Hanoi feels very traditional with strong links to the past to me. Obviously, you see influences from China and France in the architecture, and you see iPhones and western-style dress in younger people all around the city. But you also see thousands of people starting their day with tai chi on street corners and parks throughout the city, and then sitting down together on tiny stools outside shops surrounding a pot of boiling Phở soup. It’s charmingly old-school here.
Hanoi feels like a museum to some extent, ensuring tradition and customs remain at the heart of the city. Much of that reason is likely due to Hanoi’s role as capital city and political hub, with centuries of important buildings preserved for tourists to visit.
One Pillar Pagoda
(Chua Mot Cot Street, Ba Dinh District – free admission)
This Buddhist temple was built by Emperor Ly Thai Tong in the 11th century. He was childless and dreamt that the Buddha handed him a baby son while seated on a lotus flower. Soon after, he married a peasant girl and she bore him a son. The pillar in the middle of the lotus pond was built to mirror the one he saw in his dream.
Temple of Literature
(P Quoc Tu Giam, 2 km west of Hoan Kiem Lake – 5,000 VND admission)
This temple honours Confucius, and became Vietnam’s first national university. There are five separate beautiful courtyards where many young people come today to have pictures taken after graduations and other ceremonies.
The other obvious tie to the past is the very real and present reverence to Ho Chi Minh. His legacy is celebrated and perpetuated – his image is everywhere. You see his face every day on Vietnamese currency (Dong/VND). One of the bonuses about visiting Vietnam from a country like Canada is the exchange rate. I exchanged about $300 Canadian when I came to Hanoi. I was stunned to see the 200,000 VND bills adding up when I counted up the exchange. It appeared I was a millionaire in Vietnam! I quickly realized that 200,000 VND= $10 CAN.
Located in Ba Dinh Square, the place where Ho Chi Minh read the Declaration of Independence in 1945
A visit to Hanoi would not be complete without seeing Ho Chi Minh’s brilliant yellow Presidential Palace, his former stilt house and a tour of the mausoleum where his embalmed body is still on display. I was not able to view Ho Chi Minh, as every November his body is flown to Russia to be re-embalmed.
Hoa Lo Prison
1 Hoa Lo Street near the Opera House, 10,000 VND admission
A more sobering visit should also be made to Hoa Lo Prison, which was used by the French to house Vietnamese political prisoners, and then later by North Vietnam to house American POWs (often referred to as the “Hanoi Hilton” at that time). I don’t think you can visit a country like Vietnam and not open your eyes to the difficult history they have endured. For that reason alone, I recommend the prison as a stop in Hanoi
Then there is the old quarter. If you are claustrophobic at all, the narrow 36 old streets area might be a bit of a challenge for you! Packed with history and old-world charm, this fascinating market area sells everything you can think of in abundance – dried fish, fruit, silk, paper goods, jewelry, souvenirs – and each block seems to specialize in one type of product sold. It’s incredibly busy and endlessly fascinating!
I am glad I landed in Hanoi first. I felt like I dropped in on another planet. I love the feeling of being a total foreigner witnessing unique and amazing sights (to me). I am forever grateful to my tour leader Minh for explaining what was going on around me and making sure I didn’t get hit by motorbikes while dreamily gazing at the wonderland around me.