As the capital city of Vietnam, Hanoi is fittingly multi-layered. Striking a balance between the high-octane modernism of Ho Chi Minh City and the rustic allure of Hoi An, it’s a city of cultural juxtapositions: street food served outside hidden temples, as edgy artwork lights up the Old Quarter. This gives Hanoi the feel of a traditional city with contemporary vibes, making its character more elusive to pin down – and the adventure of discovering it all the more enjoyable.
Located at the very north of country, Hanoi tends to be either the first or last item on a traveller’s itinerary – and conveniently so. Estimated to have been around for over 1500 years, the city is a microcosm of Vietnamese culture; it’s the source of much of Vietnam’s legend, literature, music and poetry, and the colours of its history hang thick in the air. This makes Hanoi ideal either as a place for uncovering Vietnam for the first time, or revisiting what makes it such a fascinating country.
At the centre of Hanoi is the scenic Hoan Kiem Lake, an iconic part of the city and the site of the beautiful Turtle Tower. Translated as the ‘Lake of the Restored Sword’, legend has it that in the 15th century, a giant golden turtle grabbed the Emperor Ly Thai To’s magical sword and forever disappeared with it into the depths of the lake. Carrying an invigorating sense of timelessness, it’s become one of the main hubs of the city: a place where artists, painters and singers flock by day, and locals eat breakfast noodles and practice tai-chi at dawn.
Hanoi is full of ancient attractions that carry a similarly pensive quality. The 1400-year old Tran Quoc pagoda is notable as the oldest temple in the city, and stands picturesque on a small island in the West Lake. The One Pillar Pagoda, built between 1028 and 1054, is equally alluring, said to have been built in the shape of a lotus flower growing up out of the water. Slightly further out of the city in stunning surroundings is also the Perfume Pagoda, which marks the Lunar New Year with the longest festival in Vietnam.
Hanoi is also home to Vietnam’s first ever university, the Temple of Literature. Established in 1076, the complex is dedicated to the influential Chinese philosopher and teacher Confucius, and celebrates the country’s finest scholars and men of literary exception. It’s an architectural marvel, featuring charming pagodas, ancient-walled gardens and a pond known as the ‘Well of Heavenly Clarity’. Still a thriving place of education, you might be lucky to wander into the revelry of a graduation ceremony.
More recent historical events play an equally significant part in Hanoi’s identity. Badly bombed during the Vietnam War, the city now holds the privilege as the final resting place of the country’s leading communist light, Ho Chi Minh. His embalmed body lies preserved in the Mausoleum for locals and tourists alike to go and see. There’s also the Hoa Lo Prison Museum, which presents us with the true, unfiltered horrors of war: cells, chains and even a guillotine all remain to remind us of the treatment of Vietnamese revolutionaries.
No doubt the most eagerly anticipated attraction of Hanoi, however, will be Halong Bay. A stunning seascape of 3,000 limestone islands rising from emerald-green waters, it’s a striking natural phenomenon: legend tells of how its intriguing geographical formation was created by a dragon charging towards the coast (its name literally means ‘The Bay of Descending Dragons’). Nowadays, the area has lost any mysticism to an all-too thriving tourist industry, but the view is still impressive, and merits the half-day bus ride it takes to get there.
But ultimately, you won’t find yourself desperate to escape Hanoi for any more day-long excursions than necessary: there’s too much to see and do. It’s a lively city, rich in character and shrouded in intrigue, and of all the cities in Vietnam, the most culturally versatile. Whether it’s your first port of call or your final farewell to this wonderful country, Hanoi will leave a vivid lasting impression, and its appeal will continue to grow long after you’ve left.