I really didn’t know what to expect when I arrived in Hanoi, Vietnam, after spending nearly two months in Thailand. Any familiarity I had with Vietnam stemmed from the sad conflict that inflicted deep wounds in my country and in this one during the years before I was born. To be honest, I was a bit apprehensive about braving Vietnam and the big city of Hanoi on my own. Hanoi is chaotic, dirty and wildly different from anyplace else I’ve been. It isn’t the sort of place you’d go to relax, and that’s precisely what makes it so exciting to explore.
So much of what I saw and did in Hanoi felt very unique, and that’s difficult to achieve after 11 months of travel! After spending five days in the city, I’m glad to say that I always felt safe and the majority of the people I met were friendly and honest. Be prepared for the honking horns, swerving motorbikes, trash in the streets and little to no sidewalk space, but don’t let any of it deter you. Hanoi is worth a spot on your itinerary for Southeast Asia. Here are a few of my recommendations for your visit to the city.
Hoan Kiem Lake
Hoan Kiem Lake and its surrounding park is one of the city’s central gathering areas and a great place to get a pulse on Hanoi. When you take a stroll around the lake, you’ll pass locals and tourists of all ages walking and jogging through the park. If you’re brave, you can even try out the few pieces of rusty exercise equipment on the west side.
The lake is surrounded by crumbling French colonial architecture, which tells of its past life as the capital of French Indochina (1902-1953). You’ll also find shops, cafes and plenty of modern activity. In the center of the lake lies a tiny island topped by Thap Rua (Turtle Tower). Its silhouette is reproduced on signs around the city as a symbol of Hanoi.
Ngoc Son Temple
Ngoc Son Temple is positioned on an island in Hoan Kiem Lake and accessible only by crossing a bright red bridge. The area includes some small but lovely garden areas, the impressive scarlet and gold temple, a gift shop and a paved courtyard with views of the lake. Admission is 30,000 vd.
Hoa Lo Prison, aka “Hanoi Hilton”
I know very little about the Vietnam War, but when I read in a guidebook that more than 300 American fighter pilots (including John McCain) were imprisioned here during the war, I knew I needed to visit.
The prison was used for several decades and most of the exhibits cover the period prior to the 1953, when Vietnamese revolutionaries were imprisioned and tortured at the hands of the French. Two narrow rooms at the end of the museum showcase photos, relics and propaganda videos relating to the American pilots who were shot down over northern Vietnam and subsequently held in Hoa Lo.
The soldiers sarcastically referred to the prison as “Hanoi Hilton.” The authors of the museum exhibit repeat that moniker with pride and strive to illustrate how well the soldiers were treated and even how much fun they had.
After visiting the museum, I read some accounts written by the American prisoners about their experiences at Hoa Lo. Unsurprisingly, their perspective isn’t quite as positive, and that discrepancy makes the exhibit all the more fascinating. Admission to the museum is 30,000 vd.
Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum
Have you ever seen the body of someone who’s been dead for almost 50 years? I hadn’t either…until I visited Hanoi. Ho Chi Minh died in 1969, but his embalmed body is on display in his mausoleum from 8-11 a.m. every day except Monday and Friday, and the last entry each day is at 10:15 a.m. Admission is free.
I arrived around 9:15 a.m. and laughed when I saw the huge line that snaked down the street and around the block. I didn’t think I had a chance of getting in by 10:15, but the line moved relatively quickly, and I found myself at the entrance to the heavily-guarded gray mausoleum about an hour later.
Ho Chi Minh’s body is displayed in a glass case in the center of a dark, square room, with lights illuminating his face and hands. Visitors are forced to walk quickly around the case and toward the exit by the young guards dressed in white who line the walls and surround the body.
It was a lot of waiting around for a quick sight, but whole experience was so strange to me that I would totally recommend it to anyone who might be curious. The body is sent to Russia for two months every year to have “work” done, so check to make sure it’s on display before you go. Additionally, shoulders must be covered before entering, and shorts are not allowed.
Water Puppet Show
I wasn’t quite sure what to expect when I bought a ticket for a water puppet show on my first day in Hanoi, but my guidebook said it would be a worthwhile experience, so I paid the 100,000 vd (about $4.50) for the 3 p.m. show and waited for the theater to open.
The performance was pretty fascinating, with a group of musicians narrating and providing a soundtrack while hidden puppeteers maneuvered brightly-painted wooden puppets through a pool of water. All the narration was in Vietnamese, so I didn’t exactly understand what was going on, but it was entertaining nonetheless. The water puppet show is a unique cultural experience and definitely worth the under-$5 ticket price!
Hanoi’s Imperial Citadel is more than 1,000 years old and is now a UNESCO World Heritage site. The extensive grounds include gardens, archeological excavations in progress as well as structures from a huge range of time periods. Signs throughout the site provide historical context for some of the buildings, and various exhibits showcase both ancient and modern art.
I wasn’t all that interested in the display of excavated clay pots and window cornices, but I was very interested in the military command bunkers used by the Vietnamese generals during the Vietnam War. Communications equipment, maps and other items from the period are on display in the bunkers.
The entry fee (all exhibits included) is currently 30,000 vd ($1.35) for adults.
Vietnamese Women’s Museum
I had not yet come across a female-focused museum during my travels, so I decided to check out the Vietnamese Women’s Museum in Hanoi. The museum is very well done and features truly fascinating exhibits on marriage, childbirth and family traditions followed by the various tribes of people in Vietnam. For example, in one matriarchal tribe, the girls propose to potential husbands during “husband catching season” when they’re only 15 or 16 years old.
The museum also has a floor dedicated to the role women played in military conflicts throughout Vietnam’s history. Those ladies were brave, creative and fearsome in their tactics.
If you visit the museum, be sure to ask for the free audioguide. It provides interesting context to many of the exhibits.
Old Quarter Walk
Hanoi’s Old Quarter is an experience in itself. Take time to walk through the streets (sidewalk space is usually jammed with motorbikes) and observe the street vendors, people eating and drinking on tiny plastic stools outside restaurants, and rows of shops selling nearly identical merchandise.
I followed a self-guided walking tour route in the Lonely Planet Vietnam guidebook, and it provided a good introduction to the Old Quarter. The traffic and incessant honking can be intimidating and crossing the street is often a challenge, but take it in stride… (always crossing the street at a medium, steady pace so the motorbikes can maneuver around you!). It’s all part of the Hanoi experience!
Whatever you choose to do in Hanoi, don’t miss the chance to dine on street food with the locals. The food is cheap and often delicious. Just look for the busiest little eateries to find the best food. I particularly enjoyed the Bun Cha, which is a soup with barbecued pork patties served with vermicelli noodles and fresh herbs.
I am definitely a coffee lover, and Vietnamese coffee is legendary. Traditional Vietnamese coffee is served strong and black or mixed with sweetened condensed milk. The portions are small and delicious. Hanoi has innumerable coffee shops, from traditional holes-in-the-wall places where old men gather in the afternoons to newer, hipper venues. I enjoyed both.
One modern coffee shop I recommend is Cong Caphe, which has several locations around Hanoi. The coffee a little more expensive than some of the more traditional options, but the fun atmosphere includes a variety of kitch Communist memorabilia and army green decor.
Many travelers I’ve met have mixed opinions about Hanoi. It is a little wild and chaotic, and some may be offended by the frequent allusions to the “American imperialists” at sites relating to the Vietnam War. Others (like me) appreciate the intriguing range of culture and life on display. My advice? Go with an open mind and enjoy the madness!
If you’ve been to Hanoi, let me know what you thought of the city in the comments below.