Taking the night train back to Hanoi after our Sa Pa adventure, we arrived at the city’s station at 5.30 am. Despite the early hour of the day, there were already some people on the streets either preparing food or doing their morning exercises next to the Hoan Kiem Lake. Luckily, we found a place for breakfast that was already open in the Old Quarter, the King Café. So we enjoyed some eggs and bread while planning the next couple of hours in Hanoi.
We had decided to only spend this one day in Hanoi and to go on to Hue in the evening, again taking a night train. So we did not check in to a hotel, but dropped our big backpacks at the Ethnic Travel office where we had also booked our train tickets for Hue. And then we started to explore the city.
How to make the most of one day in Hanoi
Ho Chi Min Mausoleum, Ho Chi Minh Museum, One Pillar Pagoda and Presidential Palace
The first sight on our list was the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum located in the centre of Ba Dinh Square. Visitors queue up in front of the entrance of the marble monument every morning to pay their respect to the embalmed body of the Vietnamese revolutionary and president, lying in a glass sarcophagus inside. You need to dress modestly to be allowed to enter Ho Chi Minh’s final resting place and photography in the mausoleum is strictly forbidden. The mausoleum is usually closed around September to October while the body goes to Russia for maintenance, so check before you go.
Other attractions located in the Ho Chi Minh complex are the Ho Chi Minh Museum and the One Pillar Pagoda. The museum, constructed in 1990, is dedicated to the former Vietnamese leader’s life, grouped into eight themes starting with his childhood. The One Pillar Pagoda, one of the most iconic temples in Hanoi, is situated right next to the museum. As the name suggests the pagoda rises from a pillar in the centre of a square shaped pond. It is said to represent a lotus flower growing out of the water.
It is also worthwhile stopping at the Presidential Palace which is also close to the mausoleum. The ochcre French Colonial building was built by Auguste Henri Vildieu in 1906, a French architectural adjutant who was in charge of the construction of several buildings for the colonial government in Hanoi. The beautiful Beaux-Arts palace formerly housed the French Governor-General of Indochina. After Vietnam’s independence in 1954 Ho Chi Minh refused to live in the opulent building, but preferred a modest cottage on the premises instead and later on moved into a traditional stilt house. The Presidential Palace is not open to public as it is used for official receptions nowadays. But you can visit the Ho Chi Minh stilt house every day of the year.
West Lake – Historic pagodas
We continued our walk through the city heading towards the West Lake, locally known as Tay Ho Lake, to visit two main attractions surrounding Hanoi’s largest fresh water lake.
The Quan Thanh Temple is located crossroads of Thanh Nien Street and Quan Thanh Street. We walked to this sight from the Presidential Palace and it took us five minutes. Built during the reign of King Ly Thai To (1010 to 1028), it is one of Hanoi’s four sacred temples built to defend the ancient Thang Long capital city. The temple is also called Tran Vu temple, since it is dedicated to Huyen Thien Tran Vu, the God who guarded the North.
The Tran Quoc Pagoda situated on a small island was built by King Ly Nam De as a cultural symbol of Vietnamese Buddhism in the 6th century, making it Vietnam’s oldest pagoda. It is a really nice and quiet place with a pagoda in ancient style, many shrines and old bonsai trees. The pagoda is open daily and visitors must be decently attired.
Flag Tower of Hanoi and Temple of Literature
After our visit to the Quan Thanh Pagoda we took a rickshaw to the Flag Tower of Hanoi, an important landmark of the city and part of the Hanoi Citadel. We did not visit the Vietnam Military History Museum the tower today belongs to, but continued in the direction of the Temple of Literature.
Fifteen minutes later we entered the complex of well-preserved traditional Vietnamese architecture. Dedicated to the Chinese philosopher Confucius the Temple of Literature is not of religious origin, but the site of Vietnam’s first university, established in 1076 to teach the children of families of noble birth. The temple complex consists of two gardens, one courtyard taken up by a large pond called “well of heavenly clarity” and two other courtyards with large structures, such as the Great House of Ceremonies. The sight is closed on Mondays.
After visiting the Temple of Literature we had lunch at Quan An Ngon, a food court just 15 minutes away. This place offers delicious street food in a very nice setting. It was pretty crowded at lunch time, so we had to wait a while until we were seated. The courtyard was frequented by locals mostly, sitting at large tables enjoying the variety of food. We ordered a Vietnamese beef and noodle soup (Phở bò chín), fried pancakes with shrimps and pork (Bánh xèo nhân tôm thịt) and stir fried egg noodles with beef and vegetables (Mì xào bò). Everything was freshly prepared in the food stalls surrounding the yard sitting area. Mmh, it was so yummy! Prices were reasonable for the quality and portions.
As the name suggests the highlight of the French Quarter is the architecture. Compared to the Old Quarter this neighbourhood with its grand boulevards, parks and ochre French era villas is far less hectic. Wandering around in this area we passed by the gorgeous Opera House, noble government buildings and museums housed in colonial villas. There is also a busy shopping street where you can find art galleries and bookshops, restaurants and hotels.
The popular Old Quarter located near the Hoan Kiem Lake is the busy heart of Hanoi and main tourist destination. It is an area bustling with tons of people and traffic and of course, motorbikes beeping constantly. Strolling through the district with its ramshackle buildings housing shops, street restaurants and bia hois is both fascinating and strenuous. Despite of our former adventure in Ho Chi Minh it was again an intriguing experience to be in such a vibrant city. The Old Quarter is a good place to get decent street food or have a “bia hoi” (popular Vietnamese draught beer) at one of the neighbourhood drinking spots. You just need to look out for people sitting on small plastic strolls on the footpaths and drinking beer out of plastic jugs. And that is also how our day in Hanoi ended – with a cold bia hoi in our hands.
The Old Quarter is less about visiting sights than more about walking up and down the streets soaking up the authentic atmosphere of the city. I do, however, want to mention two attractions in the neighbourhood. The first one is the St Joseph’s Cathedral, a Roman Catholic cathedral inaugurated in 1886. With its neo-Gothic style it resembles Notre Dame de Paris. It is situated on a square surrounded by trendy cafés and shops nearby. It is only a stone’s throw from there to the famous Water Puppet Theatre. We did not have the chance to attend one of the performances, but it might be a good opportunity to escape the hustle and bustle of the city for a while.
Hoan Kiem Lake
Hanoi’s most popular lake is centrally located and only a few minutes’ walk away from the Old Quarter. The wooden red-painted The Huc Bridge connects the shore with Jade Island on which the Temple of the Jade Mountain stands. In the centre of the lake is another small island with a stone pagoda, the Turtle Tower linked to the lake’s legend. But you cannot get to it.
It was definitely a challenge to explore the city in only one day. Nevertheless we managed to see the major attractions and more importantly got a first impression of the city life. We hope to come back one day and then we will spend more time at this fascinating place.