The capital of Vietnam - the 'Old Quarter', colonial buildings and craft villages
Hanoi currently boasts Vietnam’s most modern airport, Noi Bai, 35 km from the city and opened only a couple of years ago, although a new, and much larger, international airport for Ho Chi Minh City is at an advanced stage of planning. The city has six five-star hotels and a wide range of hotels at lower standards, restaurants and cafes. Hanoi and its surrounding area have plenty to interest visitors. Its tree-lined boulevards, colonial buildings and many lakes are pleasant places for a pedestrian tour. Its central area is compact – most of the main attractions are within walking distance.
Hoan Kiem Lake and the Old Quarter in central Hanoi are thronged with people throughout the day. Nearby, in an attractive setting, is the Hanoi Municipal Theatre, better known as the Opera House, a smaller version of its cousin in Paris and now restored to its original grandeur. Haivenu guests will be offered tickets for any interesting performances during their time in the capital. They will also be invited to a performance of water puppetry, an art form unique to North Vietnam and an interesting, humorous way to get a flavour of its ancient culture.
The area dedicated to the late President Ho Chi Minh is well worth a visit. Viewing his embalmed body in an imposing mausoleum is a somewhat macabre experience, but the nearby museum and his modest small stilt house provide a valuable insight into the life of one of the most successful leaders of the 20th century.
Van Mieu, (the Temple of Literature) dates back to the 11th century and is the oldest university in Vietnam (and one of the oldest in the world). Recently restored, it is a now an attractive and informative monument not far from the city centre. Further out is the Museum of Ethnology. Rated by Haivenu as the best museum in Vietnam, it gives an in-depth overview of the complex life-styles, traditions and handicrafts of the 54 ethnic groups of Vietnam, well-presented and effectively interpreted. Also of note, but more traditional in their approach, are the History Museum and the Fine Arts Museum. On a much smaller scale, both physically and financially, the Women’s Museum focuses on the role of women in the community and that of the ‘Long-haired Army’, the many women who fought and died alongside the men of the Viet Minh and the Viet Cong.
The ancient Hanoi Citadel is currently occupied by the army, but is in the process of restoration before making it accessible to the public towards the end of 2003. A large archeological 'dig' currently taking place on the site of what will be the new National Assembly building has uneathed what appears to be the remains of an ancient palace and its ceramics kiln. Ceramic articles were the sole property of royalty, and were thought to have been imported from Chinal during its Song period. The findings have revealed that Vietnam not only made its own ceramic articles, but also developed a unique style during the Ly Dynasty from the 9th to the 11th centuries.
The remains of the ancient citadel of Vietnam, Co Loa, are to be found 18 km north of Hanoi. Built in the 2nd century BC, little remains today, but the site would be attractive for those interested in archaeology.
There are the many craft villages around Hanoi. Bat Trang, specialising in the production of good quality pottery and ceramics, Van Phuc, a silk weaving community, and Hong Ky, famous for its carved mother-of-pearl, are just three examples. Le Mat, where many families are famous for their skill in breeding snakes for medicinal purposes, food and ‘snake wine’ (popular with Vietnamese men as a boost for virility), is one we avoid. The snakes are collected indiscriminately from the wild by peasants – a recent police raid discovered well over a hundred snakes in the Red Book of endangered species from a single restaurant.
There are many opportunities for day trips to places such as Mai Chau (ethnic villages set in beautiful scenery), Cuc Phuong (National Park), Tam Coc (boating through spectacular scenery along a languid river) and Ha Tay Province (many craft villages).
Travellers coming to Vietnam for less than a couple of weeks often find that being based in Hanoi with visits to Ha Long and/or the northern mountains offers a more fulfilling experience of Vietnam than attempting to cover the whole country.