gothic, and is the oldest church in the city. There are small gardens to the sides. It is very central, near Hoan Kiem Lake.