• Faulkner Deal posted an update 1 year, 2 months ago


    While myths and ancient history add colour and curiosity to the oldest capital city in SE Asia, more recent history accounts for the city’s present face, aged and worn in many places, but lively, full of character and ever-changing in expression. Exploring the Vietnamese capital can, for those with traffic tolerance, be a delight; the visitor is constantly surprised by the different quarters of the city, quite distinct in appearance and historical associations.

    Watch out for pickpockets. Lenin did, but he still got robbed. If you find this assertion somewhat unconvincing due to the fact that Lenin never visited Hanoi, then just check out his statue, which went up in Hanoi around the time most of the rest of the communist world brought his effigies crashing to the ground. Called the ‘stop thief’ statue, he looks slightly startled and as though he is fishing in his pocket for his wallet, whilst pointing at a fleeing pickpocket and shouting ‘stop, thief’.

    Thanks to its free enterprise boom Hanoi is, undeniably, a manic place, with its 24-7 background din of shrieking horns and squealing tyres. Along with all the cacophony it does, however, also have worthwhile and charming attractions and so deserves at least a short visit, except for those visitors who have a nervous disposition, who should probably avoid the place.

    Vietnam visitors who arrive from Saigon needing a vacation from their vacation will find that Hanoi is a big improvement. Whilst most of the city is about as laid-back as juggling with Semtex, it does have plenty of cultural bolt-holes from the bedlam on the streets. It is well worth while checking out at least some of the following attractions.

    Hanoi – Top Ten

    1. One Pillar Pagoda

    Reminiscent of what the English call a "folly", One Pillar Pagoda was first built in 1049 during the Ly Dynasty, on the west side of the ancient capital of Thang Long. According to legend, one night in a dream, the old and childless King Ly Thai Tong saw the goddess of Mercy perched on a lotus flower, offering him a son. Soon after the queen got pregnant and fulfilled the premonition. The king thanked the goddess by building the pagoda in a lotus pond and naming it Dien Huu, which means ‘good luck’. The luck ran out in 1954 when, piqued at being run out of Vietnam, the French burned the building to the ground. Its replacement was built the following year, the eponymous pillar reconstructed in concrete. One Pillar Pagoda has perhaps the most pleasing shape of Hanoi’s several pagodas. These are generally more captivating in their details than in their overall designs, which tend to be not quite so graceful as those found elsewhere in southeast Asia.

    2. Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum

    Born in 1890, Ho Chi Minh was the son of a Confucian scholar. During his youth, he did menial Mcjobs around the world and was influenced by the radical influences he encountered in, ironically, America. Ho Chi Minh subsequently developed into a revolutionary who assisted and then led the ejection of successive occupiers of his motherland: the French, then the Japanese and finally the Americans. President from 1955 until his 1969 death, he was the founder of the modern nation. Vietnam’s Communist government accords him a god-like status reinforced by a nationwide personality cult. At the centre of the state religion of Ho Chi Minh worship is his mausoleum, which was designed in typically grandiose but leaden style by the Soviets. They managed to take control of the building project as, they argued, the Vietnamese lacked their experience in stuffing, pickling and displaying dead leaders. Few Hanoians visit these days. It used to be popular back in the days when it was the only air-conditioned public building in the city and therefore gave visitors a welcome respite from the heat. It is easy to imagine what the spirit of Uncle Ho (aka Ho Chi Minh) makes of the place, as he left instructions in his will that he was to be cremated.

    3. Temple of Literature (Van Mieu)

    Vietnam’s most famous Confucian temple, Van Mieu originally housed the country’s first university, the Imperial Academy, which was designed to educate bureaucrats, royalty and other members of the elite. The university lasted over 700 years, from 1076 to 1779, during which time over 2,000 doctors graduated. In 1484, Emperor Le Thanh Tong founded the tradition of carving the names of university laureates on stone steles cemented onto the backs of stone turtles. The temple is squarely planted at the heart of the Vietnamese identity, with its likeness featured on the back of the one hundred thousand Dong banknote.

    4. The Fine Arts Museum

    The Fine Arts Museum occupies the building that once served as the French Ministry of Information. Classical with eastern twists, the museum houses impressionist, abstract, realist and even ‘superrealist’ paintings and sculptures along with wood carvings, antique reproductions and block prints. The section displaying ancient Vietnamese art treasures is particularly worthwhile. Somewhat unusually for Vietnam, none of the exhibits are obvious fakes.

    5. Thang Long Water Puppet Theatre

    One of Hanoi’s most amusing attractions, the water puppets have performed at arts festivals everywhere from Hong Kong and Spain to Switzerland. The theatre lies just over the road from Hoan Kiem lake. Cross slowly because the traffic is even crazier than normal for Hanoi.

    6. Hoan Kiem (‘Lake of the Returned Sword’)

    "For nature lovers, the view of Hoan Kiem Lake is astounding" says the Vietnamese Tourist Authority. ‘Astounding’ is probably pushing it, but few would deny that the sprawling stretch of water smack in the heart of the old quarter is pleasant and voyeuristically entertaining. Watch out for exercise nuts doing knee bends, windmills and bust-enlargement exercises. After completing a leisurely lap of the lake, why not step onto one of the staffed scales dotted around the path that rings the lake?
    ฮานอยเฉพาะกิจ may, depending on which set of scales you pick, discover that you have miraculously lost five kilos.

    7. Ly Thai To statue

    Emperor Ly Thai To founded the Ly dynasty (1010-1225) and its ancient capital of Thang Long (‘ascending dragon’), now downtown Hanoi, in 1010. According to one story, Ly Thai To came up with the fancy name after seeing a great, golden dragon rising above the site towards heaven. Maybe such beings really existed in ancient times, despite the lack of any archaeological evidence. Or maybe the brains of the rulers of the time went periodically AWOL, as they didn’t know the hallucinogenic properties of some of their favourite intoxicants.

    8. West Lake (Ho Tay)

    The biggest lake in central Hanoi, West Lake is one of the city’s top attractions. The lake was once a resort reserved for kings and mandarins who built, on the banks of the lake, a row of beautiful palaces and impressive monuments. The windy 14-kilometre path that winds around the lake introduces the visitor to these and other icons including the remnants of the peach gardens of Nhat Tan and of Tay Ho Temple, one of the three main pagodas devoted to the crusading Goddess Lieu Hanh. On one West Lake island stands the Tran Quoc pagoda.

    9. Tran Quoc

    A flagship of Vietnamese Buddhism, Tran Quoc is Hanoi’s oldest pagoda. Built in the sixth century on the banks of the Red River, the pagoda was shunted to its present position because of river bank erosion. Awash with precious statues, it also features intricate corridors and a bodhi tree taken from a cutting of the original under which Gautama Buddha found enlightenment. Tran Quoc clearly ranks as one of Hanoi’s most eye-catching sights.

    10. Hoa Lo (‘fiery furnace’) Prison

    Just in case you were starting to think that Hanoi is all tasteful imperial splendour, consider Hoa Lo Prison. Or what remains of it: also known as the Hanoi Hilton, the prison has mostly been torn down. The museum that now occupies the shell is fascinating in a macabre way. Originally used by French colonists for political prisoners, the prison was later used by North Vietnam for prisoners of war during the Vietnam War. Engrossingly gross.