Hanoi, the capital city of Vietnam, is not quite what you would expect when comparing it with the other capital cities of the world. True, it may have a notable amount of cultural sites to see, like other capitals, however one doesn’t immediately get the sense of, “yup, I’m in the big city now” like you get when in Beijing or Paris, for instance. Though having a long and rich history, including standing as the bastion of opposition to the American invasion during the war, Hanoi presented us with a more humble and subdued sense of itself. With that in mind, it’s good to know what to see and do in Hanoi.
What it’s Like On the Streets
Walking the streets of Hanoi offers the chance to grasp first hand what daily life is like in the Vietnamese capital. In the old-quarter, tree lined sidewalks are bordered by tight frenetic roads and low-rise buildings with a Parisian air. While there may be garbage on the streets, you will tend to dismiss it in lieu of the canvas of Vietnamese culture on display before your eyes.
Whether its games of Chinese Chess, washing or fixing motorbikes, showcasing products for sale, drinking cheap beer from hole-in-the-wall keg tappers, or dining on the local cuisine, it seems that the majority of Hanoi citizens would rather be anywhere than cooped up inside. As a result, most streets feel cluttered yet welcoming. Sidewalks are an obstacle course of parked motorcycles, street food service areas, shopkeepers, and of course pedestrians trying to navigate it all. On each corner you’ll find somebody selling knock-off books and DVD’s, fruit, motorcycle rides, or offering flyers for tours or restaurants.
Trying to cross the street will present you with a new kind of challenge, as you meticulously edge your way across a sea of countless scooters and motorcycles that act as almost everyone’s mode of travel, sometimes even families of 5! But how is all this welcoming you wonder?
For the most part, nothing seems to be off limits to you in Hanoi, as long as your willing to try or put in the effort. Sitting down at a table for some street food surrounded by locals is a lot less challenging here than in other countries. If you need to get past a litany of obstacles on the sidewalk, someone or something will make-way in order to let you get by. The same goes for traversing the motorcycle crammed streets. Everyone needs to share the road, including pedestrians, so as long as you make your way slowly and steadily across the road, motorcycles will gently swerve to avoid you.
Getting out and about and learning the ins and outs of getting around is exactly what you’ll have to do if you want to enjoy the sights that Hanoi has to offer.
What to See and Do in Hanoi
So what is there to see and do in Hanoi? Typically, people should make their way to the area around the Ho Chi Minh Mausuleum where the great Vietnamese leader’s body forever remains on display (except when he’s due for cleaning from September to early December). If you’re not into seeing a body that’s been dead for 40 years, the area offers other sights to see, like the President’s Palace, the War Museum, and the Museum of Fine Art. We really enjoyed the Museum of Fine Art. Not only was it a great place to cool off from the typically balmy Hanoi heat, but the place was almost empty, allowing us to freely enjoy the artwork (the second floor has more to offer than the first). The President’s Palace and it’s Parisian colonial architecture could only be viewed from it’s main gates, and the War Museum was full of lots of artifacts with tanks and planes on display outside. However, the War Museum was sorely lacking in background information, which made the place feel a little incoherent.
A much more poignant place to see is the Hoa Lo Prison Museum, a former prison that was used by French colonialists to incarcerate Vietnamese political prisoners. The museum effectively recounts the history and horrors that took place inside the prison walls, as the captors mercilessly tortured and held captive opponents of the foreign regime. After the departure of the French, the Prison became known as the “Hanoi Hilton” among American prisoners captured during the American war in Vietnam. This is also the famous prison that once held former Presidential candidate John McCain after his aircraft was shot down over enemy territory. Though not for the weak of heart, this is a stop most tourists should make both for its historical and cultural value.
Most people seem to enjoy the area around Hoan Kiem Lake, which is great for a stroll (or if you like slightly higher priced cafes, food or drinks). At the northeast corner of the lake (more like a pond) is the Municipal Water Puppet Theatre, which is a must see for the majority of tourists. Though the water puppets are a little cheesy, and the performers seem to not be too interested in being professional, the music is worth the price of admission alone, and the overall performance is great value for an excellent slice of culture.
The Best Thing to Do
Overall, the most rewarding experience for us was simply sitting down at a street side vendor for a bowl of the local standard, pho (noodle soup). The atmosphere may have been a little gritty (chicken’s being cleaned nearby) but the soup was delicious and the $1.50/bowl price can’t be beat. Even though we may or may not have been paying a price slightly higher than the locals would, the soup was filling as a lunch and had us coming back every other day.
Hanoi is best enjoyed for its simplicity and charming nature of the people. It is very important to not let yourself be overly charmed, though, and fall victim to one of the many scams at work in the city. However, a keen eye, a bit of patience, and an adventurous mind are all you’ll need to have a great time in this city.