I visited Hanoi in April 2017 during my first business trip to Vietnam and Malaysia and I had just enough time to see & feel the city’s charm. Hanoi is very easy to explore, because most of the attractions are located around 2 lakes (both quite central), and the beauty of it is that you can rent a scooter and do it the way locals do – for tourists it might seem a bit chaotic, but it’s definitely exciting and memorable! Here are 5 things to see in Hanoi if you are visiting the city just for a day or two:
1. Old Quarter
The easiest way to start exploring Hanoi is to book a hotel in the Old Quarter and you can do everything on foot from there. The Old Quarter is the oldest part of the city and the pulse there is something you need to feel for yourself. The streets are narrow and full of traffic, with scooters running up and down all the time. Endless street food “restaurants” offer delicious local dishes (mostly noodles and rice with veggies, chicken or beef) and chopped tropical fruits. Architecture lovers will enjoy the signature on the buildings from the French colonialism era (like neo-gothic style Saint Joseph Cathedral), and others can bargain for some quality clothes or souvenirs in one of numerous stores throughout this busy area. You do know that a lot of clothes from famous brands are “made in Vietnam”, right? 😉
Tip: I stayed one night in Boutique Splendora Hotel which has a very good location overlooking St Joseph Cathedral. The staff there is super friendly and they serve splendid breakfast. Just keep in mind that the Old Quarter is a very busy area so you might be disturbed by street noise during the night.
2. Hoan Kiem Lake
Old Quarter ends with this cute lake, known for a very small island in the middle. The island hosts an ancient structure, called Turtle Tower (Thap Rùa), which was built to honor the legend of Golden Turtle God and a magic sward. A walk around Hoan Kiem Lake (due to the legend also known as Sword Lake) will take you about 20 minutes and it is a must for everyone. The path around the lake is surrounded by well-maintained green parks with a lot of benches to sit on and watch people making selfies or laugh at the tourists trying to cross the street for the first time.
Near the northern shore of the lake lies Jade Island with Hanoi’s most visited temple – Ngoc Son Temple (Temple of the Jade Mountain) from 18th century. Jade Island is connected to the lakeshore by elegant red-painted wooden Huc Bridge.
Tip: You pay peanuts to see the temple but make sure your shoulders are covered. Unfortunately I didn’t do my homework so I could only see it from the outside (they didn’t even allow me to step on the bridge!).
3. Ba Đình Square
Ba Dinh Square is the center of Ba Dinh district and offers several interesting buildings, as well as some nice green parks to sit in and hide from sunlight (unless you visit Hanoi during winter, when sun mostly stays behind the clouds). This is also the square where president Ho Chi Minh declared the independence of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam back in September 1945.
The square is located close to the West Lake – the biggest freshwater lake in Hanoi. It is quite empty during the day (with the exception of Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum opening hours) but in the evenings it becomes a popular gathering place for locals who want to exercise or just hang out with friends. Some of the famous buildings around Ba Dingh Square are the yellow Presidential Palace and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and the National Assembly Building which lays the opposite of Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum. The architecture of all these buildings is quite impressive so if you take your time to take some nice photos, you can easily spend a few hours here.
4. Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum
As I already mentioned above, the most impressive building in Ba Dinh Square is Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum, which was built in the mid-seventies, in honor of the respected President Ho Chi Minh. The building is actually a part of Ho Chi Minh complex, which consists of the Mausoleum – spectacular granite building with the embalmed body of the iconic leader laying in a glass case, the garden with plants donated from all regions of Vietnam, and Ho Chi Minh Museum (admission 0.5$)- a elaborate description of Ho Chi Minh’s life, with 8 chronological topics.
The entrance to Ho Chi Minh mausoleum is free, as long as you dress and behave respectfully: no short skirts or tank tops, no photos, talking or finger-pointing, no hands in your pockets and no bags inside (you can put them in safe deposits before you get in). The only chance to see the the leader is through a moving line – visitors are not allowed to stop and look at the embalmed body for longer time. Keep in mind that the mausoleum is only open 5 days a week (closed Mondays and Fridays) from 7 to 11 am, so you can imagine the queue that forms there during those times.
Tips: The mausoleum might be closed occasionally for maintenance so check its opening hours before your visit. The exhibit signs are not in English, so you might consider taking a tour guide in English to understand everything better.
5. Tran Quoc Pagoda
The oldest pagoda in Hanoi lies in the south east part of West Lake and you can reach it by crossing the Thanh Nien road (or bridge – whatever you want to call it). Tran Quoc Pagoda is over 1500 years old and it is famous for its lively scenery and sacred sanctuary. It is designed according to strict rules of Buddhist architecture with high »layered« towers and three main houses in sunny yellow colors.
Tran Quoc Pagoda is also a small museum of priceless antiques like worshiping statues in the front house. The one which is most outstanding is the statue Thich ca thap niet ban, also considered as the most beautiful statue of Vietnam.
Tips: If you want a great view of the West Lake and Tran Quoc Pagoda druing your stay you might want to check Pan Pacific Hanoi hotel – I stayed there my second night and I enjoyed it very much. The entrance to Tran Quoc Pagoda is free. Keep in mind that respectful clothes are to be worn here as well (although no one was there to haunt you like they did in Jade Island). Also try to avoid visiting Vietnamese temples during feast days – which is every 1st and 15th day of the lunar calendar month.
Hanoi is a charmer and a must for all Asia lovers. If you have more time during your visit, you can choose between several other sights to see here. And you are welcome to visit my Facebook album. for more Hanoi photos. Enjoy! 🙂