DESTINATION OF THE MONTH
HANOI: FAST-PACED, WITH CENTURIES OF TRADITION.
Vietnam's capital, Hanoi is a full-throttle blend of contrasts, where fast-paced streets give way to serene lakeside Buddhist havens, and centuries of tradition meet French colonial influence and growing high-tech modernity.
Hanoi was founded as the early Vietnamese capital in 1010 and has held a key position in the country's history ever since. But as well as a city crying out to be explored, with ancient temples and unforgettable street food, it's also the starting point for adventures around the country's top natural sights and scenery, from can't-miss Ha Long Bay to mystical mountain landscapes. Here are the must-sees in Hanoi and beyond.
The Old Quarter
You can't visit Hanoi without exploring the Old Quarter. A heaving jumble of streets that pack in diverse shops and street food stalls alongside centuries-old temples, this is the heart of Hanoi. It's less about specific sights than experiencing life in this tangle of lanes, where you're as likely to see wooden furniture and stone carvings being made as you are SIM cards and sweets for sale. Street food abounds and, although it's best to simply wander, there are a couple of must-sees here
Bach Ma Temple
The pagoda entrance to the Old Quarter's best-known landmark is one of the neighbourhood's icons, and the inside of the Buddhist temple makes it well worth a visit to see the ornate decoration and the famous white horse statue that gives the temple its name. It's held to be Hanoi's oldest temple, originally dating from the 11th century, though a lot of the current building dates from the last 300 years
Hoan Kiem Lake
The Old Quarter sits within the area of Hoan Kiem, Hanoi's central business district and home to sights including the Hanoi Opera House and the lake that the district is named after. Hoan Kiem Lake borders the Old Quarter, and is moments from the city's major shopping areas and blaring horns – but it's the perfect contrast if you need to slow things down with some tranquillity. Hoan Kiem Lake is a great place to people-watch, attracting office workers, joggers and groups just socialising. But it also has a major place in Vietnamese legend, and is the site of two historic attractions – Ngoc Son Temple in the north of the lake and Thap Rua, the iconic tower that sits in the middle of the lake
Street food in Hanoi
Food in Hanoi is something to get excited about. Southeast Asia is the centre of the street food universe, and Vietnam's capital does a serious line in fresh, spicy, vibrant flavours, from the national dish of pho to grab-and-go fusion classics like banh mi. But there's a lot more on offer than these familiar favourites; thanks to the country's produce-friendly climate and geography, and its mix of historical influences, Vietnamese cuisine is more diverse than it gets credit for. Seek out banh cuon (a little like steamed spring rolls) and bun cha (barbequed pork served with cold rice noodles and tangy fish broth).
Ho Chi Minh's mausoleum
In 1945 Ho Chi Minh read Vietnam's Proclamation of Independence in Hanoi's Ba Dinh Square. Today you can visit the mausoleum built on the site after his death and see his embalmed body. The building is as impressive as you'd expect and there's an unsurprisingly sombre air inside, where there are strict rules around behaviour and dress. It remains a site of pilgrimage for many and, as one of the most important monuments to Vietnam's modern history, an essential visit in the city.
It's one of the world's most photogenic natural sights, but even the pictures don't do it justice. Nothing beats experiencing Ha Long Bay first-hand, sailing past the thousand-plus rock islands that tower above you in one of the most otherworldly sights on the planet. If Hanoi is Vietnam's first city, Ha Long Bay is the country's first natural attraction.
On the northern coast almost due east of Hanoi, Ha Long Bay is Vietnam's top attraction. Simply put, you need to come here on a trip to Vietnam. It's not just the natural beauty of the huge number of jungle-topped islands and rocky pillars (known as karsts) sticking out of the sea. Or even the utter uniqueness. It's also the strong sense of ancientness – the seascape has formed over millions of years, remaining untouched by the effects of humans, and you can picture the prehistoric people who lived here over 15,000 years ago.
Ha Long Bay is around 100 miles (160km) from Hanoi. You can get a taxi or join a tour bus from the capital, arriving in Ha Long City, where boats set out into the bay – the journey takes three to four hours. If you want to max out your time, consider a stay in Ha Long City – you can browse for hotels with THAI.
Show-stopping Ha Long Bay tends to overshadow Northern Vietnam's other sights, but there's a long list of attractions here that would be national headliners almost anywhere else in the world. Cuc Phuong National Park, just three hours south of Hanoi, is Vietnam's oldest and largest national park, with an extraordinary biodiversity and a limestone karst landscape that's not unlike a land-based Ha Long Bay. The mountains make for excellent hiking with spectacular views of the unbelievably green landscapes.
Cuc Phuong is easily accessible from Hanoi by bus, arriving at Nho Quan, the nearest town to the park, or you can stay in provincial capital Ninh Binh City.
North of Hanoi, the lush greens and towering, misty mountains become even more dramatic, making for Vietnam's best trekking and real outdoor adventure, as the country's wild landscapes stretch towards the Chinese border.
Sapa: Vietnam's trekking Mecca
Vietnam's northern reaches are a spectacular frontier landscape of mountains and distinctive terraced rice fields that have become increasingly popular for trekking expeditions. The hills are also home to indigenous groups who live a traditional way of life. The real centre for exploring this stunning part of the country is the hill station of Sapa, which you can reach via the train from Hanoi to nearby Lao Cai. If you're looking for outdoor adventure in Vietnam and a real insight into traditional cultures, this is the place.
Ba Be National Park
If you want some lake to go with your mountains, Ba Be National Park should be your next stop. A mass of forest, waterfalls, valleys and rivers surrounding Ba Be Lake, the national park is around a six-hour drive from Hanoi, but more than worth the trip. Ba Be is home to spectacular sights such as Thac Bac waterfall and stalactite-covered Hua Ma cave. Kayaking is a great way to explore, and treks can take you to more traditional villages in the park
Fly to Hanoi with THAI and you'll arrive in Vietnam ready to explore. Whichever flight you take from London (there are departures at both lunchtime and evening), you'll get a seamless connection in Bangkok, with a short layover of around two hours. The same goes for the return flight, with a layover under two hours for the connecting flight that brings you back to Heathrow on an Airbus A380.
You can expect the best comfort in the air too. Some flights between Hanoi and Bangkok are operated using the Boeing 787 Dreamliner – one of the world's leading aircraft – and we operate the London-to-Bangkok route using not only our flagship Airbus A380, but also the Airbus A350, the most technologically advanced aircraft in the world. Find out more about our aircraft.
And the same goes for our service; as winners of the World's Best Economy Class at the Skytrax Awards 2017, we're proud of the world-class quality we provide on every THAI flight.
Ready to explore Vietnam? Book your flight to Hanoi with THAI.