As the capital of Vietnam for almost a thousand years, Ha Noi is considered one of the main cultural centres of Vietnam, where most Vietnamese dynasties have left their imprint. Even though some relics have not survived through wars and time, the city still has many interesting cultural and historic monuments for visitors and residents alike. Even when the nation’s capital moved to Huế under the Nguyễn Dynasty in 1802, the city of Hanoi continued to flourish, especially after the French took control in 1888 and modeled the city’s architecture to their tastes, lending an important aesthetic to the city’s rich stylistic heritage. The city hosts more cultural sites than any other city in Vietnam, and boasts more than 1,000 years of history; that of the past few hundred years has been well preserved.
Where to go
Hanoi is sometimes dubbed the “Paris of the East” for its French influences. With its tree-fringed boulevards, more than two dozen lakes and thousands of French colonial-era buildings, Ha Noi is a popular tourist destination.
The tourist destinations in Hanoi are generally grouped into two main areas: the Old Quarter and the French Quarter(s). The “Old Quarter” is in the northern half of Hoan Kiem District with small street blocks and alleys, and a traditional Vietnamese atmosphere. Many streets in the Old Quarter have names signifying the goods (“hàng”) the local merchants were or are specialized in. For example, “Hàng Bạc” (silver stores) still has many stores specializing in trading silver and jewelries.
Two areas are generally called the “French Quarters”: the governmental area in Ba Đinh District and the south of Hoan Kiem District. Both areas have distinctive French Colonial style villas and broad tree-lined avenues. The political center of Vietnam, Ba Đinh has a high concentration of Vietnamese government headquarters, including the Presidential Palace, the National Assembly and several ministries and embassies, most of which used administrative buildings of colonial French Indochina. The One Pillar Pagoda, the Lycée du Protectorat and the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum are also in Ba Dinh. South of Hoan Kiem’s “French Quarter” has several French-Colonial landmarks, including the Hanoi Opera House, the Sofitel Legend Metropole Hanoi hotel, the National Museum of Vietnamese History (formerly the École française d’Extrême-Orient), and the St. Joseph’s Cathedral. Most of the French-Colonial buildings in Hoan Kiem are now used as foreign embassies.
The Old Quarter, near Hoan Kiem Lake, maintains most of the original street layout and some of the architecture of old Ha Noi. At the beginning of the 20th century Hanoi consisted of the “36 streets”, the citadel, and some of the newer French buildings south of Hoan Kiem lake, most of which are now part of Hoan Kiem District. Each street had merchants and households specializing in a particular trade, such as silk, jewelry or even bamboo. The street names still reflect these specializations, although few of them remain exclusively in their original commerce. The area is famous for its specializations in trades such as traditional medicine and local handicrafts, including silk shops, bamboo carpenters, and tin smiths. Local cuisine specialties as well as several clubs and bars can be found here also. A night market (near Dong Xuan Market) in the heart of the district opens for business every Friday, Saturday, and Sunday evening with a variety of clothing, souvenirs and food.
Some other prominent places include the Temple of Literature (Van Mieu), site of the oldest university in Vietnam which was started in 1010, the One Pillar Pagoda (also known as “Chùa Một Cột) which was built based on the dream of king Ly Thai Tong (1028-1054) in 1049, and the Flag Tower of Hanoi (can also be referred as “Cột cờ Hà Nội”). In 2004, a massive part of the 900-year-old Hanoi Citadel was discovered in central Hanoi, near the site of Ba Dinh Square.
A city between rivers built on lowlands, Hanoi has many scenic lakes and is sometimes called the “city of lakes.” Among its lakes, the most famous are Hoan Kiem Lake, West Lake/Hồ Tây and Bay Mau Lake (inside Thong Nhat Park). “Hoàn Kiếm Lake”, also known as Sword Lake, is the historical and cultural center of Ha Noi, and is linked to the legend of the magic sword. West Lake (Hồ Tây) is a popular place for people to spend time. It is the largest lake in Ha Noi, with many temples in the area. The lakeside road in the Nghi Tam – Quang Ba area is perfect for bicycling, jogging and viewing the cityscape or enjoying the lotus ponds in the summer. The best way to see the majestic beauty of a West Lake sunset is to view it from one of the many bars around the lake, especially from The Summit at Pan Pacific Ha Noi (formally known as Summit Lounge at Sofitel Plaza Hanoi).
Ha Noi Opera House modeled on the Palais Garnier in Paris
Under French rule, as an administrative centre for the French colony of Indochina, the French colonial architecture style became dominant, and many examples remain today: the tree-lined boulevards (e.g. Phan Dinh Phung street) and its many villas, mansions, and government buildings. Many of the colonial structures are an eclectic mixture of French and traditional Vietnamese architectural styles, such as the National Museum of Vietnamese History, the Vietnam National Museum of Fine Arts and the old Indochina Medical College. Gouveneur-Général Paul Doumer (1898-1902) played a crucial role in colonial Ha Noi’s urban planning. Under his tenure there was a major construction boom.
Notable French Colonial landmarks in Ha Noi include:
Grand Opera House
St. Joseph’s Cathedral
Long Bien Bridge
French School of the Far East
Tonkin Palace (State Guest House)
Hoa Lo Prison
Cua Bac Church
Ministry of Foreign Affairs building
Supreme Court building
Indochina Medical College
Museum of Revolution
Critical historians of empire have noted that French colonial rule imposed a system of white supremacy on the city. Vietnamese subjects supplied labor and tax revenue, but the privileges and comforts of the city went to the white population. French efforts at rat eradication revealed some of the colonial city’s racial double-standards.
National Museum of Vietnamese History
Vietnam National Museum of Fine Arts
Vietnam Museum of Ethnology
Vietnam Museum of Revolution
Hoa Lo Prison
Ho Chi Minh Museum
Ha Noi Contemporary Arts Centre
Vietnam Military History Museum
Ha Noi Museum
Things to do:
Ha Noi has rich culinary traditions. Many of Vietnam’s most famous dishes, such as “phở”, “chả cá”, “bánh cuốn” and “cốm” are believed to have originated in Ha Noi. Perhaps most widely known is “Phở”—a simple rice noodle soup often eaten as breakfast at home or at street-side cafes, but also served in restaurants as a meal. Two varieties dominate the Ha Noi scene: “Phở Bò”, containing beef and “Phở Gà”, containing chicken. “Bún chả”, a dish consisting of charcoal roasted pork served in a sweet/salty soup with rice noodle vermicelli and lettuce, is by far the most popular food item among locals. President Obama famously tried this dish at a Le Van Huu eatery with Anthony Bourdain in 2016, prompting the opening of a “Bún chả” restaurant bearing his name in the Old Quarter.
Vietnam’s national dish “phở” has been named as one of the Top 5 street foods in the world by globalpost.
Ha Noi has a number of restaurants whose menus specifically offer dishes containing snake and various species of insects. Insect-inspired menus can be found at a number of restaurants in Khuong Thuong village, Ha Noi. The signature dishes at these restaurant are those containing processed ant-eggs, often in the culinary styles of Thai people or Vietnam’s Muong and Tay ethnic people. Dog eating used to be popular in Ha Noi in 1990s and early 2000s but is now dying out quickly due to strong objections.