The Viet­namese cap­i­tal of­fers an eclec­tic mix of cul­ture, food, at­mos­phere and his­tory on the banks of the Red River, writes Robert An­der­son

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Hanoi, Viet­nam

De­spite of­ten be­ing de­scribed as a calmer al­ter­na­tive to buzzing Ho Chi Minh City to the South, Hanoi can cer­tainly take your breath away.

Whether it’s the hus­tle and bus­tle of the numer­ous street ven­dors or the seem­ingly end­less buzz of scoot­ers along every al­ley, street and junc­tion, there is plenty to keep every sense en­gaged as you ex­plore one of Asia’s must see cap­i­tals.

The best place to start any visit is the Old Quar­ter, home to the busi­ness hub and many key at­trac­tions as well as a huge num­ber of smaller bou­tique style ho­tels of­fer­ing rel­a­tively cheap lodg­ings.

Here French colo­nial ar­chi­tec­ture com­bines with a more mod­ern Asian twist across nar­row com­mer­cial streets of­ten named af­ter their tra­di­tional busi­nesses from cot­ton to jew­ellery, herbs and silk. Though the wares may have di­ver­si­fied, the area re­mains one of the best places for shop­ping in the city, with hun­dreds of street ven­dors and stores of­fer­ing both tra­di­tional and mod­ern goods in a maze of al­leys and roads. Once you’ve spot­ted the item of your de­sires, hag­gling is a must and an ex­pec­ta­tion as part of the lo­cal shop­ping cul­ture. Dis­counts of 50 per cent or more from the orig­i­nal price are not un­com­mon.

The Old Quar­ter is also fa­mous for its sight­see­ing. On the south-west­ern side you will find the strik­ing St Joseph Cathe­dral, the city’s old­est church. The Neo-Gothic struc­ture dates back to 1886 and serves as a po­tent sym­bol of Viet­nam’s coloni­sa­tion by the French dur­ing the 19th cen­tury. Today it is an im­por­tant base for the city’s thriv­ing Catholic pop­u­la­tion and holds mass reg­u­larly.

A short walk away is Hoàn Kiem Lake, which of­fers some re­prieve from the busy streets. The ‘Lake of the Re­turned Sword’, as it trans­lates, is both a scenic spot with a com­pelling lo­cal leg­end. Ac­cord­ing to the story, in 1428 Em­peror Lê Loi was boat­ing on the lake when a Golden Tur­tle God sur­faced and asked for his magic sword, which he had been given by an­other God to sup­port a re­volt against Ming China. He later re­turned the weapon and the Tur­tle Tower on an in­ac­ces­si­ble is­land in the lake stands as a mon­u­ment to the myth.

On an­other is­land to the north lies the Temple of the Jade Moun­tain, ac­ces­si­ble by a strik­ing red bridge. For a small fee of just over $1 (as is stan­dard for most at­trac­tions) you can cross over and en­joy some great views of the lake and take in the ar­chi­tec­ture and his­tory of the temple, which was erected in the 18th cen­tury and hon­ours 13th cen­tury mil­i­tary leader Tran Hung Dao, scholar Van Xuong and Con­fu­cian master Nguyen Van Sieu.

Also lo­cated nearby is one of Hanoi’s top at­trac­tions, the Thang Long Water Pup­pet The­atre. Water pup­petry is a North­ern Viet­namese tra­di­tion dat­ing back as far as the 11th cen­tury and here it lives on in shows per­formed us­ing a small pool with a back­ing or­ches­tra. Tick­ets are rel­a­tively cheap at less than $5 and it is worth buy­ing early to get seats near the front.

Be­fore or af­ter a show, a good pit stop is one of the sev­eral nearby rooftop bars, cafes and restau­rants, which of­fer pic­ture per­fect views over the nearby lake. One charm­ing ex­am­ple is Café Pho Co, which is hid­den in the back of a shop. Af­ter a slightly pre­car­i­ous jour­ney across a court­yard and up sev­eral flights of stairs you can en­joy a tra­di­tional Viet­namese egg cof­fee with a view – don’t worry, it tastes a lot bet­ter than it sounds.

The lively at­mos­phere of the Old Quar­ter con­tin­ues into the evening, as restau­rants and food stalls to fit every taste and price point open their doors. For cheap Viet­namese cui­sine and bev­er­ages, in­clud­ing the fa­mous spring rolls, a must try ex­pe­ri­ence is Pub Street, where tightly packed venues com­pete for tourist traf­fic along a nar­row al­ley lined with plas­tic chil­dren’s chairs to seat cus­tomers.

Those in search of more au­then­tic cui­sine can take a street food tour to sam­ple some of the best the city has to of­fer for around $20-25 per per­son, or set­tle for a more tra­di­tional restau­rant. For the lat­ter, Du­oung’s Restau­rant and Cook­ing Class of­fer some of the best Viet­namese eat­ing in the city.

Af­ter a busy day and night in the Old Quar­ter it is worth ven­tur­ing out to sam­ple more of what the thriv­ing cap­i­tal has to of­fer.

One of your first stops in the morn­ing should be the Ho Chi Minh Mau­soleum, the fi­nal rest­ing place of the Viet­namese Com­mu­nist rev­o­lu­tion­ary leader. Af­ter some­times lengthy queu­ing you can catch a brief glimpse of the for­mer pres­i­dent and prime min­is­ter’s em­balmed body, which lies in a glass case with a con­stant mil­i­tary hon­our guard. Nearby you can see the dis­tinct yel­low Pres­i­den­tial Palace – where Ho Chi Minh is said to have re­fused to live due to its grandeur –and sev­eral other struc­tures he in­hab­ited dur­ing his governance of the coun­try in­clud­ing a tra­di­tional Viet­namese stilt house.

The nearby Ho Chi Minh Mu­seum of­fers fur­ther in­sights into the Viet­namese leader’s life and achieve­ments or you can ex­plore the One Pil­lar Pagoda, one of Viet­nam’s two most iconic tem­ples, which dates back to the reign of Em­peror Lý Thái Tông in 1049.

From the mau­soleum com­plex, a 15-minute walk to the north will take you to the shores of Hanoi’s West Lake and the Tran Quoc Pagoda, the city’s old­est Bud­dhist temple. Aside from its strik­ing pagoda tower, the sixth cen­tury site is home to numer­ous shrines, relics and stat­ues. Other spir­i­tual stops in­clude the nearby Quán Thánh Temple, which dates back to the 11th cen­tury and fea­tures a large bronze statue of one of the prin­ci­ple deities of Tao­ism, Xuan Wu.

Some dis­tance away to the south are the numer­ous court­yards of the Temple of Lit­er­a­ture, which was con­structed in 1070 and later hosted Viet­nam’s first univer­sity from 1076 to 1779 be­fore serv­ing as a hospi­tal dur­ing the French oc­cu­pa­tion.

Other key his­tor­i­cal sites in­clude the Im­pe­rial Ci­tadel of Thang Long, lo­cated just a short walk from the mau­soleum. The UNESCO World Her­itage Site dates back to the Lý dy­nasty and was sub­se­quently ex­panded with palaces and other struc­tures in­clud­ing sev­eral build­ings con­structed by the French. Also on the site is the iconic Flag Tower of Hanoi, which was built in 1812 and is fre­quently used as a sym­bol of the city, and the Viet­nam Mil­i­tary His­tory Mu­seum, which plays host to ve­hi­cles, jets and equip­ment used dur­ing the Amer­i­can/ Viet­nam War.

An­other re­minder of the city’s his­tory can be found at Hoa Lò Prison just to the south­west of the Old Quar­ter. The name Hoa Lò, which trans­lates into fiery fur­nace, orig­i­nally re­ferred to the num­ber of stores sell­ing stoves dur­ing the pre-colo­nial pe­riod but it also ap­pro­pri­ately de­scribes the hellish con­di­tions po­lit­i­cal pris­on­ers were held in by the French, who con­structed the jail­house. An­other sec­tion de­tails the site’s use to house Amer­i­can pris­on­ers dur­ing the Viet­nam War like US Se­na­tor John McCain, who was shot down while on a bomb­ing mis­sion over the city.

A pop­u­lar es­cape from the chaos of Hanoi’s streets is a cruise along Ha Long Bay to the east. The UNESCO World Her­itage Site is around three to four hours’ drive from the cap­i­tal, but when you get there it will seem worth every minute as you take in the serene com­bi­na­tion of emer­ald wa­ters and lush lime­stone is­lands dot­ting the hori­zon.

Cruises typ­i­cally last from a few hours to up to three days If you opt to stay on-board, rooms are typ­i­cally small but com­fort­able and most boats have a size­able in­door dining area with a view to es­cape the heat. Pricier boats even of­fer pri­vate ter­races, cook­ing classes, Jacuzzis and allinclu­sive a la carte menus with some of the best food you’re likely to come across in this part of Viet­nam.

Length­ier ex­cur­sions typ­i­cally in­clude day trips to pre­vent cabin fever, with kayak­ing, cav­ing and hik­ing all part of the itin­er­ary, or you can and just sit back and re­lax on the top deck while soak­ing in the al­lur­ing views un­til the sun goes down.

A fit­ting way to en­joy the best of a truly en­gross­ing coun­try.

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