Located on the banks of the Red River, Hanoi, Vietnam’s capital no doubt is an intriguing city for many reasons. Being the second largest city of the country, Hanoi is changing fast with high-rise buildings, commercial centers, and modern life. But it still has its own characters with ancient temples and pagodas, elegant ochre-washed colonial architecture, bustling narrow streets and alleys, grand tree-lined streets and shaded lakes

First founded as Vietnam’s capital in 1010, when it was known as Thang Long, the city changed its name several times before it finally became Hanoi in 1831. It just celebrated the one thousand year old history in 2010.

The Hanoi Old Quarter is the heart and the soul of the city. It is here where Hanoi began serving as a commercial center over a thousand year ago. Though history refers to the 36 streets, the actual number can be close to 50. All the streets are named "Hang" translated to merchandise, followed by the goods once sold there such as silk, silver, herbs, cotton...Nowadays, the goods on sale are changed to fit with modern life like shirts, embroidered products, even travel services. The streets here are famously difficult to navigate. It's advisable for you to bring a map accordingly. In weekends, it becomes walking streets, hundreds of people flocking here to enjoy the famous night market which opens for business every Friday to Sunday evening with a variety of clothing, souvenirs and food.
xich lo cyclo tour hanoi
A cyclo "xich lo" round tour around Hanoi will be joyful for tourists

Just to the south of the Old Quarter, Hoan Kiem Lake or “the lake of the restored sword” with the Turtle tower, Ngoc Son temple connected to the shore by the wooden red-painted Huc Bridge. Legend has it that the Vietnamese once used a magical sword to fight against northern invaders, before a giant tortoise grabbed it and disappeared into the lake. You always catch the sights of people, from the old to the young and tourists wandering around the lake or resting in the shade on the lakeside. Some of the capital’s finest colonial buildings can be found here including the magnificent Opera House, History Museum and the Metropole Hotel. If you are lucky enough, you will see the rare endangered giant turtle specie floating on the calm water of the lake.

Tucked away the crowded streets, the Temple of Literature is known as the first national university of Vietnam built in 1070 to dedicate to Confucius and honor Vietnam’s finest scholars. The temple is about 2km from the Hoan Kiem Lake. You can find one of its five courtyards on the back of the VND 100,000 banknote.

A couple of kilometers west of Hoan Kiem Lake are the holiest place for the Vietnamese, Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum Complex. The complex comprises of the imposing granite mausoleum of Ho Chi Minh – the nation founder – overlooking the Ba Dinh square where he read Vietnam’ Declaration of Independence. Nearby is his humble stilt house, the museum named after him and the Presidential Palace.  Also belong to the complex, the lotus flower-shaped One Pillar Pagoda was firstly built of wood in 1049 by Emperor Ly Thai Tong. The king was childless and had his heir after a dream in which a God handed him a child while seated on a lotus flower. In gratitude of the God, he constructed the pagoda but its original version was destroyed in 1954 by French troops before their withdrawing from Vietnam. It was rebuilt in the following year.

For those who are avid for history, the over century old Long Bien Bridge across the Red River is a site of interest. It was built in France and assembled in Hanoi in late 19th century. At 2.4 kilometers long, it was one of the world’s longest bridges at that time. During the Vietnam War, the bridge was heavily bombarded but it was restored to the original appearance afterwards thanks to the support from the French government. Designed by the architect Gustave Eiffel, Long Bien is the first and only steel bridge in Vietnam having a single-track railway line in the middle and pedestrian walkways on two sides. Nowadays, only trains, bikes, motorbikes are allowed on this bridge. From the bridge, you’ll get wonderful views over the river and the city with great photo opportunities, especially at sunrise or sunset. And it is totally free!

Hanoi has numerous museums. For a start, you should not miss the Museum of Ethnology. About 8 kilometers from the city center, this is the finest modern museum owning a great exhibition of cultural heritages of the 54 ethnic groups in Vietnam. Next, the National Museum of Vietnamese History is worth a visit for both the colonial French architecture and the collection with large display covering every period of Vietnam’s history. Located near the Temple of Literature, Hoa Lo Prison Museum is all that remains of the former Hoa Lo prison and known as “Hanoi Hilton” where the U.S. Senator John McCain and Douglas “Pete” Wilson were once imprisoned during the Vietnam War. The museum highlights the Vietnamese struggle for independence.

Not far away from Hanoi center, some traditional handicraft villages with specific products famous through the whole country will offer you a great way to learn more about Hanoi culture. The seven century year old Bat Trang village on the banks of the Red River is famed for its finest ceramic products. Visit here, tourists not only can take a stroll around but also join in pottery-making experiences and have a souvenir made by them. If you are interesting in silk products, Van Phuc village which is away 10km southwest is worth a try.  Fabric, premade clothes and scarves here are cheaper than in the city center. Or visit Le Mat village for its tradition of rearing snakes and making delicious meals out of them. A snake will be prepared in seven traditional snake dishes with no parts going to waste. The village is about 7km from central Hanoi.

Travel about 60km to the west, Duong Lam ancient village boasts a history of about 1,200 years with old houses are made of laterite and mud, some dated back up to 400 years ago. And last but not least, Perfume Pagoda, a vast striking complex of Buddhist temples and shrines 60 kilometers southwest Hanoi built into the limestone Huong Tich Mountains. It hosts a religious festival which draws large numbers of pilgrims from across Vietnam. The festival is officially begun on February 15th on lunar calendar but it usually lasts from the middle of Jan to the middle of March, makes it become the longest festival in the country.

While you can enjoy your visit strolling through the city, there is an abundance of activities that should not be missed. For a slice of authentic Vietnamese culture, start off with a unique water puppet show at Thang Long theater near Hoan Kiem Lake. This traditional art uses water as the stage while puppets are controlled by performers standing in a waist-deep pool behind a bamboo curtain.

At some crossings of the Old Quarter streets in weekend days, many bands play various kinds of music from traditional to modern one. Sit down and enjoy the music in such an atmospheric landscape, just imagine how pretty it is!

It is said that the best way to experience the authentic Vietnamese culture is through its amazing street food. And Hanoi is a real street food paradise for not only diverse, extraordinary but also very cheap. From the mazelike valleys of the Old Quarter to every street, you can easily catch the sight of food stalls and street vendors. Some popular dishes are pho (noodle soup with beef or chicken), bun cha (dish of grilled pork and noodle), coffee and special egg-milk coffee, Bia Hoi or fresh beer…

Hanoi has tropical climate, which is hot and humid in the summer, dry and cold in the winter. Crossing crowded streets of hundred motorbikes and cars here is not easy especially with the faint heart. The capital is also the gateway to visit the North thanks to Noi Bai international airport and a convenient transportation system of train, highway to the remote area of Vietnam.

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