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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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