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Hanoi highlights and travel guide

Hanoi Overview

The unique and captivating character of Hanoi is one that could not be fabricated or recreated. Instead, it arises from a distinct combination of turbulence, resilience, tradition and the innovation of the 21st century. It would be wrong to see modern day Hanoi as simply the result of its past. This city is constantly evolving to suit the dynamic people that live there.
It was in In 1831 that Hanoi, meaning between rivers, took its current name from the Nguyen Emperor Minh Mang. Not long after this, Hanoi was occupied by the French and by the Imperial Japanese in 1940. Independence from the invading forces was declared in 1945 in the famous speech given by Ho Chi Minh.

Hanoi temple of literature
Hanoi temple of literature

It was after this period, in 1946, that the French returned and reoccupied Hanoi. Even now, the city has certain European romance which can be seen in the grand French architecture, relics of the colonies that once ruled here. The impressive villas in the traditional French style still sit proudly on the tree-lined streets, the passage of time beginning to show in the faded paintwork. Having overthrown the imposed French rule in the 1950s, the faint perfume of France still prevails in not only the architecture but also the literature, arts and the cuisine.

Hanoi once again became independent in 1954 but the peace was short-lived as the war with America started shortly after in 1955 and lasted until 1975. The loss and damage done to Hanoi were inconsolable but the resilient, ambitious and creative people of Vietnam worked tirelessly to rebuild their city. Although the scars of the wars that were once fought here are still visible, Hanoi has undergone rapid development over past decades with the incredible transformation happening within most of the population’s lifetimes.

The city is now a diverse and dynamic unification of tradition and progressive 21st-century thinking. Throngs of motorbikes swarm around the tranquil lakes and past the temples. The impressive French colonial buildings mix with the tall narrow Vietnamese houses in the tangle of buildings in the Old Quarter. The dizzying skyscrapers tower over the tiny plastic chairs scattered at the roadside in the fast developing outskirts of town.
In one sense the dichotomy appears to divide the generations but as you look around, it is clear to see that it is the union of these characteristics that sets Hanoi apart from any other city.

See and do


The city awakes at sunrise when the local people flock to the edge of Hoan Kiem Lake to greet the new day with some gentle taichi. From this point on the momentum builds until the whole area becomes absorbed in the whirlwind of daily life. Motorbikes swarming around the lake, people zig-zagging from markets stalls to cafes. Vendors pedalling their wares from the backs of their bicycles. From sunrise until sunset the only stillness is the immense Loc Vung trees that guard the edge of the lake and protect the people from the powerful sun.

Hoan Kiem Lake
Hoan Kiem Lake

A short walk from the splendid lake is the enchanting Old Quarter, the heart of Hanoian culture. Here every winding road and hair’s breadth alley leads to a new discovery. The skilled merchants selling their wares, perform the to and fro of bargaining, all accompanied by the live orchestra of beeping horns, daily chatter and birdsong. The eclectic buildings all stacked on top of each other are overwhelmed with the life spilling out of them; wild green foliage dripping from the bricks and people cascading out into the busy streets.

Cyclo aound old quarter of Hanoi
Cyclo around old quarter of Hanoi

Registered with the UNESCO Heritage List is 2010, The Imperial Citadel of Thang Long is a must see for any history lover. Dating back to 1010, this fascinating complex of buildings, gates and palaces was once the home of the Vietnamese court before it was relocated to the city of Hue. Many of the buildings were destroyed during the wars that devastated the cities, however, in these times of peace and stability, you can still see some of the ancient structures still standing proudly in Hanoi. The Hanoi Flag Tower is a fine example of this. Situated on Dien Bien Street, flying the Vietnamese flag, this resilient structure is a reminder of Hanoi’s rich history.

Hanoi citadel
Hanoi citadel, Flag Tower of Hanoi

The Vietnam Museum of Ethnology is another place jam packed with history and culture. The exhibits focus on highlighting different areas of daily life for each of the 54 diverse and unique ethnic minorities in Vietnam. Here you can discover local traditions through a range of media including artefacts, videos, installations and photographs. Arguably, the most impressive elements are the life-size replicas of traditional houses from across Vietnam which are set in the shade of the wooded garden.

Ho Chi Minh mausoleum
Ho Chi Minh mausoleum

Visitors can feel the respect showered upon the leader of the revolution with a visit to the atmospheric Ho Chi Minh Complex, a dedication to the legendary ‘Uncle Ho.’ Here visitors can visit Ba Dinh Square where Ho Chi Minh read the Declaration of Independence in 1945. There is also the opportunity to visit Ho Chi Minh’s Mausoleum, where people flock to see the final resting place of the cherished leader. Every day thousands of local Vietnamese people pilgrimage to this spot to pay their respects to the national treasure.

The Huc bridge
The Huc bridge

The Water Puppet Theatre is a well-established activity for the majority of people visiting Hanoi and with good reason. Skilfully carved wooden puppets are manipulated upon a stage of water to tell amusing anecdotes about life in rural Vietnam. All performances are accompanied by a soundtrack of live traditional Vietnamese musicians and vocalists. The charm of the show and slapstick comedy make for great entertainment for all ages.

Another, more unusual, attraction is Quang Ba Flower Market. During the day it appears as nothing of interest as it sits deserted at the side of the road. By night, however, this market becomes an animated flurry, the air filled with the bright colours and delicate perfume of fresh flowers. The sellers balance on the edge of their seats, their bikes stacked high with bundles of flowers, navigating the narrow paths between the stalls. It is fascinating to watch as they expertly dodge the people perusing the stalls and bartering for the best price. The outermost lane of the market also features some small local restaurants, whose humble appearance does not do justice to the mouth-watering food on offer.  

Culture and Arts

The Hanoi art scene has gone through numerous transformations throughout the years, from the intricate sculptures and paintings in the 11th to the 14th centuries, to the wooden carvings and ceramics of the 15th – 18th centuries, and the European styles in the 19th and 20th centuries. The Hanoi Museum of Fine Arts takes visitors on a journey through time documenting the ever-evolving art scene. The grand old building, once an all girls boarding school, offers an insight into life in Vietnam as seen through the eyes of many talented artists.

Hanoi museum of fine art
Hanoi museum of fine arts

In a town that has developed at breakneck speed, you can still find the traditional temples that encapsulate nature of the Buddhist ideals they honour. Tucked away in recesses of tranquillity, are the ornate temples and pagodas filled with Buddhist tradition and unique Vietnamese culture. They are the perfect place to stop for a spot of quiet away from the craziness of the streets. Visit the beautiful Tran Quoc Pagoda or cross the famous red bridge at Hoan Kiem Lake to discover Ngoc Son Temple (Jade Mountain Temple) sitting peacefully on its island.

Ngoc Son temple
Ngoc Son temple

The Temple of Literature is a resplendent complex originally built in the 11th century and dedicated to the great scholar, Confucius. Home to the first national university in Vietnam, this well-preserved homage to literature and the arts, still holds great inspirational power. The beautifully kept green gardens, incredible artwork and the intricate details of the Vietnamese architecture all echo with the thoughts of some of Vietnams greatest minds.

Food and Drink

One of the main attractions of Hanoi has to be its diverse offerings when it comes to food and drink. Everywhere you look you are greeted by the sights and smells of delicious local produce. From the ladies laden with their baskets of fresh fruit and cakes to the street meat vendors filling the air with mouth-watering scents, you certainly won’t be hungry in Hanoi!
Bun Cha is just one of the many dishes that are cherished by Hanoians. Comprising of mountains of vermicelli noodles, topped with a forest of fresh herbs and served with strips of pork and pork patties. The thing that really makes this dish special is the sweet and sour fish-based broth that will uncover a whole new palette of tastes.

Another staple of Vietnamese cuisine is Pho, there are however subtle differences in the dish depending on where you are in Vietnam. Hanoian Pho, steaming hot and massively appealing, is characterised by a clearer broth compared to its southern counterpart. Best enjoyed at one of the many street-side restaurants, follow your sense of smell and the local customers to find the best bowl. 

Vietnamese coffee is an institution in itself and is served everywhere from the sides of the streets to charming cafés and chic bars. The intense aroma is inescapable, drifting out of the open cafe doors. The ritual of drinking coffee has become a uniquely Vietnamese affair. The coffee itself, grown in Vietnam, is known for its rich, dark flavour and is dripped slowly through a metal filter called a phin. From here the coffee is served in a variety of ways, the most common being with a good dollop of sweet, viscous condensed milk. Another traditional variation is egg coffee in which coffee and condensed milk are combined with an egg yolk to make a luxuriant dessert style coffee.

Hanoi takes on a whole new persona at night. As the fairy lights that crisscross the main streets flicker into action, the streets become alive with frivolity. The most famous spots to enjoy the fun are Bia Corner on Ma May and Ta Hien Street. Here you can drink the local Bia Hoi, freshly brewed, light, and cheap. It’s easy to spend the night sipping on cup after cup. The plastic seats of the bars flow out into the road, leaving only narrow paths for the motorbikes to navigate. As the ante picks up, the murmur of voices erupts into an excited explosion. As well as the intoxicating buzz of the Bia Hoi, Hanoi has many bars offering live music of all varieties, especially at the weekend when the main town is closed off to bikes for the night markets.

Festivals and Events

Every weekend the streets of the old quarter are cordoned off to the usual influx of motorbikes and a night market is erected, starting opposite Hoan Kiem Lake  and stretching all the way to Dong Xuan Market. The stalls flow down along the street with a whole range of goods for sale at bargain prices.  Away from the crowded walkways of the market street and into the entertainment area surrounding Ma May and Ta Hien live music is performed in the streets, surrounded by crowds of people all enjoying the lively atmosphere.

One of the most important festivals in Vietnamese culture is Tet Nguyen Dan, often shortened to Tet. This is the beginning of the new lunar year and it is a wonder to see the Vietnamese people everywhere in a flurry of excitement for the upcoming festivities. Held at the end of January or beginning of February, this colourful celebration lasts for three days but can go on for up to a week or more. People enjoy family reunions, feasts of delicious foods and lively social activities. Much like many western cultures, New Year's Eve is the climax of the celebrations when people venture outside to make offerings to the gods in the hope of a prosperous year ahead.

Another festival that brings excitement to Hanoi in February is the Co Loa Festival. This takes place over 10 days, from the 6th to the 16th of the first lunar month, in An Duong Vuong Temple in the Dong Anh district. Here you can learn about the legend of An Duong, King of Au Lac and his magic crossbow. The ceremony features an atmospheric incense offering, parades of notable leaders and lots of colourful decoration. The fascinating rituals have been passed down over many generations and form a strong part of local culture. The festival culminates on the 16th day of the lunar month with a firework display and traditional entertainment such as human chess, wrestling, flag dancing, and martial arts.

Another unique festival in Hanoi is the Snake Festival in Le Mat, Long Bien, which celebrates the mythical defeat of the giant water snake. The snake was believed to have captured a beloved princess. The main attractions include local men diving into the lake to catch carp and the colourful and impressive snake dance in which the legend is re-enacted.

A festival aimed primarily at children, but enjoyed by all is the Mid-Autumn Festival which is held on the 15th day of the eighth lunar month. This exciting and lively festival sees people take to the streets to buy colourful carp lanterns and watch the energetic lion dances which seem to appear from nowhere drawing flocks of enthusiastic crowds. During the weeks before, you will see many stalls pop up selling the traditional moon cakes, delicious sweet treats made of rice and eaten during the festival.of rice and eaten during the festival.

- We highly recommend Full day tour of the culture and history highlight of Hanoi to see the highlights of Hanoi
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