We spent 5 full days in Hanoi spread out over about 2 weeks between our trips to Sapa and Ha Long Bay. It was a great way to do it, as most tours of North Vietnam are based out of Hanoi anyway, and we found the spread out, relaxed pace to be a nice change.
Our first few days in Hanoi were over Christmas, and other then watching the water puppets show, I’ll admit we didn’t really do any of ‘the sights’. It was a fun way to spend Christmas though, and I highly recommend it. Our real Hanoi adventure started on Boxing Day, after we’d sufficiently stuffed ourselves on Christmas day and had had our fill of mulled wine.
Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum and Museum
Ho Chi Minh was the first Vietnamese president and also credited for starting the Vietnamese revolution; which eventually led to the Vietnam War and Vietnam becoming a communist country. He is highly revered in North Vietnam, and they even went as far as renaming South Vietnam’s former capital city – Saigon – after him. His greatest wish was to see a unified Vietnam under communism; however he died in 1969, just 4 years before that actually happened. His body is now displayed in its own mausoleum in Hanoi, with tourists and locals alike flocking there to pay their respects to him.
The complex itself is pretty massive, and contains the mausoleum, presidential palace, museum, one pillar pagoda, and Ho Chi Minh’s house. It’s free to enter; however you do have to pay entrance fees to get into the museum and palace. The mausoleum is only open in the morning, and is apparently closed for about 3 months of the year as they send his body to Russia to fix it? Reembalm it? Fight decay? I’m not really sure of the details, but possibly all of the above?
When you arrive you have to go through security as well as hand in all bags and electronics. You’re not allowed taking cameras or phones into the mausoleum; however, you are allowed them to explore the grounds and to see every thing else. Once you’ve handed your stuff in everyone shuffles along in single file around the mausoleum to where you enter. Once you’ve entered the building you’re not allowed talking, stopping, walking to slow, or walking to fast. You walk up the steps and into the room that has Ho Chi Minh’s body displayed in the centre of it in a glass case, walk around it, and leave. It’s pretty anticlimactic, and he looks like a wax figurine. I’m not sure I’m 100% convinced it’s his actual body, but you never know!
We decided not to go into the palace, but we wandered around the grounds to see everything else. We wanted to go to the museum that same day, but it’s closed between 12:00-2:00 and we ran out of time, so we skipped it and came back one afternoon the following week after our trip to Ha Long Bay. The museum is meant to be a history of Ho Chi Minh, his life and teachings, the revolution, and the war, but 90% of it is in Vietnamese so we can’t really be sure. The stuff in English was definitely about him, but it was very disjointed and all out of context so it didn’t really teach us much. The exhibits were predominantly artifacts and pictures of artifacts such as letters he’d written to various world leaders during his life. You can apparently get a free English speaking guide to take you around and explain everything, but despite getting there as soon as it opened after lunch we were told there were none available. We didn’t see anyone taking people around once we were inside either, so I’m not really sure how you actually get one or if they’re only there at certain times.
If you’ve got time to kill it’s not a terrible way to spend an hour or two, but I wouldn’t recommend it if you don’t have long in Hanoi. Top tip if you do go though – Ho Chi Minh went by about 20 different names during his life, and the entire museum is about him even if they’re using a different name. We spent the first 30 minutes we were there trying to figure out who this other person was (Nguyễn Sinh Cung) and why they were telling us about him before finally understanding that he was Ho Chi Minh before he become Ho Chi Minh.
One Pillar Pagoda
Also within the same complex as the mausoleum and museum, the One Pillar Pagoda is just that – a pagoda that’s built on one pillar. It’s built over a pond and it’s supposed to resemble a lotus blooming, which is why it’s one one pillar rather then four. It’s pretty, but you can’t go inside it, and it’s also very crowded. Worth it if you’re going for the museum or mausoleum already, but I wouldn’t make the trip out just for the pagoda.
Temple of Literature
How could I go somewhere and not visit a place called the Temple of Literature. Unfortunately, there aren’t actually any books there, as the name refers to literature in a metaphorical sense rather then a literal one, but it’s still worth a visit.
The Temple of Literature is actually Vietnam’s first
university – dating all the way back to 1070 AD. It looks more like a temple then a university, but to learn is to be enlightened, and I think that’s maybe kind of the point. The entire temple / university is dedicated to Confucius and his teachings, and every element within it highlights this. You can rent an audio guide when you buy your tickets (tip: bring a pair of ear buds and you can use those to split 1 audio guide between 2 people), which we did but to be honest you don’t really need to as it pretty much tells you verbatim what the signs say anyway.
There is one street in Hanoi that is probably about 10 feet wide at its largest point and has a train track that runs directly down the middle of it. We’re not sure if the street and buildings came first and the track was added later, or if the buildings sprung up next to the track; but it’s there and people live and work directly next to and on the track. You can take a stroll down and visit one of the numerous cafes and shops that line the street, or keep walking and interact with some of the locals who live there. We only went down one portion of the street, but it does go on for a few kilometres if you want a longer walk. Trains do still run, although not frequently I don’t think, but please check the schedule because there are some areas of the street where there is not enough room for you to stand if the train comes.
Vietnam is known for its silk, so of course there is an entire street dedicated to selling it! The street itself is called Hàng Gai, but locals and tourists alike refer to it as silk street. If you’re in the market to buy silk fabric or have some clothes made then this is the place; although it’s a cool area to walk around and browse even if you don’t want to buy. I didn’t want any clothes, but I did want to buy some silk for my sister so we spent a couple hours in and out of the shops trying to find the patterns I wanted. We eventually decided on Indochina Silk, which was slightly off of Silk street but still in the same area. I got the colours and patterns I wanted at a fraction of the cost compared to what I would pay in the UK or Canada.
Lake and Night Market
Right in the middle of Hanoi and next to the Old Quarter is Hoàn Kiếm Lake. You can walk all the way around it and it’s got some great options for eating, shopping, and accommodation. In the middle is Ngoc Son Temple, and the entire area is covered in lights at night. We were there at Christmas and New Year though, so I can’t confirm if this is always the case. On weekends, every street that goes around the lake gets turned into a pedestrianized zone and there is a giant night market / entertainment area to enjoy instead. Sadly, none of our days in Hanoi were weekends so we didn’t get to experience this, but we did walk around the lake a number of times during the day time and in the evenings we were there and it great.
The Old Quarter
The Old Quarter is the area of Hanoi that’s been around for centuries and it’s still going strong today. It’s a pretty big area, but completely walkable, that starts around the lake and includes the cathedral, silk street, and the water puppets. The food options are great, and there’s a variety of cheap and local, western, and a combination of both. Within the Old Quarter is Beer Corner, where you can get cheap beer and pretty decent food, although it is super touristy. We ate there one evening and it was great, but not somewhere I’d want to spend a whole lot more time in. During the weekend there are various markets that spring up around the Old Quarter, but even on a week day there’s tons to look at if you just want to wander around.
We really enjoyed Hanoi, and although it’s a big city, it didn’t feel like it was a big city. Pretty much everything you’d want to see if within walking distance of the Old Quarter which happens to be where the bulk of the accommodation is also located. It took us about 30 minutes to walk to the Ho Chi Minh museum from the Old Quarter, but it was a pretty walk and it took us through the train street. If you’ve got more time or want to go further from the centre, we were recommended to go to Hồ Tây, or West Lake, for the day or afternoon, as it’s a great area to chill out, have a picnic, relax in the park, and there’s a ton of great new restaurants. We ran out of time and didn’t make it, but let me know if you got there and how it was.