With lakeside temples, water puppets and legends galore, the Vietnamese capital makes for a rich meeting place of history and culture.
Once known as Thang Long, or "Rising Dragon", Hanoi has an air of mystery about it which wafts up out of its lakeside temples and becomes scented with the aromas of delicious cuisine as it floats through the marketplaces, accompanied by the exotic sounds of water-puppet music.
The city has a population of 2.6 million and first became the nation’s capital over a millennium ago when it was still known as Thang Long. In 1831 it received its new name, Ha Noi, which means “Between Two Rivers”. Since then, it has been successively swallowed up into the make-up of French Indochina, occupied by the Japanese and bombed by the Americans, and a walk through the city will show you evidence of all of these twists and turns of history.
For a taste of traditional Vietnamese arts and craft, a good place to start is the Old Quarter. Head to Don Xuan Market, a great place to barter for souvenirs and try out Vietnamese and French food. "Pho", the rice noodle soup, is a must – and you’ll never be too far from a bottle of Bia Hoi, Vietnam’s favourite tipple. When you’re in these markets – or, for that matter, anywhere in Vietnam – there is one thing to remember: it is considered rude to point with the finger, so you should always gesture with your whole hand.
On a free evening, try and catch a show or two at Thang Long Water Puppet Theatre – these captivating performances are a great way in to Vietnam’s legends and cultural history. You can learn more about the tales of this old tradition by heading down to the lakes and visiting the temples there. The ones by Hoan Kiem ("Lake of the Restored Sword") and Ho Tay ("West Lake") are good starting points.
For those more interested in Vietnam’s recent history, it may be worth dropping in to the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum and paying a visit to the nation's former leader. Like Lenin in Moscow and Chairman Mao in Beijing, Ho Chi Minh's body has been embalmed and preserved for posterity. The Ho Chi Minh Museum provides an interesting and informative insight into the past.
Hanoi is a good place to organise boat trips through the karst landscapes and turquoise waters of Ha Long Bay.
Getting around Hanoi is easy on the buses which provide a good, cheap service all over the city. Otherwise you could rent a bike, or hail a “cyclo” or a taxi – just make sure you always fix a price in dong (the local currency) with the drivers before you climb in, because they have been known to ask for extortionate prices on arrival!