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Seeing and Doing in Hanoi

March 10, 2015

I spent three whole weeks in Hanoi and filled my days with incredible ease. Here are a few of the things I saw and few of the things I did.

Ho Hoan Kiem or ‘Lake of the Restored Sword’ and Ngoc Son Temple or ‘Temple of the Jade Mountain’

Ngoc Son Temple, Hanoi

Hoan Kiem Lake is at the centre of Hanoi and the location of the iconic Huc Bridge and Ngoc Son Temple. The temple is unremarkable in itself, built in the 18th century it honours a 13th century warrior, but the legend of the lake is captivating in a magical-anthropomorphic-tortoise-warrior sort of way. In the 15th century Vietnamese King Le Loi used a sword belonging to a certain golden turtle god to defeat the army of China’s Ming Dynasty, securing Vietnam’s independence. One day Le Loi was out boating on Hoan Kiem Lake when a turtle rose from the depths and reclaimed the sword. So the legend goes. I spent a few lazy hours by the lake, hoping to spot the creature I thought was purely legendary, like the Loch Ness Monster but less monstrous, only to realise later, thanks to this 2011 article in TIME, that the turtle is in fact real, was pulled out of the lake for veterinary treatment in 2011 and is so critically endangered it is one of only four known living species of its kind.

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 Thang Long Royal Citadel

imperial Citadel Hanoi

One of my best days in Hanoi was spent wandering around the serene Imperial Citadel. Read more about it here. Cost : 30,000 VND.

Quán Thánh
Ba Đình

Vietnam Women’s Museum

Vietnam Womens Museum

All of the guide books and travel websites rave about Hanoi’s Women’s Museum and after visiting I understand why. I worked in a Museum/Asylum for over seven years and have a real soft spot for a well-executed exhibition. The Women’s Museum is a gem, it looks great and the topics tackled are fascinating and hard-hitting. I was particularly moved by the displays on the ‘Heroic Mothers of Vietnam’, an honorary title awarded in 1994 to “women who had lost more than two children, their only child, or their husband and children, or their own life. Nguyen Thi Thu of Quang Nam lost ten children and two grandchildren. Pham Thi Ngu and Nguyen Thi Ranh of Ho Chi Minh City lost 8 children and were awarded ‘Hero of the Popular Armed Forces.’” The costume is extraordinary and the exhibition on family life and maternity does justice to a subject that is so often overlooked. Cost : 30,000 VND and so worth it.

36 Lý Thường Kiệt
Hang Bai ward

 Cinematheque

Cinematheque Hanoi interior

What a find. This cinema, restaurant and café is a beautiful hideaway in the centre of the city. Film screenings are members only but exceptions might be made. More on this here.

22 Hai Bà Trưng Tràng Tiền
Hoàn Kiếm Tràng Tiền
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 Downed B-52 Airplane, Huu Tiep Lake

Downed B52 Hanoi

Hardly anyone makes the journey to see the remains of the downed American B-52 that sits rusting in a lake in Hanoi. That’s partly because it’s so far out of the city centre and partly because most people aren’t particularly interested. Fair enough. But if you do make the journey, either by taxi or by motorbike if you’re brave enough to be riding in Hanoi, you will witness a surreal sight. A mangled section of a small airplane rusts in a tiny lake in a residential square in suburban Hanoi. A school is located directly opposite and while we stood and took photographs and milled about the distinctive noise of children playing echoed around the square. It’s a shame that these kids have to grow up seeing such an ugly reminder of death from above every single day.

Huu Tiep Lake
Ha Noi
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 Temple of Literature and National University

temple of literature Hanoi

The Temple of Literature is by far the most tourist-saturated place we visited in Hanoi. The temple was built in the 11th century, is dedicated to the teachings of Confucious and is the site of the first National University. We didn’t enlist the help of a guide which resulted in us wandering around feeling underwhelmed for an hour or so. That said, the huge stone steles, that look like gravestones balanced on the backs of stone turtles and are carved with intricate Chinese characters, are one of the most unusual and beautiful relics of an ancient civilisation I’ve seen. Cost : 10,000VND

Văn Miếu
Đống Đa
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Bookworm Bookshop

Bookworm, Hanoi

Hanoi has more than one English language bookshop, but Bookworm is known for its friendly staff, restaurant-coffee shop next door, extensive foreign language collection and regular events. We were lucky enough to visit on the same day as their annual Tet festival which meant free arts and crafts demonstrations and traditional food and drinks. Books were expensive to buy but the place had a definite library feel to it so it’s worth a browse even if you’re a kindle-carrying traveller.

Châu Long
Trúc Bạch
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 Vietnam Fine Arts Museum

Fine Arts Museum Hanoi

The Fine Arts Museum in Hanoi was completely empty when we visited. This may not sound like a detail worth remembering but considering the size of the museum it’s pretty remarkable. I’m not sure what they’re doing to keep people away but whatever it is, it’s working. The museum is organised chronologically so offers an easy lesson in the history of Vietnamese art and the collection is really spectacular but it does suffer from a certain sense of abandonment, as though the museum has looked exactly as it does now for many, many years. Too much to see all in one go, I’d suggest taking a couple of runs at it. Cost : 20,000VND

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 St Joseph’s Cathedral

St Joseph's Cathedral Hanoi

Not much to say on this one other than it’s an extremely eerie neo-gothic building that was built in the late 19th century. Built to resemble the Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, the Cathedral was built on the site of a Buddhist temple dating back to the 11th century. A bold strategy by early French colonisers who sought to convert the people of Vietnam to Catholicism – bulldoze a beautiful, sacred temple and put a creepy, haunted castle in its place. Schedule a coffee break when you visit the Cathedral as there are tons of great cafes in the area; a Thai crepe café, a Cong Ca Phe, a churros café and a really good dim sum place too.

66 Nguyễn Thái Học
Điện Biê
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Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum

View of Ho CHi Minh Mausoleum

Where to being on this one. Probably the most intensely strange experience of my trip, possibly even my life, so far. I’m currently attempting to write something about this experience and will share it as soon as it makes any kind of sense. You can get a glimpse of the mausoleum in the distance through this archway and this is seriously about as near as you can get with your camera.

Hùng Vương
Điện Biên
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Hoa Lo Prison Relic

Hao Lo Prison Relic

The ‘Hanoi Hilton’ was for the most part exactly what I expected. A well-conserved and interestingly presented account of a barbaric institution and the suffering endured by many Vietnamese people at the hands of French colonialists and American invaders. The small exhibition on the handful of Americans held in Hoa Lo prison during the war was genuinely surprising, though. I’m used to seeing my propaganda distorted by the rhetoric of objectivity, all ‘facts’ and ‘evidence’ but here the message is clear and undiluted, the American prisoners loved their time at Hoa Lu. Cost : 20,000VND

Hoả Lò
Trần Hưng Đạo
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 Pedalos on Ho Bay Mau

Pedalos On Lake Hanoi

Pedalos are one of those things, like candy floss or a trip to the zoo, that are just as exciting when you’re an adult as they were when you were a child. This excursion began the way most of our bright ideas do, all fun and giggles and a lack of concern for our safety, and ended with both of us sweating and panicking as we pedalled as hard as we could, getting no closer to the shore as our rusty iron swan filled with water. The pedalos are retro to say the least so if you want to make it back to dry land go on a day that isn’t blowing a gale. Cost: 40,000 VND (I think).

Lê Đại Hành
Hai Bà Trưng
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Vincom Tower Cinema and Arcade

During Tet, as you probably know, most of Vietnam closes down completely. As a tourist in Hanoi this is a blessing and a curse. Seemingly unable to survive one day without access to some form of entertainment, processed sausage meat and carbonated beverages we went to the only place that is always open, no matter where in the world you are, no matter what the occasion, the Cinema. The cinema at Vincom Tower in Hanoi is multiplex excess at its finest. We decided to go all in and watch a film in 4D which turned out to be one of the most offensive things I’ve ever experienced – rollercoaster back-breaking chair movements, mist sprayed directly in my eyes and actual smoke released into the screen – and the film was awful too. But, tickets are reasonable, they put cheese on the popcorn and there’s an arcade downstairs that’s so insanely cheap you could have a go on everything at least once. Cost: Tickets for 4DX film are around 150,000 VND

Thái Phiên
Lê Đại Hành
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1 Comment

  • Reply Slow Travel in Hanoi | World & She April 2, 2015 at 11:49 am

    […] we want to eat or drink, a cinema, a lake, somehow a composition begins to emerge. I put together a list of places we visited to show myself, as well as you, how I filled these hours. It never really matters what […]

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