Hanoi is the capital city of Vietnam, renowned for its vibrant nightlife, local cuisine, and multicultural scene amalgamating Vietnamese, Chinese, and French influences. The city also serves as the gateway for those who are looking to access the mountainous rural scenes of Vietnam. While Hanoi can be visited all year round, if you are also planning to visit Trang An, spring and fall are the best times.
Apart from being the cultural hub of Vietnam, Hanoi is also known for the small alleys of the Old Quarter that hide quirky shops and local cafés.
The most famous areas in Hanoi are the Ba Dinh District (the French Quarter) where you can find government offices as well as the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum, and the Hoan Kiem District (the Old Quarter), which is the ancient commercial district of Hanoi.
St. Joseph’s Cathedral, the oldest church in Hanoi, is one of the major landmarks in the Old Quarter. Though the church’s exterior has been heavily damaged by years of neglect and heavy pollution, you can still see the glory of this surviving piece of French colonial architecture.
Strolling down the many narrow streets in the Old Quarter, you will see many small mom-and-pop stores as well as an abundance of cafés. A popular recommendation is Giang Café for its original Egg Coffee, and Cộng Café which is a chain of cafés with a decor reminiscent of Hanoi in the 60s. However, a more authentic experience can be had by sitting on one of those short stools and tables offered by most cafés.
The Old Quarter revolves around Hoan Kiem Lake which, according to legend, was where the Golden Turtle God requested Emperor Lê Lợi to return the magic sword that its master (the Dragon King) bestowed upon the Emperor to fight against Chinese army. At Hoan Kiem Lake, you can see the Turtle Tower and the red Huc Bridge which leads to the small Ngoc Son Temple. You may also spot a soft-shelled turtle that is believed to be of the same species as the Golden Turtle God.
The French Quarter is where government buildings, the Tran Quoc Pagoda, HCM Mausoleum, and the Temple of Literature are located. The overall atmosphere of the French Quarter is much calmer and more orderly than the Old Quarter, with wider and more accessible streets.
Tran Quoc Pagoda is the oldest Buddhist temple in Hanoi and located on a small island on Hanoi’s West Lake. Not too far away, the body of Ho Chi Minh is kept inside the HCM Mausoleum. Here, you join one-way traffic and slowly make your way from the gate to the mausoleum in a very orderly fashion. Inside, visitors are not allowed to use their phones or cameras, talk, or wear a hat as a way to show respect to Vietnam’s late leader. Rulebreakers will get a warning, or even be asked to leave.
Another must-see in the French Quarter is the Temple of Literature – Vietnam’s first university. Here, you will be walking the same path ancient scholars took to take the Royal Exam and become government officials. Those who passed the Royal Exams would have their names engraved on the Turtle Steles displayed in the Third Courtyard.
Day Trip From Hanoi
A popular day trip from Hanoi is one to Bái Đính Temple, followed by a boat tour of the impressive Trang An Landscape Complex. There are many ways to get to Trang An from Hanoi (which are 90kms apart), including bus, train, motorcycle, private rental car, taxi, or a day tour. If you are on a budget and don’t mind a bit of an adventure, there are buses to either the main bus station in Ninh Binh or Trang An Landscape Complex. For less hassle, you can book a day tour that will pick you up and drop you off at your hotel.
Bái Đính Temple is Vietnam’s largest temple complex as well as a popular site for Buddhist pilgrimages in Vietnam. Though the temple adheres to a Vietnamese architectural style, Chinese influences can clearly be seen. Bái Đính Temple consists of both the old temple and newly construct, larger temple. Within the peaceful compound, it is a great place to stroll around and enter a state of meditation.
The gem of the region is undoubtedly the UNESCO-listed Trang An Landscape Complex, which is often known as Halong Bay on land – it is a spectacular landscape of limestone karst peaks permeated with valleys, many of them partly submerged and surrounded by steep, vertical cliffs. Movie fans may know that some of the scenes “Kong: Skull Island” were filmed in this very landscape.
Dense rainforest drapes the landscape (and the karst peaks), blending naturally with extensive paddy fields that create a picturesque patchwork of colour.
Trang An has been overlooked by many visitors, but it is slowly gaining in popularity. The entire complex is renowned for its boat cave tours; it takes about an hour to experience this majestic landscape, in addition to exploring numerous caves. For now, this attraction is well-maintained and the boat handlers do not ask for tips.
Most visitors come during spring and fall, as winter here can be very cold and wet. However, even in wet weather, the fog can sometimes add to its dreamlike scenery.