For many travelers, Hanoi is just a hub, a pit stop on their way to the two big tourist attractions in Northern Vietnam, Sapa and Ha Long Bay. This is a shame, as Hanoi, formerly the capital of French Indochina (which spanned Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam at its height) boasts plenty of cultural highlights and other attractions well worth your time. So, instead of rushing off to the mountain heights of Sapa, or the deep blue sea of Ha Long Bay, book a room for several days here. Doing so will give yourself time to truly experience a metropolis that oozes history, culture, and a contagious optimism for the future, as many rising skyscrapers indicate.
If you are museum buff, you are in luck, as Hanoi boasts a multitude of worthwhile attractions dedicated to telling the story of this city and of the Vietnamese people. The first museum you should check out, and the one that you should be sure to attend if your time in town is limited, is the mausoleum of Ho Chi Minh. Inside this shrine to the leader of the Vietnamese Communist revolution is the man himself, embalmed and preserved, just as he was the day he died. Don’t expect to get any photos of the late leader of Vietnam, as photography is strictly prohibited. Also, be sure to dress appropriately, so no exposed shoulders or knees … you are in the final resting place of a national icon!
Following this, stroll down the street to the Temple of Literature. This structure has been around for eons, founded in 1070 as a place of worship, serving as the nation’s first university. Throughout the courtyard, observe the names of graduates that came out of these halls of learning through the centuries.
Another museum that is worth your attention is the Ho Chi Minh Museum (not to be confused with the mausoleum). In this peculiar place, the life and times of the former leader is detailed, with some bizarre modern art broadcasting some sentiments, such as the cars crashing through a wall, which represent the introduction of capitalism (Doi Moi) to the country in the mid-1980’s.
For some live theatre that Hanoi is famous for, head to Hoan Kiem Lake, located near the city centre. Here, you’ll see the Water Puppet Theatre, with wooden puppets suspended just above the surface of the lake, dancing and splashing about, as their tale is backed by the musical stylings of Vietnamese folk musicians.
After this very entertaining show, head north of here to the Old Quarter, a chaotic mix of narrow streets, markets, residences, and traditional restaurants. It is very easy to get lost in the catacomb-like laneways, but just enjoy wandering from one place to the next, take tonnes of pictures, and just find a Xe Om (motorbike taxi) to bail you out if you truly lose your way!
Finally, if you are a war buff and want to see more artifacts of the Vietnam War, then go visit Hoa Lo Prison, also known as the Hanoi Hilton by imprisoned American POW’s. The place had a brutal history before the war with the Americans, as this jail was used to torture and execute prisoners involved with the successful insurrection against the French prior to 1954. Prison officials claim to have the flight suit of John McCain (US Senator and former presidential candidate) on display, so if the history of modern warfare is an interest of yours, be sure to check this place out for yourself.
As the day winds down and work comes to a close, join the Vietnamese masses on the sidewalks, and cheer the beginning of their free time with a Bia Hoi. This beer is some of the cheapest brew you’ll ever buy anywhere in the world, amounting to the paltry sum of $0.25 USD a glass at its lowest.
Next, head out of town to the suburb of Le Mat, where cobra meat (and blood) is on the menu. Definitely not the most conventional meal you’ll eat (nor the cheapest), but it’ll give you a story to tell the folks when you return home! Those a little less adventurous should visit one of the many street food stalls set up throughout Hanoi, serving up Banh Mi (Vietnamese sandwiches) Pho Bo/Ga (beef/chicken noodle soup), or Com Tam (grilled pork served over broken rice), among others. Just be sure that the stall is popular, lacks flies, or that the meal is cooked in front of you, to ensure maximum cleanliness.
Those who appreciate proper classical music should check out a show that UNESCO recognized as culturally significant to the Vietnamese. A ten minute walk from Hoan Kiem Lake, the Ca Tru Hanoi Club practices a form of chamber music and singing that is hauntingly beautiful. Those looking to stretch their culture comfort zone should definitely put this concert hall on their list of places to experience in Hanoi.