Hanoi has a bit of something for everyone. It is a real melting pot, in terms of culture, architecture, food, and history. Even better, it’s a very walkable city which means you can explore the maze of side streets and alleyways packed with stores, cafes, street vendors, temples, and museums. See? Something for everyone!
If you want… Nationalism
Check out Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum, the final resting place of former leader Ho Chi Minh. Known to his people as ‘Uncle Ho’ he was a popular leader and his portrait is never far from you as you wander.
Modeled on Lenin’s mausoleum in Russia, and respectfully not requested by Uncle Ho himself, the mausoleum is an interesting and extremely efficient place to visit. You’ll be guided through a long walkway and eventually, once, inside the squat gray building, you will file past the glass sarcophagus where the frail, pale body is kept. It is important to remain quiet and respectful as not to draw any attention to yourself from the many guards along the way.
Make sure you visit in the morning and check what day you visit as the mausoleum is only open during specific times and days. As a guide: Tuesday – Thursday 07:30 – 10:30, Saturday & Sunday 07:30 – 11:00
If you want… History
Check out the local prison! Set in the small remains of the former Maison Centrale prison you’ll find a museum with information about the political campaigners who were originally held on site. While the majority of the information focuses on the Vietnamese struggle for independence from France, there is also a display on the American pilots who ended up at the ‘Hilton Hanoi’ during the American war (or the Vietnam war, as us in the west know it).
Amongst the displays, you’ll find a French guillotine, used to behead Vietnamese revolutionaries. Keep your fingers (and necks) away from that one, just to be on the safe side.
If you want… Architecture
Head straight to the old quarter and the French quarter. you’ll see stunning houses, apartments, and storefronts. You’ll notice that they’re all very skinny. Back in the day, there was a tax on the width of your building (say what?!) so people built as affordabley as possible.
Check out the facades above eye level and you won’t believe you’re not in Paris.
If you want… Culture
Yes, it’s a little touristy, but it is also a little fun. Visit the local water puppet theater and enjoy a show.
With origins starting in flooded rice paddy fields, where local farmers would entertain one another with puppets from behind a screen, the puppet shows are now held in a very comfortable theater with a pool of water, some puppeteers hiding behind a bamboo sheet and a live orchestra.
The show takes you through around 10 short folk tales, but everything is in Vietnamese, so make sure you grab a program in whatever language takes your fancy. It won’t explain everything but it will at least give you the name of each folktale. We especially loved the ‘Dance of the Turtle, Dragon, Unicorn and Phoenix’, Vietnam’s four sacred creatures.
If you want… Religion
You won’t have to look far. There are plenty of temples to explore and admire. One we especially enjoyed was the Temple of Literature. Originally built as a university in 1070 dedicated to Confucius, it’s not really a temple, but you will find people there leaving offerings and asking for blessings from those highly eduacted ancestors.
You’ll find lots of picturesque spots, some interesting information and a large garden to wander through if the rain stays away.
If you want… Flavours
Hit up your local Bahn Mi street vendor or cafe. You’ll enjoy Asian flavors in a tasty French-style baguette. Otherwise, you won’t go wrong with spring rolls, pork, and sticky rice, or pho (pronounced fuh). The Night Markets, held over the weekend has lots of food options, or head to Bia Hoi Junction and find a place to sit and enjoy your meal.
If you want… Beer
On the topic of Bia Hoi Junction, this is where the nightlife and the cheap beer can be found. Expect lots of people, lots of invitations to eat or drink at this or that bar and cheap beer but slightly less cheap food. You’ll be able to find anything from pizza and pasta to Pho and Bahn Mi. You’ll also enjoy the local beer, or pay a premium for imported stuff.
We did all this, and saw, smelled and enjoyed a bunch of others stuff too in just 2 days. One final tip – While you’re in Hanoi make sure you take a lead from the locals when it comes to crossing the road, to avoid getting knocked over by a passing scooter. Once you’ve got that down pat, the city is yours for the exploring.