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Hanoi - Capital of Vietnam


Hanoi is the capital of Vietnam. In many ways it is a magnificent city and it's easy to spend a lot of time here. Hanoi is the second largest city in Vietnam (after Ho Chi Minh City).

Hanoi Hoan Kiem Lake in 2011

Hoan Kiem Lake in 2011

In the last 1000 years Hanoi has been the political center of Vietnam only interrupted during the Nguyen Dynasty when Hue was the capital. However, the French used Hanoi as capital until 1954 after which it became capital of North Vietnam and after the Vietnam War over all of the country.

It is therefore not surprising the city has a French feel with the French Quarter north of the Hoan Kiem Lake. The city has much to offer. Here is an overview:

  • Hoan Kiem Lake
  • Old French Quarter
  • Water Puppet show
  • St. Joseph Cathedral
  • Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum
  • Hanoi Opera House
  • Temple of Literature
  • Many parks all over the city
  • Hanoi Hilton

Center of Hanoi, it seems is the Hoan Kiem Lake. In the early morning you will see the Vietnamese practicing Tai Chi before the busy life in the city starts.

Hoan Kiem Lake near the Old French Quarter
Hoan Kiem Lake in 1993

At the north side of the lake you will find the Water Puppet Theatre, a must see in Hanoi. Behind the Water Puppet Theatre you will walk into the old French Quarter with its array of shops, markets and cheap hotels. Although some streets can be really busy, some others are remarkable quiet. And don't forget to visit the weekend Night Market.

Hanoi Old French Quarter
The Old French Quarter in Hanoi in 1993

The city is not for nothing called the City of Lakes. Everywhere in the city you will find lakes and parks where it is easy to escape from the busy streets. West of Hoan Kiem Lake in the newer part of the city you will find the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum. This part of the city is also home to many embassies.

Visiting the Ho Chi Minh Mausolem
Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum, 2011.

The Roman Catholic St. Joseph Cathedra is another relic of the French colonial days. The cathedral is still in use by Vietnamese Catholics.

The infamous Hanoi Hilton was in the Vietnam War used to hold prisoners of war. The circumstances were back, hence the bitter nickname Hanoi Hilton.

Hanoi, a beautiful little temple in the heart of the city
Beautiful little temple in the heart of the capitol

Gate at Hoa Kiem Laks, HanoiOne of the most famous and very old types of puppet shows is the Hanoi water puppet show. The theatre at the north side of the Hoan Kiem Lake is a fantastic place to enjoy the show. And after the show you can have a look at how the artist perform their amazing show. Trust me, it is worth the money and time to visit.

Accommodation and Hotels in Hanoi

Hanoi has plenty of hotels in all price ranges. Of course the most popular area is the old (and very busy) French Quarter.

Getting around

The easiest way around is by tricycle or taxi. Make sure you have the price clear before leaving, you have to bargain hard before getting in.

Going around on your own bicycle can be tricky. Some areas in the city are extremely busy and, as in many places in Vietnam, it seems there are few traffic rules.

Hanoi, city of parks
Hanoi, city of parks

The weird thing for me was that walking through the busy streets in the Old French Quarter was a lot more scary than sitting on my bike. Joining the flow felt fine. The traffic doesn't move fast and it seems everyone is taking care of each other. Accidents do happen and going slow is the main objective here.

Walking is an option but a walk from for example Hoan Kien Lake to Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum is a long way.

Getting There and away

There are nicer cities in the world to cycle in. That said, Hanoi is not to hard to get out. The loop in the north west will take some time but is worth all the effort. If you come from the south, you may need to extend your visa first but that is not a problem. In case you want to go direct to Sapa and bring your bicycle, take the train.

The Old French Quarter in Hanoi
The Old French Quarter in Hanoi in 1993

If you only want to see Sapa, you can book a 2 or 3 day tour up and down but it is more rewarding to spend more time in this area. For travelers going south, you probably want to use the train, especially if you want to skip Ninh Binh (which is not recommended as it is worth the visit too).

The Old French Quarter in Hanoi in 2011
The Old French Quarter in Hanoi in 2011, some thing have changed

Ha Long Bay is east of Hanoi. I would recommend to leave your bike in Hanoi and take a 3,4 or 5 day tour to Ha Long Bay. There's not to cycle anyway at Catba.

In case you consider going north, check my route description to Lang Son and what to do in Lang Son

Going south is pretty easy. Just go to the Hanoi railway station and follow the railway. A few kilometers outside the city center you will find a beautiful temple. This is also the junction with the highway around the city.

The temple, though new, is certainly worth a visit. See this page for more details about the road from Hanoi, via Ninh Binh to Vinh.

Images of Hanoi Vietnam Hanoi, cathedral

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