You can get an e-visa to Vietnam for 30 days, online, easily. 90-day tourist visas will be available in August 2023. Hanoi is a beautiful, vital, exciting city filled with sweet, kind, hardworking and optimistic people. Furthermore, it is an inexpensive travel option filled with interesting things to see and do. Here are, in fact, 10 places you can go to for starters.
1. The Vietnam National Fine Arts Museum
Filled with meaningful art and artifacts from prehistory to the current day, the museum has about 20,000 objects in its collection and, in fact, most of them are quite significant and engaging. There is a Bodhisattva of Mercy from the 1500s which has to be one of the most beautiful and moving sculptures of this bodhisattva ever created and which is considered one of Vietnam’s eight national treasures. What is especially affecting, however, is the art produced during Vietnam’s 30-year period of war to liberate itself and become unified (1945 to 1975). A vast majority of this art is not at all propagandistic, but sincere work reflecting the horrors and trials of the war for the Vietnamese people.
The museum is inside a grand building that the French used as a school for the female children of colonial officials, so wander the corridors and imagine what school life was like here for les petites filles. This museum was the most engaging of all the public places I went to in Hanoi. The museum itself is a national treasure.
2. The Temple of Literature
This large complex (over 50,000 square meters) of ancient buildings among small artificial lakes and greenery was created in the 11th century CE and is considered to have been Vietnam’s first “university”. It was a super highly selective Imperial Academy meant to churn out government officials and scholars from male children of the landowning class.
There are two sections with stone sculptures of turtles supporting stelae engraved with numerous names: the names of the students who scored the highest scores on the tests that were given to determine who would work where. As the school lasted about 700 years, there are lots of stone turtles with lots of names, most of which have been weathered and are nearly or completely illegible now. The turtle is a symbol of eternity. The eternity of standardized testing? Some rooms have been converted so that contemporary students can burn incense and pray to score high on their own standardized tests.
3. Vietnam Women’s Museum
Young women in Vietnam especially love this museum. A teenage girl who wanted to practice her English with me while I sat near the lake in the Old Quarter told me she had been to this museum three times within the past month. It is quite a wonderful place. What stood out for me were the exhibits dealing with marriage rituals and family life among the various ethnic minorities in Vietnam. There is also a large exhibit on the role women played in Vietnams’ war of liberation and unification. You see displays showing the pride and bravery of ordinary Vietnamese women who did extraordinary things when their country called.
I also learned about a remarkable woman named Huỳnh Tiểu Hương, who was orphaned, forced into prostitution, almost killed by her oppressors, and then escaped to ultimately begin adopting orphans herself (over 300) while establishing a thriving social services organization. There is also a dynamic and colorful exhibit about the Hau Bong Ceremony, which is part of a secretive religion embraced by many Vietnamese that incorporates elements of shamanism, magic and Buddhism.
4. Hoa Lo Prison
Most of this prison was torn down so that a modern high rise could be built, even though many Vietnamese freedom fighters suffered and died here. To be fair, the prison was huge and took up a vast area of valuable real estate in Hanoi, and they did leave enough for a museum to be created to show the horrors that Vietnamese suffered at the hands of the French. And, indeed, the interior of the prison that remains is appalling. You can enter the dank, cramped cells in which human beings were fettered (their legs immobilized in wooden stocks) and suffered mercilessly, and this evokes a feeling of intense revulsion. Indeed, the prison shows the ignorant and arrogant contempt the French showed for the Vietnamese people and their desire to be free of an occupying country. A guillotine which was used in numerous executions is also on display.
5. Vietnam Museum of Ethnology
Many people say this is the museum they enjoyed the most in Hanoi. It contains art and artifacts showcasing the 54 different ethnic groups that make up the nation of Vietnam. One of the more interesting things for visitors is that there are replicas of types of housing that has been used by differing ethnicities and folks can wander through the housing seeing how people have lived in different areas of Vietnam through the years.
6. Vietnam Military History Museum and Hanoi Flag Tower plus The Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum
The war museum and the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum are within walking distance, and you can see both of them on the same day. At the war museum, you can see actual tanks and weapons including a vintage MiG fighter. If you do go to see the preserved body of Ho Chi Minh, a man who was driven his entire adult life to see Vietnam become a free country, please be aware that he is a venerated figure to the people of Vietnam and a dress code is required. So please do not show up in short pants, for example. Expect a long line. The Hanoi Flag Tower has become an iconic symbol of the city.
7. Water Puppet Theatre
This is an art form unique to Vietnam and actually quite entertaining…for about 30 minutes. Most performances last about 1 hour, however. This form of puppetry developed in the inundated rice fields of the country and the puppets seem to glide along the water in the various skits performed (the puppets are operated with manual controls and levers under the water by puppeteers behind a screen). I would recommend that you see this type of performance as it is uncommon outside of Vietnam. The traditional Vietnamese folk music which is played along with the performance is definitely worth hearing. If you get tired of the water puppets, just close your eyes and enjoy the highly percussive music.
8. Hoàn Kiếm Lake
If you book a hotel near the lake, you can walk to many of the places on this list. On Friday, Saturday and Sunday night they cordon off the streets around this lake and a big gathering commences with people hanging out and eating the various types of street food available. On the mornings after, groups of volunteers of all ages wander the area, each person with salad tongs and a plastic bag, to pick up all the litter. I smile as I remember this resourceful use of salad tongs and the diligence of the volunteers. Sunday morning a huge gathering of yoga enthusiasts gathers at the lake.
Every morning, starting at sunrise, the lake serves as a place for people to congregate for their morning exercises and you can see people sitting on benches at this lake well into the night. If you are a foreigner expecting to sit down and rest for a while, children might come up to you to practice their English, as English learning center teachers encourage them to do this. They are always grateful when you can chat with them for a while.
The lake’s name means Lake of the Returned Sword. The story goes that while fishing on the lake, King Le Loi’s friend accidentally brought up a long bar of gold. The king realized this was a gift from the gods and produced a magical sword from this gold which he ultimately used to repel invaders from a Ming army. Later, while boating on the lake, a big, golden turtle asked him for the sword back and the king complied. The moral of the story seems to be that the sword which was used to repel invaders to Vietnam should not be used in the governance of the people of Vietnam.
9. Thê Húc Bridge/ Ngoc Son Temple
For a small fee you can cross the red Thê Húc Bridge and visit a temple in the middle of Hoàn Kiếm Lake on Jade Island. The temple is dedicated to a warrior who led an army which pushed back hundreds of thousands of invaders from Mongolia in the 1200s. People still burn incense and pray at this temple, so you are discouraged from taking photos inside.
10. Saint Joseph Cathedral of Hanoi
This is the oldest church in Hanoi, built by the French in the late 1800s in a neo-gothic style meant to be reminiscent of Notre Dame. It is a Catholic Church and, when I attended a service on a Wednesday night, I was surprised to find that many Vietnamese had shown up to worship (there are nightly services in Vietnamese). It is located in the Old Quarter, very close to the Lake of the Returned Sword.