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Hanoi, Vietnam: Must-visit highlights

By Jonathan Evans 10 May 2021

While not the biggest or busiest city in Vietnam, Hanoi still exerts a powerful magnetism as a political, cultural, and historical capital. It’s simultaneously a modern metropolis with one eye on the future.

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The fate of Hanoi as a capital city is closely tied to Vietnam’s recent history as a country. Although the brighter, buzzier, and more populous Ho Chi Minh City could easily be mistaken as the capital—and frequently is—the city also known as Saigon was only ever the capital of South Vietnam, until the victory of the communist North in the Vietnam War meant the new, unified country’s capital was decisively chosen as Hanoi in 1976. 

Certainly, it seemed fitting historically that this city, with its strong Chinese, Russian, and French influences, would become the seat of the new Socialist Republic of Vietnam; in a previous life, it had been the capital of all French Indochina from 1883 to 1945, before taking over as a newly independent Vietnam’s capital after the Second World War.

Consequently, any journey through Hanoi is invariably an encounter with the past. Standing as focal points of calm reflection in this otherwise pulsating city, definitive buildings like St Joseph’s Cathedral, Hanoi Opera House, and Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum are just three of the unmissable and elegant architectural timepieces scattered throughout the city.

In this often bewildering city that might prove daunting to first-timers, this guide to the highlights of Hanoi—arranged by geographical area and building type—is perfect for the uninitiated visitor. Springtime is one of the most favourable times to visit; around Tết— the holiday which coincides with the new year on the lunar calendar—when locals return to their hometowns, the city is noticeably quieter and travellers will appreciate the cooler temperatures, as opposed to the suffocating heat of the midsummer months.

French Quarter (Old Quarter)

The obvious starting point for any tour of Hanoi, these time-honoured areas—while not exactly forming a city centre—provide a heady foretaste of its historical flavour while also offering an escape from the more intense traffic that bedevils Hanoi.

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The beautiful St Joseph’s Cathedral, which marks the junction of three of the city’s most emblematic districts—the French Quarter, Old Quarter, and Hoàn Kiếm Lake—is known as Nhà Thờ in Vietnamese. The religious site, from 1886, has been compared with the Notre-Dame de Paris, with its imposing position in a courtyard, French stained-glass windows, twin bell towers, and Gothic arches. 

The cathedral holds regular mass and stands west of Hoàn Kiếm Lake, surrounded on all sides by shops, boutique hotels, and restaurants in an enchanting, walkable corner of Ba Đình district. Housing a number of impeccable overnight stayovers—such as the Cinnamon Hotel, which overlooks St Joseph’s Cathedral—the French Quarter is also one of the most desirable places to stay in Hanoi.

Walking through the vibrant streets of the Old Quarter, just a few strides from here, is a truly immersive city experience, as buzzing activity animates the Indochina-era shophouses that dominate its architecture. While the full extent of the area comprises 76 streets, its heart is the maze of 36 “guild streets” where artisans such as metal workers, bamboo craftsmen, and coppersmiths still ply their trades on appropriately named alleyways, as they have done since imperial times.

The Old Quarter also serves up some of Hanoi’s best and most iconic street food such as bún chả (pork meatballs with noodles) and even has a corner, Bia Hơi Junction, dedicated to the nightly mass consumption of mild lager. Here, drinkers sit on tiny stools in the street, quaffing ale and munching on snacks like peanuts, beef jerky, and tofu. 

Just outside the Old Quarter, there’s the tree-shaded thoroughfare of Triệu Việt Vương, also known as “Coffee Street” for its large number of independent cafés serving the famously potent Vietnamese drip coffee.

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Historical sights

Two of the city’s most iconic buildings from the French era are the unmissable Hanoi Opera House, with its magnificent yellow-and-cream façade rendered in the Neoclassical style, and Sofitel Legend Metropole Hanoi—originally the Hôtel Metropole—a turn-of-the-century luxury address that has entertained many artists and dignitaries over the decades, including Graham Greene, who stayed here while writing his Vietnam-based novel The Quiet American.

For a different kind of history fix, visit the Vietnam Military History Museum, where a mound of debris from planes wrecked in combat has been assembled in the courtyard, surrounded by other remnants from Vietnamese conflicts of the last century. 

Then make a beeline for the Hồ Chí Minh Mausoleum, an imposing monument in Ba Đình Square, sitting just beside the former home of the country’s communist leader, a modest wooden-stilt residence set in a nearby garden. 

Going back further in time to the eleventh century, make time for the Temple of Literature, a series of immaculately maintained courtyards and ancient structures that once housed Vietnam’s first university, and is dedicated to the legendary philosopher Confucius.

Modern architecture

While Hanoi is undoubtedly better known for its older buildings, the Lotte Center, completed in Ba Đình district in 2014, epitomises the bold, modern architecture that’s recently graced the city’s skyline. A mixed-use retail and lifestyle complex, its sixty-fifth-floor observation deck makes one of the best viewpoints to soak in the urban panorama. 

When one considers that after the Vietnam War, the country was effectively closed to the world for business as recently as the early 1990s, skyscrapers such as this—which sum up the rapid progress of the last few decades—can hardly fail to impress.

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AON Landmark 72 incorporates a five-star hotel, offices, entertainment areas, retail spaces, clinics, and convention centres. The complex opened on 18 May 2012, becoming the tallest building in Vietnam at the time; the towering structure held the status of the tallest building in Vietnam until Landmark 81 was completed in Ho Chi Minh City in 2018. Landmark 72 is also the site of Vietnam’s highest stair-climbing race, the Hanoi Vertical Run.

Another, somewhat less imposing testament to modernity is Hanoi Design Centre, just south of Hoàn Kiếm Lake—a colourful, quirky showcase for the creativity of local artisans who fashion products including textiles, ceramics, homeware, and kitchenware.

Nature escapes

In this city of famous waterways—the Red River cuts through Hanoi, straddled by the oft-reconstructed Long Biên Bridge, before emptying out into the Gulf of Tonkin—by far the most popular lake is Hoàn Kiếm, which provides a scenic backdrop to residents’ activities at all times of the day. The most interesting time to visit is just after dawn, when elderly citizens assemble to practise tai chi with the help of colourful fans. 

On the Old Quarter side of the lake, cross the elegant red bridge to enter the Buddhist Ngọc Sơn Temple; while closer to the French Quarter side, the Turtle Tower, closely linked to local mythology, juts out of the green water and is beautifully illuminated by night.

Some of northern Vietnam’s best-known destinations are within driving distance of Hanoi—notably Hạ Long Bay, which is two-and-a-half hours away by road—while the central train station, Ga Hà Nội, offers an overnight service to the memorable mountain landscapes of Sa Pa, home to Vietnam’s tallest peak Mount Fansipan (Phan Xi Păng)

For weekenders, attractions closer to the city include Bát Tràng ceramics village, full of workshops producing porcelain and pottery artefacts, while one of the city’s most desirable residential quarters, Hồ Tây, sits on the banks of the serene West Lake—a perfect stop for stressed-out urbanites seeking tranquillity at one of the many restaurants and bars lining the shores of the city’s largest freshwater expanse.

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Jonathan Evans

Contributor

Jonathan is a British national but has lived and worked in four other countries: Italy, Singapore, Indonesia, and Cambodia, where he is currently resident. Having spent 13 years in Asia, he has shuttled across the region countless times, especially over the last four years when he was researched numerous stories as a freelance travel writer. In his spare time, he can often be found hiking, cycling, and dreaming up his next story, while regularly documenting his travels on Instagram. In Cambodia, he travels widely across the country and continues to marvel at its cuisine, culture, coffee, and cheerful spirit. 

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