The excitement wavered eventually. After seven cities, travel fatigue caught up. I finally was not looking forward to chasing another waterfall, trekking to another summit, or sitting on another long ride. Even before I set foot in Hanoi, the eighth stop on my banana pancake trail, I had already convinced myself to not push through with the trip to Sapa and just stay in the city center. All I wanted was a time on my own without exhausting any more energy, which I was not sure where to get. All I wanted was to relax this time. The Vietnamese capital, however, appeared to be not the place for it at first glance.
Hanoi’s streets are probably the craziest I have seen. Motorists drive without any care in the world. Honking seem to be a national sport. In the six days that I stayed in Hanoi, I had seen four traffic accidents involving motorcycles. But I did not allow any of them to drive me away. I stayed and, to my surprise, a respite wasn’t difficult at all to find. I slowly explored the city. Taking my time, I dropped any itinerary and just trusted my feet to take me anywhere they wanted. This is how I spent my six days in Hanoi and where I recommend you to go should you find yourself in this lovely city.
WHAT'S COVERED IN THIS GUIDE?
Meet Uncle Ho at Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum
Ho Chi Minh requested that he be cremated and his ashes be scattered all over the country. But it looks like his country is still not ready to let him go. Instead, the Vietnamese government preserved his body and housed it in a massive mausoleum. Uncle Ho, as most Vietnamese call him, was a revolutionary leader and is widely regarded as the Father of modern Vietnam.
Built from 1973 to 1975, the memorial is modeled after Lenin’s Mausoleum in Russia. It is a commanding structure in the middle of Ba Dinh Square, where he read the Declaration of Independence in 1945.
Admission is free but rules are implemented strictly. Photography is prohibited inside. Tank tops and short skirts not allowed, either. Uncle Ho’s body isn’t at the mausoleum all year (as it is sometimes sent to Russia for maintenance) so make sure you check before going.
Visit Ho Chi Minh Museum and One-Pillar Pagoda
Standing next to the Mausoleum complex is the Ho Chi Minh Museum, also built in honor of Uncle Ho. It takes visitors on a trip through the history of Vietnam, with a strong focus on the country’s struggles against the French and the US-backed South Vietnam government. The museum houses over 120,000 documents, films, and artifacts about the life and work of the revolutionary leader. Surprisingly, its interior is modern and sophisticated that the storytelling becomes just as fascinating as the stories themselves.
Support Girl Power at the Vietnamese Women’s Museum
Another museum that is well-worth a look is the Vietnamese Women’s Museum, highlighting the role and contributions of women in the culture, society, politics, and nation building. Established in 1987, the five-story building boasts more than 25,000 pieces of documents and objects. While they stage special exhibitions, the museum has three permanent collections that await guests: Women and Family, Women and Society, and Women’s Fashion. Prepare to be blown away by images of the women who played significant parts during the war! More about it here.
Puppetry is an important art form in many parts of ancient Asia and Vietnam is one of them. One type in particular, water puppetry, gained popularity in the countrysides. Known locally as mua roi nuoc, water puppetry was performed at the end of harvest season and in religious ceremonies. In contemporary Vietnam, water puppetry lives on. The Thang Long Water Puppet Theater showcases the art in their nightly shows in Hanoi. Through these performances, they introduce many aspects of the Vietnamese culture and subcultures. It’s like Vietnam Culture 101 done in a wet and wooden fashion. Read more about my experience watching the show here.
An architectural landmark at the heart of Hanoi, this Opera House stands majestically, boasting intricate French colonial style. Built by the French between 1901 and 1911, it was designed after the Palais Garnier, one of the two historical opera houses in Paris. This 900-seat theater is the venue for many opera and classical musical performances. I never had the opportunity to see the interior of the building but its facade is quite a breathtaker.
The Lake of the Restored Sword: Hoan Kiem Lake
One of the most visited and most photographed attractions in Hanoi, Hoan Kiem Lake lies at the center of the historical district. Hoan Kiem means Restored Sword, a name derived from a legend that tells how in the 1400s, King Le Loi (Le Thai To) led an insurgency army against the Yuan Chinese with a magical sword, which was fished out of the lake. When peace was restored, a giant soft-backed turtle appeared to him to take back the sword and return it to the God of water.
Today, it is an oasis in the middle of the bustling city of Hanoi. The lake has two islets: the three-tiered Turtle Tower near the south coast and the four-gated Ngoc Son Temple. A scarlet bridge, the Huc, connects Ngoc Son to the shore. Also within the vicinity is the Le Thai To Memorial and Temple. Read more about the Hoan Kiem Lake here.
Walk Around West Lake
Legends are no stranger to West Lake, either. The largest of all the lakes in Hanoi, West Lake used to be a part of the Red River. One story explains the origin of the lake with the battle between Lạc Long Quân, said to be the father of the Vietnamese people and their first true king, and a nine-tailed fox spirit. Like Hoan Kiem Lake, it is bordered by some of the most captivating historic structures including Tran Quoc Pagoda, the oldest in the country, and Quan Thanh Temple, one of ancient Hanoi’s four sacred temples.
See the St. Joseph’s Cathedral
Undoubtedly Gothic Revival in style, St. Joseph’s Cathedral was built by the French colonists in 1886 on the site of the Bao Thien Pagoda, a Buddhist temple. It is the oldest church in the city and one of the earliest French-built structures in Indochina. Standing in front of the church is a statue of the Virgin Mary called Regina Pacis (Queen of Peace).
Shop at Dong Xuan Night Market
Every major city I had been to in Southeast Asia has its own night markets, each with its own character. Shilin in Taipei is brimming with delectable food finds, Bangkok with bargain apparel, and Luang Prabang with local arts and crafts. Hanoi has Dong Xuan Night Market and its very different from the rest. Although they say it is set up for tourists, it looks like it caters more to locals. It has a wide array of goods and products like toys and clothes but not much souvenirs or other things distinctly Vietnamese. But spending hours here, from Hang Ngang Street to Dong Xuan, is something that I strongly recommend for the experience is truly Hanoi. There’s also a lane of eateries that serve local dishes. And the best part: no motorbikes!
Food Trip at Old Quarters
Speaking of local dishes, do check out the many restaurants and food stalls that flank the streets of the Old Quarters. If you’re traveling on a budget, chances are your hotel is located here. If that’s the case, you will roaming around the gridded district whether you like it or not. Grab a cup of fresh fruit shake while you’re at it. Food and drinks here are cheap. Pick an eatery and be seated on one of their low benches and have a bowl of pho, among others!
Hanoi can be quite disorienting and shocking. It is noisy and crowded but it is not hard to find tamed spaces that are conducive to relaxation. In between turbulent streets are beautifully designed buildings. Behind the chaotic traffic are pockets of greens and parks. Amidst the restless crowds are small, great, calming pieces of the city waiting to be discovered.
But of course, if you need to get out a city for an encounter with nature, there’s always Sapa and Ha Long Bay.
Yosh Dimen is a full-time travel blogger. He has three passions in life: social media, travel, and movies. Yosh has won 3 Philippine Blog Awards and a Palanca Award . Learn more about his personal journeys at Yoshke.com.