Vietnam’s capital city, Hanoi, is known for being a crazy place. Motorbikes zipping around everywhere, honking, and lots of traffic. But it’s really something I had to experience before understanding the full effect of the craziness.
Hanoi lacks a subway, and the taxis have a reputation for ripping people off (though I’m sure it doesn’t happen all the time). There’s also buses, but I wasn’t sure I would be able to navigate those. Generally, most tourists tend to use their two feet to get around the city center of Hanoi.
This wouldn’t be a huge problem, given that Hanoi isn’t very big. However, the constant motorbikes and lack of many street lights for pedestrian crossings makes crossing the street in Hanoi quite a task. Even the sidewalks aren’t very pedestrian friendly since people tend to park their motorbikes on it and many restaurants and coffee shops have seating outside on the sidewalk.
Despite this frustration I liked Hanoi overall. It’s a pretty city and the Old Quarter is an interesting place with markets, shops, temples, old trees, restaurants, and cafes.
There are plenty of eateries to try pho and other Vietnamese specialties around. Most hotels and hostels are located in the Old Quarter and will give out maps of the streets, this is how I generally navigated my way around. A few shops and restaurants as well as many museums were closed during most of my time in Hanoi due to Lunar New Year, called Tet in Vietnam. I arrived a few days after the actual Lunar New Year date but many places close for about a week or more during that time period. However plenty of restaurants and stores are open as well, so no need to worry about going hungry if in Vietnam for Tet.
Aside from the Old Quarter, Hanoi has a few places of interest for a tourist to visit. Hoen Kiem Lake, located on the edge of the Old Quarter, is a nice place to walk around, particularly at night. There are a few night market streets nearby as well.
There is a temple on the lake that costs a small fee to visit, which is nice but was quite crowded when I was there.
While walking around the lake, it is easy to spot the Thang Long Water Puppet Theatre. They have shows every day at different times. I paid 100,000 dong (about 5 USD) for a ticket. Vietnamese water puppetry goes back to the 11th century so it is an interesting art not to be missed.
Behind Hoen Kiem Lake is the French Quarter, which contains many old French buildings dated to colonial times, when Vietnam was a part of French Indochina.
A few museums are in this area, such as the Vietnamese History museum and the Women’s museum, but both were closed for the Tet holidays. The History Museum was a short walk from the Opera house so I just checked out the exterior, which is a nice French-designed building.
One museum that I did visit that was (thankfully) open was Hoa Lo Prison. Hoa Lo was built by the French to imprison Vietnamese rebels to their colonial rule. The descriptions condemn their brutality of the Vietnamese and their prison conditions.
After Vietnam gained independence from France, the prison was used by the North Vietnamese to hold American pilots who were captured, the most famous being Senator John McCain, who ran for president in 2008.
Hoa Lo was sarcastically called the “Hanoi Hilton” by the Americans. The prison museum claims that American prisoners were treated well, given food and medical care. There are several pictures of smiling Americans playing sports, building a Christmas tree, and gardening. The former war prisoners dispute this narrative, of course, and the Hanoi Hilton was infamous for torturing the prisoners. Unfortunately the vast majority of war prisoners anywhere are not treated well at all (I’m sure the North Vietnamese prisoners were also tortured).
Located farther to the west of Hoa Lo is the Temple of Literature, dedicated to Confucius and Vietnam’s first university. Very interesting, but packed during Tet.
To the north of the Temple of Literature is the Ho Chi Minh mausoleum, one of Hanoi’s most well-known landmarks. Ho Chi Minh’s body can be viewed until 11 am (last entry at 10:15) all week except Mondays and Fridays. It also closes from September 4 to November 4 for maintenance.
Nearby the mausoleum is Ho Chi Minh’s presidential palace. It was originally the home of the French Indochina Governor-General.
The main building isn’t open to the public, but some surrounding buildings are.
In the area is the Ho Chi Minh museum, which has a small fee and contains some relics from the life of Nguyen Sinh Cung (Ho’s real name). Also a lot of weird Communist art. There’s a lot of documents but they aren’t really presented in a clear or informative way, in my opinion. I found it a bit confusing and didn’t learn much about Ho’s life, but the fee was cheap and it’s somewhat interesting while in the area.
Even further north is the West Lake. This area is a pretty far walk from the Old Quarter, so it might be best to go by taxi if coming from there, but it’s a shorter distance from the Ho Chi Minh mausoleum.
The West Lake contains Vietnam’s oldest pagoda, Tran Quoc.
Hanoi’s weather in February can be a bit weird and random. One day it was kind of hot (about 23 degrees C). But then the next day it was pretty cold (about 9 degrees). So I’d recommend bringing a jacket or a warm sweater and a few pairs of pants if visiting in the winter.