In many ways, Hanoi could not be more different when compared to Ho Chi Minh City in the south. To some degree, it swaps out the hectic swarms of scooters found in Ho Chi Minh City for bicycles, while its architecture – an eclectic mix of colonial French, Chinese and indigenous styles – is refreshing and well preserved.
But Hanoi is also known for its unique climate: Autumn is an absolutely perfect time to visit, with the humidity dropping and average highs in a comfortable and pleasant band between 23c-28c. Nights are often below 18c, which makes sleeping comfortable while some very pretty flowers bloom in the cooler temperatures, leaving the city with a wonderfully intoxicating fragrance in the air.
1. Museum of the Vietnamese Revolution
If you only want to go to one historical museum in Hanoi, you should probably make it this one.
Detailing the resistance movement that first began in 1858 against French colonial rule, and ending in 1975 with the defeat of the US armed forces, this museum is divided into two floors. The first floor starts by discussing in great detail the revolutionaries who fought against French colonialism, and then onwards through several rooms to the period in World War II where they fought against Japanese occupiers, before focusing on the revolt that eventually defeated French colonial forces post-World War.
Visitors then make their way to the ground floor which gives a detailed account of the ‘American War’ – a fascinating look from the Vietnamese perspective of what is known in much of the West as the Vietnam War. With over 40,000 exhibits, this museum really gives visitors a deeper understanding of what the people of Vietnam have been through, and the building itself is also a wonderful example of how French colonial architecture is blended seamlessly with traditional Vietnamese architecture in many parts of Hanoi.
2. Temple of Literature
The Temple of Literature is close to being 1,000 years old, being constructed in 1070AD, and was the country’s first-ever University.
The temple itself was based on the designs of other Chinese Confucian temples but is blended with Vietnamese influences too. It is located in the 3rd of 5 beautiful courtyards, with 86 stone tablets that are fixed to the backs of a tortoise.
The other courtyards contain a replica of a famous giant softshell turtle which is housed in a pavilion made from gold and ceramic materials, while another contains a gift shop, a smaller temple dedicated to Confucius and in the 5th and final courtyard you will find a small museum focused on Emperor Ly Thanh Tong who ordered the construction of the temple.
Occasionally you might even be lucky enough to catch local Vietnamese musicians playing in one of the courtyards.
3. Food in Hanoi
Vietnamese food is a world-class cuisine that can easily compete with its Thai and Indian neighbours, so it goes without saying that exploring the food and drink in Hanoi is an activity in its own right!
There are thousands of street vendors offering up delicious food such as Pho – beef noodle soup that is achieving near-legendary status amongst travellers to South-East Asia – at rock bottom prices.
However, there are much more controversial dishes found in the Le Mat district – also known as “snake village” – where vendors offer live Cobras which are killed in front of guests and are then sliced up and drained of their blood to create dishes that will easily fill up 2 or 3 people. This is definitely not for the squeamish (with the blood of the Cobra being served poured into a glass of rice whiskey!) and is highly questionable when it comes to animal rights ethics.
For something a little less controversial, Minh Thuy’s Family Restaurant is a fantastic family-run restaurant that is also easy on the wallet. The head chef here was actually a nominee for the Vietnamese version of Masterchef and this is really reflected in the quality of the food here.
Traditional dishes such as Pho as well as fresh spring rolls and the Hanoi specialty Cha Ca – which is a special type of fried fish dish that follows a meticulous set of preparations and cooking instructions – are on offer here for prices that actually compete with anything bought from a street vendor! The bonus is that the restaurant is very friendly and has a very consistent quality control!
4. Thang Long Water Puppet Theatre
This is a fantastic place in Hanoi to take kids, with puppets dancing and splashing around on the face of the water telling Vietnamese legends and mythological stories.
The narration is generally conducted in Vietnamese, however, you can get English translations of the performance and it doesn’t really detract from the stories because of the special effects and intricate puppets based on mythological humans, gods and dragons are a delight in themselves. Recently, however, there are a limited number of performances that are now conducted entirely in English. But either way, the stories are very easy to follow even if you don’t understand Vietnamese.
Although it’s marketed towards kids, most adults are likely to enjoy this just as much as children. It’s actually an incredibly fun way to learn about Vietnamese folklore and will give you a taste of how this folklore has influenced Vietnamese spiritual beliefs that are an exotic and tantalizing mix of Confucianism, Taoism, Zen Buddhism and indigenous Folk-Animism.
The performances are around 45 minutes and tend to occur at least 5 times a day.
5. Around Hanoi
Hanoi’s old quarter was built during Imperial times under both the Ly and Tran dynasties. It is sometimes called the “36 streets” district, for all the streets that are found in this area of the city.
Today it remains virtually unchanged from Imperial times, with most the architecture largely untouched and conserved, with the rest undergoing restoration. This makes it a wonderful ‘living history’ of Hanoi’s ancient culture.
Some really interesting sights here include the Ma May and Kim Co temples, as well as several other pagodas sprinkled around the district. The old part of the Hanoi railway station is also located near here and is an excellent example of French colonial influenced architecture.
But sights aside, much of the old quarter’s charm is simply wandering around the idyllic backstreets enjoying the colourful houses and perhaps buying some Vietnamese art, candy and rice cakes from the numerous street vendors.
Hanoi is also an excellent base for exploring the surrounding countryside and mountains just outside the suburbs. Ha Long Bay is the number one tourist destination in all of Vietnam, and Explorient offers the chance to see this on board a luxurious ‘Junk’ , which is a traditional sailing boat still used both in China and Vietnam Explorient packages such as Vietnam Discovery and Indochina Explorient offer this cruise around the bay, stopping off at the stunningly beautiful karst mountain cliffs and caves dotted around the bay.
The Explorient package tours also combine Ha Long bay with a visit to Sapa. Sapa is a mountainous area just north of Hanoi, known for its tribal people and quiet way of life when compared to the bustling Vietnamese cities. Visiting Sapa in Christmas is popular amongst those travelling in South East Asia during the holiday season because it is one of the very few places to get snow in the region during the winter months.
Explorient tours to Sapa include river boat trips and trekking, which are great ways to enjoy both the scenery as well visits to the tribal Hmong villages along the way.
Hanoi is a real showcase of Vietnamese culture and history, with so much to do in and just outside the city. Coupled with refreshing temperatures during Autumn and into early Winter, Hanoi is a unique and captivating city that visitors will find is very different to the cities found in the rest of Vietnam.