The Vietnam War helped to unfairly saddle Hanoi with a reputation as a dour outpost for Communist apparatchiks. It may not be as chaotic as Saigon, but Hanoi ranks among the world's most attractive and interesting cities. The city's placid air gives it a gracious, almost regal flavor, underscored by a rich history that traces back more than a thousand years -- a fascinating heritage on display in well-preserved centuries-old architecture. Hanoi is Vietnam's cultural center, and puppetry, music, and dance performances are well worth your time.
Things to Do
The quintessential Hanoi neighborhood and the oldest area in town, the Old Quarter is a maze of streets dating back to the 13th century. The Old Quarter's Communal Houses were set up by guilds as small temples to honor a local god -- the Bach Ma, or White Horse, who represents the city itself. Another sightseeing highlight is the Temple of Literature -- a sanctuary of Confucianism and Vietnam's seat of learning for almost a thousand years.
Nightlife and Entertainment
Hanoi is the best place to experience traditional Vietnamese arts such as opera, theater, and water puppetry, shows that feature traditional music and depict Vietnamese folklores and myths. The city also has a variety of pleasant little watering holes. For a vivid taste of local street life, Hanoi style, pull up a little plastic squat stool on a street corner or in one of the many cozy, open-air bars serving the local brew bia-hoi.
Restaurants and Dining
It's hard to have a bad meal in Hanoi. Hanoi's finest local food is served at small, one-dish restaurants, usually just open-air joints at street-side, where you might wonder why a line is snaking out the door. The ubiquitous pho -- noodle soup served with slices of beef (bo) or chicken (ga), fresh bean sprouts and condiments -- can be found anywhere. And don't miss cha ca, Hanoi's famed spicy fish fry-up.
Dozens of small, serene lakes dotted about Hanoi offer transport to tranquility amid the city bustle. In the morning, the circumference walkway encircling Hoan Kiem Lake becomes a training camp, with locals working up a sweat performing tai chi or calisthenics. Otherwise, walking is the best way to tour the winding passages of the Old Quarter. More intrepid souls bike around town to beat the chaotic traffic -- most hotels have a cycle to rent.