20 years ago you couldn’t visit Hanoi without being trailed by a government agent. The locals were too afraid to mingle with foreigners in case the government thought they were a spy. I’m told this by my 28-year-old guide Nguyen who also tells me that fortunately these days, the people in Hanoi are much friendlier. Vietnam has moved on and shaken off the scars of the Vietnam War. The young ones are excited about joining the rapidly growing ranks of the middle class. And this can-do attitude has opened up plenty of things to do in Hanoi for visitors
The soul of Hanoi
To get a deeper look into Hanoi’s soul, it’s important to visit the Ho Chi Minh mausoleum, an austere must-see monument that houses the embalmed corpse of Ho Chi Minh, the late Vietnamese communist hero who died in 1969.
The monument draws hordes of out-of-town Vietnamese who see this as a real honour to pay their respects to Uncle Ho each time they visit Vietnam’s capital.
Smartly attired army guards usher guests into the mausoleum, where stern-faced soldiers glare at anyone who whispers. And if you forget to remove your cap or sunglasses you’ll get a pretty stern dressing down.
Around the corner is Ho Chi Minh’s house, which is a modest, two-storey villa on the same grounds as the grander French colonial-style building that was the former Presidential Palace.
Ho was a man of simple tastes who refused to live in the luxurious home that was the former residence of the governors-general of French Indochina.
Another landmark in Hanoi is the Temple of Literature, which was founded in 1070 as a Confucian temple.
In 1076, the temple became Vietnam’s first university, the Quoc Tu Giam (or National University) where Vietnam’s mandarin class was educated.
The names of the graduates of the university are carved onto stone steles placed on top of stone turtles.
Water Puppets of Hanoi
A tour of Hanoi’s old quarter should begin at the Thang Long Water Puppet theatre where musicians dressed in traditional Vietnamese costumes blow on bamboo flutes, pull on strangely shaped stringed instruments, and beat on bronze drums, gongs and xylophones.
Accompanying this strange cacophony of sounds is a water puppet performance where ducks, snakes and dragons flit above and below the water in a nimble water ballet.
Tales of dragons and kings, fishing villagers and old Vietnamese legends transcend language barriers as the submerged puppeteers control the puppets from behind the screen.
Hanoi’s Old Quarter
When visiting Hanoi you must make time to wander around the old quarter.
Although Hanoi’s old quarter can be negotiated on foot, it’s more fun to ride through the narrow streets on a three-wheeled bicycle-powered rickshaw. Elderly riders pedal many of these rickshaws.
The old quarter is a chaotic maze of ancient merchant shophouses dating back nearly five hundred years.
Some of the tall skinny buildings have evolved from small market stalls that grew upwards and backwards.
Most date back to the15th century and – as a result of strict street-frontage and inheritance taxes – are very narrow, only two meters wide.
Street names reflect a time when the area was divided up amongst the thirty-six artisan guilds and even today, many streets are still dedicated to those original crafts or their modern equivalents.
There are streets with silverwork shops, bamboo shops and shoe stores. One street has nothing but cramped shop-front kiosks selling silk clothing packed up high to the rafters.
Another street has rows of funeral and festival shops full of bright red banners and incense sticks.
Women hawkers wearing traditional wide-brimmed hats balance heavy shoulder-carriers filled with vegetables or bread.
Hanoi’s roadside cafes are a great spot to meet the locals and people watch. People squat on low plastic seats by the side of the road helping themselves to piles of steaming rice, fresh vegetables and bubbling noodle soups.
Crossing the street
Pedestrians navigate the city streets on foot, walking in a trance while motorbikes and cars veer around them.
The motorbikes carry an assortment of riders – girls in traditional flowing ao dai dress, families wearing face masks and even a man with his two pet Alsatians – all of which add to Hanoi’s character.
The cyclos glide past the Hanoi Opera House, a 1911 French colonial building with stately balconies that overlook the city centre to pull up in front of the Hanoi Press Club.
The Hanoi Press Club is another charming throwback from the colonial era with interiors reminiscent of the 1920’s.
The French influence in Hanoi
It’s easy to imagine Hanoi’s French colonial masters lounging around in comfortable armchairs, cigars in hand.
These days, it serves at an upmarket lunch destination for expatriates and visitors. It’s definitely a good spot to check out when planning a trip to Vietnam.
When dawn breaks, join the locals for some exercise at Hoan Kiem Lake.
Wedged between Hanoi’s busiest commercial streets, Hoan Kiem Lake provides a venue for joggers and tai chi practitioners during the early hours of the morning.
At this early hour the Ngoc Son Pagoda, which is situated on an islet linked to the shore by an arched bridge on the lake’s northeastern corner takes on an air of tranquillity that was common before the onslaught of motorbikes invaded the city.
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