Hanoi and the North
Hanoi is the capital of Vietnam and has sometimes been described as a unique blend of Parisian grace and Asian pace, mixing together its Vietnamese traditions, Asian setting and colonial heritage. Hanoi is a great base to explore the far reaches of the north. In the northeast lies Halong Bay, a Unesco World Heritage Site renowned for its mysterious beauty. Exploring the bay by junk is the highlight of a trip to Vietnam. Nearby Cat Ba Island is emerging as an adventure centre for visitors seeking a buzz, while Bai Tu Long Bay is like Halong Bay in the era before tourism. North of Hanoi lie the Tonkinese Alps, a rugged and beautiful area of mountains that provide a home to the country's minority peoples. These hardy people eke out a living at high altitude and will be encountered in popular destinations like Sapa and Bac Ha in the far northwest of the country.
Hanoi, a charming capital of lakes and tree-lined boulevards, is one of the most pleasant cities in Asia and not unjustly referred to by some as the Paris of the Orient. Stroll around the streets taking in the history and atmosphere of this venerable city, from the bustling Old Quarter with its unique flavour to the grandiose public buildings constructed by the French. The Old Quarter can be explored by cyclo, a popular three-wheeled form of transport. Relax, lean back and take in the incredible dynamism of this city. The Old Quarter is the Asia you imagined when planning your trip from afar. Hanoi is changing fast and from a place with few facilities just a decade ago, it now boasts world class hotels, decadent restaurants and boutique shops, making it the first stop on a visit to Asia’s rising dragon, Vietnam. Catch a performance of the renowned water puppets while in the capital.
Hoan Kiem Lake
Hoan Kiem Lake is the spiritual heart of Hanoi, a lake of legends that Hanoi residents love to visit to practice Tai Chi, or for gossip or romance. Jade Mountain temple sits on an island in the centre of the lake and is a popular spot for photos. Not far from the lake are several stunning examples of French colonial architecture, including the fully restored Opera House and the luxurious Sofitel Metropole Hotel.
This is where Hanoi began almost 1000 years ago and remains the commercial centre of the modern city. Wander the atmospheric narrow streets, each with its own wares and artisans, and pick up some wonderful bargains, including delicate lace, original art and local handicrafts. This is also the place to sample real local life with a snack on the street or a glass of bia hoi (draft beer) with the cyclo drivers.
Ho Chi Minh’s Mausoleum
Looming over Ba Dinh Square, the site where Ho Chi Minh originally declared independence from the French in 1945, is the mausoleum of Vietnam’s great leader. It is a vast marble building, a place of pilgrimage for many Vietnamese and an essential stop for most foreign visitors. It is a somber and austere place where no cameras are allowed, no giggling and no mentioning Madame Tussauds.
Ho Chi Minh’s House
Unlike some of his fellow communists around the world, Ho lived in a simple wooden house in the grounds of the French Presidential Palace. Ho is believed to have lived in the house between 1958 and his death in 1969. The contrast between the grand building of the French period and the humble abode of Ho is striking.
One Pillar Pagoda
Not far from Ho’s Mausoleum is this small pagoda, balanced on one pillar. Originally built in the 11th century, it was destroyed by the French in 1954 only to be rebuilt in the original design of a lotus blossom.
Temple of Literature
This historic 11th century temple offers one of the finest glimpses of traditional Vietnamese architecture and is an important stop on a tour of Hanoi’s heritage. The site of Vietnam’s first university, this sacred place is important to young and old.
This vast lake in the north of the city has emerged as a popular place to stay with a good range of international hotels. There are several important pagodas dotted about the lake, including Tran Quoc Pagoda and the Quan Thanh Temple.
Hanoi is a city of many musuems and some are well worth a visit, including the striking History Museum, the somewhat surreal Ho Chi Minh Museum, the Memorial House in the Old Quarter, the Fine Arts Museum and the Army Museum. The Hoa Lo Prison Museum is located in the former ‘Hanoi Hilton’ where Senator John McCain spent nearly eight years incarcerated. Saving the best until last, the Museum of Ethnology is a must. Showcasing the lives and livelihoods of Vietnam’s kaleidoscopic minorities, the museum was established with assistance from the Musee de l’Homme in Paris.
Around North Vietnam
The north is rich in attractions for the adventurous in spirit from the majestic natural beauty of Halong Bay to the wild mountains of the far north, home to a diverse group of minority peoples.
Halong Bay is an enchanting place, a UNESCO world heritage site where more than 3000 limestone karsts soar skywards from the tropical waters below. Some islands contain hidden lagoons, others major caves, while here and there are sandy coves suitable for a swim. Exploring this natural wonder by luxury boat is undoubtedly a highlight of a journey to Vietnam and should not be missed. Enjoy fresh seafood meals cooked onboard or barbecued on the beach and take in the breathtaking scenery that is simply unique. Cat Ba is the largest island in the bay and offers secluded beaches and traditional fishing villages, as well as forest, mangroves and coral formations around the island. This is the perfect way to get a closer look at local life in Halong bay. See our recommended cruises for more on exploring Halong Bay by boat.
Ninh Binh and around
Halong Bay on the rice paddies is how this area of northern Vietnam is often known. Located north and south of Ninh Binh respectively, Hoa Lu and Tam Coc have a similar feel to the Guilin and Yuanshou area of southern China. Hoa Lu was also a capital of the early Vietnamese Dinh dynasty and while little remains of the original citadel, there are two important temples, Dinh Tien Hoang and Le Dai Hanh. Tam Coc is best explored by boat as there are a series of interlinking caves and rowing through these natural marvels is quite a thrill. Also in the Ninh Binh area is the Endangered Primate Centre in Cuc Phuong National Park, well worth a visit for those interested in gibbons and other primates.
Sapa & the Northwest
Sapa is a stunningly located hill station in the Tonkinese Alps and a gateway to the trekking country and friendly minority groups of the north-west. Founded in 1922 amid towering peaks, the climate is fresh and views magical. Many minority groups venture into the town to sell their unique jewellery and clothing, returning to their isloated villages at night. There are excellent opportunities for adventures around Sapa, including extensive treks through the surrounding countryside and villages, as well as the ultimate challenge of conquering Mt Fansipan, Vietnam’s highest peak at 3143m.There are many other memorable locations in the north-west that can be included in a 4WD circuit of this region, including legendary Dien Bien Phu, site of the famous 1954 battle at which France was defeated as a colonial power in Indochina, and Mai Chau, where colourful minority groups and superb trekking are available in just a short journey from Hanoi. For the ultimate adventure in northern Vietnam, venture into Ha Giang Province, one of the most remote and beautiful areas in the whole country.
Cao Bang & the Northeast
Cao Bang offers the most beautiful scenery of the North-East, including Vietnam’s largest waterfall, the 300m wide Ban Gioc Falls on the Chinese border. Nearby are caves and hillsides for treks and exploration, although it is important for guests to remember that conditions in this remote part of Vietnam are tough and basic. Ba Be Lakes are part of Ba Be National Park in the North-East of Vietnam, a vast region of natural beauty including waterfalls, rivers, lakes and verdant valleys. There are three major lakes and these can be explored by local boat, as well as visits to the impressive waterfalls of Dau Dang and Hua Tang, both also reachable by boat.