It’s a name that still stirs passions in many Americans, but in the 21st century, there’s a good chance a savvy traveler might hear “Vietnam” and think of planning a trip as opposed to reliving the turbulent conflict of the 1960s and 1970s.
Certainly things have changed for Hanoi, Vietnam’s capital and second largest city. Part of that is because the city is at peace, despite a lengthy history of war, strife and occupation. Aspects of its peace dividend contribute to the allure of the city. Most notably, Hanoi never experienced the advent of modern architecture in the ‘70s and ‘80s, so even though it’s in the midst of a building boom now, much of its Colonial French-meets-Chinese influence in architecture and design remains intact, particularly in Hanoi’s Old Quarter.
The appeal of Vietnam is history and an intricate culture, so it’s no surprise that the most popular and ubiquitous attraction is the Thang Long Water Puppet Theatre across the street from the shores of the Hoan Kiem Lake. Live musicians accompany folk legends from Vietnamese history, expressed through wooden men, women and dragons, dancing and splashing on the face of the water. Sure, the tales are told in Vietnamese, but it is still a magical experience for visitors. Nearby, the Ly Thai To Statue & Park is one of the city’s most popular open spaces.
History and culture converge at numerous destinations in Hanoi. Chief attractions include the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum, the Ho Chi Minh Museum and the Presidential Palace (when open). The Fine Arts Museum is interesting both for the largely unexplained work that does appear as that which does not – only Communist Party-approved works can be displayed. The Army Museum explores 2,000 years of military history, and the National Museum of Vietnamese History’s collection dates back more than a millennium. The Museum of the Vietnamese Revolution is housed in an 80-year-old building that is considered a successful example of the blending of French Colonial and traditional Vietnamese architecture. Among numerous handsome temples, the Temple of Literature is notable as Vietnam’s first university, formed more than 1,000 years ago.
Sites of interest to history buffs include the Downed Aircraft Memorial and the Hoa Lo Prison (“Hanoi Hilton”), which is now a museum of note if not necessarily an arbiter of unbiased history. Less controversial are the colorful markets, Hang Da and Dong Xuan.
Dining in Hanoi can be an epiphany or a nightmare. Although the city’s celebrated global influences manifest in the form of diverse culinary options and terrific food can be found at even tiny stands with plastic furniture in the Old Quarter, some local delicacies don’t translate to many Western palates – think dog meat, cobra and extract from giant water bugs. Plan in advance and ask advice of trusted sources – good advice to consider for your entire Vietnam adventure.
Stay In Style
Hanoi’s diversity in accommodations has increased in recent years and includes numerous offerings.
Sofitel Legend Metropole Hanoi has certainly has its share of celebrity guests since its 1901 opening, from Graham Greene to George Bush – and for good reason. Classic design elements merged with myriad modern conveniences and flourishes set the stage for a convenient, comfortable, five-star stay complete with spa, restaurants and business necessities. www.sofitel.com.
Grand Plaza Hanoi Hotel’s 618 rooms feature city views and all of the modern conveniences frequent travelers appreciate, with pampering touches such as area shuttle, satellite television and a health club. http://grandplazahanoi.net/
Fraser Suites Hanoi is conveniently located just three miles from Old Quarter and is favored by those who appreciate the most modern accommodations. Each of the 186 residences lives up to the term with comprehensive amenities and ultra-chic design. http://hanoi.frasershospitality.com/
At a Glance
Hanoi is located on the east bank of Vietnam’s Red River approximately 1,000 miles north of Ho Chi Minh City and is the nation’s capital and second largest city.
Access: Numerous international airlines service Noi Bai International Airport, which is some 20 miles outside Hanoi.
Population: Approximately 2.6 million in the urban areas.
Climate: Humid subtropical with hot rainy summers, short relatively mild winters and generally mild transitions.
Main Attractions: History, culture and architecture are what draw most to this ancient city long cut off from the Western world.
Plan: Make as many arrangements ahead of time before arriving in Vietnam to avoid the numerous tourist scams perpetrated by everyone from hotel operators to cab drivers.
Tour: Definitely plan a Ha Long Bay tour or an overnight boat stay to enjoy the spectacular scenery. Most hotels can make the arrangements.
Daytripping: A guided tour to the Perfume Pagoda, an ancient Buddhist pilgrimage site about 40 miles from Hanoi, features a boat trip, hike or cable car up a mountain to an impressive limestone cave rich in Buddhist icons.