My friend and I visited Hanoi over a super long weekend in Singapore. Since we have never been to Vietnam before, it would be interesting to explore a new country. The flight schedule for our trip was perfect for us to maximise our short stay in Hanoi, the first flight out of Singapore and last flight back home. During the planning of this trip, I gathered that most of the sights in Hanoi can be explored in a day or two. Hanoi is a gateway to the magnificent Halong Bay.
Arrival at Hanoi
It takes 3½ hours flying from Singapore to Hanoi. Our flight arrived at Hanoi Noi Bai International Airport slightly before noon. Clearing custom at Hanoi Airport was a breeze, very soon we found ourselves at the concourse of the airport looking for our pre-booked airport transfer. It took us another 40 mins to reach the hotel we were staying, which is in the heart of Hanoi. After checking in, my friend and I wasted no time and headed out to explore the sights in Hanoi after settling our luggage in our room. Most of the sights in Hanoi are located West of Hoan Kiem Lake and only a handful are found in the French Quarter, where our hotel is located.
Since we have more time to spare for today, our plan is to visit the sights in West of Hoan Kiem Lake, which is further away from the hotel and leave the few sights in the French Quarter, nearer to the hotel on the last day prior to our departure.
Hanoi Opera House
Our first stop of the day is the Hanoi Opera House which is a mere 3 mins walk from the hotel we were staying. The Hanoi Opera House is a yellow building that overlooks a roundabout in the French Quarters. The European influenced building was completed in 1911, designed by French architects. The facade of the building has eight roman columns that seemingly supporting the roof. There are five Roman styled balconies on the facade of Hanoi Opera House. The Opera House now functions as a venue for local and international plays. As our time is limited today, plus I figured we will not be able to enter the Opera House without watching a play, we decide to head to the other sights in the Old Quarter in Hanoi.
Hoan Kiem Lake and the Turtle Tower
Departing from the Opera House, we headed towards the Imperial Citadel of Thang Long. Along the way, we passed by the southern part of Hoan Kiem Lake. My friend and I decided to take a slight detour and spend some time at Hoan Kiem Lake. Hoan Kiem Lake these days is where locals hang out in the midst of the hot summer sun. The shades provided by the trees planted around the lake makes it an ideal spot to hide from the heat by the sun. From the southern part of Hoan Kiem Lake, we spotted the iconic Turtle Tower sitting isolated on a small island in the lake. The Turtle Towel, also known as Thap Rua Tower to the locals, is a three-storey white structure built on an island that does not seem to be accessible to visitors. The architecture of the Turtle Tower seems to be heavily influenced by the Chinese, with Chinese styled roofs and dragons sculptures on the roof of the tower. There did not seem to be any works done to restore or refreshen the Turtle tower.
Flag Tower of Hanoi
After taking some pictures and taking a momentary break from the heat of the sun, my friend and I continued our journey to the Imperial Citadel of Thang Long. The walk to the citadel took us about 25 mins. Along the way, we passed by Hanoi Military Museum. We decided to skip visiting the museum as we are not interested in visiting the Hanoi Military Museum as it displays the equipment that was used during the war. We skirted the parameters of the museum and came across the iconic Flag Tower of Hanoi. One will not miss the Flag Tower as it has a huge flag of Vietnam flying on the top of the tower. The 33m Flag Tower was built in 1812 as an observatory tower to the citadel. We stopped by the tower to take some pictures and headed to the citadel, which is about 5 mins walk from the Flag Tower of Hanoi.
Imperial Citadel of Thang Long
After some walking, we finally reached the Imperial Citadel of Thang Long. We initially did not plan to stay at the Imperial Citadel of Thang Long for too long. From my research of this site, I thought the southern gate is the only attraction to this place, which would take us at most 15 mins tops. However, once we pass through the gate, there are more things to see at this site. Passing through the ticketing building, a large well-manicured courtyard befitting of that found in oriental palaces was before our eyes. Further into the background is the South Gate of the palace, the only remaining structure of the palace that visitors can get up close to. The South Gate was part of the surrounding wall to the palace and acts as the main entrance to the palace in its hay days. A two-storey yellow building sits on the palace walls with a commanding view of the courtyard as well as the Flag Tower of Hanoi. We passed through the gate to the back of the wall, here is where one can climb up an easy flight of stairs to the top of the wall. There is nothing much inside the building on top of the wall, but the view here is amazing. We spotted an abandoned building behind the South Gate.
Just when we thought we were done with this site, we spotted a number of visitors heading further into the complex instead of heading towards the main entrance. Curious, we followed their footsteps and discovered there are more to see at the Imperial Citadel of Thang Long than the South Gate. Along the way, we spotted a building that seems to be air-conditioned, a great relieve for us from the scorching sun. We entered this building to find that there are displays of the relics that were being dug up during the archaeological digs within the Imperial Citadel of Thang Long. We walked further into the complex and found some buildings that randomly displays items that are not related to the history of the Imperial Palace, rather these exhibits give us a good understanding of the culture and the livelihood of the Vietnamese. After a while, the buildings seem repetitive and we got a little bored of this place. We headed out from where we came from after spending about 45 mins in the Imperial Palace. Time to head to our next destination.
Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum
We did not expect to spend so much time in the Citadel of Thang Long. As it is approaching 5pm, the closing time of Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum, we took a Grab to the mausoleum hoping that we can visit before it closes. Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum is one of the must-visits in Hanoi, it is where the father of Vietnam, Ho Chi Minh’s body lies for visitors to pay their respect. We arrived at the entrance of Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum at around 4.30pm and was told by the guard that the mausoleum has stopped accepting visitors. Disappointed, we headed to the next destination, the One Pillar Pagoda, which is next to Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum.
One Pillar Pagoda
In order for us to get to the Pagoda, we had to skirt around the parameters of Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum. The alternate entrance to One Pillar Pagoda at where the entrance of the Ho Chi Minh Museum is. From this entrance, we turned right and walked around the Soviet styled building to reach the entrance of a small temple. The One Pillar Pagoda is located inside the temple. I would have expected to see a tall structure as the “pagoda” word associated with the name of this attraction seems to suggest that. When I came to the entrance to the temple, I was a little sceptical that the pagoda is located within the temple grounds as there did not seem to be any tall structures insight. As we were entering the temple, we were stopped by one of the monks in the temple who told us that our Bermudas are too short. Well, we unfolded our Bermudas and the monk gave us the green light to proceed to the One Pillar Pagoda. It turns out visitors to the One Pillar Pagoda should at least wear shorts that cover their knees. As we passed through the door to what seems like a garden behind the temple, a short structure came into our sight. The One Pillar Pagoda is essentially a wooden house built on a single stone pillar in the middle of a small lotus pond. The original One Pillar Pagoda was destroyed in 1954 by the French, the structure today is rebuilt from in 1955. My friend and I walked up to the stairs to the One Pillar Pagoda and paid our respects to the deity that is installed in the small temple complex. As we were walking around, we spotted some westerners in shorts shorter than ours. This is when we realise there is an alternate entrance to the One Pillar Pagoda which does not require one to go through the temple. The dress code is more relaxed from this alternate entrance.
Tran Quoc Pagoda and West Lake
Tran Quoc Pagoda located on a small island in the southeastern part of the West Lake, the largest lake in Hanoi, is the oldest Buddhist temple in Hanoi. Our Grab driver was nice enough to make a U-turn in the busy road and dropped us right in front of the temple, saving us the need to cross the busy road. Exiting the car, the rustic brown 11 tiered pagoda is immediate insight. We can’t hold our excitement upon seeing this iconic pagoda and start snapping pictures while we were on the bridge leading towards the pagoda. As the temple closes at 5pm, according to google, we were not hopeful that we would be able to enter the temple grounds. Nonetheless, we approached the door to the temple hoping to get a more close up shot of Tran Quoc Pagoda. We were surprised to have found out that the temple is still open at the time of our visit. My friend and I wasted no time and head inside the temple to see the pagoda up close.
Tran Quoc Pagoda is housed in the temple grounds immediate to the left of the entrance to the temple. Standing amongst a forest of Buddhist stupas, Tran Quoc Pagoda is the tallest amongst the stupas. Up close there are statues of Buddhas being placed on every tier in each side of the brick laid pagoda. There are a couple of temple buildings in the grounds Tran Quoc Pagoda is housed in. One of the temple building is closed to the public, while the other building has statues of monks being installed in them. Tran Quoc Pagoda temple complex is rather small, it did not take us more than 10 mins walking around the temple complex.
It was time for dinner, my friend and I wanted to taste some authethanic Vietnamese food. I am not much of a foodie and for my trips, I usually settle whatever restaurant or food join that I bumped into along the way. As we are not familiary with this area, we did a Google search for any Vietnamese restaurants nearby. Amongst the few restaurants that popped up on Google map, my friend and I settled in a restaurant named Home nearby the West Lake for our first Vietnamese meal in Hanoi. The food was tasty and flavourful and I particularly liked the decor and ambience of the restaurant. We were recommended Bun Cha which originated from Hanoi.
Hanoi at Night
After dinner, our plan was to head back to the hotel and rest for the night as we had to wake up early the next day for our day trip to Halong Bay. As we alighted from the Grab car, we noticed the street we passed by this morning was closed to traffic. We were surprised to see that the busy street next to Hoan Kiem Lake filled with traffic a few hours ago is now emptied of vehicles. In replacement, the locals came out to relax and walk along the street. The vibe of this area at night is totally different from the day. At night, it feels as though the locals came out to party. There were people gathering around in circle playing, or street performers dancing and singing. As we were walking, we spotted the Turtle Tower in Hoan Kiem and the Ngoc Soc Temple illuminated at night.
We continued walking along the street and came across the Hanoi Night Market, which is only opened during the weekends. Stalls after stalls in the night market seem to stretch with no end in mind. The night market resembles those we seen in Thailand and the goods on sale seem repetitive after a while. We managed to walk to the end of the night market and decided to head back to the hotel to rest for the night.