If you’re starting or ending your trip in Hanoi it’s a great way to immerse yourself into Vietnamese culture, pick up any last souvenirs or enjoy your first bowl of pho. It’s pricier than most other places in Vietnam but still very affordable. The main tourist areas include the Old Quarter and the French Quarter which both border Hoan Kiem Lake in the center of the city. If you happen to be getting off an overnight bus or train, head to the lake before 7 am to catch the walkways jammed packed with locals practicing tai chi.
There are a number of city sights worth checking out that will keep you busy in between your trips to Sapa and Halong Bay. One of the most famous attractions in all of Vietnam is the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum where at no cost you can see the interred body of the famous Vietnamese leader. No pictures inside are allowed as you quickly shuffle through the main viewing area and back outside again.
Afterwards, for a small entrance fee you can visit Ho Chi Minh’s home where he lived right up until he died in 1969. On the same grounds is the sprawling, multi-story Ho Chi Minh Museum which if you’ve arrived midday, offers a nice air-conditioned break from the unrelenting heat. More art gallery than museum, it offers contemporary pieces and a historical background on the war of a highly propagandist nature.
For a chilling inside into the harsh realities of those imprisoned during the war, check out the Hoa Lo Prison, better known as “Hanoi Hilton”. Completed in 1901 it was originally built by the French to house Vietnamese who conspired for independence. It was then later used throughout the war to house POW’s. The small section that remains shows the shackles and decrepit conditions that the inmates had to endure, many of whom died within the prison walls. There are a number of other museums most within walking distance of the lake district or a short cab ride away that are also worth checking out if time allows.
Accommodation in Hanoi is not as centralized as Ho Chi Minh’s Pham Nga Lam street, with hostels and guest houses spread out between the Old Quarter and around the lake. This might be the one place in Vietnam you want to arrange accommodation in advance to save yourself a lot of walking around, especially if you’ve just arrived off an overnight bus from the south.
Jen’s Overall Rating: I personally prefer Ho Chi Minh over Hanoi, but everyone’s opinion differs on this matter. It’s a great base for excursions to Sapa and Halong Bay and the city offers lots to see and do if you get stuck waiting out a typhoon on Halong Bay.