Hanoi is a 1000 year old city that served as the political center of Vietnam during most of its history. It is the national capital, main city in the north, a big railroad junction and a good starting point for some of Vietnam’s most spectacular destinations. The city itself lies on the banks of the Red River and its branches, surrounded by mountains on the north and the west. Unlike its southern competitor (Ho Chi Minh City) it has specific traditional mentality, which is probably the reason why its economy still lags behind. What this two cities have in common, though, is a regular control of order and peace by the police, something that smaller cities have mostly managed to avoid.
What is Hanoi Like
The form of Hanoi is determined by the direction of the Red River and the position of the West Lake. Between those two the magnificent Old town still holds most of the urban grid traced in the 13th century, when all different kinds of craftsmen came here and divided the area between themselves based on the type of goods traded (for instance sugar, silk or jewelry). To the west, the recently rediscovered Old Citadel with its watch towers and museums surrounds the Old Town. To the south, the French quarter with its elegant colonial buildings is home to several lakes, among which the Hoan Kiem Lake is the most popular.
What to See in Hanoi
Hanoi’s main attraction is its Old town. There are a few old buildings that are worth discovering but most of the buildings are not very old or authentic. It is the life on its streets that bears a unique and special atmosphere. Bach Ma Temple, which is not easy to find, is a fine example of a modest Vietnamese version of Buddhist architecture. It is also one of the oldest in Hanoi. The Ngoc Son Temple stands out for its location on the small island in the Hoan Kiem Lake, while the One Pillar Pagoda is a unique structure among sacral objects. Next to it the grand Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum, built against the great leader’s last will to be cremated, is the holiest place for many Vietnamese. A little bit further south the beautiful Temple of Literature provides a great escape from the urban chaos with its group of pavilions surrounded by several courtyards. It was founded in 1070 and established as the country’s first university.
The biggest annoyance of Hanoi is it crazy traffic. Depending on how much that bothers you there are two hotel areas convenient for exploring the city, although decent hotels of all categories can be found in many different parts of the city. The West Lake area is bit far from the centre, but with less pollution and noise. The Old town is the best backpacker option for those who don’t mind the traffic, or simply prefer to integrate in the atmosphere of Hanoi’s most charming neighborhood. Hotels next to the Hoan Kiem Lake are the best midrange and splurge options if you like to be close to everything, yet don’t mind maneuvering between the never ending motorcades.
Hanoi is a big city without good public transport. Traffic jams are common almost everywhere, while traffic lights are not. Although walking around the city is probably the best option if you want to discover all the hidden treasures of this ever surprising city, it can be potentially dangerous. Motorbikes coordinate the right of move between themselves, but they seem not to respect the pedestrians, who have to fight their way through. If you are extra cautious, though, it can be quite rewarding, especially in the Old town, where on weekends some streets are closed to traffic. The other convenient options are hiring a Cyclo, if you don’t mind seeing a cyclo driver being exhausted, or a motorbike for a faster, yet less relaxing experience.
Hanoi is a special place: it is the only big city in the region that still keeps some medieval traces, it is a city full of life, with a beautiful river and lakes, yet shockingly stuck in time with authoritarian order. It is a city that has so much to offer, but at the same time spending time there can be frustrating because of the uncontrolled traffic and over controlled ‘peace and order’. The police constantly check out bars and clubs during working hours, even shutting them down if they feel it’s necessary. Finally, Hanoi is a city that will leave no one indifferent
Hanoi Travel Guide
- Stay in the Old town near the Hoan Kiem Lake. Happy Frog recommends 3B Hotel
- Hoan Kiem Lake, and Ngoc Son temple;
- The Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum and One Pillar Pagoda;
- Temple of Literature;
- St Joseph Cathedral;
- Ruins and watch the guard towers of the Old Citadel;
- Phung Hung Street Art.
- Have dinner and a beer on the streets of the Old town;
- Check this Hanoi Food Guide for best dishes to try.
- On foot, by bicycle, rickshaw, motorbike or taxi.
- Go on an excursion to Ha Long Bay.
DO NOT MISS:
- Discover the Old town on foot, and look for the old houses and temples;
- Watch the police controlling the streets from the camera inside a bar;
- Walk around the West Lake and hire a swan like pedal boat;
- Take a stroll around the French Quarter.
- Check out the Hanoi Train Street