The destinations listed below encapsulate the breadth of the Vietnamese cultural and historical experience, from the country’s founding as a Chinese vassal state a thousand years in the past, to its liberation from French and American colonial powers.
Hoan Kiem Lake
This historic lake is the site of a foundational legend for Vietnam: Hồ Hoàn Kiếm means “Lake of the Returned Sword”, alluding to the legend that a future emperor received a sword from a magic turtle at the lake’s edge. The emperor later used the sword to drive the Chinese out of Vietnam.
Today, Hoan Kiem Lake is a charming social and cultural center for Hanoi citizens – the lakeside is a popular stop for couples’ wedding photos and fitness buffs’ morning workouts. A graceful, red-painted wooden bridge leads from the lakeside to Ngoc Son Temple, where devotees continue to perform their religious duties as they have been doing so for almost a thousand years.
Temple of Literature
The Temple of Literature is a 1,000-year-old temple to education, site of the country’s oldest university. Almost destroyed by war in the 20th century, restoration work done in 1920, 1954, and 2000 have given the Temple much of its former glory back.
The Temple of Literature is laid out in a sequence of five courtyards from south to north, spanned by three pathways running through the Temple’s length. The northernmost and last courtyard is the site of the former university for mandarins called Quoc Tu Giam, literally the “Temple of the King Who Distinguished Literature”, established in 1076.
Hanoi’s Old Quarter
Hanoi’s Old Quarter is a short walk away from Hoan Kiem Lake, and is the city’s ultimate shopping hotspot. The Quarter’s maze of streets offers a wealth of cheap shopping, delicious eats, and essential travel services.
The Old Quarter is shaped like a triangle, with streets named after the goods sold in them. The place wears its age well – visitors encounter narrow sidewalks and persistent shopkeepers imploring you to check out their stuff, covering a wide range from Chinese knockoffs to lacquerware to fine silk shirts.
Hanoi Sofitel Metropole
The Metropole was built by the French occupiers in 1901, and looms large in Vietnam’s colonial history. Having fallen into disrepair after the Communist takeover, a recent renovation under the auspices of the Sofitel hotel chain has brought it back to full bloom.
The vintage Citroen automobile parked in front is a working car, which guests can hire for drives around the city.
Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum
“Uncle Ho” would have hated to see how he ended up – he had wanted to be cremated, not revered Soviet-style in a huge mausoleum on Ba Dinh Square next to the Presidential Palace (which is closed to visitors, except for its garden and Ho Chi Minh’s stilt house within), the One Pillar Pagoda, and a Ho Chi Minh Museum erected to his memory. But the people’s will won over Uncle Ho’s, and the Mausoleum opened to the public on on August 29, 1975.
Inside the Mausoleum, Ho Chi Minh’s preserved body lies in state under a glass case, with a military honor guard watching the visitors filing past. Visitors are allowed to pay their respects from 9am to noon, under strict rules: no photography, no shorts or miniskirts, and silence must be observed.
“Hoa Lo” Prison
“Hoa Lo” literally means “stove”; the name is apt for a hell-hole of a prison built by the French in the 1880s and maintained till the end of the Vietnam War.
This was the place American POWs sarcastically named “Hanoi Hilton” – Senator John McCain was confined here after he was captured, and his flight suit can still be seen here to this day.
Most of Hoa Lo was demolished in the 1990s, but its southern part was preserved for posterity. Visitors can now see grisly exhibits showing the sufferings of the Vietnamese prisoners (and a highly sanitized depiction of the American POWs in the 1970s).
Hanoi Opera House
The Hanoi Opera House is a beautiful art-nouveau building in Hanoi’s French Quarter left over from the occupation, having been built in 1911 as a miniature copy of the Paris Opera house.
The French government contributed to its restoration in the 1990s – today it continues to be a performance venue for Hanoi’s high arts scene. Tours are not permitted inside, unless you’re in to actually watch an opera. Call +84 4 9330113 if you want to book tickets, or visit their website below to see the Hanoi Opera House’s schedule of events.