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Hanoi See And Do

The French Quarter
Hanoi
Vietnam

Lying to the south and east of Hoan Kiem Lake, Hanoi's French Quarter has grand boulevards and elegant French colonial buildings. These include the stately Opera House, based on the neo-Baroque Paris Opera, complete with gray slate tiles imported from France. One block east of the Opera House is Hanoi's Museum of History, an elaborate blend of Vietnamese palace and French villa, a style that came to be called Neo-Vietnamese. Trang Tien, the main artery of the French Quarter, is still a busy shopping street where you'll find bookshops and art galleries as well as cafés and hotels.

Halong Bay

The limestone pillars of Thailand's Phang Nga Bay may have gotten the screen time in The Man With the Golden Gun, but for sheer spectacle, nothing compares to the sublime pinnacles of Halong Bay, 100 miles east of Hanoi. Many of the bay's 1,600 limestone islands and islets—the world's most extensive karst seascape—are part of a protected 580-square-mile UNESCO World Heritage Site. Cruises are the best way to appreciate the bay and the fantastically shaped formations that erupt from the South China Sea. Dozens of companies offer daylong tours from Halong City; splurge for a longer trip and spend two or three days exploring. There are numerous sea caves and grottoes as well as the primeval Cat Ba Island, where a national park protects habitat for one of the world's rarest primates, the golden-headed langur. The most comfortable way to cruise the seas is on the 38-cabin floating palace operated by Emeraude Classic Cruises (59A Ly Thai To St., Hanoi; 84-4-934-0888; www.emeraude-cruises.com). Although the design replicates that of a French paddle steamer that sailed these very waters a century earlier, you'll get the full round of modern conveniences, from sunrise tai chi classes to sea kayaks to evening movie screenings on the open-air "star deck.'' With working sails to augment its engines, the junk-style Halong Ginger offers more rustic luxury (84-4-984-2807; www.cruisehalong.com).

Cool, misty weather swathes Halong from February to April; depending on your taste, this can make the bay a bust, or even more magical. Check your boat company's cancellation policy; in the summer and fall, storms and typhoons can prompt authorities to temporarily close the bay.

Hoa Lo Prison
1 Hoa Lo Street
Hoan Kiem District
Hanoi
Vietnam
Tel: 84 4 824 6358

About two thirds of the infamous "Hanoi Hilton" was demolished in the early 1990s for the construction of a high-rise apartment complex, but the penitentiary's remaining cells and dungeons were turned into a small, fascinating museum. The bulk of the exhibits (iron fetters, razor-sharp guillotine) recount the cruelty of French jailers during the colonial era, but a few rooms are devoted to the Vietnam War, when the jail held and tortured American prisoners of war. There are propaganda photographs of Hanoi residents "saving" an American pilot and of POWs preparing a Christmas dinner, as well as the flight suit and crash helmet of John McCain, who survived five long, brutal years after being shot down over Hanoi in 1967.

Open Tuesdays through Sundays 8 to 11:30 am and 1:30 to 4:30 pm.

Hoan Kiem Lake
Hanoi
Vietnam

A good way to get your bearings in Hanoi is to take a quick stroll around Hoan Kiem Lake, a pleasant 30-minute circuit. The lake is fringed with willows, myrtles, flame trees, and tamarinds. Legend has it that the 15th-century emperor Le Loi received a magic sword from the lake, which he used to expel Chinese occupiers. After his victory, he returned the weapon to a golden tortoise, which vanished with it into the lake's depths (Hoan Kiem means "restored sword"). An islet on the northern end of the lake contains the Chinese-style Ngoc Son Temple and the remains of an enormous seven-foot, 500-pound tortoise found (sword-free) in the murky lake in 1968. Admission to the isle, which is accessible by the fire-engine-red Huc footbridge, one of Hanoi's most photographed landmarks, is 2,000 Vietnamese dong (about 12 cents). It's also well worth rising at dawn to see the lake at its busiest, surrounded by locals practicing tai chi.

Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum
Ba Dinh Square
Hanoi
Vietnam

When he died in 1969, Ho Chi Minh was embalmed, in the tradition of great Communist leaders. His mausoleum was modeled after Lenin's in Moscow (and rumor has it that Ho is sent to Russian embalmers for annual touch-ups). He is now on display to the public, lying in a glass box in a simple khaki uniform, and looking a little yellow around the chops. Visitors are not allowed to carry anything while viewing the body. Arrive early to avoid the long lines as people deposit and retrieve their belongings. Tues.–Thurs. 7:30.–10:30 a.m., Sat. and Sun. 7:30–11 a.m.

Military History Museum
28A Dien Bien Phu Street
Ba Dinh District
Hanoi
Vietnam
Tel: 84 4 823 4264
www.btlsqsvn.org.vn

The Vietnam War (known in Vietnam as the American War) may be the most famous but it's certainly not the latest conflict that this resilient nation has endured (that would be a 1979 border clash with China). Four millennia of martial history are recounted at the Military History Museum. Just look for the Russian-built MiG-21 fighter jet across the street from Lenin Park. The bulk of the large collection, which is housed in a series of two-story buildings, concerns the bloody post–World War II struggles against the French, South Vietnamese, and Americans. Artifacts include a 105-millimeter cannon captured during the siege of Dien Bien Phu in 1954, pack bicycles that carried 700 pounds of supplies at a time down the Ho Chi Minh Trail, and talismanic tank T-54B No. 843, which crashed through the gates of the Presidential Palace during the triumphant 1975 conquest of Saigon by North Vietnamese forces.

Open Tuesdays through Thursdays, Saturdays, and Sundays 8 to 11:30 am and 1 to 4:30 pm.

The Old Quarter
Hanoi
Vietnam

Hanoi is the only city in Vietnam to retain its ancient merchants' quarter, and its narrow streets, packed with fruit and vegetable markets, have housed the city's artisans and tradesmen for five centuries. Each street was named after the craft guild that it formerly housed—Hang Be was the place for rafts, Hang Hong for incense, Losu for coffins—and even today these lanes and alleys tend to specialize in one item, such as silver, silk, or, in the case of Pho Hang Ma ("Counterfeit Street"), the votive papers incinerated by devout Buddhists to bring good luck and prosperity. The heart of the area is Lo Ren and Thuoc Bac streets, where blacksmiths and tinsmiths thrash, knock, cut, and weld metal into everything from mirror frames to cooking pots. Take a few minutes to pop into 87 Ma May Street, a 19th-century "tube house" (so-called for its long, narrow design, which features a pair of atria for ventilation) that was once a private home and has been restored as a small museum.

The Perfume Pagoda
Hanoi
Vietnam

The Perfume Pagoda, said to be named after the spring blossoms that scent the air around it, is one of the most important Buddhist sites in Vietnam. Every spring after the Vietnamese New Year, thousands of pilgrims come here to pray for health and prosperity. Part of a complex of temples built on limestone cliffs, the Pagoda is a two-hour drive from Hanoi, followed by a one-and-a-half-hour boat ride and a one- to two-hour walk up the mountain. Various operators offer day tours, covering transportation and entry fees (ask at the tourist office or your hotel).

Temple of Literature
Quoc Tu Giam Street
Dong Da District
Hanoi
Vietnam
Tel: 84 4 845 2917

Many travelers to Asia come down with a case of pagoda overload during their visit. So be sure to make time early on for Hanoi's most beautiful and historic monument. Founded in 1070 by Emperor Ly Thanh Tong, this campus of tile-roofed sanctuaries and walled courtyards located one mile west of Hoan Kiem Lake held Vietnam's first national university. Promising Confucian scholars and court mandarins selected from across the country took three years of rigorous study in literature, poetry, and penmanship. The names of hundreds of graduates are inscribed on 82 stone stelae that rest on the backs of stone tortoises, a symbol of wisdom. The heads of some of these rock reptiles were worn smooth by students who rubbed them for good luck before exams. Outside the south wall, another monolith commands visitors to first dismount from their horses. These scooter-mad days, it's not a problem. While the Thai Hoc Courtyard is rimmed with tacky souvenir stalls, free enterprise is redeemed by the temple's enormous shade trees and placid, lotus-filled ponds.

Open daily 8 am to 5 pm.

Thang Long Water Puppet Theater
57B Dinh Tien Hoang Street
Hoan Kiem District
Hanoi
Vietnam
Tel: 84 4 824 9494
www.thanglongwaterpuppet.org

It might seem a bit hokey in an Xbox age, but this 1,000-year-old art form still manages to enchant. The best place to catch a water-puppet performance is this purpose-built theater on the east side of Hoan Kiem Lake, home to a troupe that's toured Europe, Asia, and the Americas. Hidden behind a screen, a team of ten puppeteers use elaborate articulated marionettes carved from water-resistant fig wood to re-create Vietnamese legends and folktales. A nine-piece orchestra with flutes, percussion, and dan bau—a solemn one-string zither—accompanies the performances. Even if you don't understand Vietnamese, there are enough sight gags and fire- and water-spewing dragon puppets to get the gist of brisk-moving vignettes like "Catching Frogs'' and "Boat Racing.''

There are six 45-minute performances every day, from 2:45 to 9:15 pm.

Information may have changed since the date of publication. Please confirm details with individual establishments before planning your trip.