Hanoi, Vietnam, is one of Southeast Asia’s classic capital cities. It combines a sleepy feeling of French Colonialism and a strong influence from Chinese Confucianism and Taoism. From 1887 to 1954 it served as the French capital of all Indochina, but it has been a capital city for at least 1,000 years despite a steady flow of invasions from other cultures. The city’s Old Quarter promenades a fine collection of colonial and pre-colonial architecture, and is characterized by narrow streets and warren-like neighborhoods. What separates Hanoi from every other city is the openness that the people display about talking to strangers. In Hanoi it’s common for people to approach you on the street and start talking.
There are plenty of things to see and do in Hanoi and its environs. The Temple of Literature opened in 1070 and became first university in Vietnam. Hoan Kiem Lake is located near the Old Quarter and is the best place to relax and to watch the local people relaxing or practicing Tai Chi. The Thang Long Water Puppet Theatre isn’t far from the Lake and is a must on any trip to Hanoi. The theater features wooden puppets acting out folk narratives from Vietnamese folklore on a pool of water with musical accompaniment. Another must-see in Hanoi is the Mausoleum of Ho Chi Minh, where his body is on display. The accompanying museum tells the story of the man and his mission, which of course, intersects with the Vietnam War.
A more detailed story of Vietnam’s struggle for independence can be found at the Museum of the Vietnamese Revolution, which describes the French and the American conflicts. Hoa Lo Prison, known in the U.S. as the Hanoi Hilton, was originally a French prison, but became infamous with American POWs. Hanoi is also the gateway for visits to surrounding villages like Bat Trang and Sapa as well as to Halong Bay where visitors cruise or kayak among the beautifully carved karst islands.
Vietnamese cuisine has joined Chinese and Thai at the top of the pyramid of popular Asian foods in America. The top-end restaurants tend toward Western cuisine or Fusion, but it’s easy to find high quality authentic Vietnamese food in the small stalls and restaurants of the Old Quarter. Cooking schools designed for tourists are also plentiful.
In the spring it begins getting warmer, inching its way towards an extremely hot summer. Fall, is the best time to travel to Hanoi, as the temperatures come down and the humidity dissipates. Winters are cold and humid.
Most Americans arrive in Hanoi from Bangkok or Hong Kong. Vietnam Airlines is a Skyteam member. Though taxis are plentiful in Hanoi, pedaled cyclos are the best way to get around town.