Visiting Hanoi

 

Old Quarter

Hanoi's historic heart, the 'Old Quarter', is home to over 1000 years of trade, commerce and activity, with no signs of slowing down. Although its name tends to evoke images of ancient lamp-lit streets lined with the wooden storefronts of traditional artisans, merchants and craftspeople, you'll find the reality of the Old Quarter more gritty than romantic. In spite of this, the Old Quarter is what Hanoi is all about and adjusting your expectations will help you make the most of your time here.

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Hoan Kiem Lake

Legend claims in the mid-15th century Heaven sent Emperor Ly Thai To a magical sword, which he used to drive the Chinese from Vietnam. After the war a giant golden turtle grabbed the sword and disappeared into the depths of this lake to restore the sword to its divine owners, inspiring the name Ho Hoan Kiem (Lake of the Restored Sword).

The area is best Fridays to Sundays when nearby traffic is banned 7pm to midnight and a public-square, funfair vibe takes over.

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Temple of Literature

A rare example of well-preserved traditional Vietnamese architecture, the Temple of Literature honours Vietnam's finest scholars. Founded in 1070 by Emperor Ly Thanh Tong, the attractive complex is dedicated to Confucius (Khong Tu) and was the site of Vietnam's first university (1076). The altars are popular with students praying for good grades; while the pagodas, ponds and gardens of the five courtyards make picturesque backdrops for student graduation photos.

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Bach Ma Temple

In the heart of the Old Quarter, the small Bach Ma Temple is said to be the oldest temple in the city, though much of the current structure dates from the 18th century and a shrine to Confucius was added in 1839. It was originally built by Emperor Ly Thai To in the 11th century to honour a white horse that guided him to this site, where he chose to construct his city walls.

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Hoa Lo Prison Museum

This thought-provoking site is all that remains of the former Hoa Lo Prison, ironically nicknamed the 'Hanoi Hilton' by US prisoners of war (POWs) during the American War. Most exhibits relate to the prison's use up to the mid-1950s, focusing on the Vietnamese struggle for independence from France. A gruesome relic is the ominous French guillotine, used to behead Vietnamese revolutionaries. There are also displays focusing on the American pilots who were incarcerated at Hoa Lo during the American War.

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Hanoi Street Eats

Deciphering Hanoi's street-food scene can be bewildering, but it's worth persevering and diving in. The city's best food definitely comes from the scores of vendors crowding the city's pavements with smoking charcoal burners, tiny blue plastic stools and expectant queues of canny locals. Many of the stalls have been operating for decades, and often they offer just one dish. After that long perfecting their recipes, it's little wonder the food can be sensational.

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