Thang Long, Dong Do, Dong Quan – the capital city in the north of Vietnam had various different names before it was called Hanoi in 1835. It was already mentioned as the country’s capital in the 11th century and its different names can be translated as “surging dragon”, “eastern capital” and “eastern gateway”. Its current name means the “city within the rivers”.
Hanoi, which has been the capital of reunited Vietnam since 1976, is located on the western bank of the Red River, which has its source in the mountains in the province of Yunnan and flows into the Gulf of Tonkin to the south east of Hanoi after covering a distance of 1,150 kilometres. The river has dominated the country’s culture, history and landscape and brought prosperity to the city.
Not every visitor falls in love with the densely populated city overnight, but its varied cityscape is a large part of what makes Hanoi attractive. South-east Asian flair mixes with socialist architecture and relics from the colonial period. Numerous lakes and expansive green spaces encourage people to spend time there and they give the city its special charm – which oscillates between calm serenity and bustling chaos.
Hanoi can best be discovered on foot, but you can also cycle or use a motorbike taxi. It is also cheap to travel around on the public buses. The old city is the most popular district and a good starting point to get to know Hanoi a little better: clattering mopeds, lively cafés and hawkers set the mood here. And the city pulses with life not only during the day, but at night as well. By the way: many streets in the old city have been named after craftsmen’s workshops that were once based here.
The northern part of the city is a hot spot for numerous market traders, who offer fresh fruit and vegetables for sale. The night market, which is held on Fridays and weekends, provides a special atmosphere. Traffic is banned in the old city during the evening and visitors can walk around in relative peace and quiet, doing their shopping or nibbling culinary specialities from the stands that sell food.
Picturesque Hoan Kiem Lake, which is also known as the Lake of the Returned Sword, is located near the old city. A small island sits in the middle of it with a three-storey turtle tower – Hanoi’s landmark. Built in the 15th century, the idyllic lake recalls the legend of the magical sword.
A golden turtle that was living in Hoan Kiem Lake gave the poor fisherman, Le Loi, a magical sword during the Chinese occupation. Using the magical sword, he managed to fend off the advancing enemy – the troops of the Ming Dynasty. When he wanted to express his gratitude to the gods, the golden turtle suddenly appeared and asked him to return the sword. It turned into a dragon, which rose up above the lake and plunged into the depths. This is how the turtle became the guardian spirit over the lake.
A turtle weighing 250 kilograms was actually recovered from the lake at the end of the 1960s and was alleged to have been 400 years old. It was embalmed and can still be admired in a glass case in the Temple of the Jade Mountain.
The pedestrian bridge “of the rising sun”, Thé Huc, is a major attraction with its bright crimson colour. It takes people to the Temple of the Jade Mountain, which is located on a small island in Hoan Kiem Lake and is dedicated to the patron god of the literates and the god of the healers.
The traffic roars all around Hoan Kiem Lake. Many visitors need time to grow accustomed to the hustle and bustle of the city. The best thing to do is to act like the locals and make your way through the mass of countless mopeds – people say the city has five million of them, maybe even more.
Those looking for culture can admire the traditional Thang Long water puppet theatre just a stone‘s throw from Hoan Kiem Lake. This special type of play is a must-see for most visitors. Its origins probably date back to the 11th century. The water puppet theatre combines live music, visual presentations and entertainment. The dramas recount legends, fairy tales and everyday scenes from life in Vietnam. The puppets still stand in water to this day. But why? Rumour has it that rice farmers may have originally moved their puppet theatre to the flooded fields during the rainy season.
The opera house is another cultural highlight. The elegant building at the heart of the French district was built in 1911 as a copy of the opera house in Paris and is still an eye-catcher to this day with its Gothic domes and decorated balustrades. It is also Vietnam’s largest opera building. It is worth taking a walk through the entire district, which is dominated by French colonial buildings dating back to the 19th and 20th centuries.
Hanoi can be reached via its two airports, Gia Lam and Noi Bai. The city is also connected to the country’s railway system. Trains operate to many Vietnamese cities and to China from the main railway station in the city centre. Hanoi is the starting and finishing point for the main north-south line between Ho Chi Minh City in the south and Hanoi in the north of the country. It is easy to reach tourist destinations that are closer to the city, such as the famous Ha Long Bay, by using the bus services.
When walking round Hanoi, you should definitely not miss this architectural highlight: the Van Mieu Temple of Literature is regarded as one of the best preserved structures reflecting traditional Vietnamese architecture. This is where Vietnam’s first university was established in 1076 in honour of the Chinese philosopher Confucius.
The expansive site covers an area measuring more than five hectares and involves several buildings, five inner courtyards and a square pond, the “Source of heavenly light”. Eighty-two headstones, which bear the names of more than one thousand graduates of the academy who once earned their doctorate here, are enthroned on the backs of stone turtles in one of the inner courtyards. They have been part of the UNESCO World Cultural Heritage portfolio since 2010.
Visitors with energy to burn can pay a visit to the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum. Ho Chi Minh, whom locals also call “Uncle Ho“, is revered throughout the country. His embalmed body lies in a glass coffin in the mausoleum. Those who wish to learn more about the former President of Vietnam should visit the museum of the same name nearby. A small artificial lake, where the Chua Mot Cot One Pillar Pagoda stands tall, is located about one hundred metres away. A small Buddhist temple made of wood, which dates back to the 11th century, stands on a concrete pillar there. The current structure is a replica of the original, which was destroyed by the French occupying forces in the middle of the 20th century. Nevertheless, the One Pillar Pagoda is still viewed as a symbol of the city.
If you keep heading north, you will arrive at the Tran Quoc Pagoda after about a 20 minutes' walk. This is the oldest Buddhist temple in Hanoi. It has an idyllic location on West Lake, the largest freshwater lake in Hanoi. The pagoda with its eleven storeys and gleaming red bricks is one of the most beautiful temples in Vietnam. It glistens majestically, especially at dusk.
All this sightseeing in the city makes you hungry. So make sure that you try out the wide variety of street food: a Pho noodle soup, a filled Banh-mi bun or the Bun Cha rice noodle dish. And Hanoi also has some delicacies to offer those who are thirsty – ranging from egg coffee to lemon tea and even Bia Hoi – a draught beer that is freshly brewed every day. As the locals say: “Mot, Hai, Ba, Yo“ – one, two, three, cheers.
Do you prefer to start your day with a cup of coffee? Then Vietnamese egg coffee is just the drink for you. It consists of beaten egg and sweetened milk. The creamy mixture is poured over an espresso or an iced coffee – and you've got a sweet drink to wake you up.
Banh Cuons, steamed rice rolls, are served both as a light breakfast or are eaten as a snack between meals. The Banh Cuons, which are rolled and wrapped in rice flour dough, are traditionally filled with pork, onions and mushrooms.
Bun Cha is a typical kind of street food and one of the most popular dishes in Hanoi. The rice noodles with grilled pork are served with herbs and a flavourful dipping sauce. This dish that was even a hit with President Barack Obama when he visited the “Bun Cha Huong Lien” restaurant.
This strong tasting noodle soup with crab meat is often eaten for breakfast. Shrimps, tomatoes and crushed soft-shell crayfish make this a popular dish in Vietnamese cuisine.
Pho is another popular dish served for breakfast and consists of rice noodle soup with vegetables and meat. The soup is boiled without any seafood, in contrast to Bun Rieu, and is instead served with plenty of meat – for example, beef or pork.
Looking for a dessert to round everything off? Then try the Banh Troi little sticky rice balls, which are normally filled with a mung bean paste. Decorated with black sesame and ginger, the little balls develop their full aroma in your mouth and are often dipped in a sugar and coconut milk sauce before being consumed.
You should also not miss “Train Street”, one of the most famous streets in the city and definitely a popular spot for Instagram photos. A train clatters its way through the narrow blocks of houses twice a day. But be careful: the spectacle, which attracts many onlookers, has already caused several accidents so that the cafés along the street were finally shut down for safety reasons. By the way: this route is part of the longest railway line in Vietnam, which connects Hanoi in the north of the country with Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon) in the south; the line is 1,726 kilometres long. The north-south railway line is also called the “Reunification Express” in a reference to the reunification of the divided country.
Are you looking for something small to take home for friends and family? There are numerous shops on Hang Gai Street that are great for shopping. Elegant clothes, ceramics, silk, embroidery work, Vietnamese coffee, tea or dried fruit – anybody who travels to Hanoi should be sure to leave enough space in their luggage for souvenirs. Here's a small selction of them to inspire you.
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