You have a free day in Ha Noi. What can you do? Wow, what a question. I always think the first response to a question is another question. What do you want to get out of the day? Do you want history, culture, ambiance, local color? The easiest way of course to get a little of everything is to organize a tour for the day. Of course you can do this in a group with a prearranged set of places to go or you can plan the day yourself with a driver and guide.
So let’s plan a day in Ha Noi that covers all bases, a sort of pick and mix approach.
Just driving around this vibrant city is an education in itself. The Old Quarter is a must (time allowing) to walk through but as an additional treat, drive down the narrow and frenetically busy streets. Progress will be slow as it always is when heavy traffic flow meets narrow roads. The good news is that this allows you to see and absorb sights and sounds as you crawl along.
Hoan Kiem Lake is the heart of Ha Noi and is a treasure to see and enjoy. Make sure you stop to visit the Ngoc Son (“Jade Mountain”) Temple. Parts of the temple date back to the fourteenth century, although the current buildings were probably built in the eighteenth century. The temple is dedicated to the hero Tran Hung Dao, who defeated a force of 300,000 sent to invade Vietnam by the Mongol Emperor Kublai Khan. Oh and while you are at the Lake, keep a careful eye out for the ancient turtle that is said to live in the lake…..legend says that this will bring you a lot of luck.
Luck is often what you need to negotiate the Hanoi roads but a little skill also comes into play. The key thing is to walk slowly across the road and give clear indications to the motorbike riders what you are doing and then they will weave around you. The same strategy does NOT work for cars….cars you simply avoid!
After Hoan Kiem Lake, a drive through the French Quarter will show you the dramatic difference between the narrow roads and tiny houses of the Vietnamese and the wide tree lined streets and grand buildings of the French during their occupation of the country. The magnificent Opera House is worth a visit if you ever do have a spare evening and fancy a little culture.
Next stop?…...one of the best museums in Ha Noi is in the French quarter, the Museum of Women. It is a very well organized and presented insight into the lives of women in Vietnam past and present. Don’t miss it and don’t miss enjoying a drink in the cafe.
The Temple of Literature is a good option next. This was the first University in Vietnam. There are Temples to honor various scholars of the past, interesting artifacts from the era when it was very active all set within a walled area that exudes peace within this rather noisy and crazy city. it is well worth the trip.
Travelling back north of the city, you come to the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum compound. This is a grand area snuggled in neatly next to the Presidents Palace. Depending on time, you can simply enjoy the outside environment with the splendid view of the Mausoleum set . The Mausoleum itself is a very grand setting worthy of such a revered and respected leader. Go towards the museum and you will see the gardens and get to enjoy the shelter of the trees….very welcome on a hot day. If you are blessed with more time, the Museum is splendid, informative, fun and very quirky. Ho Chi Minh’s house has been reconstructed in the gardens to visit and if you choose to, you can also visit and pay respects to the man himself inside the Mausoleum.
A short drive further north takes you down a road of splendid government buildings to the southern edge of two lakes, on the left is West Lake (the largest of all the lakes in this lake rich city) and Chuc Bach Lake on your right. There are some good places to eat, grab an ice cream, drink or to just sit in this area. You can even take a ride on one of the lakes on a Swan peddalo if the mood takes you. Whatever else you decide to do. don’t miss the oldest of the Pagodas in the city. The Pagoda is called Trấn Quốc Pagoda which is Vietnamese for “Stabilizing the Nation.” It is on West Lake and accessed over a short bridge.
Ha Noi is a city full of hidden treasures which can engage you for years and still throw up surprises for you. It is a city of diversity and high energy with a vibrant street culture that at times enforces the pedestrian to walk in the street or to simply join the locals to have something to eat or drink on the roadside. Is one day enough? Well it’s enough to get a snapshot but if you are intrigued and fall in love with the city as so many people do, you can be assured of finding more and more treasures hidden away just around the corner waiting to be discovered and enjoyed.