Hanoi City & Tourist Information

Vietnam today
Street life
Pete Peterson's motorbike tour of Hanoi
Map with some recommended sites in Hanoi

click to enlargeVietnam today
Vietnam is a fascinating country of stunning beauty, traditional charm, with a highly cultured and friendly people. From the glistening iridescent green rice paddies that stretch from north to south, to the jutting rock formation of Ha Long Bay in the east, from the waterways of the Mekong delta to the peak of the "Mountain Citadel" on the northern border, Vietnam offers more than most people can hope to see in one vacation and much more than this site can describe. For more information about traveling in Vietnam see our links.

Hanoi became the capital of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam in 1954; 22 years later, in 1976, it became the capital of the unified Socialist Republic of Vietnam. The city has grown from a population of 130,000 in 1930 to 3 million today. It is a city where old and new collide--often quite literally.

Street life
Everything happens in the streets. They resound with beeping horns and screeching brakes, and traffic lights are a new phenomenon at most major intersections. But beware--not everyone obeys them. Women wind their way between the endless stream of motorbikes carrying baskets balanced on poles with freshly cut flowers, vegetables, fruits and chickens bound for market. Steel girders are transported to building sites using bicycles or a cyclo. The city's sidewalks teem with entrepreneurs. Women set up portable food stands, and serve soups, rice and noodles. Bike mechanics hunker beside their tire pumps and wrenches, awaiting their next client.

Pete Peterson's motorbike tour of Hanoi

Like most foreigners living in Hanoi, Ambassador Peterson enjoys getting on his Honda Dream II motorbike and touring the city streets.

Here are his recommendations of what to see in the central part of Hanoi.

Click on the numbered spot for more information
Map of Hanoi

1. National History Museum
This is Vietnam's leading museum and a center for cultural and historical research. It features exhibits designed so that the viewer can walk through the different periods of Vietnam's history. Four thousand year-old bronze Dong Son drums and funeral urns along with Nguyen Dynasty pieces from the early 19th century are among the treasures housed here.

click to enlarge2. Opera House; Opera Square.
The Opera House built in 1911 is indicative of the French colonial architecture. It was completely refurbished in 1998 and is the premier location for performances. In front of the Opera House is a large intersection where six streets converge, creating a free-for-all as people weave around each other on motorbikes and bicycles. If you feel brave enough to walk across it, make sure you walk slowly and maintain your pace. It's okay to stop if you feel you need to, but never make a sudden change of direction.

click to enlarge3. Pho Shop
What bacon and eggs are to the American breakfast, pho is to the Vietnamese. Often translated as "noodle soup," pho has no real English equivalent as it's a soup unique to Vietnam. It's made with chicken or beef and special spices. Each pho shop is run by a family that has its own secret variation. The place Vi and I often go to is one of the many pho shops on Le Van Huu street.

click to enlarge4. Hoa Lo Prison AKA "Hanoi Hilton"
What's left of the prison where I was imprisoned for some of my six and-a-half years during the war is now a museum. Called "Maison Centrale" by the French, most of the prison was destroyed for the construction of Hanoi Towers, a skyscraper that houses apartments and offices. Most of the exhibits in the museum focus on the years when the prison was run by the French and housed Vietnamese prisoners, but one small room houses exhibits from American POWs as well.

5. Army Museum
The Army Museum contains military displays portraying Vietnam's military campaigns during the "American War." It is worth seeing because it provides the Vietnamese perspective on the conflict between America and Vietnam. You may not agree with what the signs say--but it is useful to hear the other side of the story.

click to enlarge6. Ho Chi Minh's Mausoleum and Museum
Modeled after Lenin's tomb in Moscow, this stark concrete structure houses the embalmed body of much-revered Ho Chi Minh. If you come early, you will see hundreds of Vietnamese lined up to pay their respects to "Uncle Ho." After the mausoleum, you can tour Ho Chi Minh's former house near the Communist Party Guest house, which was the former presidential palace and residence of the former French governors of Indochina. Ho Chi Minh refused to live in the palace, opting instead for the electrician's meager abode on the palace grounds. He felt that the palace belonged to the people.

click to enlarge7. B52.
In an area of Hanoi called Ngoc Ha (Flower Village), an American B 52 that was shot down during the Christmas bombing in 1968 sits rusting in a small pond surrounded by a busy market. To find this favorite "photo op" for tourists take Hoang Hoa Tham road; turn left at a tiny sign that says "B52" and then go down a narrow alley about 300 yards. After you get lost, ask anyone and they will gladly point the way.

click to enlarge8. West Lake
"Ho Tay" is Hanoi's largest lake and is in the northwest section of the city. On weekends families gather along its banks for pictures and picnics. But I like to see the young couples who frequent the park benches. There are so few places for young lovers to have privacy. Many come here and rent boats and you can see them circling endlessly. You also can rent boats: whether you circle is up to you! Next to West Lake is Truc Bach, the lake where my friend and colleague, Senator John McCain, crashed after he was shot down in 1967.

9. Old Quarter
I enjoy the Old Quarter's crowded, charming, and energetic atmosphere. The 36 street names come from the trade or specialty sold in ancient times. While some streets no longer hold true to the past, many do. On "Hang Bac" (Silver Street) hand crafted silver jewelry is still offered. "Hang Gai" street is where most tourists go to buy souvenirs, silk clothing and paintings, and as a result it's become a bit commercialized. It's a good idea to go beyond the tourist area and explore the maze of small streets. Walk or rent a cyclo and go to the Eastern Gate to the old city. You'll get a feel for how life was in Hanoi long ago and simultaneously see the lifestyle of today.

click to enlarge10. Hoan Kiem Lake
At the heart of Hanoi is the "The Lake of the Returned Sword." It's inspired countless poems and songs. If you visit the lake at dawn you'll catch elders practicing Tai Chi. It also has a wonderful legend that fans of King Arthur will want to investigate. No one knows how many remain, but sightings of the huge, ancient turtles living in the lake were reported as recently as November 1998. During Tet, the fireworks at night and the Dragon boat races during the day draw thousands of spectators to the lake.

QuickTime: Woman on the street (1.3 Mb) - RealVideo

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Hoan Kiem Lake Old Quarter West Lake B52 Ho Chi Minh's Mausoleum and Museum Army Museum Hoa Lo Prison AKA "Hanoi Hilton" Pho shop Opera House National History Museum