Vietnam’s capital city has to be one of Asia’s most fascinating cities offering a unique blend of oriental and western charm. It is a city of exotic brightly painted temples and pagodas, elegant ochre-washed colonial villas, bustling narrow streets and alleys, grand tree-lined boulevards and shaded lakes. First established as Vietnam’s capital in 1010, when it was known as Thang Long, the city’s name changed several times before it eventually became Hanoi in 1831.
The Temple of Literature, the site of Vietnam’s first university, dates back to 1070 and its peaceful gardens and pavilions offer a relaxing respite from Hanoi’s busy streets. Today Hanoi is still a city that attracts many of the country’s intellectuals as well as artists and writers.
Paintings by Vietnam’s new generation of artists can be seen for sale in the dozens of galleries that have sprung up in recent years in and around the city’s Old Quarter. It is here in the Old Quarter that Hanoi began life as a commercial centre over a thousand years ago. The original 36 streets that make up the Old Quarter are named after the goods once sold there such as silk, paper, silver, copper, herbs, cotton, fish and chicken. Nowadays the goods on sale are more likely to be t-shirts, sunglasses or embroidered table cloths but step back from the main streets and you will still find shops specializing in candlesticks, pagoda flags, engraved headstones and traditional musical instruments amongst others.
Just to the south of the bustling Old Quarter streets is Hoan Kiem Lake, an oasis of calm right in the centre of the city. Old men, students and weary tourists stop to rest in the shade on the park’s benches while local residents begin their day with a lakeside tai chi workout. Some of the capital’s finest colonial buildings can be found in the area of Hoan Kiem Lake including the magnificent Opera House, History Museum and the Metropole Hotel.
A couple of kilometers west of Hoan Kiem Lake are the imposing granite structure housing Ho Chi Minh’s Mausoleum. The mausoleum overlooks Ba Dinh Square, the square where President Ho Chi Minh read Vietnam’s Declaration of Independence at the end of World War Two. Nearby is the lotus flower-shaped temple of the One Pillar Pagoda, first built in 1049, and the grand palace that was once the residence of the Governor-General of French Indochina.
Like Ho Chi Minh City, Hanoi also has some great shopping, particularly in the Old Quarter where bargains include silk, embroidery, handicrafts and original works of art. There are some interesting day trip options from Hanoi including Hoa Lu, the site of Vietnam’s first capital, Tam Coc Caves, the Perfume Pagoda and Hoa Binh, the home of many ethnic minority groups.