With its Chinese, French and Vietnamese architecture, ancient Buddhist temples and pagodas, fascinating cultural museums and war memorials, charming Old Quarter and serene Hoan Kiem Lake, Hanoi is a wonderful city to discover on a Vietnam holiday.
The most well known districts in Hanoi are Ba Dinh District (the French Quarter) and Hoan Kiem District (the Old Quarter).
The Old Quarter (Hoan Kiem District)
Hanoi’s historic Old Quarter is the heart of Hanoi and the focal point is Hoan Kiem Lake.
Hoan Kiem Lake surrounds Ngoc Son Temple (Temple of the Jade Mountain), which is built on a small island and is connected by the Huc Bridge. The beautiful gardens along the banks of the lake are popular with locals and tourists alike and here you’ll see people relaxing and chatting with friends, jogging or walking around the lake, playing badminton, and practicing tai chi.
Wayfairer Top Tip: Hoan Kiem Lake has a romantic atmosphere at night when Ngoc Son Temple and Huc Bridge are illuminated and couples walk around the lake holding hands. We recommend visiting in the evening, and make sure you stop for a coffee (sweetened with condensed milk) at one of the lakeside kiosks.
The serenity of Hoan Kiem Lake is a stark contrast to the hustle and bustle of Hanoi’s Old Quarter which is a maze of narrow lanes crammed with shops, art galleries, boutique shops, trendy cafes and restaurants alongside street stalls. Be warned, the traffic is crazy here - expect to see thousands of motorbikes, scooters and cyclos weaving their way through the ancient streets of the Old Quarter.
Wayfairer Top Tip: A cyclo (three-wheeled bicycle) tour through the streets of Hanoi’s Old Quarter is the ideal introduction to the sights, sounds and smells of this fascinating city.
During your stay in Hanoi it’s definitely worth waking up early one morning to explore the Old Quarter and Hoan Kiem Lake. You’ll see vendors setting up their market stalls and local people in the parks and gardens around Hoan Kiem Lake practicing tai chi or participating in exercise classes.
The French Quarter (Ba Dinh District)
The old French quarter of Hanoi is located immediately to the west of the Old Quarter. The wide boulevards of the French Quarter are lined with French-styled villas and mansions, sidewalk cafes, fine-dining restaurants and luxurious hotels.
This area is where the Ly kings established their Imperial City in the 11th century and it is here where you'll find the city's most important cultural and historical monument, including the venerable Temple of Literature and the One Pillar Pagoda, both dating from the time of the Ly kings and well worth a visit for those interested in the earlier history of the region.
The rest of the 11th- century architecture was cleared by the French colonial government to build their own administrative buildings. The most impressive of these is the Presidential Palace, the former residence of the Governor-General of Indochina. The nearby Botanical Gardens have been preserved and provide a haven from the hustle and bustle of the city.
Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum and Museum
The Mausoleum of Vietnam’s national hero Ho Chi Minh is located in the old French quarter and is a must visit for anyone interested in understanding modern day Vietnam. The Mausoleum is based on Lenin’s Mausoleum in Moscow and these architectural similarities echo the political and idealistic influence that the former Soviet Union had on the Vietnamese communist party.
The embalmed body of the former leader is on display in the central hall, protected at all times by a military honour guard. Visiting foreign dignitaries are often invited to visit and to pay their respects to this figure who still plays an immensely important role in modern Vietnams’ ideology. A visit to the mausoleum and accompanying museum, is extremely interesting both from a historical point of view, and to observe the reverence and respect with which the citizens treat Ho Chi Minh.
Wayfairer Top Tip: Rules regarding dress and behaviour are strictly enforced by staff and guards. Legs must be covered (no shorts or miniskirts), hands must not be in pockets, silence must be observed at all times, and all forms of photography and food/ drink consumption are strictly prohibited.
Hanoi Opera House (Nha Hat Lon)
For those planning an extended stay in Hanoi, a visit to the Opera House to view a performance is a unique experience that will take you back in time to the days of French colonial rule. Fully restored in 1997, the Opera House is one of the best examples of French architecture in the city and is modeled on the older of Paris’ two opera houses, the Palais Garnier.
The Opera Houses stages both Vietnamese and Western opera, ballet and musical productions by both domestic and visiting companies. A local musical or theatrical performance is a fascinating cultural experience.
Escape the hustle and bustle of Hanoi and enjoy the relaxing atmosphere of the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Halong Bay, famous for its spectacular limestone karsts jutting out of the serene turquoise waters. We're sure that you'll be enchanted by the tranquility and incredible natural beauty of Halong Bay.
The grand Hotel Metropole is well worth a visit. Throughout Hanoi’s recent history this landmark played a fascinating and integral role. The site where Graham Greene wrote The Quiet American, and where the failing French colonial government held many secret meetings and conferences at the beginning of the 20th century. Recent excavations have uncovered previously unknown vaults below the hotel that may have been the site of the final days of French colonial government in the city.
Wayfairer Top Tip: Head to the hotel bar for quiet and relaxed atmosphere amid the hustle and bustle of the city and experience a taste of the colonial atmosphere.