Fog fills the quiet streets of the Old Quarter on a winter morning of February. It was Tet (the Vietnamese version of Chinese New Year) and all the shops and restaurants were still closed at 10 am. The usually motorbike-filled streets are empty and the cool weather makes it a perfect day for a stroll.
This is Hanoi, capital of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam, where streets and buildings still show the country’s French colonial past, where bargaining for souvenirs is a must for tourists, and where police raid bars and pubs to make sure they close by 12 midnight.
I went to Hanoi with my family during Tet in February 2015. This city has always been on our itinerary mainly because of the nearby UNESCO World Heritage site Halong Bay.
On our first morning, we were already captured by the city’s charm. All the tourist spots are concentrated in one district and because of its small roads, beautiful lakes, and abundant trees, the city is very walkable.
While going around the places on our itinerary, all we needed were a map of the city and a lot of energy. You can go to all these sites in Hanoi by just walking.
1) Hoan Kiem Lake – Ngoc Son Temple
Every city has its trademark. Seoul has its palaces, Hong Kong has its skyscrapers, Bangkok has its wats, and Hanoi has its lakes.
Hoan Kiem Lake is the most famous in all 4 lakes in the city. It is frequented by locals and tourists who want to relax while sipping Vietnamese coffee. Even in winter, the flowers in Hoan Kiem are in full bloom, adding to the beauty of the picturesque view.
It’s hard to miss the bright red bridge that connects one of the streets to a temple in the middle of Hoan Kiem Lake. This is Ngoc Son, a Buddhist temple dedicated to the legendary origin of the lake.
It was the 6th day of Tet and many locals were giving offerings in Ngoc Son. In almost all the pillars, we see paintings of a big turtle with a sword on his back. Hanoians believe that in the ancient times, the Golden Turtle God (Kim Qui) appeared in the lake while a Vietnamese emperor was boating around.
Kim Qui asked for the emperor’s sword. The emperor – realizing that the turtle god came to reclaim the sword whose master the Dragon King lent to him earlier to fight off the invading Chinese – returned the sword. Thus, the name “Lake of the Returned Sword” or Ho Hoan Kiem.
It’d be nice to light an incense here and just appreciate the calm of the surrounding lake. Since it was Tet, we didn’t have to pay for the entrance fee. I don’t think it’d cost more than 2 USD.
2) St Joseph’s Cathedral
While Vietnam is a one-party communist state, people here have the freedom to practice whatever religion they want. There are around 4 million Catholics in the country and St Joseph’s Church in the city serves as the cathedral of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Hanoi.
Just a few minutes walk from Hoan Kiem Lake, you can find this beautiful late 19th century Gothic styled church, which is also the oldest one in the city. The architecture is very similar to the Notre Dame cathedral in Saigon and in Paris.
There are several masses served here everyday and on Sundays, Catholic faithfuls even spill to the streets. Unfortunately for us, the cathedral was closed due to Tet. We didn’t have the opportunity to check out the interior of the church.
3) Vietnam Military History Museum
A visit to Vietnam without a trip to one of its war or military museums is incomplete. You’ll miss a lot of history! Unlike other countries, Vietnam is very proud of its war history (and they have many reasons to be so – like beating the US).
The Vietnam Military History Museum is just a few blocks away from St Joseph’s Cathedral. You can’t miss it because of the old imperial tower rising from its compound.
The museum shows everything about the Vietnamese military, from the pre-colonial period to the French colonial past to the war with America. The entrance fee costs around USD 1. As with its other national museums, there are many old war machines around the compound – tanks, fighter jets, machine guns, and canyons.
The tower inside the museum complex is actually the Imperial Citadel of Thang Long. It marks the cultural complex comprising the royal enclosure, which dates back to the Ly Dynasty and is considered a UNESCO World Heritage site. There’s also a coffee shop inside the complex just in case you get tired of all the historical stuff.
Bonus: Across the museum complex is a park dedicated to Russian dictator Vladimir Lenin.
4) Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum – One-Pillar Pagoda – Ho Chi Minh Museum
You can see his face in every Vietnamese Dong bill. If India has Mahatma Gandhi, Vietnam has Ho Chi Minh, the first president who established the Communist-ruled democratic republic.
The Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum, where he is buried, is the most iconic building in Hanoi. The area is also very relevant to Vietnam as this is where Ho Chi Minh read the Declaration of Independence in September 1945.
You can only enter the mausoleum at certain times (9am to 12nn on a regular day) and the entire area is closely supervised by honor guards and Vietnamese military officers. You’d be much better off not breaking the rules in the premises (like not walking on the restricted lanes!)
If you have a chance to enter the mausoleum, you’ll see the embalmed body of Ho Chi Minh in a glass case. Locals, tourists, and foreign dignitaries alike visit here to pay their respects to the Vietnamese leader.
Beside the Mausoleum is another famous infrastructure in Hanoi – the One-Pillar Pagoda, regarded as the second most iconic temple in the country. As the name suggests, this Buddhist pagoda stands on one stone pole. It is designed to resemble a lotus bloom, as it is elevated from a small body of water. The temple itself is very small but many devotees give their prayers here everyday.
You can learn more about Ho Chi Minh’s life and work in his museum located near the One-Pillar Pagoda. We weren’t able to check this out since my family was already tired and we had a show to attend.
5) Thang Long Water Puppet Theater
If you’re the type of traveler who likes seeing cultural performances of another country, then you should not miss the Thang Long Water Puppet theater!
Located in one of the corners of Hoan Kiem Lake, the Thang Long Water Puppet theater is frequented by many tourists everyday. They have 5 one-hour shows daily and tickets range from VND 60,000 (3 USD) to VND 80,000 (4 USD) depending on how near you want to be to the stage.
The performance comes from the Vietnamese village tradition of playing with water puppets on rice fields during the rainy season. They perform everything from everyday scenes of local life (like catching frogs) to local folklore and legends (like the dance of legendary beasts).
The theater group has earned worldwide acclaim and though the performances are in Vietnamese, it’s fairly easy to understand the show and appreciate the beauty of this cultural art form.
6) Hoa Lo Prison
A painful but quite memorable place to visit is the Hoa Lo Prison, also located around the Hoan Kiem lake area. This had been used by the French colonialists to hold Vietnamese political prisoners and later, by North Vietnam to hold prisoners of war.
The museum has preserved the old cells and torture equipment of the former prison. Going around the vicinity, you can feel the pain that the Vietnamese had gone through from their old colonial masters.
Even if the current museum is only a small part of the original prison complex, there’s much to see here about Vietnamese martyrdom and nationalism (and also propaganda). At the back of the museum, there’s also a beautiful mural honoring those who suffered in this prison.
7) Old Quarter
Your walking tour of Hanoi won’t be complete without walking around the Old Quarter area. Going around here is like going back in time because of the small paved roads and old-fashioned houses in the area.
There’s a big chance that your hotel will be located inside the Old Quarter since this is the tourist and backpacker center of Hanoi. There are many souvenir shops, cafes, and street food around this area so you won’t really need to wander off to buy anything if you stay here.
At night, some streets become really lively because of the loud music from the bars and clubs. It’s a Vietnamese practice (and I’ve seen it in Saigon, too) to turn entire streets into drinking places by just putting up small chairs and selling beer. There are some streets in the Old Quarter that become impassable by motorbike at night because of this.
The biggest market in the city is also in the Old Quarter – Dong Xuan Market. Sadly, it was closed due to Tet when we visited but I heard from my friends that it has everything tourists need, from jackets and clothes to dried goods and fruits.
A word of caution for tourists though: unless they have fixed prices, haggle and bargain hard with the shop owners. Annoyingly, they tend to ask for higher prices from tourists and sometimes it can go as high as a 200% markup. The key is to step away when you don’t agree with the price they’re giving you. You’ll see them running after you and agreeing with your price when you stand your ground.
At night, the Dong Xuan area becomes a night market. It’s basically the same products they sell in the morning but the prices can sometimes be cheaper.
What about malls?
We didn’t really go to Hanoi to shop and partly, it was because we didn’t have the opportunity to do so. All the malls were closed when we were there because of Tet. If you really want to go shopping, you can check out Vincom City Tower Plaza, Ruby Plaza, and Hang Da Market.
Some of the other tourist spots we weren’t able to visit were the Temple of Literature, the Vietnamese Women’s Museum, and the West Lake, the biggest one in the city.
I highly recommend going to Hanoi during winter. The cool breeze makes it less tiring to tour around the city. Most of the tourist spots are cheap (if not free) so you can really spend on good food and souvenirs.
Hanoi is a very unique and charming Southeast Asian city. It’s also one of the greenest I’ve seen so far. Add the nearby Ha Long Bay and you have the perfect vacation destination for your family!