Hanoi: Vietnam’s Vibrant and Colorful Capital

December 7, 2015
Hanoi, Old Quarter<Vietnam

A street in Hanoi’s colorful Old Quarter. Photo: Buffalo Tours

Hanoi is the dynamic, colorful, chaotic capital of Vietnam. A center of power for over a millennium, the city has endured numerous wars and occupations to meld native, Chinese and French customs into a rich culture all its own. It is a place where the ancient and modern clamorously coexist. Visiting this fascinating and frenzied city (where simply crossing the street is a hair-raising adventure) is feast for the senses. It’s little wonder that travelers on Tripadvisor recently named Hanoi #4 of the World’s Best Destinations.

I recently spent a day exploring the city with Buffalo Tours. Here are the highlights of Hanoi they shared with me.

Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum, Hanoi, Vietnam

Ba Dinh Square and the imposing Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum. Photo: Buffalo Tours

Ba Dinh Square and Ho Chi Hinh Residences

Ba Dinh Square is a sprawling green and plaza that is one of Vietnam’s most significant and historic sites. This is where Ho Chi Minh read the Vietnam Independence Declaration, marking the birth of the modern nation after decades of French occupation. It was also the site of Minh’s funeral and hosts the nation’s ceremonial parades and pageants.

The square is dominated by the imposing Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum, which is patrolled by sabre-toting Honor Guards. There are often very long lines to view Minh’s embalmed body, but the interior was closed for maintenance when I visited. If you plan to visit, make time for the lines and dress conservatively. Bags and photography are not permitted inside the mausoleum.

My guide was a local and shared how the people of Vietnam venerate Ho Chi Minh as their benevolent leader and protector. In fact, his humble lifestyle and accessibility led to his affectionate nickname – Bác Hồ (“Uncle Ho”).

Directly behind the mausoleum is a complex that includes the former Presidential Palace and two of Ho Chi Minh’s homes – a traditional stilt home and the concrete French-inspired house into which he was moved during the war. Both settings are austere and highlight the modest manner in which Minh chose to live (which further endeared him to the people). One can also peek into the president’s offices and see his collection of cars.

Shrine of One Pillar Pagoda, Hanoi, Vietnam

The gleaming shrine to Quan Am, a symbol of Hanoi. Photo: Jeff Dobbins

Adjacent is the lovely “One Pillar Pagoda,” which is a place of pilgrimage dating back to 1049. Hovering over a lotus pond on a single pillar, the pagoda is designed to resemble a lotus blossom, the symbol of purity. According to legend, the temple was inspired by a dream in which the Holy Lady (Phat Ba Quan Am) handed the king a baby boy…shortly before the birth of the royal heir. Inside the temple is a gilded shrine to Quan Am, the Goddess of Mercy who is a symbol of Hanoi.

Temple of Literature, Hanoi, Vietnam

The tranquil Temple of Literature. Photo: Buffalo Tours

Temple of Literature

The Temple of Literature is an ancient complex of courtyards, gardens and pavilions of exemplary Vietnamese architecture (which, due to wars and occupations, is relatively scarce). Founded in 1070, the temple is dedicated to Confucius and honors Vietnam’s finest scholars. In 1076 it became the nation’s first university, where for centuries students gathered to study Confucianism, literature and poetry. During my visit, the grounds were teeming with jovial students in graduation cap and gown. My guide explained that education is crucial to Hanoi’s youth, so they invest great care and expense in graduation photos. The temple, where literature and learning are venerated, is a favorite spot for these photos. It was wonderful to wander this picturesque space, where Vietnam’s glorious past and bright future intersect.

Temple of Literature, Hanoi, Vietnam

Altar venerating Confucius and students strike a pose in the Temple of Literature. Photos: Jeff Dobbins

Lunch at Home Restaurant

Aware that lunch was included in my tour itinerary, I expected a quick bite of simple local fare. So imagine my delight at the exquisite feast I enjoyed at Home restaurant. While studying the set menu, wondering how I would ever choose, several delicious items arrived. They were followed my more scrumptious fare…then even more. I devoured a bountiful ten dishes, each incredibly delicious. Among my favorites were the chicken and lotus seed broth, wok-fried prawns, braised pork spare ribs and caramelized fish in a clay pot. Home’s ambience, a former French colonial mansion that (like the menu) combines tradition with modern chic, complimented the superb meal. When I return to Hanoi (which I certainly will), dining again at Home will be a highlight.

Alley in Old Quarter of Hanoi, Vietnam

Alley leading into one of Hanoi’s ancient markets. Photo: Jeff Dobbins

Hanoi’s Old Quarter Markets

After lunch we delved deep into the markets of Hanoi’s Old Quarter, a warren of merchants and factories that spill into the narrow streets and alleys. For over a millennium these markets have developed their own culture and customs. For instance, I learned that most locals shop the markets twice daily for fresh produce, fish, meat and spices – morning and afternoon. In between, merchants have lunch amongst their goods and often nap atop their wares.

Merchants in Hanoi’s fascinating markets. Photos: Jeff Dobbins

I was fascinated by the sights, sounds and scents or this lively, exotic world. I marveled at sidewalk barbers, clamorous blacksmiths, women selling fresh crabs in baskets or poultry from a bicycle handlebars, a factory sculpting Styrofoam into decorations and sidewalk artists taking orders for custom gravestones. I loved peering into dim alleys that led to back houses and interacting with merchants (with a lot of help from my guide). This was a remarkable odyssey for the mind and senses.

Coffee at Giang Café

Hanoi Egg Coffee

A rich “egg coffee” at at Giang Café. Photo: Jeff Dobbins

For an afternoon pick-me-up, we weaved through the Old Quarter’s hidden lanes to Giang Café. As we entered the drab space full of locals, Hanoi hipsters and expats squatting on low stools, I was dubious. However, once I tasted the house specialty, ca phe trung or “egg coffee,” I realized why it’s renowned. Made of egg yolk, Vietnamese coffee powder, sweetened condensed milk, butter and cheese, the frothy coffee concoction was creamy, sweet and satisfying.

Hoan Kiem Lake and Ngoc Son Temple

Perched on a small island on Hoan Kiem, the lake at the center of historic Hanoi, is the temple of Ngoc Son (Jade Mountain). The compact pagoda is dedicated to a 13th century warrior, the patron saint of physicians, and a revered scholar. Another classic example of Vietnamese style, it contains an altar and fine ceramics. Look for the huge stuffed turtle that, according to legend, took the magic sword that drove the Chinese from Hanoi and returned it to gods in the depths of the lake. Hoan Kiem means “Lake of the Restored Sword.”

Water Puppets, Hanoi, Vietnam

A performance at Hanoi’s water puppet theater. Photo: Jeff Dobbins

Thang Long Water Puppets

Finally, I attended a performance of water puppets, the ancient art form that is believed to have developed in (or around) Hanoi. The colorful wooden puppets perform on a “stage” of water, operated by skilled puppeteers who are concealed behind a screen. Simple yet ingenious, I was mesmerized by the comic scenes of village life, dances, battle scenes, and legendary creatures like water-spewing serpents and fire-breathing dragons, all accompanied by accomplished musicians and vocalists. Note: there is a “camera fee,” so you should pack yours away until you have entered the auditorium (where photos are customary). My guide applied some charm to have the fee waived for me. I loved every moment of the 50-minute show that introduced me to a beautiful form of theater.

Generally I prefer to explore independently, but I’m so glad I was able to discover Hanoi with Buffalo Tours. The heart of the city is a labyrinth – one I would have wasted considerable time trying to navigate solo. Hanoi has little public transit, so the luxury of a car and driver to whisk us between venues allowed us to visit far more sites. Admission to all attractions was included, so there no waiting in line for tickets or fumbling for correct change. And the rich information my guide shared about Hanoi’s culture, customs, history, mythology and the local perspective added depth to each experience. It was a particular delight to connect with locals with the assistance of my guide. All of that, combined with a sumptuous lunch, made for a truly VIP experience.

My tour was Buffalo Tours’ Essence of Hanoi: Monuments and Alleyways, one of their new Essence Tours – private guided tours combining regional highlights, unique cultural experiences and culinary delights at excellent local restaurants. Buffalo Tours is a team of experts who customize journeys in 11 countries across Asia. They create multi-day and multi-country journeys, including an array of Vietnam tours. Their goal: “to connect people and cultures through extraordinary journeys.” This was certainly achieved during my remarkable day in Hanoi.

While my tour with Buffalo Tours was complimentary, all opinions are my own.

Old Quarter, Hanoi, Vietnam

Late afternoon in Hanoi’s Old Quarter. Photo: Jeff Dobbins

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