Hanoi has been the capital of Vietnam for almost 1,000 years! It’s the place where numerous dynasties have left their mark and has more cultural sites than anywhere else in Vietnam…and they’re mostly well-preserved. There is still much French influence from when it was the capital of French Indochina (1902-1945). Some people refer to Hanoi as the ‘Paris of the East’ due to its tree-lined boulevards, lakes, and colonial buildings today. Following the First Indochina War and the creation of the State of Vietnam, Vietnam was finally free of French occupation.
It was then when Ho Chi Minh came in and declared Hanoi the capital of North Vietnam, a coalition of communists and Vietnamese nationalists. Following the Vietnam War, Hanoi was made the capital of reunified Vietnam.
Being the capital city, there’s an ever-growing influx of people in the city. There are an overwhelming amount of motorbikes (that the country is actually trying to ban by 2020 in the Old Quarter at least), but that’s part of what gives Hanoi its character. In fact, there was only a rise in cars in the last five years or so.
No matter what your means of transportation, most visitors will stay in the Old Quarter or French Quarters of Hanoi. While there, there are 10 things you must see in Hanoi…
1. Imperial Citadel of Thang Long
The Imperial Citadel of Thang Long was deemed a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2010 due to its historical and cultural significance. This ancient citadel was the political center of the country for 13 centuries, and the capital of Vietnam was 8 centuries. To date, only a small fraction of the Thang Long Imperial Citadel has been excavated. Within the grounds, discover the ancient palaces, cobblestone streets, and artifacts from as far back as the 6th century! Unfortunately, only a small portion of the citadel remains today, as the rest of the complex was largely destroyed in the 19th Century. If you walk all the way to the back of the complex, you will also find the D67 Tunnel. During the Vietnam War, the North Vietnamese military command was headquartered within the Citadel.
2. Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum
You couldn’t miss the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum if you tried, as this is one huge structure. This is the final resting place of the Vietnamese Revolutionary leader Ho Chi Minh, where his body has been kept perfectly embalmed in a glass case. The building itself has a typically communist look to it with very brute architecture; across the top of the building reads, in Vietnamese, “Chairman Ho Chi Minh.” Along the side, you’ll also find a banner that reads, “Long Live the Socialist Republic of Vietnam.” As per many mausoleums, you will, of course, find guards watching over it. Visiting hours are Tuesday to Thursday from 7:30am to 10:30am and Saturday and Sunday from 7:30am to 11am. Closed on Mondays.
3. Ba Dinh Square
Ba Dinh Square is where Ho Chi Minh read the Declaration of Independence, thereby establishing the Democratic Republic of Vietnam on September 2, 1945. It is located in front of the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum. The square itself is named after the Ba Dinh Uprising from 1886 to 1887 where there was an anti-French rebellion.
4. One Pillar Pagoda
Built in 1049, the One Pillar Pagoda is one of Vietnam’s most historic temples. It’s said that Emperor Ly Thai Tong erected this pagoda after a dream (one where he met the bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara who gave him a baby boy while seated on a lotus flower) came true. Ultimately, he did meet someone who bore him a son, so the Emperor decided to build a pagoda within a lotus pond, similar to the one of which he saw in his dream. Today, the temple is built of wood on a single stone pillar.
5. Old Quarter
The most well-known district in Hanoi is certainly the Old Quarter (the Hoan Kiem District). Within the Old Quarter, you can find most of the original street layout and architecture from ancient Hanoi. As you could imagine, the Old Quarter is filled with small blocks and alleyways, giving a glimpse into traditional Vietnamese customs. Each street once had merchants and households specializing in certain trades, and many streets are still actually named after those original businesses from over one thousand years ago. Today though, you’ll find local foods, souvenir shops, bars, and an overwhelming amount of tourists.
6. B-52 Plane Wreck
Despite spending a month in Vietnam, I hadn’t felt as if I’d done enough to pay my respects for those who were involved and affected by the Vietnam war. When I heard of the B-52 Lake, formally called Huu Tiep Lake, I knew that it was important that I went to visit the wreckage of the B-52 Bomber, even though it was out of the way and a bit difficult to find. On December 27, 1972, as part of Operation Linebacker II, a B-52 was shot down during a US bombing raid over Hanoi; today, the part of the wreckage still remains untouched in the lake today. The operation had the largest heavy bomber strikes launched by the US since the end of World War II; the bombing was over the POWs not having yet been returned to the States.
7. Hoa Lo Prison
Hoa Lo Prison was originally a prison used by the French Colonists to house Vietnamese political prisoners wanting independence while they were still part of French Indochina. It got its nickname of “Hanoi Hilton” during the Vietnam War when American prisoners of war were held captive there. While the prison complex was largely demolished, the gatehouse and a corridor or two still remain. I’d heard of the Hanoi Hilton, specifically in regards to Senator John McCain and his time spent as a POW there (ironically enough, I visited just hours before his passing), but I hadn’t realized that the structure of communist Vietnam was originally developed within the cells of the Hoa Lo Prison too.
8. Trompe-l’oeil Murals
If you’re looking for a spot relatively unknown to tourists, make your way to the Trompe l’oeil Murals. Here you will find 19 murals within stone archways, each providing a glimpse into Hanoi’s past and present history. You’ll feel transported in time as you walk from piece to piece, giving a larger than life look into what life once was throughout Hanoi’s history. It’s created in a way that from a distance you wouldn’t even realize that it’s art; it’s only when you get up close that “the person” you were just looking at across the street is actually just a one-dimensional painting.
9. Tran Quoc Pagoda
Originally constructed during the 6th Century, Tran Quoc Pagoda is the oldest Buddhist temple in Hanoi, located near the West Lake. You’ll notice that – like many other pagodas – it is red, as red symbolizes luck and prosperity in Vietnamese and Chinese culture. The pagoda apparently holds the ashes of many important monks over the years, as it is still an active site of worship today, with monks still living and practicing there.
10. West Lake
The West Lake is the largest freshwater lake in Hanoi, spanning almost 11 miles. It’s in a beautiful area of town that’s more quiet and peaceful than the bustling Old Quarter. I highly recommend staying in this area of Hanoi, as it’s far less touristy and more authentic than other areas.
Where to Sleep?
The Hanoi Club Hotel and Lake Palais Residences
After having spent one night in the Old Quarter, we realized that it wasn’t particularly what we were looking for. We wanted to experience Vietnam, rather than get sucked into a flood of tourists…so we took off to the West Lake area of Hanoi. There we found the beautiful Hanoi Club Hotel and Lake Palais Residences. It is located directly on the shores of West Lake, offers beautiful views, and looks over the Tran Quoc Pagoda. It was just what we needed.
Walking into our Premier Double Room with Lake View, we knew we’d made the right decision. The room was quite spacious, the bed was comfortable, and the floor-to-ceiling windows in the bathroom made it feel that much more spacious.
They have a stellar swimming pool, gym, and complimentary breakfast too. And, if you’re into golfing, you can go hit some balls at their very own driving range, or if you’d rather get a massage at their spa, you can do that too.
The staff couldn’t have been nicer, and I highly recommend The Hanoi Club Hotel on your next visit to Vietnam’s capital city!
*Hotel photos by Jerre Stead.