Hanoi is very compact, and the city’s most interesting places for tourists are all relatively close to each other, which makes it easy to enjoy the best parts of the city on foot or by cyclo. You could probably explore the Ancient Quarter and visit all the places below in a single day, but why rush?
Sightseeing on your very first morning in Hanoi should begin with a visit to Ho Chi Minh’s Mausoleum, without a doubt the city’s single most visited site, and one of Vietnam’s most revered places. The cyclo ride from Hoan Kiem Lake takes only about five minutes. The Mausoleum is open only in the mornings, from 7:30 to 10:30 in the Summer and from 8:00 to 11:00 in the Winter. There are often large crowds, so arrive early.
This imposing shrine was built on the edge of Ba Dinh Square, the place where Ho Chi Minh delivered the Declaration of Independence of the Republic of Viet Nam to half a million of his countrymen in 1945, following the surrender of the Japanese. The angular gray granite edifice stands stern and alone against the skyline. The street and square are usually so abandoned that the whole scene is enormously stately, like a miniature version of Tiananmen Square.
As you exit on the side of the building, look for the ornate yellow former Governor’s Palace, which also faces Ba Dinh Square. Although not open to the public, it is a poignant contrast to Ho Chi Minh’s House on Stilts, which sits along a tiny lake in the wooded park behind. He lived and worked here in incredible simplicity from 1958 to 1969. Built of teak, the little house is an architectural gem, and many of his personal things remain on display.
The One Pillar Pagoda is about 50 meters away. This little architectural curiosity gets its name because the shrine sits atop a single massive pedestal. The original was built by Emperor Ly Thai To, who was inspired by a dream.
The Ho Chi Minh Museum is probably Vietnam’s most important contemporary architectural achievement. Opened to the public in 1990 to commemorate Ho’s centenary, the exhibits are like a huge scrap book which chronicles his rather transient early years. Guides are available.
You can not help being overwhelmed by the serenity of Van Mieu (Temple of Literature) and Quoc Tu Giam (National University) from the moment you pass through its towering gates. Together, they make one of Asia’s loveliest spots. Hidden from the humming metropolis behind high stone walls and ancient Frangipani trees are some of Vietnam’s most magnificent religious structures and historical treasures. Great pools filled with blooming Lotus bear names like “Well of Heavenly Clarity”. Dating from 1076, this was this part of Asia’s most prestigious center of learning for aristocrats and the children of the Mandarins. The focal point of the site is the Sanctuary dedicated to Confucius, which is filled with elaborate Chinese reliquary. Live performances of traditional folk music by costumed women are ongoing during public hours.