Date Traveled, February 2013
Hanoi, this bustling city of millions is the modern day capital of Vietnam and has been an important center for a long time, having recently celebrated 1000 years of existence. It is a charming, if a bit chaotic, blend of remnants from its ancient days, more recent past under the French and modern times. A perfect city to begin to experience Vietnam and a great springboard to the rest of the country. And as I discovered, one can experience a quite a lot of Hanoi in a day. With a vague outline and a take it as comes intention, we started our first day in Vietnam early and went to see what we could cover, with no taxi rides anywhere.
We planned to begin the day with a breakfast of Banh Cuon at the shop next door to our very charming hotel in the old quarter, Hotel Charming 2, pun entirely intended. Banh Cuon Gia Truyen was however not going to be open until later, so we started on first walk through fascinating narrow streets of Hanoi's old quarter. The old quarter has been around for centuries, and probably has always been chaotic. It is a warren of little shops, homes, restaurants, hotels, guesthouses and so much more with a lot of character and it is impossible to tell what you will find that will interest you, except walking around the old quarter you are almost certain to find some great place, item or story to tell. It is also the place to experience first hand Hanoi's infamous traffic. The key to handling that is to cross the streets calmly and steadily in the face of incoming traffic so they can anticipate and turn around you. Hesitate or overreact and this causes trouble for everyone around you, but as a first time visitor this is easier said than done. It will take some getting used to but above all be calm. The quarter is also an easy place to get lost in. Most hotels and hostels will provide you a great map of the city but getting lost a few times is unavoidable in the quarter. After meandering in a general southerly direction through the quarter, we arrived on the northern shore of Hoan Kiem lake, the "Lake of the Restored Sword".
Banh Cuon in a little shop in Hanoi's old quarter
The streets are rarely this quiet, we just happened to be very early on the last day of the Tet holiday
Hanoi's old quarter, anything goes except stopping on red lights
The streets and pagoda at the temple by the lake. This was early, later on this street is crowded.
The temple and water puppet theater are visible on the far northern shore ahead
Hoan Kiem lake is the epicenter of life in Hanoi, the central square so to speak where people congregate. All around the lake there are sights to see, places to eat, temples to visit and if nothing else, it is a great place to walk around or simple sit down and relax on one of the public seats by the trees and gardens surrounding the lake. At night, the lake is really pretty with all the lighting and I have a photo of that at the end of this article. The most prominent sight on the lake no matter where you are around it is the Thap Rua or Turtle tower that is located on a little island at the center of the lake. Built around a couple of centuries ago, viewing it in the center of the lake amidst the backdrop of growing city buildings and the moving crowds and traffic around gives you a sense of something that is unflappable and remains unchanged as time flows by around it. Sit at one of the seats near Turtle tower and relax when you need to unwind.
On the north eastern end of the lake is the famous Thang Long water puppet theater of Hanoi and a temple on an isle close to the land and accessible by a small bridge with colorful flags, the Temple of the Jade Mountain. We did not visit the Thang Long theater but did see a brief water puppet show elsewhere. It is famous and lots of people do enjoy it so maybe it is worth a visit. The temple itself has nothing much to see and is probably okay to skip as there is a small entrance fee to go inside. We paid and were there for all of 5 minutes. Much more interesting is the pagoda at the entrance to the temple which is free. We did a brisk walk around the entire circuit of the lake from the temple in clockwise direction. Somewhere along the eastern side is a main plaza or square with some patriotic statues that was decked up with flowers for the Tet holiday and along the south end are more shops and places and the streets leading deeper into the French quarter which we would visit later. We must have walked around the lake several times during our stay.
After more old quarter sightseeing on our return trip, we returned to Banh Cuon Gia Truyen and this time received breakfast. After a short pit stop at our hotel, we were off to the center of Hanoi, south a little from our hotel and then west of the old quarter, to a cluster of historical monuments and sites, the first on our list was the Temple of Literature. Along the way is a popular destination which we did not feel like stopping at but something you may want to consider, the (in)famous? Hanoi Hilton prison.
It was good twenty minutes to half hour or so by the time we reached the temple but probably because we were wondering if we missed something along the way. But the map was correct and it is a large compound extending several block and you will not miss it if you keep heading west. We arrived somewhere along the Temple's eastern wall and it was crowded, the most crowds would see in our whole trip.
The Temple of Literature is was built in the year 1070 in the reign of King Ly Nhan Tong of Vietnam's Ly dynasty, who was also the longest reigning monarch of Vietnam. It was built both to honor scholars such as Confucius as well as serving a more practical purpose as Vietnam's first University, training officials for the Vietnamese bureaucracy for centuries. It still holds significant cultural and religious importance to the Vietnamese today and that was the reason for the crowds. The Tet holiday brings in pilgrims from across Vietnam who come to pray at the temple and students who come to pray and receive scrolls from calligraphy masters in the temple for good luck. While only the students seemed to be allowed to receive the calligraphy scrolls for which they had lined up in large numbers inside the temple, there are vendors who sell the scrolls outside to people. The temple grounds are beautiful with trees, gardens and little pools of water in between stylistic gates and buildings. You walk along these in neatly laid straight stone pathways until you reach the central structure where there are three large statues people worship, one of whom was Confucius. In front of the main temple around where the students had lined up for their scrolls was being played a game of human chess of some kind but a little hard to follow the rules unless you know it already. The Temple of Literature would have been a great place to enjoy a relaxing walk in serene surroundings, but no such chance during the Tet festival. However, we got to experience the cultural and daily life side of society with the calligraphy and the students and people around the temple.
Outside the temple of literature in the Tet festival
Hanoi's Temple of Literature
It was packed with crowds in the Tet festival, mostly high school students praying for good luck with their studies
There was a game of vietnamese chess with human pieces being played
Thousands of students had lined up to pray and recieve calligraphy scrolls at the temple
Next we started heading north from the temple to where some of the other sights were. We figured we would head to Hanoi's flag tower first. The Flag Tower of Hanoi was built as a part of the buildings where the monarchs of Vietnam used to live many of which were sadly destroyed as the nation transitioned into French rule. But the French possibly figured that the flag tower was a great place to raise a flag high up and kept it. Their successors felt the same too I am guessing because it today proudly flies the Vietnamese flag :-). The flag tower can be viewed from another square dedicated to Lenin, a big statue of whose is prominent here.
Next we continued northwards to Ho Chi Minh's mausoleum, and on our way saw some of fine administrative buildings constructed during the French times. Walking along here and other parts surrounding the old quarter you can see some really fine examples of French colonial architecture that survive in well maintained conditions. Ho Chi Minh's mausoleum is on a large ground with a wide thoroughfare and I could easily imagine the number of military parades that must be taking place here for ceremonies. There were plenty of guards in ceremonial uniforms around the site. I believe you can also schedule a visit to view his embalmed body which I actually would have liked to do if I had scheduled it in advance.
Right behind the mausoleum is a must see site, if only to wonder at the pointlessness of it, the famous One Pillar Pagoda. The One Pillar Pagoda is just that, a pagoda standing on a single pillar. There are no gravity defying tricks here, it is like a little treehouse in the middle of a pool. It was built centuries ago but the present is a replica, reconstructed after it was sadly destroyed by French forces retreating from Vietnam. Nearby there is a site of a fallen B-52 bomber but didn't really want to see that so we didn't take that diversion.
Lenin and the Flag Tower of Hanoi
An administrative building in a beautiful french colonial architectural style
Ho Chi Minh mausoleum
The one pillar pagoda
At this point, we had made good time and it was far from noon, we were ahead of our tentative schedule. There was the chance to go further north and see the West lake which we thought we would do later in a taxi, but we figured lets walk and see how long it takes for us to get there. Turns out its entirely feasible to walk and the neighborhoods are fine during the day. Along the way we passed the Presidential palace as well and soon we had arrived at the south western edge of the lake closest to the city center and a site of little park. This is also the general area where much of the restaurants and cafes and shops are. We could see the tower of the Tran Quoc Pagoda in the distance further north and we walked along the lake toward it.
The lake is a popular site for fishing and do watch out for two things...the first is the people swinging their poles constantly right on level with your face, so move a good distance away if you value your eyesight. The second, they lay their catch to dry by the side of the walkway by the lake, so as you move to get away from poles you run into drying fish, so do avoid stepping on that as well.
The Tran Quoc Pagoda is the oldest one in Hanoi and is supposed to be older than a 1000 years. The scene right outside the pagoda with the tall tower is far more interesting than the inside of the temple itself which was again packed because of the Tet festival and the throngs of people coming to pray there. Just outside was a street vendor selling an interesting looking candy item. A soft white dough is dipped in a viscous paste and then some nuts and served on a stick. I tried it...it tasted bad and I also got scammed here as I received no change for the 10,000 dong I paid her, but I didn't really mind, it wasn't that much.
Tran Quoc pagoda on the West lake
Hanoi along the west lake and the vendor who scammed me.I didn't mind, it wasn't much
We headed back avoiding more poles and fish and decided to take a coffee break on one of the large restaurant boats by the southern shore of the lake. These were pretty empty at this time but seeing as they doubled as karaoke bars and lunges, I am guessing they are a popular night time destination for Hanoi's youth. From there we headed east figuring we we will return to the old quarter from the north and get to see more of the place which we did, passing more interesting buildings and places including a nice looking church and then seeing the northern end of the old quarter which isn't that frequented.
After all this time, it wasn't too late, maybe close to 1 and certainly time for lunch. We had lunch at Madame Hien, a restaurant in a beautiful French colonial mansion, which I have written about further here. After a leisurely lunch, we decided to see the neighborhood south of Hoan Kiem lake and made our way down the west side of the old quarter and through the narrow streets there. As I have mentioned earlier, every street here is unique and has its own character. You can wander the streets of the old quarter for days before you start to tire of it and I certainly wasn't there long enough for that. We passed by St. Joseph's cathedral which has a gothic style architecture and looks like a small medieval fortress. It has a number of little Hanoi style "sidewalk cafes" all around it that were packed with local and tourists alike. Typical in Hanoi's old quarter, seating outside the shops consists of little low plastic stools around equally low tables if they have them where it almost seems like people are squatting on the floor when they sit on them. It is a common sight to see people congregate in front of stores, enjoying breakfast and coffee in the morning, beer in the afternoon.
Madame Hien where we stopped for lunch
Hanoi's crowded sidewalk restaurants and cafes
The area around St Josephs Cathedral is a popular spot for coffee or a beer
We continued our way south of the lake and see some more upscale looking cafes and restaurants. Heading to the south east area below the lake, we also notice a new large mall which we spent some time inside it roaming its floors. It was gaudily built had some relatively expensive high end outlets with foreign and local brands and western style fast food restaurants and cafes. If nothing else, there are clean restrooms and the place makes a good pit stop. Continuing further east from the mall we pass a street with many bookstores which had English selections and was nice. I always love wandering bookstores anywhere. Just as we come to the next wide avenue, we noticed the most famous hotel in Hanoi, the Sofitel Metropole. Its clearly in the high end neighborhood of Hanoi with luxury brand outlets around but it is not a large shopping area and does not compare to high end shopping in places like Singapore or Hong Kong, or of course New York's fifth avenue. The hotel looked pretty and had cars from the early twentieth century parked by its main entrance. There is also a pretty park just north of the hotel which is the scene for many bridal pictures.
The Sofitel Metropole is past our budget, but it has an attached pastry and deli shop, L'Epicerie du Sofitel Metropole, on its side which was within our budget and we had a sampling of some the desserts there which conveniently came in bite sized pieces so we could try many. We absolutely loved their Mango tarts but they had a good selection in general. We liked it so much we came again later after returning from Ha Long.
Sofitel metropole Hanoi
L'Epicerie du Sofitel Metropole
A typical old quarter street and a boutique shop on Hang Buom street
Around this neighborhood, are a lot of museums as well which we walked by but did not visit. By now it was evening and we decided to head back to the old quarter along the east side where we hadn't been to yet. We stumbled upon Ma May street in the old quarter which is the backpacker hangout with all its hostels and bars catering to them. But there are of course other things besides. Here the street food was available a lot, no doubt catering to adventurous budget conscious backpackers. Noticed some other popular restaurants as well which I had read about while researching food options in the city. We continued to Hang Buom, street a popular shopping street in the quarter and then down and along Hang Bong street, which is famous for its silk shops and where we did buy some silk clothing as gifts for family and some stuff for ourselves.
We ended our long day with a rooftop view of the beautifully lit up Hoan Kiem lake at Avalon cafe, written about here, before finally returning to our hotel for a well earned rest before our trip to Ha Long bay the next morning.
Hoan Kiem lake at night